It was something about the phrasing that got to me. Something about the cadence of his words, the staccato of his speech.
“Nobody loves me. Not even my mother who gave birth to me.”
It is an odd turn of phrase, isn’t it?
Not even my mother who gave birth to me.
He was buckled into the backseat of my Toyota, still too little to sit up front. At seven he had already moved more times than the total number of years he had been on the earth. And this time, like the times before it, he moved with his belongings in a trash bag. A suitcase, at least, would have added a small degree of dignity to the whole affair – to being “placed” in another and another and yet another foster home before reaching the 3rd grade. Trash bags break, you know. Trash bags can’t possibly support the contents of any life, and certainly not a life as fragile as this.
They break from the strain, eventually.
This move was harder for Stephen than most. It was a home he thought he would stay in, at least for awhile. He had felt affection there. When I went to pick him up, after his foster mother gave notice that he could no longer stay, he came easily with me; head down, no reaction on the surface of it. It was only when he got into my car that he began to sob the kind of aching sound that leaves you limp in its wake.
He could barely get out the words. Nobody loves me. Not even my mother who gave birth to me.
Months later, in a repeat scene (another foster mother, another removal), he would put up a fight. He would run around the living room, ducking behind furniture, refusing to leave. But on this night he had no fight in him.
That was Stephen at seven.
Nine-year old Stephen grips his report card in sweaty hands. We’re headed to an adoption event, where we will meet families who want to adopt an older child; families who do not automatically rule out a boy like Stephen with all of his long “history.” And he wants to impress them, these strangers. He wants to win them over, and so he brings his good report card along as tangible proof that he is a child worth loving.
A child should never have to prove they are worth loving.
Twelve-year old Stephen tells me that I’m his best friend. I’m his social worker, and he should have a real best friend, but I don’t say this to him. We’re at a taping for Wednesday’s Child, the news spot featuring children who are up for adoption. Stephen is engaging on camera. Maybe somebody will pick him this time. Maybe he is offering just enough evidence, at twelve, that he’s a boy worth loving. And he is lovable, truly. But it is not enough. A family never comes.
Years later, long after I’ve left the agency, I get an email from my old boss asking how I’m doing, and ending with a short P.S. “Stephen is in DYS lockup after running away from his foster home. You need to adopt him.” My stomach drops. I’ve had this thought many times. I should adopt him myself. But I don’t.
I heard about his murder from a friend who had seen it in the news. Shot outside a party over some foolish dispute. Dead at 18, dead just as he became a man. Not my Stephen, I prayed. When I realized that it was really him – that it could be no other – I sobbed gripped by the kind of anguish that leaves you limp in its wake.
What have we all done? What haven’t we all done.
The newspapers ran very little about the murder, as if it were an afterthought. Barely worth a mention, really. Anonymous strangers posted nasty comments online: “Just another gangbanger,” they said.
You don’t even know him. You don’t know the first thing about this boy. You don’t know that as a child he would trace letters into my back with his finger to pass time at the doctor’s office, asking me to guess what phrase he was spelling out. “I ♥ U” he traced between my shoulders, the last time we played this game.
Stephen had been wrong, that night in my Toyota. His mother did love him, in her way. She was there, at the funeral. She greeted me kindly. I think she knew I loved Stephen as I knew she did. We both failed him in the end, and that joined us I suppose. Neither of us could give him a family.
There were no photos from Stephen’s childhood at the funeral home. No images of the green-eyed boy with the sweet smile to remind us of what had been lost. There were no pictures of Stephen with his brothers, and so I printed up snapshots of the four boys together, taken on a supervised visit, and brought them to the funeral to give to the family. It was something I could do, against the larger backdrop of nothing I could do.
There were very few social workers at the funeral, and none of Stephen’s many foster mothers. Were they even told he was dead? Stephen spent more of his life being raised in the system than out of it. If you claim legal responsibility for a child, you best show up at his funeral. You should show up when he dies. He was yours, in a way, wasn’t he? You owe it to him. And if he did not belong to you, then who did he ever belong to?
His mother was there, at least. His mother who gave birth to him. I hear the echo of his voice from those many years ago.
Somebody does love you Stephen. I want to tell him. But it’s too late.
Stephen was the one, for me. The one who embodied all the failures of a system so broken that to heal it would take far more than the casts that heal the literal broken bones of the children growing up within it.
They break, you know. These kids we leave behind. Eventually they break.
In honor of National Foster Care Month, I will be donating 100% of profits earned through ad revenue in May on this story.
PLEASE SHARE THIS POST so that we can raise money for Together We Rise, an agency that works to provide foster children with real luggage so that they don’t suffer the indignity of moving with their belongings in trash bags.
Oh my, what heartbreak. You did a good thing bringing some love into his world, and knowing he deserved better. Hold onto that. I’m certain that he did, while he was still in this world.
Thank you so much EJ, for the kind comment.
Your story has moved me to tears. In a few short words, I came to love ‘Stephen’ too.
Thank you, Andrew. This comment really touched me.
