There was a little girl who was one of four children. She ended up in foster care because her parents made bad choices of addiction and lawlessness, and her grandmother, who had taken over her care, had issues too and left her on the doorstep at the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.
Her great-grandparents, with whom she lived for a while and who loved her dearly and were the closest thing to real parents she had, died within months of each other. She was 14, in foster care and alone in the world. Or thought she was.
Her three siblings already had permanent care.
Her great-grandparents were the sister and brother-in-law of my husband Jim, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2010. Jim and I had known our great great niece and saw her occasionally, making sure to give Christmas presents as appropriate and affection whenever we were together while Jim’s sister and brother-in-law were alive.
Jim’s brother-in-law died suddenly and in just a few short months when Jim’s sister neared death from cancer, we promised her we would keep track of her great granddaughter so that she would not be swallowed up in The System, never to be found again. After Jim’s sister died, we found the child and became her family of record with DHHS.
We talked about having her come live with us, but Jim and I both worked full time, and our niece needed extensive services. She was a very angry and confused person and needed a program with strict rules and guidelines to help her find her path. We could not provide the high level of care she needed.
We could provide love, respite weekends, family holidays, nightly telephone conversations, visits and stability. And we did. We followed her from foster home to foster home, KidsPeace and eventually to Good Will-Hinckley’s home for troubled youth, which was her saving grace.
We went to family events, attended her prom receptions, and the residential program’s sessions related to her care. We praised her accomplishments, were not afraid to let her know when we were disappointed in her behavior, and always stressed that our love was unconditional. Real love, honest love, true family love is unconditional.
I learned that in my own family and adoption experiences. She had no context for that.
When Good Will-Hinckley closed its residential program she was involved in, she transferred to another foster home and attended her senior year of high school in public school, while getting her Certified Nurses Aid certificate. She was lucky to have a great foster mom in that private home.
Over the years, she had had a long string of case managers through DHHS too. She would just get comfortable with one and then would be assigned a new one. It was very disruptive to her stability in the system.
But her final case manager was awesome, and provided the critical guidance needed to move her into adulthood through the system. The case manager and I had grown up together, so we were very comfortable working in partnership.
Family meetings would include the good foster mom, the good case manager, an excellent life skills counselor, our niece, and others pertinent to her care and the meeting topic. We comprised a solid team that guided her through the basic skills she would need to survive.
Our niece entered Husson University’s nursing program, but was recruited into the social work program at University of Maine. She earned her bachelor’s degree earlier this month, and just landed a full-time job working in a shelter for at-risk youth.
Outside of school, she’s lobbied and testified on behalf of legislation at the state and federal levels that would improve services, change laws, make things better and more logical for youths in foster care — especially those in transition to adulthood.
She and I told our story in a special project in February 2013 called Maine Youth Transition Collaborative, which, with support and guidance from National Resource Center for Permanency and Family Connection and Youth Leadership Advisory Team — a joint project of Maine’s Youth in Foster Care, Maine DHHS and Muskie School at University of Southern Maine — produced our digital story as one of four still being used to educate people about the experiences of foster youth and families as the youth transition into adulthood.
Our story called “Journey of Life” can be found online at www.maine-ytc.org/maine-youth-stories.
We also have participated in training panels for foster parents and foster care workers around the state. She has told her story over and over, highlighting what worked and what didn’t, and when I’ve participated, I have added the perspective of a family of record, which has no actual legal rights, trying to work within the foster care system.
Her dream is to someday establish a home where foster youth in transition can live while earning a college degree. Homelessness is one of the biggest issues foster youth who have aged out of the system face.
That may be far in her future. In her more immediate future, she has a great fiance and will be married this year. With her college degree, a full-time job, a place to live, and a stable relationship, there was still something missing.
The one thing she’s always wanted is a permanent, legal place in the family — and someone to call “Mom” forever.
Recently, we did that together. On a beautiful day in May, we walked into Maine Probate Court and held our collective breath as the judge looked over our petition for adult adoption. He asked us the obligatory questions, ruled on a couple of special requests, and then there we were — mother and daughter at last. Legally.
Although I couldn’t do that for her before Jim died, nor immediately afterward because I couldn’t deal with my own life, I could do it now — finally.
The Maine Probate Court decree with its gold seal and her birth certificate arrived in the mail recently. We celebrated with a dinner as a family — my parents, stepdaughter, daughter and two “sons” — my daughters’ other halves.
You see, family isn’t necessarily about blood. It’s about a shared bond of love and respect.
In my heart, her status in my life has been official for a long time. Although I tried to show her my love and pride through my actions, the ultimate proof to her — who has been tossed around in a jumbled system full of distrust and inconsistencies — was my willingness to go to court and make it legal.
I finally am in a place in my own life where I can give that kind of commitment to another human being again and mean it. In my heart, I have two daughters, who are as real to me as if I had given birth to them myself and held them in my arms as infants.
I think that’s a special kind of love story, and one I still share with Jim.