Monday, August 4, 2008

Letting Go of Stephanie's Stuff

Five years ago, I purchased this big house. I needed the extra space, because the woman I was dating had four kids of her own. All of her kids started out as foster kids, and she ended up adopting three of them. The fourth kid was Stefanie (not her real name, of course, but close enough).

Stefanie was six when I met her for the first time. Her foster mom (the woman I was dating) told me that Stefanie had a lot of problems, especially with men, and that her psychological issues made her difficult to control and unpredictable.

It was a wintry day, and we all went inside to watch a graduation ceremony for one of the other daughters (I'll call her Fiona). All went well, but we had to sit there for several hours, and it was easy to see that Stefanie was bored. So, as soon as the event ended, I grabbed our stuff and headed outside. Stefanie was quick to do the same. It felt good to be in the crisp air, and I was glad for the opportunity to stretch my legs.

I put all of the camera gear in the car, and started to head back into the building, when all of a sudden, a snowball sailed from behind a bush and hit me square in the stomach. I quickly realized that one of the kids was responsible, and I wanted to put on a good show for whoever it was, so I clutched the area as if it were a bullet wound, winced in agony, and fell to my knees.

Then, from behind the bush, came the most gleeful laugh I have ever heard. A high pitched giggle that echoed through the parking lot. Sure enough, it was Stefanie, and she was laughing her head off because she got me so good. She poked her head from behind her vantage point, looking into my face to make sure that I wasn't really hurt. I signaled with my eyes that everything was okay, that she didn't need to worry.

I felt a wet spot, and I looked down at suit coat (oh yes, we are all dressed up fancy that day), and I was thinking of something clever to say, but a motion from the bush made me look up again ... just in time to get another snowball, right in the face!

Ok, despite the stinging in my eyes, I had to admit - she was an "ace" when it came to snowball fights, and I had definitely let my guard down. Yep, I deserved that one, but I toldmyself that I wouldn't get caught flat-footed again! I paused for a moment, trying to decide on my next move. Her foster mom had witnessed the event and was about to intervene. I'm sure she was worried about my suit getting wet, and she probably thought that I would be irritated about the situation. I needed to do something quick or Stefanie was going to get a scolding...

I did the first thing that came to mind. I lifted my arms, as if to surrender, and looked back at Stefanie. Her eyes met mine, and I could tell that she was worried, but I gave her a big smile and hung my head in mock defeat. "Okay", I said loudly, "you got me".

Now sometimes kids can defy the laws of physics. Sometimes they can move twenty feet in the blink of an eye, and that's exactly what Stefanie did. She bolted from behind the bush and headed straight for me, shrill little-girl giggles blasting my ears as she ran toward me. At first, I was alarmed. What was she going to do now? Tackle me? And then, in another blink she was there, arms outstretched, giving me a warm hug. It took me a second to figure out what was going on, and then my heart melted. I lowered my arms and hugged her right back, and from that moment on, we were bonded.

About a year later, things had sorta cooled off between me and Stefanie's foster mom. We had both come to realization that it probably wasn't going to work in the long run. But, we were still good friends, and we would sometimes hang out and do things together (her kids and my kid), as a group. Frankly, I really admired what she was doing, and I had become part of her support network.

Fast forward another year, and I get a strange phone call. The family is on vacation (which I already knew, because she asked me to look after her dogs), but Stephanie wasn't with them. "What happened?", I ask.

Her foster mom had dropped Stephanie off at the foster home on the way out of town. Apparently, Stefanie had become more violent and struck the littlest girl (who I'll call Bunnie), causing an injury. Now I have to explain that Bunnie hada blood-related illness that made ANY bruise a life-threatening situation, which is why she wore a helmet everywhere she went, so this was a heart-wrenching situation. I'm not sure how I would have reacted, or what I would have done, if the eight year old girl I was providing foster care for, had become a source of grave danger to the three-year old child with a serious medical condition that i had just recently adopted. {It must have been a very tough choice, and I don't think there was a right answer.}

I was asked to collect up all of Stephanie's belongings while they were on vacation. The idea was to have her stuff out of the house before they came back, to make it easier on everyone by not having to see it happen. This event was going to wound the family, and I was being asked to do a small thing to make the whole situation a little easier to bear.

So, of course, I did what I was asked to do. I collected up all of Stephanie's belongings. Her box of stuffed animals, her schoolbooks, her clothes, her clock-radio, her bike. There were some things that she really needed right away, and I was asked to drop those off at the foster home.

I tried, but they wouldn't let me see her, because I wasn't family. They couldn't even tell me if she was there in the facility or not, because I wasn't related, and I had no need to know.

I cried for that little girl. I cannot imagine what how she must have felt. Eight years old, ready to go on a family vacation, then the family makes a quick detour, and suddenly you're back in the foster home. Rejected ... again. (This was her third placement.)

I took action. I tried to adopt her. Stefanie had become part of my extended family, and I felt compelled to reach out, to take the place of her mom; to accept her when nobody else would. I knew that inside that troubled mind, there was a wonderful little girl, who just wanted to be loved and accepted -- and part of a family.

It wouldn't have been easy, I know that. I took classes to help me prepare. I interviewed with the Social Services agency, but I didn't get very far. My son had issues of his own that he was dealing with. They didn't trust a single father with two special needs kids; they didn't think I could handle it. "Thanks for your application, Doug. Maybe we could interest you in one of our other children? There are lots of other kids who need homes, you know..."

Fast forward to today. I am packing up this house and getting ready to move. I've put it off long enough, and I finally have to deal with the stack of Stefanie's belongings that has been sitting in the corner of my garage for more than four years. It's silly, I know. These clothes wouldn't fit her anymore. She wouldn't really use most of it. It's all in my head.

I tried to check on her a few years ago (pulling some strings). According to my sources, she had been placed in a two-parent family, with no other kids. "That's good", I thought. "She deserves a good family". It made me feel better knowing that.

If you're out there Stephanie, I kept a couple of things for you. A letter from your Grandma, a photo of your step-sisters, and your red wallet. They're yours whenever you want them. I won't thrown them away.

I tried to rescue you, little munchkin, I really did. I hear that you have a mommy and a daddy now, and I'm very happy for you. I guess things worked out for the best, but I was very sad when I heard what happened to you and they wouldn't let me help.

I want you to know that I thought you really were a good girl, and I would have been proud to be your dad. Thank you for touching my heart. Please try to understand that your foster mom loved you too, but she knew that she couldn't take care of you as good as a mommy and daddy can when they are together. She loved you, and she was crying when she told me about dropping you off that day. She didn't want it to happen that way, and she was very very sad about it. She loved you too.

I hope and pray that you're doing well. Remember the story of the frog prince: trust your heart and you will never go wrong. I love you, little princess, and I always will.


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