What an incredible story, Liz! By the end I was in tears…’Stephen’ was a lucky boy to have you in his life. My 2 older brothers are adopted, and my aunt was a foster parent for years (she adopted every child she took it)…..so your story really hit home (literally!!). Thank you for sharing this! 🙂
Kate, that’s awesome that your family has been so involved in adoption! I have several adopted cousins and plan to adopt from foster care in the next few years.
This took my breath away… and it tore my heart open as it crumbled into a million tiny pieces.
What a story. I wonder how many stories there are just like this.
Thank you. Thank you for your special place in his world- a world that was empty of love and nurturing and safety. Thank you for what you DID do… it was important and valuable.
There are just too many precious children to care for in this world… that desperately need our love.
Chris, sadly there are many, many stories just like this. Not all of them have the same tragic ending, but the way that Stephen moved through foster care is quite typical. After I first published this some people questioned whether the story was true, which made me realize just how unaware many people are about the realities of the foster care system. Any social worker will tell you that the constant moves, the trash bags, the trying to get the attention of a family – these are the norm. And that is not to say that many, many good people don’t work within the system, because they do. There are great foster parents and social workers. But the system as a whole is over burdened and underfunded, and there are too many kids languishing.
I am shocked that people questioned the veracity of your story. Anyone that has worked in the Child Welfare system has experienced this, some through the story of a coworker and some first hand. I’m so tired of this broken system.
Exactly, Betsy. Anyone who deals with the system on a regular basis knows that these scenarios play out EVERY DAY. But many people really are unaware about what is going on right in their own neighborhoods. It’s an invisible problem in many ways.
working with Early intervention for 20 years has left me haunted by so many families. We all have a desire to give love, but we are so limited by the constraints of the real world. No one can know until they have gone into home after home. The easy answers disappear and the overwhelming reality makes you keep your head down, resigned to the little changes, hardly ever able to make the big ones.
My heart breaks for you, Stephen and all of us who know what the world has lost.
my wife and 1 adopted 5 boys ,all older it wasn’t easy but when we were first foster parents we decided that we would never discard any of them…. They have had enough pain and rejection. So understand these kids have issues and they aren’t easy, you have to be prepared to have things broken and stolen and be treated badly…. If you aren’t prepared to handle it DON’T get involved . I do encourage you to be brave and strong and take the challenge … It is worth it. My wife passed 2 months ago and all our boys were by her side when she passed ….
Thank you Mike for taking these boys into your life. For seeing beyond their anger and fears and for loving them unconditionally.
That is a very true statement Mike. Well done on raising those boys, and I’m very sorry for the loss of your wife. It’s a testament to your family that all of her sons were there at her side when she passed.
Hi Liz love!
I’m a Guardian Ad Litem and adoptive mom to 5 kiddos. Your story haunts me as our middle child had been in 6 homes in the span of two years. He is not even four years old. My heart breaks for him and the other “Stephens”. My son first came to us with a tangible weight from the emotional trauma he had experienced. I cannot imagine having to handle it day in and day out. Praying. Praying. Praying.
Jessica, that’s amazing that you’re also a guardian ad litem on top of adoptive 5 kids. People like you are making a real difference.
Thank you for the service work that you have done as a social worker, another class of unsung heroes. I am so sorry for the loss….thank you for telling us about Stephen.
Thanks so much Bryce. I am really pleased to Stephen’s story is reaching so many people.
I can barely express how much this touched me. I work in foster care with a group of children that have little hope of being adopted due to emotional disabilities. I have not had any of my children die that I know of but the thought of it scares me. I have had a few children over the years that I have been tempted to adopt myself . Not all foster children have serious problems, in fact most sufferer from treatable trauma. Most times foster parents lack the skills to help the children and give up too quickly; In our state we like to say that children don’t disrupt.
Thank you for your article…
I’m sorry I also meant to express my frustration at the use of garbage bags for the belongings of foster children… We have taken up collections for duffle bags and luggage over the years.
We are experiencing a serious lack of Foster parents across this country in an already horribly over burdened foster care system and the children continue to languish until they age out…
The trash bags are awful. When my article went viral earlier in the year on Scary Mommy a few commenters were angry that I hadn’t gotten Stephen real luggage myself. What they didn’t understand was that NO CHILD ON MY CASELOAD had luggage. They all had trash bags. That was true for everyone in our office. It’s not just a story about one boy (although Stephen’s story is not a composite – it is what happened to him) BUT the larger issue is that foster kids all across the country are dealing with this daily. This system as you know is very overburdened, and the solution is not for each social worker to buy luggage for every kid they work with. That’s not sustainable. We need systemic programs to address this, more funding, more foster parents, etc etc. Which is why Together We Rise will be getting my donation at the end of the month. They are doing good, tangible things.
im a carer and ready to give up on twins just because of the stress their mum is brining into our lives…. This reminded me the reasons I took these sweet little girls into our home and can’t let the system fail them!!
Thanks for saying this and for the work you’re doing. I really hope that reading this article will give some people who are struggling right now the resolve to continue on.
Love to know more about children I can help