‘Please take me home.’ Watching her crumble at her birth mother’s feet almost did me in. We had to protect her.’: Couple adopts teen from foster care, ‘She deserves a safe place’

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“My husband, Jayson, and I were both in our mid-30s when we got married in 2014. With that came a decade of careers, relationships that didn’t work out, and service behind us. Jayson had served for years as a youth pastor and a director of youth camps in Indiana. I had served briefly in the Navy and spent the decade afterward teaching high school. Even though I had been a wife and step-mom for a short time, we were both childless.

Jayson was a confirmed bachelor and I had exited the Navy with a diagnosis of Spontaneous Ovarian Failure. It has no known cause, no known cure, and I had no chance of ever conceiving. I was just spontaneously thrown into menopause. When we were dating, we talked about being a super cool aunt and uncle, foster parents, or maybe pursuing foreign adoption. We also discussed how we both felt we were too old to start over.

Courtesy of Jenna Lenn

Then, just 9 months into our marriage, I fell and ended up with crushed vertebrae and a gradual spinal cord injury. I was on bed rest for months. I felt crushed in spirit and in my body. The early menopause had led to poor bone density issues, meaning a simple slip and fall could turn into a major incident requiring a spinal fusion surgery. The idea of parenting went right out the window as our marriage roles turned to that of patient and caregiver.

After a year and a half of bedrest, recovery, and physical therapy, we started having the ‘what if’ conversations again and made the decision to pursue foster care. At that time, there were 14,421 children in foster care in Tennessee, with just 2,764 foster homes. We knew if we wanted to make an impact, this is how we would do it. We signed up to take the training courses with our friend, Garrett, who would support us and help provide care to the children who came to our house, deemed the ‘Shoebox Manor.’ Little did we know, because of a clerical error and the ‘brokenness’ of the system at large, it would take us 2 years to get approved to foster.

Courtesy of Jenna Lenn

At that same time, we were asked to help care for a friend’s toddler as she went through a chemotherapy study for a diagnosis of stage four kidney cancer. As I was still not working, literally sitting and waiting for the phone to ring, I was able to fill in and help around the clock. Soon, this led to watching all three boys and helping Sarah around the house, running errands, and accompanying her to medical appointments. We soon became like family and aunty/uncle to the boys. Sarah became my closest friend. I knew in the back of my mind getting attached meant an almost certain loss. That’s what terminal diagnoses are. However, I couldn’t just not fall in love with the people I was caring for, day in and out. In my spirit, I was told, no matter the cost, I was being prepared to love and potentially let go of children passing through our house. While we were blessing Sarah and her boys by caring for them, they were blessing us by preparing us to foster.

As we counted down the days to when we would be an approved foster home, we watched Sarah count down her last days. We knew her death meant we would probably not be able to see her boys any longer, as they went into the custody of their father. The loss was huge and virtually palpable.

One Thursday afternoon, I got a placement phone call for a 12-year-old girl. Our house was prepped and outfitted for little kids: toddlers and early school-aged children I could build into future scholars, a continuation of what had been happening in our house already. We were firm on the No-Preteens/Teens policy. We had raised enough of other people’s teens. ‘But wait,’ the voice on the other end of the line said, ‘Her name is Jenna Marie.’

The universe could not have sent a bigger sign if it had been a gift wrapped in twinkling lights and shooting fireworks. This girl not only had my name, but she also looked as if she could be related to both Jayson and me I. ‘Okay… for the weekend,’ we said, remembering the statistics of children sleeping on cots in DCS offices with nowhere else to go.

Courtesy of Jenna Lenn

‘She’s a girl with my name,’ I texted Sarah, now in hospice at home in Illinois with her family. ‘I knew it. How did the first night go?’ came the reply. It was the last time I would hear from my friend.

As one painful door closed, another opened as that weekend turned into a long-term placement and a developing relationship with Jenna. She soon earned nicknames like Little Jenna and Junior, but we all eventually settled on LJ. There was little to no information from DCS, except she had been removed from her mother’s care and placed with her father, who had recently passed. The first thing we ever shared with LJ was grief, as we were all finding our way through it. I tried to learn about being an adult with ADD while parenting a child with ADHD, while also studying as much as I could about Oppositional Defiant Disorder and trauma-formed brains.

After a few months, LJ shared with us more of her tragic backstory, and a veil lifted for both me and my husband. We knew if it were any way possible, this would be our kid for life. We knew we had to protect her from any more pain of this sort. She deserved a safe place to belong, to grow and develop into her best without being hindered by abuse, addiction, and illegal acts.

Courtesy of Denise Coccia

None of it was easy. Nothing about foster care was easy. Hearing her speak to her birth mother on the phone tore me apart. I was angry. I wanted to spit anger and vitriol back at this person who had harmed our girl. I knew for LJ’s sake, I needed to be a neutral harbor. Going to court and seeing her in person, watching the child I cared for crumple into a pile at birth mother’s feet and beg her to take her home, almost did me in. I almost walked away that day. It was too much. While Jenna’s DCS team was supportive, no one had prepared me for that day. No one had said, ‘Now, when you see this parent… when you see this child instantly become a toddler…’ I needed to be trained as if going to battle. Why wasn’t there a ‘boot camp’ for this? The Navy had trained me so well for potential threats, but now I was in an actual war field and felt left for dead. Yeah, there was training, but nothing even came close to this. The mentor who had been provided to us got burnt out and quit. Just as we got close to understanding how things worked, we would lose our case manager or a policy would change and we would not be notified. I can’t begin to describe all the ways in which the system is broken.

I know everyone means well. I know reunification is always the best bet. I also know a teenager who had already suffered so much trauma at the hands of someone who had not yet begun to work their plan, who came to her court appearances on a Schedule II narcotic, and who had already had all three other children taken away from her, did not need to be pulled through 2 years of court appointments and a life lived in limbo. I sometimes wondered what ‘in the best interest of the child’ actually meant. What we also needed from the system was some kind of timeline of the legal steps and realistically how long something may take.

Courtesy of Denise Coccia

I appreciate all those who work in the TN Department of Services, I really do. It is not a career field many can and do stay long in. The pace is break-neck, the caseloads unbearable, the training sessions too few. The will on all sides is there to make changes.

We’ve now hit 4 years in foster care, 2 years together with a placement, and just a few weeks ago, we adopted our girl. We respect her past and how she came to us. We respect the system that brought us together, although to be honest, we aren’t sure if we’ll do it again. Mostly, we get up every day with the intention to be gentle, and kind, and loving, and work toward each of us doing better than the day before. This has not been an easy path. For me, it has been more sorrow than joy, but that’s just the past behind us. Now we get to make new stories, memories, and traditions for all the years to come. I encourage you to contact your local DCS office if you feel called to serve as well.

While being a foster parent is not easy, there are many happy moments and there is a lot of love, and it is a most needed act of service. I wouldn’t change a thing because it meant being this girl’s mom.”

Courtesy of Denise Coccia

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Jenna Lenn. You can follow her family journey on Instagram and Facebook. Submit your own story here and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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‘She was sitting in a shelter with no place to call home. A teenager, she’d already given up on being adopted. Then I received a text: ‘Hey, Autumn. You still interested in foster care?’: Couple adopt teenager from foster care

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