Welcome to the Roller Coaster, A Story of Grace

Below is my contribution to the book. Thank you for reading and sharing our book!

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s a mother of three young children, I felt overwhelmed at times, but so incredibly blessed. Our life was busy and full, but happy and content. Then I felt God pulling our family towards orphan care. I looked into overseas adoption, domestic adoption—any option besides foster care. I thought, “I could never be a foster parent. There is too much risk, too much hurt involved.”

However, God firmly told me, “It is NOT about you.” So we submitted to His will and began the process of becoming certified as foster parents. I understood that God wanted us to sacrifice our comfortable lifestyle for the sake of a child who had no other options. What I did not realize was how our decision to foster would impact the other side of the arrangement—the biological parents—and how I would be affected by that relationship.

The process that we thought would take 90 days took nine months. My husband lost his job and we could barely provide for our current family, but God said, “Keep going.”  We trusted in God’s plan, and eagerly prepared for the time when we would welcome a disadvantaged child into our home. We never considered that we might also invite the child’s parent to be a part of that transition. The whole point of foster care is to rescue the child from the unfit parent, right?

After a long nine months, we were finally certified and could not wait to get “the call.” “The call” came quite a few times for different children—five in all. We said yes to every single one, and each time the child was placed somewhere else before we could pick them up. Extremely frustrated, we called our caseworker. She listed about 20 children that we could choose to foster, and shared why they were in care. It came down to a newborn boy, which was what I had desired all along, or a ten-month-old little girl. We prayed about it, and God said, “Take the ten-month-old.” It is amazing to think how such a seemingly small decision could change our lives so much.

Grace was nine months old when she sustained a severe burn on her leg that prompted an investigation by Child Protective Services (CPS). Her mom was ironing on the floor, and being the curious little girl that she was, she crawled over to the hot iron while mom was not paying attention. Grace’s mom, Angela, was terrified that her baby girl was going to be taken away. She had aged out of foster care herself, and knew how traumatic and scary it was to grow up in the system.

Angela was on track to break the cycle of foster kids producing another generation of foster kids, having gone to college and joined the Army, where she served our country for nine years. She left the Army after suffering from severe depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. After being discharged from the Army, she continued to suffer from even more mental disabilities such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. She was homeless many times. She met a man 20 years older than her and began a relationship with him that led to her pregnancy with Grace at the age of 34.

Angela had always wanted children and thought that waiting until she was older was a wise choice. Now she was not so sure. Because of all the medications she was on, Angela could not sleep at night. She averaged an hour of sleep on a good night, and was often suicidal, checking herself into the psychiatric ward at the veteran’s hospital about once a month.

When Angela received notice of a complaint being filed with Child Protective Services and that she would be visited by a caseworker, she had a breakdown. For the safety of her daughter and herself, she needed to check herself into the hospital immediately. She was frantic and had no one to help her. Her family was in another state and was struggling with difficult circumstances themselves. She took the bus to the veteran’s hospital, which just happened to be next door to a children’s hospital. Outside, she saw a woman she had met a couple of weeks before. She told her friend how desperate she was and that she was having suicidal thoughts and needed to check herself into the hospital immediately. She asked her friend to please look after Grace until she got out, and the friend agreed. Angela signed a note of written permission for her friend to watch Grace and left for the hospital.

The next day, CPS went to Angela’s home to begin the investigation about the burn on Grace’s leg. When they arrived, no one was home and the landlord had not seen Angela or Grace, which was unusual. They tracked down Angela in the hospital and asked her where Grace was, to which she responded, “I don’t know.” Grace was now a missing child. 

Five days later, the friend who was caring for Grace saw a news story about the little girl and that she was considered missing. She immediately called 911 and CPS came to pick up Grace. She was now a ward of the state. Grace was placed in an emergency foster home, where she stayed with an amazing family until our family was chosen to be her long-term placement.

My heart was pounding as my husband and I sat outside the CPS building waiting for Angela’s visit to be over so we could bring Grace home. I could barely breathe knowing that we were about to meet our second daughter. We watched as Angela walked out of the building and got into someone’s car. Knowing nothing about Angela at this time, we slunk down in our seats, worried that she might see our car and follow us after we left. How silly and judgmental that seems now.

After Angela was out of sight, we got out of our car and walked inside. We nervously followed the caseworker upstairs and down the hall to where Grace was waiting. As we walked into a bright yellow room, we were met with the biggest grin and happy shrieks from Grace. I will never forget the moment my eyes met hers. It was as if I was seeing one of my biological children for the first time. I truly feel that God had shown her our faces because we were instantly a family. In our paperwork, the caseworker even wrote that Grace was playing and laughing with her foster parents immediately. We had no adjustment issues with her and our biological children were immediately in love with their new sister.

