The Little Girl Who Became Our Daughter

The Little Girl Who Became Our Daughter

This is an essay written for Smart Justice magazine.

We haven't hidden anything from her.

We haven’t hidden anything though we’re careful to account for her age and understanding. She knows what happened because she’s smart and asks a lot of questions. Someday, we’ll tell her the full story as I’m doing for you right now. For me, the story starts in a courtroom though my wife would tell you it began well before that.

It was an odd feeling, sitting in that courtroom. The light wood around the judge’s bench contrasted with water stained ceiling tiles. That room had a look that was both sanitary and important, both basic and awe-inspiring.

The judge read through a case file in a voice firm but gentle, taking time to read every single word deliber- ately though lacking inflection. The woman standing before him kept her head down, red and blue streaks of dye evident throughout her neatly combed hair. I shifted in my seat.

My wife and I had been foster parents for a few years. Mostly, we provided care for a couple of days at a time: then the kids would go to a relative or to a more perma- nent setting. We hosted James, who peed under our dinner table. We had Corliss, who asked if he could down load a math game to our iPad. Others came and went and, when they left, we silently hoped we had done a good job, that maybe we said or did something those kids would remember. I don’t know that we did, but we still hoped as emptiness filled our house when they left.

Don’t get me wrong; we had a full house before we started fostering, but my wife is a better person than I am, and she insisted we look into it.

So, we did.

We started training about 25 years ago but decided our family was too young to add more. Then, we picked it up again later after a couple of our children had left for college. The CALL provided a great network to learn and grow.

The judge continued reading the case file. I looked to my wife and she was paying rapt attention, trying to digest every word that was said. I remember thinking she looked pretty in her blue dress. I looked to the attorneys, and they scribbled furiously. The woman kept her head bowed and hands clasped in front of her.

It was a cold January, a couple of years before that day in court. I do remember that. It was right before the MLK holiday and predictions of snow swirled in the air. My wife’s phone rang. After a brief conversation, much of which I couldn’t hear, she turned to me and said, “Get the room ready. A three-year-old girl is on the way.”

A nondescript sedan arrived in front of our house, and a little girl clutching a stuffed animal was pulled from a car seat. She was non-ambulatory so she held tightly to the caseworker. My wife bounded down porch steps to the street and the little girl reached for her. I stood by, a dumb look on my face.

Her father had suffered a medical emergency — likely a diabetic seizure — and died in the house. Her mother delayed in calling emergency services because their house was in disarray. There was no electricity and no running water; the child had no medical visits since birth.

The judge kept reading and said the words “environmental neglect” with emphasis. The woman standing before him nodded, accepting the term without comment. My wife’s eyes softened a bit. She was seeing something that I could not see.

The little girl clung to my wife, and we fed her mashed potatoes and a few bites of chicken. She was tiny. She had been breastfed as her primary source of nutrition. She had to be weaned. There were no relatives for her to live with. There was no one to call as the weekend approached. Then, snow began to fall.

It feels cliché to say that we thought she’d be with us for only 24 hours, but we really thought that, at first. At least, I did. My wife’s eyes had that softened look the moment she held the little girl. She saw something I missed at the time. As usual.

Weeks stretched into months. The little girl started walking, then running. Man, she was fast. She grew before our eyes. Before long, she began reading and loved to learn new stories. She had been loved her entire life, there was no doubt.

Finally, the judge said it. He closed the large file and took off his glasses, rubbing his face with his free hand. He put his glasses back on and looked to the woman before him. His look was not unkind, but it wasn’t pleasant, either. I only remember three words that the judge said but I remember the exact feeling when I heard them. “Parental rights terminated.” My fingers tingled for some reason, though I was only a witness, not a participant.

The bailiff escorted the woman out of the courtroom, her eyes following a trail on the floor from the lectern to the hallway. The door closed softly behind her.

The judge went through several minutes of discussion with the lawyers and then tapped his gavel lightly. Those in the courtroom exited, disappearing quietly like deer in a forest. My wife and I picked up our belongings and left, the last ones to exit.

We needed to stretch, so we opted for the stairs. At the bottom, we opened a huge fire door and walked into the courthouse lobby. We were alone. Except for the figure sitting on a window sill, holding her knees to her chest, sobbing quietly.

It was the woman, the little girl’s mom. I reached for my wife’s elbow while searching for an alternative route to the outside, one that would avoid the awkward scene in front of us. My hand grabbed air where it should have grabbed elbow.

I turned in time to see my wife walking straight for the woman in the window. I froze, like an idiot. The woman stood, wiping tears. My wife planted her feet in front of her and wiped her own face. They embraced.

Shyly, and a bit chastened for being an idiot, I slowly approached the scene. The woman said, “Would you please make sure she’s ok – that she’s always ok?”

My wife responded gently. “Yes. And if she’s with us one month or one year or for her lifetime, she’ll know about you, she’ll know her mother. I promise that, too.”

The woman cried. My wife cried. I shuffled my feet, swallowing to keep the sudden dryness out of my throat. The woman let go of my wife and hugged me, burying her face on my shoulder. I felt inadequate to the moment. She squeezed, forced a smile, and left to a waiting car.

I looked at the wet map of tears on my sports coat. I looked at my wife. We didn’t say anything.

Sometimes, bonds form in the strangest places. These bonds, small yet strong as steel, connect people through lives that seem so opposite, so distant. These bonds are reminders that the world is complicated, yet it’s made better by eyes softened with love and minds opened by truth — and by children, adored beyond measure by those who know them.

The little girl knows much of this story, the parts that she could understand. She knows all about her mother because my wife tells her that if she ever misses her mom, she can look in the mirror and she’ll see beauty and strength and the vulnerability that allows the right thing to come pouring forth. The little girl understands as much as she can.

Like I said, we haven’t hidden anything from her, the little girl now our daughter.

Smart Justice is a magazine, podcast, and continuing news coverage from the nonprofit Restore Hope and covers the pursuit of better outcomes on justice system-related issues, such as child welfare, incarceration, and juvenile justice. Our coverage is solutions-oriented, focusing on the innovative ways in which communities are solving issues and the lessons that have been learned as a result of successes and challenges. 

The podcast is available on all major podcasting platforms.

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