Foster/Adopt: Dare To Hope

I love a good story. A good storyteller introduces tension and resolves it. All the loose ends tied up in a bow. The listener usually experiences complete closure.

words + photographs Dr. SARAH THORNTON

I especially love the Cinderella kind of story, where the underdog comes out on top. I took a Rowling and Tolkien class in graduate school and found out Harry Potter and Frodo Baggins paralleled Cinderella, and nearly every world culture has a variation of the Cinderella story. Rooting for the underdog is universal. We are a hopeful lot. We dream of Frodo carrying the ring and saving Middle-earth, and Harry defeating Lord Voldemort. By the end of the story, good triumphs over evil, and we can all sleep at night, knowing there are heroes destined to save us from the darkness. The tension between good and evil is resolved, preferably with a happy ending for the hero.

Let’s just say closure and tightly resolved story lines have not been a part of our fostering experience.

A three-year-old girl we fostered came to us with what her doctor had diagnosed as eczema. We were instructed to slather lotion on her multiple times a day. At night, she scratched her arms until she bled, but the case manager just kept saying to listen to the doctor the birth mom had chosen and put on more lotion. Finally, my husband had a “Popeye moment” after nights of her screaming and bleeding and took her to urgent care against the case manager’s wishes. The urgent care doctor immediately diagnosed the “eczema” as scabies. Our entire household completed permethrin cream treatment, and we washed all the bedding and sprayed the mattresses. I took time off work because she couldn’t return to daycare until the scabies were eliminated. I applied the cream to the sweet baby girl every day, and she screamed because it stung so bad. She was nonverbal, so I couldn’t tell if she understood why I had to do this painful thing to her. We started seeing the redness and bumps improve. The story took a happy turn as she stopped screaming and scratching and started being visibly happy.

RESOURCES recommended by Sarah Thornton

  • If you’re interested in becoming part of the story for foster kids, reach out to a licensing agency. We were licensed by Missouri Baptist Children’s Home.
  • Being part of the story is hard. It can be taxing emotionally, spiritually, and physically. Reach out for support: FosterAdopt Connect provides advocacy and support for foster families.
  • Counseling has been a key part of our foster story. We have participated in play therapy, family therapy, and individual therapy. Two local options are Eaglecrest Counseling Center and Christian Counseling Center.

I went to family court to find out if the judge would return her to her mom just six weeks after she came to stay with us. I arrived early and sat across the lobby from her parents. We were the only ones there with the security guard. I heard her mom tell her dad to just play the game, and then she’d let him see their daughter once this was all over. He was the one whose care she was in when she left the house and walked to the park to play for hours without anyone noticing. His eyes told me he was on heavy medication. To say I was unsettled as we walked into the courtroom is an understatement. The story’s tension intensified.  

The judge noted the mom’s clean psychiatric evaluation and effort to clean her house. Those were the two steps she needed to take to earn her daughter back. There was no mention of the scabies or verbal delay. He told the dad he would no longer have unsupervised visits. And then with one statement, he resolved the tension: “Ma’am, you may have your daughter back today.”

As I left the courtroom, the tears started flowing. The case manager asked what was wrong; we only had her six weeks. The unsettled feeling had turned into grief for this little girl. I remember thinking, “Could they have at least let us complete the scabies treatment?”

We have never heard another word about her. Our entire family had become attached to her. My nieces still ask if I know how she’s doing. We pray; we worry. No closure.

We are in touch with all eight of the other children who have graced our home. The four oldest boys are 28, 25, 23, and 18. They are all at different points on the “okay” continuum. One just finished paying legal to address felony charges for a fight he was in. One just admitted counseling might be a good idea to help him overcome his anger. One just moved into an apartment and has kept a job for three months, against all odds. One is actively involved in a drug lifestyle. The two girls we had when they were eight and five are now 16 and 13 and live with their mom in Virginia. They are doing so well. Our two at home, 16 and 14, are thriving right now. I add “right now” because trauma has a way of impacting kids in different ways in different stages. Sometimes living in the right now is all we can do. A friend who does emotional coaching recently posted we need to focus on the “what is,” not the “what could be.” She was giving folks dealing with anxiety a cognitive strategy.

Sometimes, though, the best antidote to anxiety is a dose of hope. Instead of playing out the worst-case scenario, what if I begin playing out the best? What if I dare to hope that sweet baby girl’s mom experienced a defining moment that day in court and began cherishing her daughter? What if I dare to hope my son with a decade-long addiction might find a way to the other side? What if I move past my fear of being too naïve and allow hope to get a foothold? I’ve always told my kids love is a choice. Is hope a choice, too? My grandma often said, “Where there is life, there is hope.” For her, that meant you kept burning the midnight oil for your prodigal son. Turn that staring-at-the-ceiling anxiety into a prayer session.

Maybe a good story doesn’t require closure after all. Maybe the best stories are the ones where we have the honor of carrying hope like Frodo carries the ring. Let’s dare to hope. ST

Dr. Sarah Thornton is married to the sweetest man on earth, and they have enjoyed making their big old house a home for nine beautiful kids, one grandpa, seven chickens, and one very spoiled beagle.  

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