I am standing on a strip of road nestled between an orange orchard and a sign for airboat tours on an idyllic summer morning, the clouds a swirl of cotton candy pink against the blue raspberry sky.
I’m not far from “the happiest place on earth,” in Lake Wales, Fla., a suburb of Orlando where many residents earn their living selling Mickey Mouse T-shirts and restocking hot dogs as part of the Disney empire. And I’m searching for bloodstains in the asphalt.
Fun in the summer
I first met Steven in the Southwest Austin neighborhood of Western Oaks in the summer of 1994. I was 13, too old for a babysitter and too young to get a job, bored from too many games of sharks and minnows at the neighborhood pool and too many glasses of Country Time lemonade.
My friends and I decided the only way to cure our boredom was to start a summer camp for the kids in our neighborhood. We came up with a name, Fun in the Summer, and set out one scorching afternoon with a stack of dot-matrix-printed pamphlets, eager to spread the word about our new endeavor.
At one of the first houses we visited we were greeted by a woman with warm eyes and wavy brown hair that reminded me of ramen noodles. She told us they were a foster family — that they took care of children whose biological families could not — and that while their kids couldn’t come to our camp, we were welcome to come by the house to volunteer whenever we’d like.
That summer and for the next two years, we spent hours playing games, reading, swimming and just hanging out with the nine kids who lived there. Some were barely younger than I was, but their lives had been dramatically different.
The subject of my nightly journal entries changed from crushes and spats with my big brother to detailed plans for the foster home I would run when I grew up. Added to the list of names I kept for my future children was a new one, Steven, in honor of my favorite of “the kids” — a 6-year-old with a sharp jaw and an easy, mischievous grin.
Our two favorite things to do were read from his well-stocked bookshelf and plan imaginary fishing trips. One day, after we had read at least a dozen books, he handed me a piece of printer paper with a boat drawn on it in No. 2 pencil.
“I made this for you,” he said. “It’s you and me, fishing.”
Eventually the family moved out of our neighborhood and some of the children scattered like seeds from a blown dandelion. Over time, I lost track of Steven, a few pictures and his drawing of our imaginary fishing trip my only reminders of a little boy who would change my life.
The more things change
Over the next few years, Steven bounced around to more than a dozen placements across the state that included foster homes, group homes and residential treatment facilities.
I had recently graduated from the University of Texas when I heard Steven would be spending some time in Austin for the summer and was open to visitors.
A flood of emotions rushed over me. I had never forgotten him, but did Steven, who had been through so much more transition in the 10 years since I last saw him, remember me? I had photos and mementos stored safely in a box under my bed; the sum of everything he owned could probably fit inside a backpack.
But it didn’t matter. If I could see him, I wanted to do it. I set a date with the foster parents and gingerly knocked on their door one summer afternoon. I entered to find a handsome, 6-foot-tall blond teenager with wire-rimmed glasses and an Adam’s apple.
He looked at me for two seconds, then said: “I knew it would be you.”
He was 17 now and both optimistic and world-weary. He talked about his many placements, especially Star Ranch, a residential treatment facility for boys near Kerrville that had just been shut down by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services due to “at least four serious incidents that posed an immediate threat to the health or safety of children,” the agency said.
Included in those incidents were two deaths in 2005 and 2006: the death of a child as the result of an inappropriate restraint by a staff member, and the death of a child from drowning-related injuries caused by neglectful supervision of caregivers.
“That’s the place where I stopped believing in Santa Claus,” he said.
Over Sonic milkshakes and swimming pool visits, we’d plan out fishing trips and talk about our hopes for the future. Because he had moved around so much, he was behind in school and took multiple pills a day for ailments he couldn’t name. Sometimes, he said, other kids would make fun of him for being a foster kid.
He hoped to go into the military or possibly become a missionary, but he would need to graduate from high school first, and that wasn’t a given. Despite never really having a family, he cherished the idea of one.
“Keep close to your family, don’t lose ’em,” he advised me one afternoon. “Don’t ever say you don’t love ’em or anything. I don’t wish anything like that on anybody, what I’ve been through, what other people in foster care have been through. I don’t want that to happen to anybody.”
