Fostering hope and healing: Local couple shares journey to becoming a forever family
Editor's note: In this story, the names of the family members have been changed and their last name omitted to protect their identity due to the criminal case associated with the child.
MOORHEAD — On a sunny Friday afternoon, two small children run around Pam and Luke's modest home. A 4-year-old boy named Jake wears a Spiderman costume, and he's intrigued, if a little shy, by the visitor to his home.
Pam and Luke are his adoptive parents, and the path that led them all to become a family is one fraught with legal issues, medical trauma, innumerable questions and an unlimited amount of love.
They are foster parents, and this is their story.
* * *
At any given moment in time, more than 1,500 children are in foster care throughout the state of North Dakota, according to Dean Sturn, state foster care administrator for the N.D. Department of Human Services. In Minnesota, that number was 9,400 in 2016, according the Department of Human Services.
But the number of foster parents available to intercede for those children in need — whether it's for one week or one month or one year — is much lower.
For Pam and Luke, foster care emerged as an option once they realized they wouldn't be able to add more children to a family that already included a biological daughter. They had relatives who had adopted from the Minnesota foster care system, and they were inspired.
But becoming foster parents didn't happen overnight.
"It's a long process, and you feel like..." Pam, 37, shares, her voice trailing off. "They know everything about you ... It's not for the faint of heart, but it's well worth the wait."
Once all the background checks and interviews and stacks of paperwork were done, Pam and Luke had their first placement within a month, more than five years ago.
"It's crazy — you pick up this baby, and we had no idea what we were getting into," she remembers. "You can do all the classes, but nothing can prepare you for a baby that won't stop crying."
Pam and Luke share that, back then, they had rules and boundaries for what they expected from their foster care parenting experience. That all went out the window almost immediately.
"Social Services calls and they describe what they know, but often, they don't have full knowledge of the situation," Luke, 39, explains.
He describes a placement in which the child was described to them as being much younger than she actually was, but they couldn't say no once they'd agreed to take her in. She stayed for a while but, in the end, Pam and Luke couldn't provide her with the home she needed.
"You don't want to say, 'This isn't the right home,' " Pam says.
But they did.
* * *
Sometimes, children entering the foster care system have extreme medical needs — they're deemed medically fragile or terminally ill, says Sara Stallman, a licensed independent clinical social worker and director of Abound Counseling, a program run by Lutheran Social Services. She's also a foster parent herself and a licensed trauma counselor.
She said foster parents can become trained to serve children with medical needs, and Pam and Luke did that.
That's why they got the call a little more than four years ago that changed their lives.
And the life of a little boy in desperate need of so much more than just a safe home.
A relative had brought him to the emergency room after he wouldn't stop crying, and medical staff immediately recognized signs of abuse. He was diagnosed with a severe brain injury and failure to thrive (FTT), a condition associated with insufficient growth measurements due to food or eating issues. He was 5 months old and barely weighed 9 pounds.
"The case manager called and said, 'There's a little boy, and he's probably not going to make it,' " Pam says, her voice breaking at the memory. "We asked if we could meet him before we agreed to take him home."
Due to complicated schedules with work and other children at home, Pam ended up driving to the hospital in Sioux Falls by herself. She walked into the room, made eye contact with the baby and fell in love immediately.
"I had an instant connection with him," Pam says. For hours, she sat in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) holding and rocking Jake.
One of the NICU nurses said Jake was the most content and ate the most he had since coming to the hospital during that time with Pam.
But an instant connection didn't mean Jake's medical issues instantly vanished.
Quite the opposite.
* * *
Looking back, Luke says he and his wife didn't fully comprehend Jake's medical condition.
"We were blind to it," he recalls. "He was on death's doorstep. We see it now, but then, all I saw was a sweet little boy who needs help."
After several days in the NICU, Jake was released into Pam and Luke's custody, but only after extensive instruction on how to properly care for the sick baby. Many thought he wouldn't make it. One doctor, Pam recalls, said Jake should be placed in an institution.
But Pam and Luke knew he needed love and a good home.
The reality of the medical trauma finally sunk in when the neurosurgeon showed them Jake's brain scans.
