One family’s story of redemption through foster care and adoption.
(NOTE: The following speech was given by Natalia Parker at the September 21, 2015 Lutheran Family Services Innkeeper Dinner in Colorado Springs. Look for Natalia to join Richelle Hecker and Pastor Doug on their June 1 podcast. Lutheran Family Service is holding a special event on May 12, A Taste of Hope at the Space Foundation Discovery Center. Samples from more than 20 local restaurants and caterers will be available, along with access to the museum’s exhibits and a chef’s cook-off challenge event. The evening will be hosted by radio foodie, Mike Boyle, and Gazette food editor, Teresa Farney. To purchase tickets or for additional information, please visit LFSRM.ORG/EVENTS, or call 1-800-579-9496.)
Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I’m honored to be with you this evening and to briefly share my family’s story with you. Ours is a story of many struggles, equally as many victories, sorrow for what has come to pass, and enduring hope.
I was adopted at one week of age here in the United States by wonderful parents and into an amazing extended family. There are several stories of adoption within my extended family and I’ve wanted to adopt children ever since I was a young girl. Adoption is part of my DNA. When my husband and I had two young children, a boy (age 5) and a girl (age 3), we felt called to complete our family through adoption and became licensed foster parents. Being aware of the deep need for people to care for vulnerable children in our community compelled us to take action. We were licensed locally through Lutheran Family Services for six years and our lives are forever changed.
Three months after becoming licensed we received our first foster placement, a 15-month-old little girl, Jenna. Just a few days after she came into our home we found out that her birth mother was expecting another baby. While we cared for Jenna and waited to find out the outcome of her case, we prayed daily for her sibling growing in her mother’s womb, asking God to protect this child in every way. When the new baby girl was about two weeks old, she, too, was placed in our home. God did indeed protect her. She is beautiful and healthy and has not been effected at all by what she went through in the womb. We had gone from having two children, to having four children, in just five months. Although these were two separate cases, the girls are full sisters and we adopted them in 2010 and 2011.
For the next couple of years we continued to blend as a family and to work through the remaining effects of the early-life trauma that the girls had experienced. We were providing regular respite care for foster children, which is temporary foster care for children who are already living in a foster home. We had the opportunity to form meaningful relationship with other foster families and to provide a safe and consistent temporary home for children who have not known much safety or consistency. Connor, being the only boy, began to tell us that he wanted a brother. After much prayer, and resistance to the idea, we were able to move into a larger home and we became available for new foster care placements. Because we already had four children, we really were only looking for one boy, younger than Connor. In time we realized that there were no proper placements for our family that matched our criteria. Even after expanding our availability to two more children, which would have put at six kids total, we never received a placement.
During this time of waiting, I felt God begin to prepare my heart for a big change. I was scared to death because I had never felt Him speak to me directly in this way. I shared with my husband that something huge was around the corner for our family. He tried to ignore me. One day I told him that we needed a 15-passenger van and that we would eventually need to build an addition onto our home. He said that I needed medication and that he was worried about me. We had 4 children and there was no need for such drastic measures. One day we received an e-mail, sent to all the foster parents in the agency, seeking respite care for a sibling group of four children, only for three days over Thanksgiving. We volunteered for the task at hand and I immediately called my Mom and invited her over for pizza on Thanksgiving. There was no way I was going to tackle a traditional Thanksgiving dinner with eight children in the house!
Well, the children came to us one week earlier than expected, and it was no longer to be a 3-day arrangement. We were asked to take the two boys for 14 days, until a permanent placement was found. This was the moment that the Lord had been preparing me for over the previous weeks and months. With no shortage of shock and uncertainty we chose to accept all four children in our home for as long as the case required. Folks, we were scared to death! Although this was certainly the craziest thing we had ever done we were certain that it was the right thing to do. 13 months later, we adopted these four children, making us a family of 10.
I’d like to share the rest of the story with you. The evening that I first picked up these four children in the mall parking lot, I sat in the car and cried with them. They felt scared, alone, lost, and unsure. They didn’t know who I was, where I would take them, how long they would be with me, or if they would ever see the rest of their belongings. They wondered why they had been sent away from yet another home, and how many more homes they would have. The oldest eventually asked me, in a disgusted tone: “Do you always cry when other people cry”? I told her that, when my people cry, I cry. Today my children will tell you that, in that moment, they knew I cared for them more than anyone else ever had. Nobody had ever validated their feelings and felt their pain.