I told him I planned to one day become a foster parent, and as the words came out of my mouth, I realized I was making a promise.
Marking a milestone
In 2006, we both celebrated milestones. I married my longtime boyfriend on a crisp October day, and Steven’s biological father — never a consistent presence in his life — moved back to Texas and told Steven, who had recently turned 18, that he could come live with him in Yorktown, a town of 2,000 an hour and a half from San Antonio.
The next spring, I received an email from Steven inviting me to his graduation from Yorktown High School. As I read it, I noted that his biological dad’s last name was now tacked to the end of his signature.
There were 61 people in the Yorktown High graduating class, their chairs organized in rows across the black rubber track circling the high school football field, a mural reading “Home of the Fightin’ Wildcats” serving as the backdrop. Audience members, clad in black dresses and button-down shirts, took their places on the metal bleachers as the ceremony began; Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Freebird” and Guns N’ Roses’ “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” both played in their entirety during the event.
When his name was called, Steven, his blue eyes shining behind his glasses and his cap tilted slightly to the right, crossed the football field and plucked a red rose from a giant bouquet for graduates. The moment that had long seemed unattainable was now right in front of him, sealed with a handshake from the principal.
Once everyone received their diplomas, the graduating class congregated in the center of the football field and formed a swaying circle as Rascal Flatts’ “My Wish” blared from the speakers:
“My wish, for you, is that this life becomes all that you want it to,
Your dreams stay big, your worries stay small,
You never need to carry more than you can hold,
And while you’re out there getting where you’re getting to,
I hope you know somebody loves you, and wants the same things too,
Yeah, this … is my wish.”
Seven years later, I would hear the same song at my oldest daughter’s pre-K graduation, tears filling my eyes as the hopeful lyrics swirled in my head with the recent news of Steven’s death.
‘These things happen’
It wasn’t drugs or suicide or unpaid debts. It was 7 a.m. on an average Thursday morning on a two-lane road where people sip coffee and listen to the fuzz of early-morning radio on their way to work.
Steven wasn’t feeling well but had started his job only two weeks before at Global Produce Sales in Lake Wales, Fla., where he was excited to watch watermelons amble down the line and load them into wooden pallets to be shipped off for family picnics and backyard barbecues. He wanted to make a good impression. Plus, it was payday.
He was 2 miles from work on that road, which didn’t have a shoulder, when a driver attempted to pass, nicked the back tire of Steven’s bike and dragged him beneath his truck.
Twenty-five years of life, over in an instant.
When the phone rang that morning, Steven’s dad, who also lived in Lake Wales and with whom Steven now had regular contact, assumed Steven was calling to check in from work. Instead, it was the police, telling him Steven had been killed.
The driver would be charged with driving with a suspended license, driving without insurance and operating a motor vehicle on an expired tag but released the next day with no further charges. “Unfortunately America is made up of tragic accidents every day,” Detective Michael Yodonis, the lead investigator in Steven’s case, told me later with the equivalent of a verbal shrug. “These things happen.”
When I visited a few months later, I was able to locate the site of the accident from the blue spray paint on the asphalt, the only obvious remains of the investigation. There was a memorial cross nearby, but it was for someone else, a 2-year-old who had also died there, along with her mother, in 2005.
It didn’t feel like a place where someone should die. It felt like a spot where you just pass through. There was no blood in the cracks of the asphalt, no ghosts tapping me on the shoulder. As I walked along the side of the road, I started to convince myself that the accident never happened.
Then, buried under a patch of dead grass near a casually discarded banana peel, I spotted a weather-worn gray Tillman work glove — the same type I had seen employees at the watermelon factory wearing earlier that day.
Except this was one shredded, from thumb to pinkie. And suddenly it all felt very real.
A few hours later, as we ate $6.99 endless pizza inside a CiCi’s shaped like a volcano just blocks from Disney World, Steven’s dad, Lewis Perry, caught me up on Steven’s life prior to the accident and his own in the aftermath.
When Steven was a baby, Lewis was living in Dallas and wasn’t part of his life. While in Dallas, he met Melanie, who had two sons of her own. Soon, Lewis and Melanie were married and another baby, Elijah, was on the way. Lewis decided to move Melanie, Melanie’s two sons and Elijah to Oregon, where he hoped to find work. Steven was left behind in Texas.
