This afternoon I look outside at the radiant shades of yellows, reds and oranges, brilliantly lighting up my vision on autumn trees and leaves scattered on the dying grass. The sunlight is hitting the colors left hanging on the trees. It’s my favorite time of the day, my favorite time of the season. Summer has faded away months ago and fall has taken over. Everything about this time of the year makes me sentimental and nostalgic, full of happiness and gratitude. Something about it slows me down and allows me extra moments to breathe deeply the cool, dry air. A couple days ago I even found myself climbing that old tree rooted beside the creek in my back yard. And I just stood in the tree and soaked in the sun and listened to the wind whisper through the leaves. The leaves were sparkling like golden glitter; I just had to be as close to them as possible. Whenever my body senses the change of seasons, the colors and coolness, the amount of sunlight that fills the day, my mind drifts to life’s seasons and all the moments that God has called me into and out of over the years.
Tomorrow is Orphan Sunday. It will be almost three years exactly that I started my journey through foster care. These kids weren’t orphans in the traditional sense, but they were beautiful children needing love, needing a family. So today I think about them. I remember their faces. I hear their voices. I think about how unique each one was, all the way to the way they curved their letters on their writing assignment or colored their pictures when we sat at the table doing crafts. I remember them all. Each one incredibly special. Each one imbedded in a little corner of my heart.
I have been thinking lately about how I never finished my story. Things got crazy and I ran out of words to express what we went through. It’s been almost four months since I’ve had a full-time placement and I am finally at a place where I want to share the remaining stories of my time in foster care. Today I want to finish the story of Annalise.
Annalise was doing well for a while. We were seeing progress at school and she was opening up more emotionally to me and to others. I had just started her into counseling and although things weren’t perfect, they were manageable. But the closer we got to the date when there was supposed to be a hearing to decide whether or not to terminate Annalise’s mother’s rights, the more things got out of whack. She started to get more antsy, more irritable. She got more hostile and violent and aggressive. And when the date of the hearing came and went and was continued because our caseworker couldn’t make it, something inside of Annalise snapped. She told me and our worker, “If I can’t go home, everything here is going to get worse.” She was right.
I took Annalise to visit my family in NC for a weekend and the first night there I realized things were no longer okay. We had a lovely afternoon swimming and hanging out with my parents, but that night she kicked a hole in my brother’s wall and attacked me with biting, scratching, hitting, beating. It wasn’t until she injured herself by tripping over a chair she had thrown at me, that she finally calmed and I was able to soothe her to sleep. Annalise is a big girl and much stronger than I am, so these episodes scared me. A lot. Her aggression was getting out of hand. We cut our visit short and attempted to come back home the next evening. This time ended with a struggle on the side of the road at 10:00pm, her beating me, on top of me, drawing blood from my arm with her nails. She couldn’t stop. It took two other people to help hold her off of me. It wasn’t until she urinated on herself and felt the weight of shame that we were able to get her calmed. I still have the scar on my arm from that night.
Over the next couple weeks things got worse. I was no longer in control in my own home. If I said “no” to her about anything, she would break something, flip over some furniture, come after me. I got to a place where I wanted out. I knew God had called me to take care of Annalise, but I couldn’t do it any longer. I wrestled with guilt and wanting to give up, wondering how you know when it’s time to raise the white flag and surrender.
One lazy Saturday morning the middle of July I was sitting at my dining room table working on the computer, praying that God would make it abundantly clear when I could stop fostering Annalise. I secretly wanted them to let her go back home, even though I knew it wasn’t the best for her, so I wouldn’t have to be the one responsible for the decision to send her away. I didn’t want her to leave, but I was so scared in my own home while she was with me. Annalise was playing quietly, working on some crafts I had given her. There was a lovely moment of peace and happiness. We were both so content. And then she got tired of doing crafts and asked if she could play on my ipad. When I said the simple word, “no”, instantly a bomb went off inside of her. In a matter of ten minutes we were in full blown fight mode. She destroyed my living room; poured glue all over the carpet and walls and doorknobs. She beat the trashcan to shards with a chair, gashing the linoleum on the kitchen floor. She ripped apart papers and boxes and memories.
