It was something about the phrasing that got to me. Something about the cadence of his words, the staccato of his speech.

“Nobody loves me. Not even my mother who gave birth to me.”

It is an odd turn of phrase, isn’t it?

Not even my mother who gave birth to me.

He was buckled into the backseat of my Toyota, still too little to sit up front. At seven he had already moved more times than the total number of years he had been on the earth. And this time, like the times before it, he moved with his belongings in a trash bag. A suitcase, at least, would have added a small degree of dignity to the whole affair – to being “placed” in another and another and yet another foster home before reaching the 3rd grade. Trash bags break, you know. Trash bags can’t possibly support the contents of any life, and certainly not a life as fragile as this.

They break from the strain, eventually.

This move was harder for Stephen than most. It was a home he thought he would stay in, at least for awhile. He had felt affection there. When I went to pick him up, after his foster mother gave notice that he could no longer stay, he came easily with me; head down, no reaction on the surface of it. It was only when he got into my car that he began to sob the kind of aching sound that leaves you limp in its wake.

He could barely get out the words. Nobody loves me. Not even my mother who gave birth to me.

Months later, in a repeat scene (another foster mother, another removal), he would put up a fight. He would run around the living room, ducking behind furniture, refusing to leave. But on this night he had no fight in him.

That was Stephen at seven.

Nine-year old Stephen grips his report card in sweaty hands. We’re headed to an adoption event, where we will meet families who want to adopt an older child; families who do not automatically rule out a boy like Stephen with all of his long “history.” And he wants to impress them, these strangers. He wants to win them over, and so he brings his good report card along as tangible proof that he is a child worth loving.

A child should never have to prove they are worth loving.

Twelve-year old Stephen tells me that I’m his best friend. I’m his social worker, and he should have a real best friend, but I don’t say this to him. We’re at a taping for Wednesday’s Child, the news spot featuring children who are up for adoption. Stephen is engaging on camera. Maybe somebody will pick him this time. Maybe he is offering just enough evidence, at twelve, that he’s a boy worth loving. And he is lovable, truly. But it is not enough. A family never comes.

Years later, long after I’ve left the agency, I get an email from my old boss asking how I’m doing, and ending with a short P.S. Stephen is in DYS lockup after running away from his foster home. You need to adopt him.” My stomach drops. I’ve had this thought many times. I should adopt him myself. But I don’t.

I heard about his murder from a friend who had seen it in the news. Shot outside a party over some foolish dispute. Dead at 18, dead just as he became a man. Not my Stephen, I prayed. When I realized that it was really him – that it could be no other – I sobbed gripped by the kind of anguish that leaves you limp in its wake.

The newspapers ran very little about the murder, as if it were an afterthought. Barely worth a mention, really. Anonymous strangers posted nasty comments online: “Just another gangbanger,” they said. You don’t even know him. You don’t know the first thing about this boy. You don’t know that as a child he would trace letters into my back with his finger to pass time at the doctor’s office, asking me to guess what phrase he was spelling out. “I ♥ U” he traced between my shoulders, the last time we played this game.

Stephen had been wrong, that night in my Toyota. His mother did love him, in her way. She was there, at the funeral. She greeted me kindly. I think she knew I loved Stephen as I knew she did. We both failed him in the end, and that joined us I suppose. Neither of us could give him a family.

There were no photos from Stephen’s childhood at the funeral home. No images of the green-eyed boy with the sweet smile to remind us of what had been lost. There were no pictures of Stephen with his brothers, and so I printed up snapshots of the four boys together, taken on a supervised visit, and brought them to the funeral to give to the family. It was something I could do, against the larger backdrop of nothing I could do.

There were very few social workers at the funeral, and none of Stephen’s many foster mothers. Did they even know he was dead? Stephen spent more of his life being raised in the system than out of it. If you claim legal responsibility for a child, you best show up at his funeral. You should show up when he dies. He was yours, in a way, wasn’t he? You owe it to him. And if he did not belong to you, then who did he ever belong to?

His mother was there, at least. His mother who gave birth to him. I hear the echo of his voice from those many years ago.

Somebody does love you Stephen. I want to tell him. But it’s too late.

Stephen was the one, for me. The one who embodied all the failures of a system so broken that to heal it would take far more than the casts that heal the literal broken bones of the children growing up within it.