“He asked me, as an adult, why,” Lewis said. “With my health, supporting Melanie and the other three boys, there was no way.”
Lewis and Melanie moved back to Texas when Steven was 18, and Steven lived with them during his last year of high school. The family eventually moved to Florida, and Steven went along, trying to connect with a family he had never known.
Steven was living with a friend just before he died, and Lewis, Melanie and Elijah lived nearby in a 35-foot trailer with all flat tires, six cats and a dog named Truffles. Lewis and Melanie didn’t have the money to host a memorial for Steven, but their church pitched in to hold a small service.
In the hazy months that followed, they worked to regain a sense of normalcy. Lewis, who doesn’t work and is on disability because of a trucking accident he was involved in years ago, started seeing three therapists to try to work through what happened. He had a theory that Steven was run down on purpose, and sometimes he would call the police department to tell them so.
But most days, he just tried not to let the guilt overtake him.
“He had a tough childhood, a tough life,” Lewis said. “I wish I could have done more. I wish …” The sentence trailed off, and Lewis reached for another slice of pepperoni.
Getting the call
When I got home from Florida, I couldn’t stop thinking about fishing trips never taken and paychecks never picked up and lives never fully lived.
If ever there was a time to become a foster family, this was it. My husband, who had always known fostering was in the cards for us, agreed.
That week, we submitted an application to become foster parents through Helping Hand Home, an Austin foster care agency founded in 1893 after an abandoned baby girl was discovered at the Austin train station, and started preparing our daughters, then 5 and 3, for the idea of a sibling.
In a series of Saturday training classes at the agency, we learned things that surprised, humbled and shocked us. One week, tears streamed down my cheeks as we watched a video called “ReMoved” that delves into the pain of a little girl who has survived horrific abuse. Another week, my stomach turned as we learned behaviors that newly placed foster children may exhibit, such as hiding food under their beds because there’s never been a time when they’ve had enough to eat. A different week, I wrapped my arms securely around a stranger’s body and pressed my face into her back as we learned restraints we could use to safely calm an out-of-control child, should we ever need to do so. Then, after nine long months of classes, paperwork, inspections and appointments, we were an approved foster family.
We had agreed to accept emergency placements, which occur when children are removed from their homes, often in crisis situations, and need somewhere to go immediately. When this happens, Child Protective Services puts out calls to all of the foster agencies in the area, who then call all of their available foster families until a home is found. The first day we were eligible to take an emergency placement our agency called us at 10:18 a.m. — if you’ve wondered how desperate the need is for foster families, that should tell you something.
The call was for a 5-week-old little boy who had been in the neonatal intensive care unit since birth withdrawing from drugs his mother used during pregnancy and who was finally doing well enough to be cleared for discharge. “His first month of life has been hell,” the nurse said, choking up as I scooped him into my arms. “I’m glad he’s going home.” He was awake and his big brown eyes were alert as I lightly stroked his peach-fuzz head and admired his onesie, which said “Mr. Awesome.” After several hours, we were approved to go, the few belongings he had accumulated in his short life packed in a trash bag.
Our hope was to adopt out of the foster care system, but if you decide to take emergency placements — foster parents can also choose more direct adoptive paths — you really have no idea how a case will go. In this situation, a few days after we brought the baby home, CPS told us he would be relocating to Dallas to be with his brother, who had been adopted by a family that was eager to take him, too. He transferred exactly three weeks after he arrived.
It was a best-case scenario for him, and we had known he was leaving from early on, but it was still hard to say goodbye to a little boy who could have been happy with us, too. We took a few weeks off, then decided to try another round.
Once again, the same day we said we were available for a placement, we received a call from our agency. This time it was for a 6-month-old girl who had been waiting at the CPS office for hours in need of somewhere to go. Information was scarce, our agency case manager said, reading out the details she did know. When she read the baby’s name, I got chills.
Her last name was the same as Steven’s.
Different gender. Different race. Different decade. Same last name.
It had to be a sign.
“Please,” I said, “bring her here.”
Read the next installment of Heartbreak and Hope: As family members settle into life with a new foster child, they are faced with a decision that could drastically impact the case.