In mid-March the phone rang and it was Doris Champion, who along with her husband, John, headed The Center for Helping Children, a nearby Peoria foster care agency. She said they were trying to find a place for a “very disruptive” six-year-old girl to stay for the upcoming weekend.
As relatively new foster parents, we said yes immediately. A couple days passed and we heard nothing from her about the little girl. I assumed they found another home, but Doris sounded desperate when we talked, so the possibility of that happening didn’t seem likely.
Doris called again three days later. “Would you be available first thing in the morning to meet with me and this little girl’s therapist?”
Somewhat startled, I asked, “She has a therapist? At six years old?”
“Yes. We’ll need a home for her for about fourteen days. That’s the estimated time frame for a bed to open in a residential institution near Chicago.”
“OK, we can be there in the morning. What time and where?”
“Oh, good. Nine o’clock at the Child and Adolescent Services (C&A) Building on Fourth Street. I’ll wait for you in the lobby.”
My husband, Bruce, and I wanted a little foster girl, and it looked like it was going to happen. Before she got off the phone with me though, I just had to know the name of the institution-bound young girl.
“What’s her name?”
I asked, “And her last name?”
“Angel. Lilly Angel.”
Something about her name caused goose bumps to rise.
Sometimes it’s better not to know what’s coming. There are easier ways to ruin your social life than foster parenting, but none are quite so satisfying. Before Lilly entered our lives, I was at home with my kids for years, and got it in my head that I wanted to foster a little girl. My parents fostered for a while when their nest was empty, and I noted with interest that foster parents can change lives for the better.
Before Lilly Angel came, Bruce said that as long as our daughters didn’t object, he had no problem with fostering. Torie and Joy were fifteen and eighteen respectively and always on the go. Heck, they didn’t care. They tell me now that they were all for it because they hoped our attention radar would be on someone other than them. Their theory proved correct, because who cares about a “C” when you have rows of teeth marks on your arm?
So we checked out different foster agencies to find one that was a good fit for us, because there were several to choose from, and we spoke to a few people who had gone before us. That’s how we’d settled on The Center for Helping Children (CHC). They were the first choice because they had an excellent reputation under the management of John and Doris Champion, and it was in our town of Peoria, Illinois. We began the necessary paper work, followed by twelve weeks of training classes every Tuesday. All of this needed to take place before we would be the foster parents who ended up taking on Lilly Angel.
Some folks we knew were curious as to why we wanted to embark on this new endeavor, especially when our girls were almost grown. Others wanted to know for their own personal information, as they, too, had considered fostering but had never followed through.
“Watch that you don’t get attached.” We heard that more than once.
One acquaintance looked steadily at me and said, “I heard about a foster child who poisoned her foster parents. Be careful.”
Wow, I really needed to hear that.
Bruce and I looked forward to our Tuesday class because Tana was an awesome trainer. She was a tall, stately African American woman who had been in the trenches. She regularly challenged our thinking and one night in particular asked our class, “What determines a person’s culture?”
There were eighteen in the class and hands began going up. The answers were all similar: “your race” and “ethnic background” seemed to be the general consensus.
Tana silently looked over her class before responding. “Wrong,” she said. “Your culture is how you were raised. I was a Black girl, raised around Whites. My culture was White. Culture is not defined by your skin color.”
I can’t say that I didn’t know that was possible, but when I heard it put that way, I began to see people differently. Thank you, Tana, for teaching me something.
Tana’s dark eyes were slightly sad but gentle, and she knew well the subjects she taught from working at The Center for Helping Children (CHC). She saw firsthand the abandoned children, the abused children, and the kids whose lives were shattered because of parents’ addictions or prostitution. Once those kids landed in “the system,” agencies like CHC would take them into their foster homes as beds became available.
There were some people in our class who were pretty creepy looking, with dirty hair and nails, or scowls and hard stares coming from their faces. I wouldn’t have wanted to visit their home much less sleep in their bed. There were also those who acted bored and didn’t participate. As the weeks went on more and more chairs were empty as people dropped out.
I was often relieved to see a particular chair vacant because I would have felt sorry for their future foster child. I had to keep reminding myself that everyone would get a background check, reference check, and be finger-printed. The process also included a home inspection, fire inspection, and CPR certification. That part was easy because of my medical background as an X-ray technologist, and Bruce’s years as a police officer. One day the mail brought us a paper certificate stating: State of Illinois, Department of Job and Family Services Treatment Foster Home, Bruce and Nealie Rose, 1408 Lawndale, Peoria, Illinois 61604.
We were official. When I thought about being a foster parent I felt strongly that John and Doris Champion and all their staff would be there for us when we needed them. It’s good they didn’t know then just how much we’d need them.
When we arrived at the C & A Building the morning after the call from Doris, she was standing in the lobby wearing a red winter parka. She had a brown purse on her arm and a folder clutched to her chest. She gave us a hopeful smile and a quiet “hello” and led the way.
I really liked her. She wasn’t gushy or loud, but radiated a determined optimism without saying anything more. I felt a kindred spirit because I, too, am a quiet optimist.
We eventually came to a tiny office with an open door. Therapist Kathi Beadle got up from a cluttered desk and greeted us with handshakes. She was about thirty five and thin with an earthy-artsy look to her. The office was so small that after we all sat down we were almost knee-to-knee. Looking at each other I think that all four of us somehow knew that it was a very important meeting.
Thinking back to that day I can still feel the hope and concern for the little girl, Lilly Angel, coming from those two women. (And looking back, had we changed our minds, how would her life have been different?) They hardly knew where to start, and as Bruce and I sat and listened, we soon found out why.
Lilly had lived at another CHC foster home for four weeks. As we spoke, she was in the Psychiatric Ward at Columbia Children’s Hospital for the second time in two weeks. Apparently she tried to kill the foster parents’ three small dogs by choking them. They were rescued and she was admitted.
After discharge she was returned to the foster home, but nothing improved. Lilly broke the dining room chairs (How does a little girl do that?) and tried to get a car to run over her by lying down in the street. She twice wielded a knife in a threatening manner at the foster mother and threatened to burn their house down as well.
I listened and thought how nice it was of those two women to take the time to really inform us when it was only going to be for fourteen days.
Doris shocked me when she said, “It would be great if it worked out to have Lilly staying at your house, because then maybe she’d be able to live with you permanently.”
Bruce and I looked at each other and he said, “We want to help her. We’ll take her for the fourteen days until her name comes up on the waiting list. For any time longer than that we would need to have a family meeting to see if everyone is in agreement with it.”
We were both feeling that we should proceed cautiously because how would taking the girl into our home affect the safety of our family members and two cats? I silently wondered if Lilly really was as dangerous as we were hearing.
Kathi asked if we had any pets. We knew where that was going. Bruce told her we had two cats, Baler and Peek. He also said we could put them on another floor of our home to keep them safe.
Honestly, as we left our heads were spinning. But we knew we could do anything for fourteen days. Couldn’t we?