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The Last Stop

yellow background with illustrated children running reading "NATIONAL FOSTER CARE MONTH"

In honor of National Foster Care Month, NCFA has been sharing voices and perspectives on our blog and social media channels from former foster youth, foster and adoptive parents, and professionals. I recently had the opportunity to interview my friend Sharon, an experienced foster and adoptive parent, and her now adult son Kierre, to talk about how their story of foster care and becoming a family through adoption.

Sharon, what led you and Frank to become foster parents?

Our journey into foster parenting and adoption is kind of unexpected. We actually went into the process thinking we would adopt an older child who was already legally free and who, most important to me at the time, wanted to be adopted. So we went through the homestudy and licensing process thinking that we would go and seek a match from one of the state waiting child lists. I had always wanted to adopt, and I thought this was the best way to do it.

It sounds like that’s not exactly how it happened though?

No (laughing), not at all. Soon after being approved, we got a call from the county asking us if we would – “just for a month” – take placement of a 14-year-old boy who needed a new foster home until he could be reunified with his biological family. It was summer and I wasn’t working, so after asking a few questions, we felt like we could say yes. After all, it was just for a few weeks.

The very next day, the DCP&P car rolled up and he got out. I remember his arrival like it was yesterday. The minute I saw him, I saw how broken he was - inside and out. Hood up, shirt too small, shoes two sizes too small, unmistakeable signs of neglect, the pain in his eyes…I almost couldn’t believe this child was really in my home. I mean, you hear about what foster kids have experienced but it’s a whole other thing to have it right there in front of you to see with your own eyes. Within the first hours and days of him being with us, it was evident that there was so much trauma within him. He’d been in the system since he was seven and we were his seventh placement. He lacked many basic life skills that a young teen should have had. All I could think was, “nobody ever really cared for this kid.” And it was heartbreaking.

Kierre, do you remember anything about that first day when you meet Sharon and Frank? What did you think of them?

The first time I met my ‘now parents’ I was really nervous. Didn’t think I would fit in. I thought it would be just another stop, but I also remember thinking “why are they trying to spend so much time talking to me?” I had never spent time with other families. I would just go to bed and lay down. I was expected to be alone. I was very surprised to actually have my own bed with a big bed in my own room. It was the first time in my life that I didn’t have to share. Later in the week I remember thinking that they spend way too much time together, and when are they going to just leave me alone?

Sharon, it sounds like you had a lot to try to adjust to as a foster parent. But it wasn’t your first time parenting a teen, right?

Thankfully, no! Both my husband and I had parented through the teen years with our older daughters and we had encountered a lot of heavy stuff with them and their friends. Substance abuse issues and even suicide. So I do think that helped us to some degree. But also, this was different. We didn’t have training in trauma. And, we learned fast that we would have to be so hands-on in his healing.

So at some point did this move from a one month commitment to something more?

Yea, you know at the time, I wanted something that, to be honest, was really a fairytale. I thought we’d get licensed, look at the list of waiting kids and choose a child we thought was a good match for us, and they’d want us too, and there would be no loose ends. I was pretty naïve actually. Soon after he was placed with us, we learned that his biological family could not fulfill their obligations to achieve reunification, and in fact we were basically his last stop before living out the rest of his teen years in a state-run group home. But he was still hoping for reunification.

I imagine that you’re trying to figure out what the next steps should be at this point. I mean, you were still fostering with a lot of uncertainty about the long-term outcome. What was happening within the family itself?

Well, our son Charles was three and a half when Kierre came, and at first I’d had a lot of concerns about the impact on him. But as it turned out, the boys instantly bonded. Sometimes, when Kierre was really struggling, Charles was the only one that could comfort him. In the early days, Kierre was a better brother than a son. And yes, there were times when I just thought, “This is SO hard.” We weren’t sure if we could keep doing this. We didn’t know how to reach him, how to help in the way he needed. And I don’t know exactly what it was that helped us hang on, but I think you have to make a choice to invest in children, not just house them.