The process of all three cases was difficult and painful. The process for the first two young girls was emotionally more difficult for me because I was attached to them and every day brought more uncertainty. I desperately wanted them to become part of our family and the circumstances of the case were constantly changing. I spent many nights crying at their bedside after they were asleep, stroking their dark hair, looking at their beautiful faces, and praying for their safety, even if they were taken to a different home. The third case, the one of the most recent four additions, took its toll on our biological children in a significant way. Connor (10 at the time) had hoped for one younger brother, and now he had two older siblings, in addition to younger siblings. He resented them for decreasing his seniority in the birth order. He was angry at having to share his room with two people, and at having to share his treasured possessions with boys who didn’t know how to take care of things. Sierra (8 at the time) resented them for taking so much time and attention from Ron and myself. She has a very strong sense of justice, and these children didn’t have the first clue about respecting others, showing manners, or practicing common sense. You can imagine how difficult it is to spend quality time with one child while there are seven others waiting for their turn. Things were mostly ok, but there would be outbursts and unkind words triggered by certain interactions. Of course, things were extremely difficult for the four adopted children. They were in foster care for approximately three years, only returning to their mother briefly during that time. There would be outbursts and meltdowns at the least convenient times, yet I think I miraculously only burned dinner once. Through all the challenges we had peace about our family, and we know that all the effort was not lost.
Not only did we have emotional difficulties, but we faced logistical challenges. For quite a few months we had to drive two separate cars, not having a vehicle large enough for the ten of us. We have 8 children in 3 bedrooms, and they all share 2 bathrooms. Only two children look like my husband and me, while the other six are very dark and of Mexican heritage. Everywhere we go people will stare, point, comment, and even count the kids out loud in disbelief. We eventually got used to the puzzled looks and the shocked comments. I once had lady ask me if I’ve seen a doctor about the fact that I have eight children. I’m not really certain what type of specialist she was referring to. I have strangers ask me why I have so many kids, and others want to know what my grocery budget is and how many bedrooms we have in our home. I frequently hear ladies tell me that I don’t look like I have 8 children. I wonder what a mother of 8 children is supposed to look like?
The parenting challenges were the most significant change after our family increased. We sought the support of a therapist as well as family and friends. Children that come from difficult places need to be taught how to live again, and how to find peace and joy every day. They learn how to cope with life in strange and, sometimes unhealthy ways. Disciplining them with traditional methods often yields no results because these methods were previously used by people who didn’t truly have a relationship with them. I began to see my children’s behavior as a coping strategy for what they were feeling inside. Instead of simply trying to modify the behavior, or the choices, I began to focus on the underlying cause for those choices. One child in particular had learned that he needed to control the reactions of other people, because he hadn’t been able to control anything else in his life. He would create reactions by choosing shocking behavior and making others uncomfortable. We have had to use many creative ideas for discipline.
These children have to realize on their own that their choice was poor. If they think they’re being forced to change, they won’t make a different choice the next time. One day, after he was spitting at his sisters, I sent Danny outside to fill a teaspoon with spit. It took him almost half an hour, his lips were tingling, his tongue was numb, and he hasn’t tried to spit at anyone ever since. Another favorite of mine is the “we will get along shirt”. When children are bickering, they wear one my husband’s old shirts together. They each get one sleeve and they share the neck opening. They typically have to do a chore or a project together, in order to encourage communication. They’re usually laughing and giggling within the first few minutes. More than one child has written hundreds upon hundreds of sentences at the kitchen table as a consequence. The benefit to this was having them in close proximity to me, so as not to make them feel rejected, and their handwriting improved dramatically.
Our days are very, very busy. We have a fair amount of structure and processes in place that make life more predictable and less stressful. That being said, we still need to be very flexible. There are many demands on my plate every day and I drink way too much coffee. I pray a lot. I pray all day long. The trauma that my children have experienced still rears its ugly head and tries to derail us. BUT my children are survivors and they have overcome so much, both the biological and adopted ones. We talk often of how difficult life was, and how hard it still is in different ways. We focus on lessons learned and always maintain hope. Every new day brings its challenges and most days bring evidence of our increased strength and wisdom from lessons learned. Adoption has been so difficult and so rewarding.
We are so grateful to Lutheran Family Services for their support and dedication to our family. I apologize to their local staff, because they all had the privilege of witnessing one of my many meltdowns over the years. I felt so much frustration and was often overwhelmed. The system is complicated and flawed, and children in foster care have been broken. Thanks to the support and encouragement of our agency my children were given a fighting chance to overcome the darkness that surrounded them years ago. We also would never have made it this far without the unwavering support of our family and friends. It truly takes a village to raise a child, and foster parents alone are not a village. My children were seen as people with potential and a future, and not just a statistic. Our family is far from perfect and we are still learning new things each day. But we have overcome and we are grateful. God knew what He was doing when he created the family that we have and He gives us what we need day by day.
I asked my family if they had anything to contribute to this talk.
Ellie, 5: “We should love kids in foster care”
Karissa, 7: “ IT’s fun to get a new family”
Jenna, 7: It’s important to get adopted”
Sierra, 9: “Adoption changed my life”
Danny, 9: Love keeps our family together”
Connor, 11: “Foster children need more love”
Aiden, 12: “Foster care was scary. Now it’s awesome”
Nadia, 14 said: “ Adoption is beautiful and hard”
My husband was speechless. He really can’t ever get a word in edgewise. He leaves the talking to me. I eventually did get my big, white, ugly 15-passenger van. Honk and wave if you see me driving around town with my 8 great kids.
Copyright Natalia Parker