They break, you know. These kids we leave behind. Eventually they break.

November is National Adoption Month. For information on adoption from the foster care system, visit the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption.


*Stephen is a fictional name for a real boy the world lost.


Liz spent much of the past decade as a social worker and photographer, earning very little money but having the opportunity to travel widely and meet many interesting people, including a drunk Canadian who cut her a mullet on a dare. Now a full-time mom and blogger, Liz is continuing her quest to make no money and spending her days wondering why her son so closely resembles a ham. While many, many people call her Mother Earth, she finds that cumbersome. Please just call her Liz. Liz blogs about the joy and ridiculousness that is motherhood at A Mothership Down. Her work has also been featured on Huffington Post, Scary Mommy, and Mamapedia, among others.


  1. My heart just broke. I used to watch Judging Amy religiously and thought: social workers are angels. That’s what people should aspire to do when they grow up. (I know that is a TV show, but I think Tyne Daly did right by the role.)

    Anyway, this is a beautiful essay. I don’t know how a social worker handles the pain she sees daily.

    • She said few showed up. So yes it is just a TV show. For every good one that you find, that burns out, you will find at least ten lousy ones. There is nothing saintly about that profession.

      • Really??? Are you a social worker? Do you see what these people see on a daily basis?? Because if you are not you have no right to post bullshit like the comment you just made. These people take every child & situation home with them at.the end of everyday, even if they try not to. So tel me what do you do everyday to make a difference???

      • Tell me what do you do on a daily basis that makes a difference? If you don’t think social workers are important or that it is a saintly profession I really want to know what YOU do in a childs life, who is not your own, that makes an impact.

      • Hi Mel,

        I’m not sure what your direct experience has been with social workers to make you feel that only 1 out of 10 is doing good work. Like in any profession, social workers vary in their skill level, motives, compassion, efficacy, etc. But I will say that in my experience there are many, many good and caring people in the field. There’s not really many reasons you would want to work in that profession otherwise – it’s underpaid (by a LOT), tons of hours, emotionally draining, and quite difficult. So many people that choose that path do so because they care about the kids they are working with. I wouldn’t say that makes social workers saints by any means, but your assessment that 90% are lousy seems off base to me.

        I also just want to add that while it’s true that social workers were underrepresented at the funeral, my larger point was that a kid like Stephen can go through his entire life falling through the cracks, and continue to do so even in his death, because he never really had the advantage of belonging to anyone long term. It is a sad truth about growing up long-term in a system rather than in a family.

        • I think that this person likely struggles with the same reality of many I know…. Social workers make decisions that effect children and families in profound ways. When you find yourself on the devistatingly poor side of some social workers career, your child’s life can be ruined and hearts can break as far as you can see. I know a couple of social workers that are wonderful and caring – I know many many more that punch a clock, sleep through the day, or worse, find power in their ability to control lives and dictate futures. I wish it were not true. But, in my (lots and lots of) experience, maybe 50% seek to serve children and families above their own needs, above the convenience of their department, and before the politics of the day.

          An even smaller percentage truly serve children and families. Fight for justice. Seek right and love and hope. For all the social workers who walk this walk – you save lives and open futures. I am forever in your debt.

          And, before you assume that nobody here does anything, I was a foster parent for many years, adopted 10 special needs children, and continue to work as a trainer and advocate for the foster care and adoption community.

          Today I am fighting for the life of a child with little resources and little hope because the involved social workers, who are abhorrent, have, at their disposal, all the time and money and lawyers and experts that they desire and so they can hide their mistakes and laziness while justice and love collapse around them.

          Forgive me. If you are a spectacular social worker… I am profoundly thankful. If not, try harder – the kids deserve it.

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  3. Oh Liz. I have no idea how you were able to do that job for so long. I am so sad and angry and moved. This is a story that needed to be shared. Thank you.

  4. I was a case manager for kids in foster care for 2 years. Not nearly the same amount of time as you had invested in this child, but so many of them are still in my heart and mind today. I wonder if they ever found a forever home. A few years ago, I randomly had the news on (not common for me) as I was falling asleep–one of my former clients was murdered. A drug deal gone bad. Actually he was the first client ever assigned to me in my new job.

    Very well written; thanks for sharing. I’ll be passing it along.

