In our cozy guest room, I tucked the quilt around the 9-year-old boy I had just met. He looked up at me frightened, his blue eyes wide, a spattering of freckles across his nose.
“Will I be here forever?”
It was only hours after the social worker dropped him off at our house near Hampden, clear across Baltimore from his own home and everyone he knew.
My gut told me I needed to be as honest as possible. He was on his best behavior, claiming he wanted only vegetables and water for dinner. He didn’t really know what foster care was, or why he was taken away from his dad. He did know that several young relatives left for the system years ago and never came home.
Remembering an idea that once comforted me, I took him to the window and showed him the night sky. “I don’t know how long you’ll be here,” I told him. But I said his mother and father could see the same moon and the same stars.
This child wanted nothing more than to go home, while I yearned to have a child of my own. I wanted to protect him, and his younger brother, a toddler who had been placed with my husband and me the day before.
I knew next to nothing about the boys, their family or why they came into foster care. It was the spring of 2016. After being married for nearly 10 years, and struggling with infertility, my husband, Artie Nordstrom, and I were newly certified foster parents. We hoped to do some good and longed for the chance to adopt a child or two, if we were really lucky.
The city Department of Social Services worker said the toddler had been abandoned by his mother, and the older brother was living with their father but needed to come into care. (To protect their privacy, The Baltimore Sun is not identifying the boys.) Some 4,000 children in Maryland, and roughly 443,000 across the country, are in the foster system. Social service agencies remove the children from their homes, usually because of neglect or abuse, placing them temporarily with adults like us.
The system is supposed to keep kids safe while their parents work on a plan to improve their lives. But some parents are too troubled, or their homes will never be safe, so social workers will look for adoptive homes for about a quarter of the children. Foster care is the largest source of adopted children in the country. About 60,000 children a year are adopted this way, close to double the number of children adopted through private or international adoptions combined.
This was our first placement, and we had planned to take only young children. But we had accepted the toddler’s older brother because we didn’t want them separated. I realized it was the right decision when the toddler spotted his big brother approaching our home and squealed. He banged his chubby fingers against the storm door glass. Then he hugged his brother’s legs. They belonged together.
I knew in choosing this path that my family would come together only if another fell apart. None of this followed a natural order. In just two days, two boys had moved in with us. We had become parents overnight.
At first, it felt like chaos. We baby-proofed. We took the boys on an immediate round of doctor visits and exams. A dentist needed to fill nine cavities that the older brother had. Social workers regularly stopped by. I called a dozen daycare centers to check for openings — and found one willing to take a foster child who could leave without warning.
After so much training, and years waiting, I had no clue what to do. I tried to feed the 15-month-old pureed baby food, even though he had a mouthful of teeth and was eager for the spaghetti and tacos the rest of us were eating. And I had no idea how quickly he could go from playing with toys to standing on the dining room table.
Artie, forever patient, was better with the toddler than I was. He laughed as the little boy rummaged through blocks and trains, while I tried, foolishly, to straighten up behind him. One day “Mama” snuck out of his lips. I had to catch my breath. I didn’t correct it, and I didn’t offer anything in its place.
I didn’t know what he should call me.
We had been trained on what was required by law and policy. There was to be no physical discipline, no bunk beds. And we needed to help the children stay connected to their family in the ways required by their case plan. The rest is improvised: what the kids should call you, how you honor their culture or religion and the ways to comfort a child who has endured trauma.
In the evenings, I realized the older brother was crying in the guest room we had set up for him. He missed his family, especially the father he adored, who took him fishing and cooked big Sunday dinners. But it was hard to help the older boy through his grief, when we didn’t know what was happening with his parents, or how long he would be with us. Because of the agency’s privacy policies, we were told little about the situation.
I only knew that the case was not about abuse, but neglect.
Meanwhile, days and weeks passed. I began to find my footing.
In the evenings, I began a quiet ritual with the 9-year-old. We’d sit on the red living room couch, and I’d read him a chapter from “Tom Sawyer” and the other worn classics my grandmother had given me when I was about his age. With the toddler, we’d revel in watching him zip down the sliding board at the park near our home. He loved the independence, so long as I was waiting at the bottom. I knew he had begun to trust me.
When their parents were allowed supervised visits at the agency, I tried to send the message that I was taking good care of their kids, that I knew my role and respected theirs. For the first one, I sent the toddler in a T-shirt his parents had packed for him when he’d come to us, royal blue with checkered letters, “My Dad is Cool & My Mom Rules.” I also put him in new sneakers, because the ones he came in were too big.
After the visit, the worker handed us a plastic bag, with the new sneakers I had bought. On the little boy’s feet was a different pair, Air Jordans. It felt like a rebuke: These were not my boys. Their parents could put whatever shoes they wanted on their feet.
I found myself thinking back to the night the toddler arrived. While I’d been excited to bring him into the nursery, he had been wailing in the crib, and then thrashing and sweaty in my arms. Nothing I could do comforted him.
