“I was walking down a hallway at Isanti Elementary School with my daughter post-conference when I saw this young woman standing there with a pamphlet. People were avoiding eye contact with her, and I had guessed she was selling something or trying to convince parents to join yet another time-consuming club. As we got closer, I noticed she was asking parents for a minute of their time to talk about foster care. I don’t know why exactly, as on most days I felt like I already was struggling to parent my own children, but I stopped and listened. She started talking about the need they had and even my rambunctious first grader, who typically wouldn’t stop moving, sat still and just listened. We left after hearing her speech and I drove the short five minutes home, walked in the door, and announced excitedly to my husband, ‘We are going to foster!’ I was prepared for him to start listing all the reasons we shouldn’t be taking on anything extra, as it seemed like we had just barely figured out life, much less parenting; instead he looked at me, smiled, and nodded.
Our licensing process was the same as anyone else’s and we finally got a call after waiting! Kara, the same social worker who I met at the school, called and said they had a young boy who is a lot of work and his parents need a break. My first thought was to run; his own parents can’t handle him, there is no way we are going to be able to do this. He was 9, older than our two children. He wasn’t a ‘good’ fit. All these reasons started flying through my brain, and then fear came into play. Fear that if we said no, they wouldn’t call us again for a child that was a ‘better’ fit. But it was just a weekend, so how bad could he really be? Upon agreeing to doing respite care for him, his mother wanted to meet us to warn us about him so we would know what to expect and how to handle him.
On a Friday in March, we met Rachel. She came with Kara and a therapist who helped run the foster care program. Rachel began telling us all about Zackary. How he would pretend to be too weak to help with chores and make everything more difficult than it had to be. For example, she stated, she bought a case of Mountain Dew and asked him to carry it in. He dropped it because it was too heavy, but in the same breath boasted his younger sister couldn’t carry the same thing inside. She went on to tell us he destroys everything. Her basement was full of electronics because in some way or another he had destroyed them. Next, she said, ‘Make sure to check under his bed. He will steal your knives and hide them under there. He will also hide his pets there that he brings in from outside, which I often finds dead in a box.’ She warned we should be on the lookout for matches and lighters, as Zackary likes to light things on fire. At this point, I was certain the next Ted Bundy was coming to my house. This conversation went on for over an hour and everyone was pretty speechless after Rachel finally finished.
There was an awkward silence and I finally asked, ‘When he is good, what does he enjoy doing or receiving?’ Rachel’s response was, ‘I don’t know, he is never good enough to get a reward.’ My heart and I think everyone else’s, instantly sank in sorrow.
The rest was a blur as she continued talking about how he wrecks her shoes and clothes on purpose because he plays dress-up with them, and how he was a difficult child to feed because he was so picky, and he did nothing but torment his siblings in the house to the point of creating their own diagnosed trauma. Her final statement was she doesn’t take him on family vacations because he is so embarrassing, and she will not take him to any restaurants or stores because he will cause a scene. I heard it, but I was still replaying the same phrase over in my mind. ‘He is never good enough to get a reward.’ How can he be never good enough? She left and I was now more terrified than ever for this little monster to come over for the weekend and start to terrorize my family and me.
About two hours later, we met Zackary. As we showed him around the house, he was quiet and polite and we were confused. At dinner, when we wanted him to eat and asked what his favorite food is, he said, ‘Eh, whatever. I’m not picky.’ Wait what! I thought, ‘What is happening—so far, he has played quietly with our daughter, said please and thank you for everything, and now has said he will basically eat whatever I put on his plate. This has to be a joke, right?’ He was luring us in, giving us a false sense of security before he turned into the nightmare his mother was just describing hours ago.
Brandon, my husband, asked him again, ‘If you could pick anything to eat what would it be?’
Zack replied, ‘Well okay, I really love Hamburger Helper. The taco one!’ My husband Brandon became elated—he too loves Hamburger Helper and I am not a fan, so it never got made. I sent Brandon to the store, as we all couldn’t go because we had Zack and per his mother, he would throw a fit and cause a scene every time he was out in public. I was scared and knew I was not ready to handle that.
When we were eating dinner, we saw our first real glimpse of Zack as he casually said, ‘I can’t believe I really got to have this!’ He was so excited over something I thought was basically inedible. Then he giggled and said, ‘I should have asked for steak and lobster!’ We all laughed, and the tension was gone just like that. There was no more waiting for this kid to torture us. I was no longer sleeping with one eye open anymore; it was just peaceful and fun and he just seemed to belong and was a ‘good’ fit after all. Zack started coming over more than not, as his parents ‘couldn’t handle his behavior.’
Rachel would text me about how horrible he had been, and we would try to help by talking through things with him upon arrival, but we just never had the same issues. Zack knew what our expectations were and would exceed them. During this time, we had taken Zack to stores and restaurants, and even on a family vacation. We trusted him to behave and he trusted us to take care of him. He was a ‘good’ boy and we loved having him around. He was the opposite of everything we expected. He was kind to our other two children and was always playing with them and helping them with the things they were too little to do. He helped us carry in groceries, like cases of water up the stairs. He never hid anything under his bed except for dirty clothes and when asked would clean them up.
Later that spring, he really wanted a pair of wheelies. I was inclined to buy them as he was always so wonderful when we had him. He put them on and headed out the garage to give them a spin. Lillah, our daughter, came running in after 2 minutes—literally two minutes—and was screaming, ‘Zacky hurt himself and can’t get up!’ We rushed out there to see a little Zacky sprawled out on the garage floor with an arm bending in the wrong place.
