The Mom Who Didn’t Go Into Foster Parenting Blindly

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Because no two paths to parenthood look the same, the Cut’s How I Got This Baby invites parents to share their stories. Want to share yours? Email gotbaby@thecut.com and tell us a bit about how you became a parent.

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According to Sharicka McHenry’s life plan, she’d be married with children by the time she was 30. But by the time she and her wife, Donna, both found out they were medically unable to have biological children, Sharicka was 37. Skipping ahead to the second part of their plan, the couple began the process of working with Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health Arizona, a nonprofit behavioral health-care provider, to become licensed foster parents. Sharicka discusses the reasons she requested older kids, how prior familiarity with the system helped, making a difficult decision regarding their first foster daughter, and what advice she’d give others interested in becoming foster or adoptive parents.

On trying to have biological children. I always wanted kids. We, as a couple, always wanted kids. We wanted to try having kids biologically first. Every time we wanted to try, there was a barrier. I’d been dealing with fibroids since I was 23. I had a few procedures that led to a hysterectomy. Donna’s fibroids were even worse than mine — she also had a hysterectomy. Since it was quite clear — hey, you can’t have kids! — we started working toward foster care in earnest.

We’d gone to an educational seminar put on by an LGBTQ organization about becoming foster and adoptive parents, and that answered a lot of our questions. We started the licensing process after that, in the fall of 2013.

On the specifics of foster care. An agency will allow you to choose the sex and age range of the children you’d be willing to foster. We requested girls — we only have so many beds, so many rooms. We also chose from 5 to 17, from 5 on up, basically. You know how you always have a plan for what you want, when you’re younger? You want to be married, you want to have your 2.5 kids. In my life plan, I wanted to have kids by the time I was 30. We started the fostering process when I was 37. I didn’t want a baby — I felt too old. Plus, at the point we were at with our careers, we didn’t want to take in a baby. During our class, they recommended working less or not at all if you were taking in a baby. I wanted a kid who would go to school, who would talk and walk. I didn’t want to change a diaper. In our class of maybe 20 people, we were one of the only couples willing to take older kids.

Donna had worked in children’s services. We definitely weren’t going into this blindly — we knew the system, the language, how it all worked. We were familiar with the population we wanted to serve, and we knew that it was the older kids that tended to get left out. Everybody wants babies, because they think you can mold them easier — they might not have as many issues. But older kids need love too.

On the couple’s first foster child. In April of 2014, our first foster daughter came to live with us. She came to us one day after school, with just a backpack. All of a sudden we had a 7-year-old, and we were thrown into the world of her doctor’s appointments, her dentist appointments, therapy. She came to us with a lot of stuff going on: Her dad had abused her, her mom let it happen. With foster care, you just never know what you’re going to get. At first, we had no issues.

None of the challenges, though, were a surprise to us. We’d been around other foster families and kids who’d been through trauma to know this was just how things go. Because our foster daughter had been through so much, we held off on opening our home to more foster kids for a few months. When we felt ready to take on more, we said, “Hey, we have two more beds!” and we got two more girls: a 6-year-old and an 11-year-old, sisters.

On the challenge of fostering a traumatized child. Our first foster daughter started clashing with the second two. She started intentionally acting out against the youngest one. She lied, about everything, all the time. She’d take something and say she hadn’t — and then we’d find it underneath her pillow. She tended to get very upset, for hours, usually around homework time. It was very hard. It was just so much. We really had to think about where she was coming from.

It didn’t help that her biological mom wasn’t being appropriate with her during visits. She would say things about her biological dad, things that would trigger our first foster daughter. She just didn’t have a real sense that what she was doing was wrong and would affect her daughter that much. After these visits, our first foster daughter would pinch and hit our other foster daughters.

On confronting a tough decision. The great thing about Donna and me is we’re very grounded. This helps a lot, when it comes to parenting. Things did get very stressful — just not between us, as a couple. We were dealing with a child’s trauma, and we knew that.

Eventually, we got to the point where it just wasn’t working. Our first foster daughter needed a home where she would be safe — not just where she would be safe from the other people in the home, but safe from herself. It came down to a tough choice: Were we going to choose the child we first took in, who couldn’t handle more children, or were we going to open ourselves up to helping more children? In the end, we decided we wanted to help more children.

On choosing the child’s best interest. We put in a request for our first foster daughter to be placed in a home with two parents but no other kids. We had a social worker, case worker, therapist, and child advocate, all working to help us. Our first foster daughter was observed by the child advocate in our home, at school, and unfortunately, she was very good at playing a role. She didn’t like anyone to see the ugly … so she would put on this act. Luckily, the child advocate saw through that. We were told that from a therapeutic standpoint, though, our first foster daughter’s behavior was a good thing: It meant she was comfortable around us.

The transition out of our home ended up being longer and more drawn out than we would have liked. But it was all because we wanted what was best for her — we wanted her to find a home that was very safe, very stable. What ended up happening, though, was unexpected: A woman who worked at her after-care program was also a court-appointed child advocate who’d expressed interest in fostering. I called her and told her that our first foster child was available, and this woman was like, Oh! She really had an affinity for her and was willing to do whatever she needed to do to foster her. And she ended up going to live with her and her family.

There was supposed to be more of a transition period, but it was much more abrupt. Our first foster daughter had come to our home with just a backpack. Now, she had a huge suitcase worth of stuff. We packed it thinking we’d have some time to say good-bye. But the caseworker said she would go straight from after care to her new foster mother’s home. It was rough on our whole family: It was hard on my wife and me, and it triggered our other girls. We also thought we were going to have more communication, but that didn’t happen. At the end of the day, we just had to be grateful to know she was safe. It is what it is.

On continuing to grow as a family. Our remaining foster daughters had two other siblings, who were in two separate foster homes. During visits with the biological mom, all the children would be there: Our two foster daughters, plus their brothers, who were 5 and 9 at the time. Donna and I really got to know them during these visits. We wanted to be sure all the siblings had continual contact with each other.

In February of 2015, after a long process that — as with all foster care — was aimed at reunification, a judge made a decision: Parental rights for the biological mother would be severed. Adoption was now on the table.

Out of the three families, we were the only one who could take in all four kids. We were asked if we’d be willing to take in all four — and we said, “Sure!” Donna and I are both from large families: It just didn’t seem like a huge deal to us. We really wanted them to be together. We were able to bring our younger son to our home in April, and his older brother in May, when school let out. The first thing we did as a family was to go on a camping trip, all of us, to bond.

On giving advice to those interested in becoming foster parents. Advocate, advocate, advocate. Be honest and open, and just try to provide as normal of a life as possible. Our kids know that where we go, they go.

The Mom Who Didn’t Go Into Foster Parenting Blindly