"We felt sick to our stomach," Pam says. "They said he would never walk, never talk, I'd be his caretaker 24 hours a day, that he'd always be tube-fed, blind and deaf..."
She stops and looks at the open scrapbook nearby with pictures of Jake as that injured infant.
"The caseworker told us later she thought she was sending a baby home with us to die," Pam finally says.
It was a grim diagnosis, but Pam and Luke didn't give up.
And neither did Jake.
The doctors in Sioux Falls helped set up appointments with specialists and therapists in Fargo, and Pam faithfully took Jake to appointments three days a week. Little by little, he made improvements, like learning how to suck and swallow.
"I can't give my wife enough kudos," Luke says. "It was so amazing. Everybody was here for Jake and wanted to see him succeed."
* * *
The past four years have been tough, watching Jake make major improvements only to have another medical setback, like additional hospital stays or increased cranial pressure that disrupted his progress.
And, not only were they dealing with medical issues, Pam and Luke were also dealing with setbacks regarding the criminal case surrounding Jake as well as custody issues.
"So much of the process is out of your hands," Luke says.
Pam admits she's struggled with that knowledge. But she gives her husband credit for keeping her focused on what matters — the child involved.
Pam did meet with Jakes's biological mother, and she recalls how amazing the experience was.
"She was very broken, but she didn't choose her own situation either," she says. "She took ownership of what happened ... she didn't have her rights taken away; she recognized that (Jake) deserved more than what she could provide."
Stallman says these "goodbye visits" have been noted as an important component of the healing process for everyone involved. The visit can also offer a new perspective and honor the love surrounding a child.
"We can worry about meeting monsters, after hearing what has happened to children in care," Stallman says. "But this parent was so brave, and she wanted so much more for her son."
The adoption process can be equally emotionally challenging, because it also into account extended relatives and siblings involved. When Pam and Luke finally got word that they had been selected to adopt Jake, they were overjoyed.
"You know the world was against you to adopt this kid ... what a humbling experience," Pam says.
* * *
Pam and Luke say a combination of faith, family and community made Jake's adoption possible, and they both point to their biological daughter, Alex, as a critical member in the decision-making process the whole way.
"She was an only kid for 10 years," Pam says. "We don't know if any other kid would have handled it as well as she did."
Luke points out that Alex has been incredibly helpful and involved, learning how to help medically when Jake first came home.
They realize now that Alex has seen firsthand that the world doesn't revolve around her and that life isn't perfect, but it sure can be beautiful.
"The easiest part (of being foster parents) is loving the kids," Luke says. "The hardest part is what comes with them, and that's magnified due to decisions that are not your own, and you're working with the effects of that."
But, they say, being a foster parent doesn't require some superhuman strength.
"I am not anything special," Pam says. "There's nothing better in me than in anyone else ... but if pain and loss are going to be part of their story, I will suffer pain and loss in order to give them the love they need ... whether we have them for 1 month or 3 years or 5 years, I will invest in their life for that amount and know that we did what we could. We have love to give, so let's give it."
Knowing everything they've been through with their first placements and with Jake, would they still do this if they had known what was to come?
They pause. And look at each other. And at the two children who've come back into the room, clambering into the safe and welcoming laps they offer.
"We've talked for years about how we were not prepared to do this, and that the possibility of loss was too much," Luke says, "but it's worth it."
How to become a foster parent
While each state has its own requirements to become a licensed foster parent, the process generally takes shape through these steps:
- Contact the local agency in your county.
- Complete an application, online or on paper.
- Participate in a background check.
- Allow your home to be visited and checked.
- Receive a license.
- Participate in training sessions.
Foster parents may be single, married, with or without children, renters or homeowners. Foster parents are provided with monthly payment for their service to the children in their care. Agencies and case managers can offer mental health, educational and medical services for individual children in a foster home.
Stallman says that in addition to needing more foster parents, there is also an immediate need for respite care. These providers are licensed through the same process but open their homes for short time periods, like a day or weekend each month.
Stallman, who is a foster parent, likened respite care providers to "aunts" and "uncles" who can offer families a short break. Plus, being a respite care provider is a way to experience the world of foster care without a full-time commitment. Respite care providers also receive a stipend.