It was the end of October when Grace came to live with us, and when I heard her story, it was so familiar to me. After searching the Internet, I realized that I had read the news story about how she had come into state custody a week before we were certified as foster parents. When reading the story, I instantly had compassion for her mother, Angela. I had no idea how God was going to use that compassion to show His love through me.

The first time I met Angela was on a visit at the CPS offices. She came in looking very professional, with her hair done and a beautiful shawl around her shoulders. She brought shoes and clothes for Grace and two books about Jesus. I was anxious to reach out to her, and brought as many pictures of Grace as I could get developed. She was so gracious. After this visit, we communicated every day for a month by email. I later found out that Angela walked to the library every day to check her email for the pictures that I would send of Grace.

As Christmas approached, I hoped we could get together with Angela to celebrate. I had not heard from her in about a week, which was very unusual, so I checked with our caseworker to see if she had talked with her. She had not, but made some calls and discovered that Angela was back in the psychiatric ward at the hospital. Angela would be spending Christmas there. My heart was broken for her. Without a second thought, I told her that I would be there to visit her on Christmas Day.

At this point in our foster care journey, we had a total of six children. Three of them were biological, one was Grace, and the last two were a sibling set that we had unexpectedly taken in two weeks before. I was a very busy mama. Going to the psychiatric ward on Christmas Day was not something that I would have ever imagined myself doing. I asked my mom to go with me, and we wrapped presents and took pictures of Grace for Angela. I had no idea what I was going to do or say.

When we got up to the psych ward, it was so quiet. We could not find anyone who worked there and we had no idea how to get past the two sets of locked doors that led to the patient area. We considered leaving, but I knew that the Lord did not bring me there on Christmas day to leave without seeing Angela. Finally a nurse came out and went through all of our presents to make sure they were safe to bring in. A picture frame was not allowed because of the glass in it and a thick ribbon tied around a throw blanket had to be thrown away. I had never even considered that some of these items could be potential weapons or a means to end her life. We were finally cleared to enter the ward, and I nervously prayed for the Holy Spirit to take over.

We walked into the common area and I looked around for Angela. When I saw her, I barely recognized her. She had on hospital garments and her hair was pulled back in a do-rag. Her eyes were filled with sadness as I embraced her and wished her a merry Christmas. We sat down at a table and gave her the gifts and pictures of Grace we had brought. After she went through them, I updated her on how Grace was doing. I told Angela how much we loved Grace and that she was such a happy little girl. Angela was trying so hard to hold back her tears, and she was so grateful that we had come to visit her. She had never had visitors before.

The nurses and some of the other patients came up and told us how sad Angela always was and how happy they were that we came to visit and “love on her.” After we had been there only 30 minutes, it was announced that visiting hours would be over shortly and we needed to wrap things up. I asked Angela if I could pray with her and she graciously accepted. I cannot remember what I prayed, but the words that came out of my mouth were not from me. They were from the Holy Spirit, loving and comforting this deeply hurting woman through me while I held her hands and bowed my head with her. The Lord is close to the brokenhearted; he rescues those whose spirits are crushed. Psalm 34:18

After Angela was released, we met at the zoo and celebrated Christmas and Grace’s birthday. I was able to get some great pictures of them together. She began attending church with me once a month and would wear her t-shirt with our church logo on it every time I saw her. After getting to know Angela better, our family began inviting Angela over twice a month for breakfast at our house and to see Grace. It was a little awkward at first, but the kids always made her feel at home, calling her “Mama Angela” and giving her hugs.

Angela was off and on in her relationship with Grace’s father. He had shown up to court only one time.  His rights were terminated early on in the case because of this. That was a blessing, since he had been abusive towards Angela many times in the past. Despite the fact that Angela could barely take care of herself, CPS was hopeful that if she got her medications straightened out, she could get Grace back. Over the next six months, though, it became evident that this would not be an option. She moved from her apartment to an assisted living facility. Her medications had made it so hard to function that she had begun having hallucinations again and was often suicidal.

