The article below is worth the time if you haven't already read it on Facebook. I posted it a few days ago and comments are still rolling in. While it is heart-breaking and true, there is a whole side of it that appears so simple, yet is so very complex. The reality is that there are thousands of children that need homes in America and across the ocean in every direction. The difficulty is that we are seldom talking about children that can be adopted and raised as a regular biological child (unless they are very young). We are often talking about children that have lived through trauma, often in their biological family and then again in an orphanage or foster home. The truth is that if foster training and adoption classes taught the extent of the trauma that these children often bring to their new homes, adoption rates would plummet. International children generally come with little information to the adoption agency or the adopting family; it is about the largest step of faith that I have experienced. I know case after case of U.S. foster to adopt children that the truth about their backgrounds was not exposed even when the system knew the truth. (There are current law suits now about truths that were withheld that ended up all but destroying the families that took the children in.) While I know the system is broken - I don't have many ideas that I think are better other than full disclosure to adopting families. I think the greatest success would be thousands of Americans that have raised their own two or three children and are empty-nesters (or close enough) being willing to start over and give their time and wisdom to another two or three children that are in desperate need of a home. While I know the children are the greatest victims, I have been overwhelmed lately with several families that now have additional traumatized children and hurting adults from trying to fight the good fight to provide a family to older, broken, adopted children. Our world is filled with so much sadness.
They Break, You Know
It was something about the phrasing that got to me. Something about the cadence of his words, the staccato of his speech.
“Nobody loves me. Not even my mother who gave birth to me.”
It is an odd turn of phrase, isn’t it?
Not even my mother who gave birth to me
He was buckled into the backseat of my Toyota, still too little to
sit up front. At seven he had already moved more times than the total
number of years he had been on the earth. And this time, like the times
before it, he moved with his belongings in a trash bag. A suitcase, at
least, would have added a small degree of dignity to the whole affair –
to being “placed” in another and another and yet another foster home
before reaching the 3rd grade. Trash bags break, you know. Trash bags
can’t possibly support the contents of any life, and certainly not a
life as fragile as this.
They break from the strain, eventually.
This move was harder for Stephen than most. It was a home he thought
he would stay in, at least for awhile. He had felt affection there. When
I went to pick him up, after his foster mother gave notice that he
could no longer stay, he came easily with me; head down, no reaction on
the surface of it. It was only when he got into my car that he began to
sob the kind of aching sound that leaves you limp in its wake.
He could barely get out the words. Nobody loves me. Not even my mother who gave birth to me.
Months later, in a repeat scene (another foster mother, another
removal), he would put up a fight. He would run around the living room,
ducking behind furniture, refusing to leave. But on this night he had no
fight in him.
That was Stephen at seven.
Nine-year old Stephen grips his report card in sweaty hands. We’re
headed to an adoption event, where we will meet families who want to
adopt an older child; families who do not automatically rule out a boy
like Stephen with all of his long “history.” And he wants to impress
them, these strangers. He wants to win them over, and so he brings his
good report card along as tangible proof that he is a child worth
A child should never have to prove they are worth loving.
Twelve-year old Stephen tells me that I’m his best friend. I’m his
social worker, and he should have a real best friend, but I don’t say
this to him. We’re at a taping for Wednesday’s Child, the news spot
featuring children who are up for adoption. Stephen is engaging on
camera. Maybe somebody will pick him this time. Maybe he is offering
just enough evidence, at twelve, that he’s a boy worth loving. And he is
lovable, truly. But it is not enough. A family never comes.
Years later, long after I’ve left the agency, I get an email from my
old boss asking how I’m doing, and ending with a short P.S. “
Stephen is in DYS lockup after running away from his foster home. You need to adopt him.”
My stomach drops. I’ve had this thought many times. I should adopt him myself
. But I don’t.
I heard about his murder from a friend who had seen it in the news.
Shot outside a party over some foolish dispute. Dead at 18, dead just as
he became a man. Not my Stephen, I prayed.
When I realized
that it was really him – that it could be no other – I sobbed gripped by
the kind of anguish that leaves you limp in its wake.
The newspapers ran very little about the murder, as if it were an
afterthought. Barely worth a mention, really. Anonymous strangers posted
nasty comments online: “Just another gangbanger,” they said. You
don’t even know him. You don’t know the first thing about this boy.
You don’t know that as a child he would trace letters into my back with
his finger to pass time at the doctor’s office, asking me to guess what
phrase he was spelling out. “I ♥ U” he traced between my shoulders, the
last time we played this game.
Stephen had been wrong, that night in my Toyota. His mother did love
him, in her way. She was there, at the funeral. She greeted me kindly. I
think she knew I loved Stephen as I knew she did. We both failed him in
the end, and that joined us I suppose. Neither of us could give him a
There were no photos from Stephen’s childhood at the funeral home. No
images of the green-eyed boy with the sweet smile to remind us of what
had been lost. There were no pictures of Stephen with his brothers, and
so I printed up snapshots of the four boys together, taken on a
supervised visit, and brought them to the funeral to give to the family.
It was something I could do, against the larger backdrop of nothing I
There were very few social workers at the funeral, and none of
Stephen’s many foster mothers. Stephen spent more of his life being
raised in the system than out of it. If you claim legal responsibility
for a child, you best show up at his funeral. You should show up when he
dies. He was yours, in a way, wasn’t he? You owe it to him. And if he
did not belong to you, then who did he ever belong to?
His mother was there, at least. His mother who gave birth to him
. I hear the echo of his voice from those many years ago.
Somebody does love you Stephen.
I want to tell him. But it’s too late.
Stephen was the one, for me. The one who embodied all the failures of
a system so broken that to heal it would take far more than the casts
that heal the literal broken bones of the children growing up within it.
They break, you know. These kids we leave behind. Eventually they break.
November is National Adoption Month. For information on adoption from the foster care system, visit the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption
*Stephen is a fictional name for a real boy the world lost.