The more I began to know him, the more I understood how scared he had been. I didn’t know what food he liked, how to hold him or what song to sing. I was not his mother. I was a stranger.
We were inside a world that somehow had to take emotions and kids and make everything fit within the rules of a rigid bureaucracy. We had interviews for three other children available for adoption, but the agency did not select us. We never knew why. And the workers couldn’t tell us whether the boys would be available for adoption. It all depended on whether a judge could be convinced their parents did enough to pull their lives together. A family member also could step forward to raise them.
I knew the boys were meant to eventually go home. But it seemed a kind of endless purgatory. At times, I felt jealous. I was invited to baby showers for friends who hadn’t even met their partners when Artie and I first started trying to have a baby.
During a girlfriends’ weekend in West Virginia that fall, four months into our time with the boys, I had a chance to step back. On the deck of a cabin overlooking rolling hills, I sat with one of my best friends, a former foster child herself.
She was blunt: “You want to be a mother. These boys have a mother and father who are fighting for them. If they go home, what was supposed to happen will have happened.”
“If you want something different,” she told me, “do something different.”
The conversation broke me open. My constant prayer for God to use me, to use my life, was in motion. That’s when I realized: This part of the journey wasn’t for me; it was for these boys. And I began to see that it was also for their parents.
One day while dropping the kids off at the agency for a visit, I spied a woman with a fresh haircut, in stylish clothes. It took me a minute to realize she was the boys’ mother. Compared to earlier times I’d seen her, she was transformed. She looked healthy.
In another life, I could be meeting her for lunch. We were the same age. She could be my friend. Instead, we were on opposite ends of this complex system that was grinding clumsily every day to correct all that could, and did, go wrong in people’s lives.
What happened in this woman’s life that did not happen to me?
Always, my mind circled back, wondering whether these parents had done something serious enough to lose their children temporarily or even permanently. Between the two of them, they were battling anger, addiction and poverty. They were also trying hard to get their sons back.
I thought about the money the agency was paying us. We received $850 a month to care for each boy, plus the agency’s nominal contribution for the toddler’s childcare. That didn’t stretch far after we spent more than half of it on daycare. It’s something that makes it harder for working people to be foster parents.
But what if that money was given instead to the boys’ family, via services to help stabilize their lives? I thought it could have transformed their situation. It’s a strategy that is gaining traction. Under a new federal law, agencies will have to go to greater lengths to preserve families and avoid foster care. And, in Maryland, if parents cannot care for their children, agencies promote what’s called “kinship care,” keeping the child with family members or close friends, rather than strangers.
These questions are at the core of foster care, and I agonized over them. Artie and I were there to keep the boys safe and healthy. And I felt that, given the chaos they had endured as their parents struggled, we were also giving them stability, like a consistent bedtime and a homework routine. Was that a life experience that would help the boys?
Yet the boys’ bond with their father was so strong. The toddler leaped out of my arms to run to his dad during visits. Their father told me later that in those months, he had been terrified he would lose his boys forever. He was motivated to wake up every day to address the long and complicated list of demands from the social workers.
I wondered: What did it cost those boys to be away from their parents and was it worth it? And how can social workers predict when a child will be safe at home? At times, I noticed what might be a concern, like a parent missing a scheduled meeting time, or the toddler coming back to me with diaper rash. Was it something I should report, or just a typical problem any parent would have? I didn’t want to create a tally of wrongdoing for social workers. I wanted to help the parents, rather than tell on them. I could see the mother and father were trying. Was I there to support the whole family, or only to protect the children?
Most of the decisions took place with us on the other side of a closed door. Every six weeks, there would be a hearing for each child to determine if the parents were ready to take them home.
As time passed, we felt more like a real family with our own routines. Each day, by sunrise, Artie would already be at work. The toddler would fuss from his crib to start the morning chaos I had always yearned for. I’d get the dogs outside and rouse his brother, who would shower and dig into a big bowl of cereal with banana slices. We filled our nights and weekends with dinners together, outings to city pools and Hershey Park, games of catch in the alley. We drove around to find Christmas lights while carols played on the radio.
A year passed, stitched together in six weeks at a time. We never knew if the boys would be with us for another month, if we needed to buy a winter coat, or if they would be back home. And the confidence I had at the start of the process, that I could take care of children and be able to let them go, was fading.
I could just begin to glimpse the life the boys might have with us. I talked to the older brother about picking a high school like Polytechnic Institute. We’d drive by, and I’d say, “Look at those Poly men. They’re going to be in college soon.” Likewise, I could imagine the first day of kindergarten for our younger foster son. I wanted to be there holding his hand. But I knew I wouldn’t be. I tried not to think about it.
Sometimes, I found myself overcome with grief for the departure I knew would come. I went to visit a friend after having a fantastic day at the zoo with Artie and the toddler — and I fell apart because the sadness always sat right below the happiness. Sitting in my friend’s living room, I came undone, questioning the decisions that had led me there.
My 40s were getting ever closer, and I felt trapped.