Thankfully I had a teenage foster girl staying with me that week as well or things could’ve gone a lot worse. I wrestled scissors out of Annalise’s hand and had Jamie help me get away and get my phone. I called the on-call person and she said she was on her way but it would take an hour for her to arrive. It’s funny how when it comes down to it how silly the techniques and theories can all sound. She was giving me well-intended advice, telling me to hang in there, telling me I was doing a great job. I was sobbing on the phone, begging her to come get Annalise. She told me there was nowhere else for her to go; I had to keep her here, I would be okay. I hung up the phone and braced myself for more blows from those strong childish hands. My body ached. I was scared to death.
And then Annalise looked at me and Jamie and said, “I’m going to kill you.” She had fire in her eyes and I completely panicked. As Annalise ran into the kitchen to grab a knife, Jamie and I held our bodies against the hallway door to keep her out. I picked up my phone and called 9-1-1. My on-call person had told me not to, but I didn’t want her to arrive 30 minutes later to two dead bodies. I tried desperately hard to keep calm as I told the operator that a nine year old child was trying to murder me. Jamie and I tried our hardest to keep the door closed as Annalise beat through it with a 2-pound hand weight. I heard glass shattering against the wood and as she beat the door I could hear it coming apart, piece by piece. I didn’t know how much time we had left.
Finally, like a scene from a horror movie, Annalise broke through the door. A hole the size of her face. She peered through and said, “I’m going to get you” and beat even harder on the door. I knew we didn’t have much more time. Jamie and I took a run for it and locked ourselves in the spare room where she had been staying. When we heard that door starting to come apart one hit at a time, we had no choice but to bust out the screen and escape through the window. At this time I’m beyond panicked. I’m beyond thinking straight. Jamie and I hide behind the side of the house and wait to hear sirens approaching. The operator on the phone tells me they are coming; I should hear them soon. Finally I do. As they turn the corner and stop in front of my house, four cop cars in all, I start sobbing in relief that we are going to be okay. They have to climb through the bedroom window and find Annalise. They walk over the glass that has been shattered around the room. Thankfully I didn’t have to see what happened when they found her; it would have been too much to handle.
Neighbors start to come out of the woodwork. Ones that have never talked to me suddenly want to be my best friend, want to hear all the juicy gossip about what’s going on inside. I don’t want to tell them; they won’t understand. They shake their heads and talk about the state of parents and how it’s no wonder kids turn out this way. They judge and tsk tsk and roll their eyes, never for a moment wondering how desperately this breaks my heart.
When I’m finally allowed to come back inside, I find Annalise handcuffed, sitting on the couch, crying. My sister comes and together we try to sooth her. An ambulance arrives and it takes five of them to get her out the door, hog-tied down to the stretcher. My heart aches. That’s my kid. I love her.
And as much fear and adrenaline that has filled my body, the moment Annalise starts yelling, “Miss Shelly! I need Miss Shelly!” I am instantly softened and come running to her side. I stroke her hand, kiss her sweaty forehead. I say goodbye to the cops, goodbye to my sister, goodbye to the mess in my house, and climb into the ambulance beside Annalise. She doesn’t seem so strong anymore. Her eyes aren’t filled with fire but with fear. She looks small.
The next few hours are a blur of talking with doctors, nurses, and our DSS worker (who although on-call arrived three hours later). Annalise and I said a very tearful goodbye; I hugged her and held her and told her she was loved and forgiven. I squeezed her ladybug stuffed animal and filled it with all my love so she could always have that to remember me by. And then I turned around, sobbing, and walked out the hospital door to never see her again.
These past few months have been a time of healing for me. That day, in a strange way, God really answered my prayer. I asked the He would show me when I could be finished with therapeutic foster care. That day He allowed my child to be taken away from me. I have done respite for three other kids since, all with sweet stories I will eventually share, but for now I feel very confident that this season has come to a close.
I loved every single child that came into my house. I poured my heart and soul into their lives. I am as passionate today about foster care as I was three years ago. My heart aches for these kids and breaks for what they’ve had to endure. But God has also given me so much peace and comfort in knowing that I can be finished. I was faithful with what He entrusted to me, as much as a fallen human being can be, and He has now allowed me to enter into a season of rest and healing and love.
In a way I’m thankful for the scar on my arm. It helps me remember. Even though so many moments with the six kids placed with me were horrific, so many more were sweet and precious. I was blessed through their little lives much more than I deserve. So I want to remember.
I will always remember my kids.
I will always love them.
I will cherish every moment, good and bad, that I was allowed to spend with them. I hope they remember me. I hope they come to know Jesus. I hope to one day hear stories of how their lives have changed. I know mine will never be the same again.