Nothing gets your heart racing like a phone call late at night asking if you will take a child that was living in an active meth lab. He arrived silent and wide-eyed with a chicken nugget in his hand. After, about 30 minutes the social worker left a 20-month-old boy, a backpack, and a name that he did not know. He would not fall asleep; he kept getting out of bed screaming for his mom. No combination of his name or logical nicknames would work. He would just stare at you wide-eyed with his big blue eyes and curly blonde hair. In the morning, I opened his backpack, and he had the combination of two and a half outfits, none of which were his size. All he owned in the world did not fit him. A rocky start to a long two year and a half year journey from fostering to adoption. Looking back at the road to get to the termination of parental rights hearing I realized that my journey was not only stressful but an emotional journey. That first night I realized that fostering to adopt is not for the weak of heart or resolve.
Later the next day was the first meeting with the social workers, Children’s Division lawyers, and foster parents. The only good thing to come out of this meeting was to learn that the boy answered to JJ. What was discovered in that meeting and over the next few months was hard to take. Blood work came back on JJ, and he was anemic and malnourished. He had night terrors from the unnamed abuse that he had received at the hands of his parents. Anytime one of my children would go into a closet to grab a coat he would freak out. His biological parents had locked him in closets. He had food insecurities, and he would scream if he got hungry, snack food was put in his room so he could see that there was food in the house. Quickly, it became apparent that his parents were far from worthy of being in charge of anything let alone a child.
There were weekly, one hour long, supervised visits at the Children’s Division. After a few months, the parents stopped showing up more and more. JJ’s mom had a total of three children that she had lost custody of and JJ’s father had lost custody of eight children. His mom had been ordered a to undergo a psychological evaluation. The evaluation came back and stated that the only way that his mom should have custody of any of her children is if she had someone with her 24 hours a day supervising her. She also was deemed to have an IQ of 76. JJ’s father stopped coming to visits because he had warrants out for his arrest. He thought that running from his crimes would eventually help him get his children back. All this time JJ’s mom started showing. She was pregnant with her fourth child. Then she disappeared. Despite their lack of parenting skills, we still had to work within the system.
The phone rang at 11 pm, JJ’s mom had been found. She had tried to flee the county trying to avoid the Children’s Division. She gave the hospital a false address, the doctors became suspicious and informed the Children’s Division about the birth so that the newborn could be brought into the system. I was contacted and asked if I wanted to pick up JJ’s little brother and bring him home too. Without hesitation, I agreed to take him. I drove to Walmart to buy a car seat, and then I drove the almost two hours to pick up JJ’s little brother, we called him Joe. As I was putting him in his new car seat, security walked over to his mom’s room and informed her that I was taking him with me. Now we had two jurisdictions to deal with because neither county wanted to relinquish their case. Thankfully the visits as infrequent as they were, got to be held at the Children’s Division closest to our house, only about 25 minutes away.
I am not sure what was harder, taking the boys to the weekly visits that rarely happened or forcing JJ to talk to his mom on the phone because one of her lawyers got the judge to approve weekly phone calls on top of the visits. I started recording the phone calls because JJ did not want to talk to his mom. I did not want the court to rule against us because some of the phone conversations were only a few seconds long. As soon as JJ said he did not want to talk anymore, we hung up. I lived each week in fear that the court would rule for longer and longer visits. It had happened in a previous placement. (Despite no one thinking that the mom should have increased visits the judge ruled that she went from supervised one-hour visits to eight hours minimally supervised visits). These things were hard but were nothing compared to the court dates and termination hearings.
I never knew what would happen at a hearing and that very unknown weighed heavily on me. The hearings were so intense; the dad had a lawyer, the kids had a lawyer, the Children’s Division had two lawyers, the mom had one lawyer to look out for her best interests because of her diminished mental capacity and one to plead her case. Then there were the social workers and their supervisor, and the foster parents all in a small courtroom. In the county that would hear JJ’s case, Judge Darryl Missey was known for taking the side of the biological parents no matter what. I had a friend that should have had an open and shut termination hearing, and it took Judge Missey six weeks to decide in my friends’ favor. In Joe’s court was Judge Maria Martinez and she personified the idea that the family court judge was the ruler of all. Termination hearing after termination hearing was scheduled and rescheduled. They were on the docket for two full days. Just sitting in the court for an hour or two was intense and trying. I could not imagine how hard it would be to sit for 16 hours over two days and watch another fight for the right for me to eventually adopt these boys. Finally, that was about to come to an end.
Joe’s termination hearing was first. I could not sleep the night before the hearing. We dressed up in our best clothes and waited as each second that moved closer to the hearing caused my heart to tighten because of the unknown. All I could do was hope for the best and preparing for the worst. In the courtroom, I was a nervous wreck. Their dad that had been missing for months had been in the county jail all along. He was there and able to plead his case. Their mom never showed, but this time she had three lawyers. I was so scared that the court would rule for the biological family and Joe who had only lived with me was going to end up going back to a horrible situation. I started to feel a little better about our chances when I realized that one of the lawyers that were supposed to be fighting in their mom’s favor was subtlety asking questions that were basically tanking their case. Within seconds of closing arguments, Judge Martinez ruled in our favor. Parental rights of the parents were terminated, and Joe was free to be adopted. Six weeks later was the termination hearing to sever the parental rights to JJ. The Lead lawyer for the Children’s Division met us outside of the courtroom. My heart sunk for a moment. I was sure he was going to tell me the trial had been delayed or something worse. Instead, he smiled. JJ’s mom had relinquished her parental rights voluntarily. There would be no fight. It was all a formality. By the end of the day, the parental rights to JJ had been severed.
Adoption day is more than just the culmination of years of pressure, time and money spent, or a name change. It is the day that the judge makes you stand up and swear that this child will be loved and treated as if they were of my blood. I had to swear that I understood that what I had they would inherit. I understood that their birth certificate was changed so that in the eyes of everyone they had always been my child. Throughout the entire process, I was just a placeholder. I felt the weight of the world and tried to love a child as if they were going to be mine forever, knowing that at any moment they could be removed from my house. Adoption day changes that fear and pressure because they are mine. Leaving that courtroom there is a freedom that is impossible to explain, but it is instantaneous. Now, the pressure is no longer lawyers, court dates, and fear but the simple stresses of parenthood. My kids may have become mine through a nontraditional route, but they did become mine.