In 2006, after giving up three gorgeous spring Saturdays for training in a cheerless classroom, my husband and I began a four-year adventure parenting somebody else's children.
Foster parenting is family life on a whole different level.
Unwittingly, we forfeited most of our rights to Mariposa County's Child Welfare Services, for the sole benefit of needy children.
Seeing the need, our family was convinced we could help. I had read the ads: "Foster care is a wonderful way to change a child's life. Develop meaningful and lasting relationships that will make a difference. Become the forever family of a needy child."
Ideally, these statements are true. But how often do the realities of life match anyone's ideals?
Sophie was the first little girl brought into our home. My heart ached each time I looked at her. This baby had been extracted from her mother's arms. As a mother I could not imagine a more grievous pain.
While Sophie's parents partied, pursued their own pleasure, or engaged in verbal and physical battles, she and her brother had been locked in a bedroom, days at a time, and fed Cheerios from underneath the door.
Besides having in common empathy for those hurting, foster parents share something else: every tidbit of information they can acquire about the kids and their circumstances. It helps us understand. And survive.
Her dad had also been in foster care.
With blond curls and a cherubic face, who could have guessed the depths of fury residing within her little body?
It was my first experience being cussed out by a 2-year-old. This adorable girl was a tornado on tippy toes, requiring and demanding constant attention every hour she was awake.
Her 4-year-old brother was even more of a challenge. Normally siblings are kept together, but not when being together becomes destructive.
At any sudden change or unfamiliar situation, her immediate response was violent. Nightmares and screams interrupted our sleep almost nightly. Caring for her on a daily basis proved exhausting.
It didn't take long, though, to settle into a routine. Young foster children crave the security of structure and quickly learn to depend on it.
She loved wearing new outfits, the feel of lip gloss on her mouth, and having her silken curls brushed. Standing in front of the mirror this little girl delighted at the image reflected back. Perhaps she felt pretty for the first time in her life?
She was happiest after being at church, where she played with children who treated her kindly.
We were clueless as to Sophie's thought processes. While sitting on the potty, she demanded continual reassurance that I wouldn't let her fall. An ambulance siren on a shopping trip caused her to literally jump into my arms with fright.
When she came to us, she clung to her milk bottle, her one and only constant source of comfort. She refused solid food.
Sophie stayed with us for one month while her official foster parents handled family obligations. Another foster family cared for her brother.
The separation had been good for her. In the few short weeks we had seen improvements in her behavior: less frustration when she got hurt or didn't get her way, fewer tantrums and nightmares, more sweetness and a willingness to comply.
In that brief time, she had bonded to our family and came to me readily after visits with her parents. Her new favorite food was multi-colored goldfish crackers.
Foster children are nothing like the average child. Trauma, neglect and abuse take their toll on these young souls, robbing them of their natural innocence. They lose the ability to trust or respect others.
Yes, kids are resilient, even forgiving. But certain things must be in place long-term to begin a process of becoming whole. A childhood filled with deprivation and exposure to harm, without a source of love and stability, produces damage that is irreparable.
When the month was over, we experienced another kind of pain, the pain of letting go: one of the unintended consequences of compassion. A photo of Sophie and me still sits on my dresser.
When parents lose their kids, too many go to classes only to regain custody, not with a desire to change. Violence and substance abuse are a common denominator in these families.
For foster children, the prognosis is bleak. Repeatedly in and out of foster care, they struggle to survive.
Only half graduate from high school, and just 2 percent from college. Half are unemployed, a third depend on public assistance and at least a fourth of them are homeless, research shows. More than a third become incarcerated, and many have offspring who end up in foster care.
It's a cycle that is not easily broken.
Grandpas and grandmas, daddies and mamas, can I give you a word of advice? Don't let your babies grow up to be foster kids.
Debbie Croft writes about life in the foothill communities. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.