    • Thanks Gretchen. I have long wondered about several of the kids I was close with, and have reconnected with some of them. What was especially difficult in Stephen’s case was that I had tried to track him down for a few years, and wasn’t sure where he ended up as an older teen. Hearing about his murder hit me incredibly hard, and I was so angry that so few people seemed to care much about it. I’m hoping that with this piece today it will make some people care about it, and about him.

      • I care about Stephen. And I care about my CASA boy who ages out of the system in 90 days. The system has failed him terribly, but I hope he knows he is loved. “A child should never have to prove he is worth loving.”

  5. I don’t have many words here but I do have some tears. Thanks for writing this story, Liz. It’s an important one.

  6. I hope writing this gives you some sense of peace. It is so complex and difficult to process.

  7. I wish I could put this as eloquently as you told his story, that just makes me want to wake up my sleeping 14 week old son hold him tight so he knows how much he is loved, heartbreaking, simply heartbreaking..

  8. Oh how this makes my heart ache. I think a lot about adopting a child through the foster care system. These ones who feel that no one loves them, it’s gut wrenching. He knew that you cared for him. Sometimes that is all that we can do.

    • Thanks Stacy. And if you are thinking about adopting from foster care, I really encourage you to look more into it. November is National Adoption Month and there will be many adoption-related events running. My hope for this article was that it would inspire some people to consider adoption of an older child. There are so many “Stephens” out there, and not enough families to love them.

      • Liz, your story is a sad one. Thank you for sharing. Stacy, I am a foster mom, and I adopted one of my girls from foster care. She was the glue that sealed my family – I say that all the time! We also fostered a young lady from 16-18. She chose to leave the system when she turned 18, but I refused to let her leave my life. It was heartbreaking, but in the end, we both won! We still have each other, and we are very close. Adopting from foster care is a very heart-filling experience. I highly recommend it! Best of luck to you. Liz, I hope your heart heals.

      • You are clearly a gifted writer with some important stories to share. Have you ever considered writing a script?

        • Thank you! That’s very nice. No, I haven’t considered that 🙂 I’m a humor writer, so this is a departure for me!

      • I wanted to let you know your story touched me so deeply that I clicked on the link to the Dave Thomas Foundation to learn more, and from there saw a child in foster care who my husband and I hope to adopt. We have been approved and waiting to adopt a second child for almost two years, but never considered adopting from foster care. It’s too early to know if we are indeed the right family for him, but you may have led us to our child. Thank you.

        • Kathleen, that is amazing that the article inspired you to take this step! I am hopeful for you, and hopeful for that child.

  9. That was a heartbreaking and beautifully written story, Liz. Thank you for sharing it. Ever since becoming a mom I am more torn up than ever over stories of abuse and neglect of children… I’m sitting at my desk crying reading this.

    “A child should never have to prove they are worth loving.” Amen to that.

  10. This made me want to cry. When my husband and I were newlyweds, I told him that I wanted to adopt an older child someday. He wanted to also. We have 3 kids of our own now, and I still think about it, but I’m in the trenches with little ones. Thanks for writing about this incredibly hard topic. I hope some day we’ll still have this desire to give an older child a forever home.

  11. This was an incredibly difficult read (and I’m sure, much harder to write), but it was so powerful in its message. Beautifully written, completely heartbreaking.

  12. deborah sigman Reply

    I have no words except to say that you made a difference in this child’s life.

  13. Betsy Higgins Reply

    Such a sad story but too too common. Your heart was open to him and he knew it, and that means so much. I have no doubt that that love was etched into his soul. Thanks for sharing.

  14. Oh Liz, this one made me cry as much as your usual posts make me laugh. It hurts to know how many more Stephen’s there are out there, just waiting and hoping for someone to step in and catch them.

  15. I so agree with the other Katie’s comment; becoming a mom has made stories like these so much harder to process. You have certainly seen a lot, Liz. This must be painful for you. Very well written. Thank you for sharing.