We had broken our first foster child. We put him in the car, and I called Rachel to tell her I was bringing her child to the emergency room. She came up there as well and we spent about four hours there, just the three of us: Zack, Rachel, and myself. This is the first time I really got to see them interact with each other. This is when I saw a young boy, dying for attention from his mother, start acting out because she was dead set on ignoring his needs even while lying in a hospital bed. This was how Zack went from our fun-loving child to a monster… I felt defeated. I knew neither parent nor child was ‘bad,’ they just didn’t know how to be with each other. I took Zack back to our house after he was casted, as he refused to leave with Rachel, and my heart broke for a mom rejected by an injured child who should want their mom; it also broke for Zack even more as at this young age he had already figured out his mom couldn’t take care of him the way he needed.
After this, we started working with the social workers, skills workers, therapists and anyone else who could possibly help to fix this relationship. Rachel loved her son, I could see it, and although she wasn’t able to put her child first, I liked her. She was a ‘good’ person. The more I got to know her and learned about her, the more I wanted to help. I would stop over when Zack wasn’t in our care and try to calm both sides down or get Zack to unbarricade his door and do what was being asked of him. I would attend therapy with them and help them both see the other one’s side. This went on for quite some time… until finally the therapist called in CPS, as more and more things came out, and it was clear Zack was no longer safe in Rachel’s house. Zack was now failing school as well and even more behaviors were surfacing, leaving him in the special education room for the majority of the day, playing on an iPad. During an IEP (Individualized Education Program) meeting, I had brought my concern up to the principal, Mr. Drubie, who told us it didn’t matter if Zack was learning the subjects, they would continue passing him. After all, ‘If he were to ever need to know basic multiplication he could just use the calculator on his phone.’ Zack’s life was quickly becoming a failure to thrive situation and we knew more than ever we needed to step up our involvement.
He moved in with us full time and I was told there was no family even considering taking him. CPS wanted to terminate parental rights and wanted us to adopt him. I might have freaked out a little, panic set in, and even though we loved Zack, we weren’t ready to become his actual parents. It wasn’t a good time for us. I was starting a new job and wasn’t sure how my employer would handle a request for more of a flexible schedule than he already was allowing me. We said no. Besides, how could I give up hope? How could I take this child away from his mother, a mother I would call my friend, someone who I knew had potential to be a good parent. After all, she loved him. Shouldn’t a mother’s love be enough—even if she didn’t know how to show it?
This is the part that is pretty typical, that everyone knows or can assume. It didn’t matter how much we helped, how flexible we were with visits or therapies, we didn’t have to report on her because she would tell on herself. She was honest to a fault, which only made me try harder because I knew she was trying. I wanted a success story for them, I wanted to help this family get back together and be happy. Truth be told, when I look back, I probably did more damage than good. I should have reported, I should have jumped at the first chance to adopt him when it was offered and not let my fear delay the inevitable. I would have saved this boy so much heartache. Maybe Rachel would have gone into treatment sooner. Maybe they would have some kind of relationship. Maybe she wouldn’t have lost her other children as well. Maybe I’d still be able to call her my friend and we would’ve hosted his grad party together. Maybe his story would have an even happier ending.
It was a chilly fall night when Zack called us. He was on a weekend home visit with his mom and he hadn’t even been gone for more than 12 hours. Zack asked us to come get him, saying Rachel was out of control and he was scared. He was hiding in the driveway and it was about to storm. He didn’t know what to do. I jumped in the car and left. When I pulled in, he came running up and jumped in the car. It was dark, but I could see he had been crying. We sat there in the driveway and I asked what had happened.
He said, ‘She is sending me away to a facility because I’m a bad kid and I’m wrecking her life.’ We both began to cry as all of his worst fears burst out of him and he questioned why nobody wanted him or loved him. Why he couldn’t just behave and act the way she wanted. Why he couldn’t just be a good boy. I held his little hand as we drove home. We walked in and sat in the living room with my husband and asked what had happened to set her off.
Zack started, ‘Nobody wants me because—’ Brandon quickly interjected and said, ‘Nope, it doesn’t matter what happened, you need to hear this. We want you. We love you and you always belong here, no matter what.’ I cried harder than I ever thought was possible and realized we loved him. We loved him just as much as our biological children and would have done anything to take his pain away at that moment. Zack quietly looked up, barely looking us in the eye, then asking if we really loved him. He then asked, ‘Will you adopt me?’ What had sent me just months ago into sheer panic mode was now one of the best moments of my life. We of course said YES. It didn’t matter if he was a ‘good’ fit, but because he was the piece we didn’t even know was missing until he came into our lives.
Today, Zack is now in his first year of college and is one of the most loving people we know. He is constantly amazing us with his courage to just keep giving life his all. He graduated high school with a 3.93 GPA and was one out of six students honored with silver cords representing his dedication to hard work and relentless pursuit of his education. He holds a position at Unique Dining Experiences Catering, working alongside me, and he has a passion for helping clients. He also volunteers at a local farm helping with horses and property maintenance.
Zack never finished his story that night, but instead found the courage to ask us to adopt him. Who knew a small little boy would change our lives in the best way possible, teaching us to all be a little braver.”
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