The broken man behind the sign

March 7, 2019

By Shannon Hanson

My husband works as a firefighter. One night while he was on shift he got ahold of me to say that I would never guess who he ran into at one of the warming stations where some of the homeless people in town were hanging out. Tears immediately flooded my eyes because I knew. His face is one I won’t ever forget, his broken heart evident in just a moment’s glance. I asked how he was, if he was ok. No. He wasn’t. He isn’t. He recognized my husband and said "Say hi to my son and tell him that his dad thinks of him every day." That night I broke again for this family. This father and son who were separated by the only act of love he had left. This is the messy side of foster care that isn’t often talked about and, honestly, isn’t experienced unless a foster family decides that their mission is to take on not just a child but an entire family as well.

This biological father of one of our placements made his way into our hearts as quickly as his son did. He loved his son something fierce, and I watched him battle his struggles with mental health in order to try and get him back. Being a parent, I know this kind of love when I see it. This is the man who tried with all of his being to become the father he needed to be for his son. This is the man who took a long bus ride regularly to meet up with us on weekends to hang out outside of visitation. This is the man who wept into his hands over how his decisions affected his boy. This is the man whose tears of fear over if he would ever be “good enough” for his son often consumed him.

This is the man who would call me at night when he was filling out paperwork to ask what different words meant so that he could make sure to do it right. The man who was pacing nervously at the visitation center one evening when we went to drop off his son. He said he wanted to talk to me and then he pulled a used bottle of nail polish out of his bag. He said he found it while he was panhandling and thought of me and had been carrying it around all week until he saw me next. He said he knew it wasn’t much, but he didn’t know how else to thank me for taking care of his boy. I still have it. It’s worth is invaluable to me.

This is the man who decorated his studio apartment with streamers and was hiding in the corner with exploding poppers to surprise his son when we crossed the threshold to his new apartment on the day he got back custody of his boy. He had set out a platter of Pop-tarts, arranged in a perfect circle, his son’s favorite kind. This is the man who called a lot after his son came back home to ask for advice and to share some of his struggles. This is the man who called in tears one night to say that his son told him he wanted to live with us instead because he wasn’t good enough. He would never be good enough. This is the man who I now see begging on street corners, and when we ask what we can do tells us with tears in his eyes that he gave his son away because it was the only way he knew how to love him. That relinquishing his rights destroyed him but it was all he had left.

One of the hardest things to describe to people about foster care and why things are the way they are is that all choices are not created equal. It can be so easy to look and say “well, you’d have your kids if you just chose better.” Just don’t do drugs. Just don’t date that abusive man. Just get a job. When mental health precludes you from consistent work; when drugs help you escape from the harsh reality of your own past abuse, mental health struggles or trauma; when you never had a parent growing up; when you have no family support and don’t know how to create healthy relationships; when all you’ve ever been is scared, hurt and alone; when you are just a broken 8-year-old boy living inside the body of a grown man; these “simple” choices are not created equal.

We knew going into foster care that we wanted to foster whole families not just their children. We wanted to see families healthy and happy and to keep kids safe while parents worked to get themselves into a stable place for their children. I can’t count the number of nights I stayed up and cried for the parents struggling to keep their children and for the children hurting in between. Or the number of hours I have spent talking to bio parents on the phone or at visitations trying to get them to believe in themselves. The hardest person to forgive was always themselves. As foster parents, we learned how to live in the in-between. To find the place where we could say that it is never ok to hurt or neglect a child, but we want to stand behind you so you can start to choose differently. We want to stand with you while you carve out a new path to something better for your child.

Approaching foster care this way allowed us to stop viewing each placement as an “us” and “them” but rather to come together as “we.” It gave bio parents the chance to see us as advocates rather than adversaries. It opened the doors to real and genuine conversations and helped to set clear boundaries for what should be expected in healthy relationships. It gave any child placed in our house the freedom to love their parents with their whole heart and also the freedom to feel hurt and angry because they didn’t have to choose. But more than anything, it gave us the chance to be humbled by being allowed into the dark places and trusted with these tough moments and to be the first people to hear the heart behind all of this hurt when a parent finally whispers over the phone, “I’m just really scared.”

If you have never had to struggle with addiction, mental health, escaping an abusive relationship, feeling utterly alone and abandoned by family, or feeling stuck in the cycles of generational poverty, abuse or neglect, then I encourage you to begin this moment to start counting yourself as blessed rather than better. To begin this moment looking at people as broken instead of bad. To try this moment to find the humanity that links us all because love often lives buried beneath mounds and mounds of maladaptive behaviors, fear and pain. We want all kids to be safe, on this point we cannot waiver. But how we look at the people caught in the tornadoes of disaster with these children can change when we see the broken child they are hiding inside and reach to hold their hand as well, knowing that maybe they will choose better when they finally feel like they can.

Shannon is a Colorado adoptive parent. As a foster parent, she was certified by Hope & Home. She is currently supporting other families on their foster parenting journeys.

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