She'd been in foster care with 14 families, some of whom had been abusive, before a loving couple adopted her. Could she learn to share that kind of love with children of her own?
- Posted on Jul 26, 2016
I travel the country sharing my story about foster care, permanency and family. Many families are created through biology. Some are brought together through adoption. Other times, an individual or a couple may choose to open their hearts and homes as foster parents, providing a temporary source of love and stability to children. I know firsthand the joys and challenges of each situation.
I was three when my younger brother and I were placed in foster care. Just after we moved to Florida, my teenage mother was arrested for writing bad checks. She was in jail for six days before her boyfriend confessed to the crime and she was released. With no job, family, or money to buy groceries, she was deemed unfit to care for us. Little did I know I’d never live with her again.
For nearly a decade I was shuttled between foster homes and group homes—14 of them. Some families were nice. A few would take me to church, make sure I had a place to do homework, and buy me used clothes or toys. Others were cruel, like villains in a dark fairy tale.
I was often told that God loved me. I wanted to believe that so much. As the years dragged by and the abuse got worse, though, it was hard to accept that I mattered to anyone. I tried to picture what it would be like to have parents who loved me unconditionally. That dream felt so out of reach. I grew cynical, distrustful. I was an expert at pushing people away before they could reject me.
At the age of 12, I was finally adopted, by Gay and Phil Courter, a couple with two adult sons. Gay was a brilliant writer, intense, and very particular. Phil was an award-winning documentary filmmaker, easygoing and quick to smile. They lived in a beautiful house on a large, wildlife-filled river. Their lives were nothing like the one I knew. Naturally I was suspicious.
“We feel you were meant to be part of our family,” Gay said one day. She and Phil told me how just the year before, when they were flying their own plane from Florida to New Jersey, their engine failed and they found themselves headed straight for a stand of trees.
“I prayed we wouldn’t crash into them,” Gay said. “We lived for a reason. And we now know that reason is you.”
I wasn’t impressed. I’d been lied to by adults so many times. On my adoption day, when the judge asked if I wanted to be adopted, I shrugged and said, “I guess so.” It wasn’t that I didn’t want to live with the Courters. I knew life with them would be better than anything I’d ever known. But I wasn’t sure they truly loved me. In foster care, I’d seen many children be un-adopted, sent back like an outfit that didn’t fit.
I set out to prove that these parents were no different. I refused to call them Mom and Dad. I picked at the home-cooked meals Gay painstakingly prepared. I hid in my room as much as possible. I even slicked the rim of their water glasses with soap in protest at having to do chores. I wanted to make them mad so they’d show their true colors.
One Friday night in the eighth grade, I really pushed things to the limit. A neighborhood girl had persuaded me to sneak out of the house with her to meet some boys. She was in high school and I desperately wanted to seem cool. I crushed Advil in my parents’ drinks after dinner, thinking it would make them sleepy.
One sip and they were onto me. Wow! I’d never seen them so angry. Now they would surely send me back. Instead they said, “Ashley, we have nowhere to send our sons back to, and you’re no different. You messed up big time, but we are going to work through this like a family.”
I ran in tears to my bedroom, where I spent the weekend. Seeing how much I’d disappointed them made me ashamed, actually sick to my stomach. Every time I staggered out of the room, there was Gay with a cold washcloth to hold to my head. I couldn’t understand it. No one had ever cared for me like that. I didn’t deserve this kindness. But could I trust it? Was this what love was?
Sunday night, Gay came into my room. She bent down and kissed my cheek. “Love you, sweetie,” she said. I clutched her arm. For the first time ever, I kissed her back. “Love you too,” I said. That word—love—sounded so alien, yet felt so true. I was discovering that love is what makes a family.
Gay and Phil’s dedication helped me excel in high school and college. They offered encouragement when doubts got the better of me. They urged me to share my story, and believed in my dream of becoming an inspirational speaker. Then they gave me the confidence to trust in my heart when my now husband, Erick, fell in love with me.
Erick is unlike me in so many ways. He has boundless optimism. To him, life is an endless romantic adventure. His parents are happily married. I wanted to believe we had what it took to build our own happy family. But like always, I had my doubts.
Shortly after we were married, Erick and I became foster parents. The kids’ stories were heartbreaking. They had been victims of emotional, physical and sexual abuse—even as infants. During training we’d been told not to think of foster parenting as a path to adoption. The goal was to reunite kids with their birth families.
I understood this, but at times, returning children home seemed like the worst option. The comings and goings of the kids in our home stirred up memories of my own experiences. Erick bonded with each child then bounced back more easily than I did.
