The enemy was in my car.
I could see her earrings glint in the sunlight and smell her perfume.
I fiddled with the radio, realizing I had no idea what type of music she listened to. I thought about turning it off, but any noise seemed better than silence.
I opened my mouth to speak, then closed it like a goldfish behind glass. I needed to choose my words carefully. The stakes were too high.
Mom to mom
It started with a simple question.
My husband and I and our two biological daughters had just ended our time as a foster family to two young sisters, Ella and Bailey, who had been with us during the course of a 17-month Child Protective Services case. We loved Ella and Bailey, whose names have been changed in this story to protect their identities, deeply and had hoped to adopt them, but the legal parties involved ultimately decided they should go back to their biological mom.
Because of the ups and downs of the case, there had been friction between their mom and me. There were accusations and misunderstandings. Sometimes she and I would be together in a room and could not even acknowledge each other, the air between us as thick as a concrete wall.
So I was more surprised than anyone to see her name appear on my phone just hours after Ella and Bailey had left our home to go live with her on a trial basis.
She said she was having trouble getting Ella, who was almost 2, and Bailey, 10 months, to sleep and asked if I had any tips on the girls’ bedtime routines. For the first time since we met, the chatter of caseworkers and lawyers and supervisors faded out and we were just two women talking, mom to mom.
There were more calls after that. Then, one afternoon when I was feeling particularly bold, I asked if we could organize a play date.
There was silence on the other end. Seconds ticked by like hours.
Then she spoke. She and the girls would like that.
The next weekend, I picked up her, Ella and Bailey for our first outing. Seeing her again brought back some complicated emotions, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that if this first play date went well, she might just transform from my enemy into something else entirely.
You know those videos of long-lost siblings meeting again at the airport after decades apart, sprinting to each other and then colliding in a mess of happy screams and enormous hugs? That was what it was like watching Ella and Bailey and our biological daughters, 8 and 5, being reunited.
Their mom and I both laughed, their incessant giggles cutting through the blanket of apprehension between us.
The first play date went well. So did the second.
Over time, we found ourselves at parks and bounce houses and restaurants all over the city, three adults and four inseparable little girls, laughing and screaming and running wild just like they always had.
These outings allowed me to get to know their mom, the hardships she had overcome and the strength and perseverance she had put into getting her girls back.
I learned that she had thought she was in love but found herself at the hospital completely alone as she gave birth just 26 weeks into her pregnancy to Ella and Ella’s twin sister, who died two days later.
She grieved one little girl while yearning to hold the other, who was confined to the neonatal intensive care unit for the first three months of her life.
Their mom made some mistakes, CPS made some decisions, and she left the hospital the same way she arrived, alone, a new mother without any children.
Dinner and cupcakes
There’s no question that Ella and Bailey needed us for a time. But as I watched their mom relishing tasks like slathering icing on a homemade birthday cake for Ella or doting on Bailey at her well check, I could admit that they needed her.
We reached a point where we could have frank conversations about most anything. I told her how grateful I was that she had allowed us to be part of Ella’s and Bailey’s lives, that I knew most people would not have been willing to do that, especially given our tumultuous history, and she told me she could see now that my husband and I loved her girls like they were our own. Maybe, I started to realize, just like our daughters needed one another, their mom and I needed each other, too.
Although she had gotten the girls back on a trial basis, she had to attend one more hearing to make it official, and she asked me to go with her. We walked into the courtroom together — Bailey in her arms and Ella in mine — and waited for the judge’s decision: Case dismissed. That night, “our big blended family,” as their mom has taken to calling us, celebrated with dinner and cupcakes.
Two days after that, she asked us to be the girls’ godparents.
That title is the greatest gift I have ever received.
Any residual stress, sadness or bitterness I might have been harboring evaporated completely that day, replaced by two words: “my goddaughters.”
We are forever linked. Together. Family.
Except now, our big blended family has expanded by one.