I thought back to our training, when the instructors explained that the goal was to get the kids in permanent living situations sooner rather than later, so their childhoods were not spent in foster care. In some cases, the agency could petition the court to terminate a parent’s legal rights as early as 15 months.
How long was the system willing to give the boys’ parents? Our futures were intertwined with theirs, contingent on their decisions, on the worker’s assessments. Sixteen months after the boys came to our home, both of their parents were in jail on unrelated charges. The older brother came to us when he was in third grade and had grown into a fifth-grader before our eyes. We had the pencil marks on the pantry door to prove it.
I still hadn’t resolved what the toddler should call me. His brother used our first names. But the younger boy kept coming back to “Mama” and “Dada.”
Eventually, I began correcting him, telling him to call me “Vonnie,” a family nickname. Around this time, I took him to an unsupervised visit with his mother. She was pulling her younger son out of his car seat in the back of my Ford Escape, and he started to fuss. As she scooped him up in her arms, she said, “I know you love Mama Yvonne.”
Her generous words went right through me.
Soon after that, I was standing behind our house, digging through my purse for my keys when the toddler called to me. “Mama!”
I pointed to myself and said, “Vonnie.”
“No!” he insisted, then shouted again, emphasizing every syllable: “Ma-Ma!”
In that moment, feeling the blessing of his mother, I gave in. I found myself running to him, bending and kissing his head, his forehead, his cheek.
I realized I was his “Mama,” if only for the time being. These borrowed children had made me a mother.
Then came the call I’d been dreading. Nearly 18 months after the boys arrived, the social worker told me the judge decided it was time for the older boy to move back home.
I thought about how he outperformed his peers on the school's standardized tests, about our evening chapter readings, about his clear blue eyes. About how healthy and happy he was.
Their father let us have the night to say goodbye. I sat with him on the couch. He pulled his T-shirt up over his head to hide his tears. He wanted to be with his dad, but he had become close to us.
I helped him pack. In his room, we pulled down the photos of his mom and dad that I had taped on the wall next to his pillow. The next morning, I dropped the younger brother at daycare. He would be with us until the judge decided otherwise. And then I drove our older foster son to his father’s.
I knew he was supposed to be there. The father and son longed for each other. They talked about music, played video games together and threw baseballs and footballs. The boys’ father had shown up to the hearings and visitations, met the demands the social workers had set and renovated their home by hand so it would be in good shape for his sons. He texted the older boy each night.
But climbing in the car, leaving him — it was all messier and harder than I’d ever imagined. I loved him. I loved his little brother. I wanted to be their mother. And I knew that could never be.
Almost immediately, since we now had one bed available for a new foster child, we started getting calls from the agency. At any given time, social workers are scrambling to find children foster homes. The phone buzzed at all hours. A 7-year-old girl, a 3-month-old baby, a 9-year-old boy.
But we weren’t ready.
About two weeks later, Artie had put the toddler to bed, and I was at a new spot in Hampden, the Bluebird Cocktail Room, for a friend’s birthday. At 8:27 p.m., a call came in with a number I didn’t recognize. I would never have picked it up, but I was waiting for a phone call from the boys’ mother. It turned out to be a worker from the city social services agency, one who helped make decisions about adoptions from foster care.
“You’re up,” she told me. A young woman had left the hospital after delivering a healthy newborn girl. Did we want to take the placement?
It wasn’t a sure thing, but it was a chance to adopt.
The rest of that night unfolded in shock. A run to Target. Friends picking out pacifiers, throwing diapers into the cart. Me staring at a few elderly men sitting in front of the store. “There’s a baby coming to my house tonight,” I blurted out, “and she might be my daughter.”
Back at home a little later, the toddler woke up amid the commotion.
Standing in our foyer, I hugged him tight. I confessed to him my secret prayer, the longing that, as a foster mom, I had tried to hide from everyone, even myself: “You’re the only baby I want.”
But I knew he was going to be reunited with his father and brother. I put him back in his bed. From the small speaker on top of his dresser, I turned on a melody he had come to love, “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” I sang along. I smoothed his hair and kissed his forehead.
Soon, he was asleep in his room, and my husband was asleep on the couch.
In the living room, I began to pace.
For years, I’d imagined what this moment might be like. Long ago, I’d given up the hope for the hospital picture, the one that new parents often post on Facebook, of a baby in a mother’s arms. Instead, I’d considered an image I’d seen in a diaper commercial, one that showed different ways families start. In one scene, a social worker is walking up to a home, carrying a baby. I’d always thought that was just as beautiful as the hospital moment.
I checked the window every few minutes. I wondered: Was this my moment?
Finally, after 1 a.m., a car double-parked out front. I shouted, “She’s here!” I ran out the door, without even thinking of shoes, my feet bare on the cool pavement. The worker was taking something out of the car. She turned toward me, a bundle in her arms.
The infant was just two days old. She was wearing a onesie and a diaper and was wrapped in a thin white blanket. I cradled her. And I looked into her face for the first time.
“Are you my daughter?” I whispered to her. “I’ve been waiting for you.”