I was in an emotional limbo when a social worker called one day in 2012 asking if we would take two brothers, Denver, 18 months, and Skyler, 4 months. Skyler’s father, high on drugs, had tried to kill them. Skyler suffered a broken leg and had to be placed in a full-body cast for weeks.
We already had our hands full fostering Lillian, an impulsive two-year-old who had been sexually abused. I was also four months pregnant with our first biological child. I was already wondering what it would be like to parent a child who would never be taken away.
“I don’t know if we should take on more children right now,” I told Erick. He wouldn’t take no for an answer. His compassion wore me down and finally I agreed. How was it so easy for him to love someone he had never met?
The boys arrived with their caseworker on a muggy summer afternoon in the middle of a thundershower. Erick ran out with an umbrella. Denver looked terrified. I knew that look well. I took Skyler from the caseworker, cradling him in my arms. “You’re brave to do this,” the worker said.
Erick and I soon had a tight routine. I laid out the kids’ outfits at night. In the morning, Erick did diapers and dressing while I made breakfast. Then he delivered all three to a day-care center—a state requirement for children under five. After school Denver and Lillian had a snack while I gave Skyler his bottle.
One day I noticed something: In the midst of all the chaos, I felt calm. Holding him, I could feel my anxieties about parenting ebbing away.
That November, our lives changed forever. I gave birth to our son Ethan. He was beautiful, but exhausting. He was up every two hours to nurse, something that did not come easily to either of us.
Lillian was expelled from day care for biting and we had to find a specialized center for her more than 20 minutes away. Denver was having tantrums. The day care wasn’t sure they could keep him either. It felt as if our world were spinning out of control at times.
“Everything’s going to be okay,” Erick reassured me over and over. But the more he said it, the less I believed him. Just after the New Year, Denver’s caseworker told us that they had located his birth father, who hadn’t known he had a son, but who stepped up to take responsibility.
Lillian was subsequently moved to be reunited with her birth mother, a woman who had admitted that she knew her daughter was being raped, but “didn’t think it was that big of a deal.” We were devastated, but there was nothing we could do.
Our house was suddenly quieter, with only the two boys. One day, Ethan was asleep in his swing and I was rocking Skyler in my arms. Erick touched my shoulder and said, “I’d be happy if Skyler never left.”
I didn’t say anything. I’d had the same thought. Skyler had been with us for more than a year. I knew the state’s first priority was to reunite him with his mother, Tiffany. But what was best for Skyler? In my heart I was starting to believe we were the answer.
Gay had been a volunteer court-appointed child advocate for years. I knew she’d have an interesting perspective. “Skyler’s mother has to want you to be his parents,” she said. “Everything in life is about relationships. She needs to feel like she can trust you.”
Trust. Trust my heart. Trust in the plan falling into place. Erick and I sat down one evening and I dialed Skyler’s mother. My heart was racing. Tiffany answered. “Who is this?” she said.
“It’s Ashley, Skyler’s foster mom,” I said. I took a deep breath. “I was just thinking about you and wanted you to know that it has always been our goal to help the children we’ve fostered return home.”
Silence. “I don’t know,” she said. “They keep telling me that I’m not internalizing the lessons from the parenting classes.” I could hear that she was getting emotional. I put the phone on speaker for Erick to listen. More silence. Finally, Tiffany spoke: “If I’m not able to keep Skyler, would you want to adopt him?”
I looked at Erick, his eyes as wide as saucers. “Yes,” I said. “We would. Absolutely.” I was elated for us, but heartbroken to hear a mother say those words. I knew how hard—and brave—this was for her. We finalized the adoption of 21-monthold Skyler the day before Ethan’s first birthday. Erick’s family and Gay and Phil joined us in the judge’s chambers.
“I like to ask children if they want to be adopted,” the judge said. I glanced at Skyler, who was waving his hands. He gave the judge a huge smile. “I’ll take that as a yes,” said the judge. We all applauded. It was done. I’d come full circle. I knew my adoptive parents had been right all along. We were, all of us, meant to be together. A family in every sense of the word. Our hearts felt full.
Two weeks later I discovered I was pregnant again.
Skyler, now four, is active, curious, full of joy. Ethan and Andrew have never known a day without their big brother. I hope the three of them become the best of friends. Over the years we’ve fostered more than 20 children. I think of how all our paths have converged. It’s love, not biology, that binds us. In the end, unconditional love, trust and support are what make a family.