The assisted living facility was close to our home, so we would go visit and pick her up for church or for a visit at our house. My husband and I picked her up for one of our court hearings in July. At this point, Grace had been in state custody for about nine months. Before we got out of the car, we said a prayer out loud, and asked God that whatever decision was made would be in the best interest of Grace. As we walked in, Angela was very somber. Our caseworker handed us each a copy of the court report and we read through it. I could barely hold back the tears when I reached the point in the report where it stated that, “Angela reports that Grace’s foster mom is her only friend.”  Shortly thereafter, our case was called. Our two minutes in front of the judge went something like this

Judge: Ms. Smith, I have in front of me a piece of paper that states that you are relinquishing your parental rights to Grace. Is that correct?

Angela: Yes, sir.

Judge: Ms. Smith, do you understand that by giving up your parental rights you have no say in medical decisions, where she goes to school, or anything else in the future?

Angela: Yes, sir.

Judge: Ms. Smith, did anyone threaten, coerce, or bribe you to sign this document?

Angela: No, sir.

Judge: Ms. Smith, do you believe that this decision is in the best interest of Grace?

Angela: Yes, sir.

Judge: By order of the court on July 11, 2011, parental rights of Grace Smith are terminated. We are off record now. Ms. Smith, I can tell that this decision did not come easy to you. I wish you the best of luck in life.

There was no doubt that was the hardest moment of Angela’s life and one I will never forget. Saying goodbye that day was so hard and uncomfortable. How do you react when the mother of your foster daughter just relinquished her rights so that you could adopt her? I hugged her and told her that I respected her so much for her decision and that she was now a part of our family too. I told Angela that I wanted her over for holidays and as many visits as we were capable of making. We invited her over for breakfast that following Sunday to reassure her that we were serious about keeping her involved in Grace’s life.

When I picked Angela up for breakfast that Sunday, she came loaded down with toys that she had bought at the thrift store for all six of our children. It was such a generous and thoughtful thing to do with her very limited income. The kids were so excited and showered her with kisses of gratitude. We had a huge breakfast of biscuits and gravy and lots of bacon, Angela’s favorite.

Before she left, I had her record her voice on one of those Hallmark books for Grace, so that Grace could hear her birth mother’s voice whenever she wanted to. Angela was very touched by that. We were moving that next week, so I let her know that it might be a few weeks before we saw her again, but we would bring her out to the new house soon.

When I dropped her off at the nursing home, the passenger door would not open for some reason, so I had to get out and let her out. I am so glad that happened, because it allowed me to give Angela the last hug I would ever give her. I looked into her tear-filled eyes for what would be the last time and said, “I love you.”

Three days after we moved into our new house, I got the phone call I had been dreading. My husband called and said, “Is your mom there? Go somewhere by yourself. I need to tell you something.” I went outside and stood on the porch. He continued, “Angela shot herself.” “What?!” I shrieked, over and over again. “What?! No! No! Why would she do that?!” Sobbing, I screamed, “She’s supposed to come over next week. We had it planned, she was supposed to come over! Why would she do that?” Logically, I knew why, and I knew it was likely to happen. But you are never, ever prepared for that phone call. 

I wept all day long. I wept for the way Angela’s life ended. I wept for Grace and that she would never have a memory of her birth mom. I wept for not calling or visiting her more often. I just kept saying over and over again, “I’m so sorry, Angela. I’m so sorry.”

The funeral was the next day at the nursing home. Other than residents, it was my husband and I, two of my dear friends, and our caseworker. My husband shared a little bit about our family involvement with Angela, what a good woman she was, and that she would be terribly missed. At the end of the service, we fittingly sang “Amazing Grace.”

The woman who ran the nursing home brought us letters that Angela had left for us. I never thought I would be a recipient of a suicide note. This is a portion of the one she left for Grace:

“To my daughter,

I will always love you. Mommy had to go. Your new mother will take good care of you. She will feed you when you need to eat, change your diapers and tuck you in at night. When you remember her, please remember me. I'm sorry I had to go. I couldn't deal with the pain anymore. Whenever you're alone, I'm there with you.

Love, Mommy”

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The next few months were filled with lots of paperwork, and right before Christmas, we were blessed to finalize Grace’s adoption and give her our last name. It is still hard to believe that this part of our journey is over. The Lord taught me so much.

When we became foster parents, I had no intention of getting close to the birth parents. They were the “enemy” in my mind. This experience has changed the way I view all of them. They are hurting people who need love just as much as these children do. Many of them were victims of the foster care system themselves.  Angela was a beautiful person who loved her daughter very much. You may never know what a person has been through or is going through, so extend them the same grace that the Lord Jesus has given us, and love them with everything you can while they are with you. You just might be their only friend.

The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ Matthew 25:40

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