Six years ago I was sitting in my shared office at Patton with fellow instructional coach, Veronica Chase, when my inbox chimed at me, and I found a sterile, short, and life changing sentence waiting for me: Your family has been chosen for Kaden. The only elaboration was that we’d be meeting him on the 15th and he’d be living with us full time beginning in December. After years of trying to adopt through the foster care system, I couldn’t believe this was actually happening.
A week later we would drive to Oregon City, knock on his foster mom’s door, and meet our son– a soon-to-be-six-year-old who would, just one month later, refer to me as “mom.”
It was supposed to be what DHS refers to as a “low risk” adoption, meaning that the probability was high that his parents’ rights would be terminated in court. However, just one year later we’d end up making case law after a particularly empathetic judge decided his biological mom deserved another chance.
Throughout the time we’d had him, Kaden had gone on regular “visits” facilitated by a DHS staff member. There were drivers who were tasked with picking him up and taking him to the prison to see his mom or taking him to a park to see his grandparents. We were advised to let DHS handle the visits. Keep it simple … let the professionals handle it. So, we’d stayed out of it–stayed removed– and all we knew about his mom and his grandparents was from what we’d been told by DHS. We had little in common with them. We had very different lifestyles. They scared us. And they wanted Kaden. We wanted Kaden too. That scared them.
We hadn’t attended the termination of rights trial as it wouldn’t be “safe” for his family to see who we were… to know our names and faces. But, against the advice of our lawyers and DHS, soon after the judge’s decision to not terminate parents’ rights, we found ourselves sitting in a courthouse in Portland fighting to at least maintain guardianship. His biological mother and father were still incarcerated, but since they didn’t know us, they were fighting to have guardianship moved to a member of their extended family.
You know that feeling you have when you’re hyper aware that someone is staring at you–sizing you up–but you try to play it off like you don’t notice? I distinctly remember where I was sitting and where his bio grandparents were. I distinctly remember his grandfather’s head turned toward me for the majority of the trial and me concentrating intently on keeping my face neutral and staring straight ahead. I remember the threatening glance from his mom when she was marched into the courtroom, cuffed, and seated in front of me. I remember the sarcastic cackle of his grandmother when Kaden’s therapist referred to me as “mom.” I remember our lawyer distinctly referring to them as “bad people” in our private room.
So, mid-trial when I requested a mediated conversation with his mom, the “experts” just shook their heads. What good would it do? It would make us even more vulnerable. There would be no way to keep our identities private after that.
Sitting across the conference room from that twenty-something woman in all orange who was still basically a kid herself, I wanted to hate her, but I couldn’t. Regardless of her life decisions, one thing was abundantly clear. She loved her son. And after our hour together, I think one thing became abundantly clear to her: We loved him too. We both cried, and we agreed to be a team … Kaden deserved at least that.
When we were escorted back into the courtroom, the judge motioned for her to stand and indicated for her to restate her position. She stood. She turned around and looked at me and Greg–avoiding her parents’ eyes, and said “I want my child to live with his family. These people love him. They are his family now.”
Last February, Kaden’s mom–not quite thirty years old–walked into an emergency room and never again walked out. She went into organ failure and died. It had been three years since we’d seen her. She was living on the streets and had become addicted to drugs again.
A lot has changed in the last six years. Those strangers in the courtroom whose eyes were burning a hole into the back of my head just three weeks ago were sitting on our back patio laughing with us as we ate tacos. We spend holidays together. On Christmas and birthdays they bring gifts to Kaden and our daughter as they think of both as their grandkids. We talk on the phone with them weekly. Before we hang up, they always say, “We love you guys.” And, we tell them we love them too.
We are still very different people. But, it remains true that I’ve never gotten to know someone better and liked them less as a result.
Why this story? This weekend ended with a new President Elect. And yet, the country remains divided. Our school community has the opportunity to serve as a model for our greater society. Never underestimate the impact of sitting across the table from the “other” and seeing each other’s humanity. Our country, our community, and our kids deserve it. Love isn’t just a feeling. It is a choice. Let’s choose love this week and all the weeks to come, Grizzlies.