So, I kept reading and researching about trauma. I wanted to know how to reach him. Sometimes things worked and sometimes they didn’t. But, you never give up. We would see little bits of light. When he’d let his guard down, or he was being silly, we’d see this light turn on his eyes. We’d see a glimpse of hope. I think, when it’s really hard, you have to choose to look for that light, that hope. You have to stick by them. His life is just as valuable as if he was a child born to me.

Kierre, what was it like for you to learn to trust Sharon and Frank? Are there things they did or said, that really helped you?

I always expected the worst so I wouldn’t be disappointed. I did everything to try to push them away but as hard as I tried they always stayed solid. They did what they said they would do. My answer to everything was, “throw me out if you don’t like it!” My mom would say “sorry we only throw out garbage, not kids.” But I didn’t understand why anyone would want to trust me let alone spend time with me, and I trusted no one. As time went on, I started to open up a little. Not sure if I ever actually trusted more at that point. When they told me that they wanted to adopt me I don’t think I actually believed it. It might have made things worse actually because I had heard that from other foster families and then I’d still end up moving. It wasn’t until we were standing in the courtroom, and when the judge said my name and that I have a family now that the tears came down my eyes and I knew it was over. When you’re promised by so many people and nothing ever turns out the way they say it’s hard to believe anyone will actually follow through. It wasn’t until that day that I believed my life was worth trying. What I thought was going to happen (that I'd get moved again) didn’t! I never believed that this would really be my last stop.

collage of Kierre, teenage boy

Sharon, you had mentioned originally wanting to adopt a child who was already legally free, and who wanted to be adopted in return. But that wasn’t the case here at the beginning.

No, Kierre’s parental rights were not yet terminated when he came to us, and in fact his case was still on the reunification track. He always hoped for his birth mom to return and was pretty resistant to adoption. But he also kept his feelings all bottled up and really didn’t want to talk about it his hopes for reunification. We did our best to facilitate communication with his biological parents. No matter what, I kept them updated. We wanted that relationship to be strong, but it was really hard. We had to learn a lot about how to help him process all of that - to accept that it’s okay to really love someone even if you can’t change them. We had to help him grieve the loss of his hope for a different ending.

It’s been eight years since he first set foot in your home. He’s a grown man now. Tell us about Kierre today.

He’s a different person. He trusts, he believes, he has compassion, he can talk about things more openly now. He changed ME! He made me the parent I am today. He encouraged me. Because of him, we have continued to foster and adopt. If somebody asked me, if you knew all of the heartache, stress, and all the time it took would you still do it again? Would you still do it again? In a heartbeat. Because he’s worth it. Every minute.

What is your advice for people considering foster care and adoption?

You have to do your work. Take classes, read the books, watch the videos. You can’t do this without the training. You always try to find new ways to help. You have to. People go into it naïve. They say “I want a kid that looks like me” or “they’re going to be so grateful.” I was naïve too! It really is a life-changing experience, and not only are you changing their life, they’re changing your life too and you don’t even realize it! But, you have to go into it with the mindset of responsibility that this child is mine. You have to WANT to speak into a kid, encourage them, make them want better for themselves. If you don’t do that, they stay stuck. They don’t grow.

Even though each case is really different (we’ve now fostered and adopted kids of all ages) and while it’s rarely easy and it can be scary, even with babies and little ones, each one needs, and deserves, your investment and commitment.

Kierre, there are literally thousands of older kids across this country who are in the foster care system and need a permanent family. Adoption can seem scary and confusing. What do you want to tell those kids about what it has meant for you to have a safe and loving family?

Things definitely turned out different than I expected. Walls broken down and then built back up with my new family inside with me. I felt safe for the first time. I would tell other kids that the chance of being hurt again can definitely be worth the risk. Loyalty should be to the ones that show up and stay by your side. My parents saw me at my worst and never gave up on me even when I gave up on myself.

Starting over can look so different when you start to open up and trust again. It happened to me. My family taught me about faith, trust, and God. And my faith in God has helped me through really dark places. My parents always would forgive and say today is a new day to start over. Their rules were always respect yourself and others. The last thing I want to say is that if you don’t meet people halfway and let people in, nothing will ever change.

Our thanks to Kierre and Sharon for sharing their transparency and vulnerability in sharing their story and pictures.