Seed of hope
We hadn’t planned to take another foster child, not yet.
As we had worked to grow our new relationship with Ella and Bailey’s mom, my husband, daughters and I were also figuring out what it was like to be a nuclear family again.
We did things we hadn’t been able to do with two babies in the house. We went to water parks. We stayed up late watching movies. We got a puppy.
Then we heard about a little boy who really needed somewhere to be. Somewhere he could stay forever.
I wasn’t sure I was ready. I’d think about the fishing trips I never got to take with Steven, the little boy who inspired me to become a foster parent in the first place, or remember what it was like to watch Ella and Bailey drive down our street and out of our lives, and feel certain I couldn’t take any more heartbreak.
But then we met the little boy. And he had a mischievous but captivating smile that reminded me an awful lot of Steven’s.
He joined our household in December.
He has been through more tragedy in his four short years than any person should endure in a lifetime.
But he seems comfortable here. Like he can finally exhale instead of always holding his breath.
We see his smile more and more each day.
He loves to go fishing. And he calls me “Mom.”
If you had told me a year ago this would be my life, there is no way I would have believed it. Enemies turned family. Strangers turned sons. Promises turned reality.
Life can be so crazy. And so beautiful.
Through it all, I think I’ve learned something.
Maybe, for every crushing heartbreak we endure, there’s a tiny seed of hope behind it, just waiting to reveal itself.
About this series
May is National Foster Care Month. This is the final installment of a four-part series chronicling American-Statesman reporter Kristin Finan’s experiences as a foster parent in Travis County.
In the first part, Finan explained how a little boy she met as a teenager inspired her to become a foster parent.
The second story followed the family’s first months with a new foster child.
The third part detailed what happened as the CPS case came to a close.
Read them all at mystatesman.com/fostercare.
How to help
Carrying Hope: After watching foster children arrive to her door with nothing, reporter Kristin Finan co-founded a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, Carrying Hope, that makes Hope Packs filled with comfort items and essentials for children who are entering the foster care system. Learn more at carryinghope.com.
CASA of Travis County: Court Appointed Special Advocates of Travis County is in need of volunteers to advocate for abused or neglected children. In order to become a CASA, you must be 21 and pass extensive reference, Child Protective Services, sex offender registry and criminal background checks. You may not be a current foster parent or be in the process of adopting a child from Child Protective Services. If you are an attorney, you may not concurrently be appointed to any cases involving Child Protective Services in Travis County. Learn more at casatravis.org/volunteer. CASA of Williamson County, casawilco.org, and CASA of Central Texas, casacentex.org, are also in need of volunteers.
Becoming a foster parent
In order to become a foster parent, you must be 21 years old, have a valid driver’s license and proof of automobile insurance, be a U.S. citizen or legal resident, have a high school diploma or GED and be able to pass criminal history, child abuse registry and FBI fingerprint checks. You do not have to be married to become a foster parent.
The foster care training process can be rigorous. A sample of what was required of us through Helping Hand Home: a fire and health inspection, CPR and first aid classes, background checks, tuberculosis tests for each member of our family, photos of our home, photos of our family, a copy of our home’s floor plan, an evacuation plan in the event of emergency, verification of our finances, a copy of our house rules, a drug screening for adults in the home, a detailed home study completed by the agency and more than 45 hours of in-person training, typically held on Saturdays.
There are more than a dozen foster care agencies in the Austin area that offer training, including Helping Hand Home (helpinghandhome.org), DePelchin (depelchin.org/austin), A World for Children (awfc.org), the Bair Foundation (bair.org), SAFE (safeaustin.org), Angelheart (angelheartkids.org), Starry (starry.org), Arrow (arrow.org), Settlement Home for Children (settlementhome.org), Presbyterian Children’s Homes (texas.pchas.org) and Upbring (upbring.org). The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services also has resources available at dfps.state.tx.us.