  16. Liz,
    What an amazing and painful piece you have so artfully written.
    As a writer (and these days, also a fellow mother) I know the feeling of not telling a particular story for a period of time…waiting for the moment you find the “right” words, or perhaps that ellusive time when it isn’t any longer too painful to relive an experience.
    I also know those words and that time never come, so I applaud you for finally putting your story down into words. Making it eternal.
    We have a mutual friend, Christina Bracknell, who shared your post on her FB page and I sat here reading along, sharing in your grief.
    What a strong woman you are, despite how you may feel about what you could or couldnt do for Stephen. How brave you are for whole heartedly taking on a job that so few people could bring themselves to do, and for continuing to care along the way. For not growing too jaded by the experiences. Thanak you for continuing to put your heart on the line when you knew it would continue to be broken.
    I share in your grief, as a woman who left with holes in my heart becausd of what could have been.
    I attempted to adopt a child (in actuality, four different children) from this country over the years. I was a single woman with an above average income and my own home. A responsible adult with a genuine desire to give a child the stepping stone to a future full of love, education, encouragement and healing. I spent years jumping through hoops dictated by the system, investing so much of myself emotionally and financially along the way just to be met with red tape that simply wouldnt end. Just as I would get close to a placement, a child so desperately in need, my home study would expire and I was starting over again. I was scammed, among other things, by people who think the adoption system is just a financial institution. Still, I continued on my painstaking journey for years, accruing the loss of four children total. The last experience was so heartbreaking I swore off adoption until either I became a much stronger person, or the system becomes less dysfunctional.
    I finished your post with tears rolling down my face. As you no doubt typed this post with deep emotions made up of anger and loss and defeat, I could have written the same story from another perspective.
    If children broken by the system were considered car accidents and you and I were emergency responders, both rushing to the scene of the wreckage with all of our might, we both arrived just a few moments too late, and it’s neither of our faults.
    Does that make it less painful? Hell no. We’re both still standing here watching the grisly scene, out of breathe, bent over and heaving from a mix of exhaustion and heartbreak for all we had hoped.
    I’m sorry the system failed us all. I’m sorry for both of us Liz, but more importantly, I’m sorry for Stephen. I would have been honored to have been his Mom.

    I offer you my sincere sympatby for the loss of Stephen. You undoubtedly made a positive impact in his life.

    • Amber, I’m so sorry that you had to go through that. There are many, many good people working on all sides of “the system” and that includes social workers, foster parents, and also prospective adoptive parents. But the system itself is a flawed entity despite the best intentions of many within it. I was hoping that came across in the article – nobody is a villain here, but there are many victims.

      • Liz:
        I completely agree. I have worked with so many wonderful people as well. Unfortunately, the system we have all worked within (on your side or mine) is not human and therefore it lacks compassion, leaves little room for grey area, and can lead to situations such as Stephen’s. Awareness is always the foundation of change. May your post spark some positive changes along the way. Hugs to you!

    • Many of your comment I could have written myself. As a foster mom to 23 children, all who I could name and all I love, I can say I have no idea where those 23 are. I am not allowed contact with them when they are relocated. The system is so broken. Those foster moms could have possibly not even know that he was gone. Do we get notified when one of our foster kids pass? 23 pieces of my heart are out there in the world. I will likely never find those pieces and it isn’t because I wouldn’t like to.

  17. You’ve so eloquently reminded us to look beyond our own front lawns. There is need right around the corner from the places we are raising our children. Thank you for that reminder.

  18. Amanda Symmes Reply

    Liz, I just have to say that I ADORE you. I adored you as a teen when you made our soccer team do silly things, and I have adored you as a mom with your hilarious blog. Interestingly, I have not had the privilege of being able to bear witness to your work in the social worker role, but after reading this, I adore you as a social worker as well. As a fellow social worker, I get it. I get in a way that makes my heart both more full and complete and able to more aptly give love but I also get it with a heaviness that carries the weight of the world. This was incredible. And, with all of that said, THANK YOU. Thank you for posting this. I think I needed this maybe more today than on most days, as this morning I dropped off a 2 and half year old client (with a heavy trauma history) at his day care provider’s and the provider and I chatted, he came running back over to me demanding “a tiss! a tiss!” And knowing that he wanted a kiss (which was inappropriate), I dodged the question at first…but as toddlers do, he insisted. So without hesitation, I scooped him up and gave him a quick, playful snuggle and light kiss on the head. He ran off with a smile. Yet, I spent the whole day silently ruminating on my lack of “boundaries” and all the counter-transference that was happening for me in that moment. Later, I read this beautiful piece and I realized that YES, some DO in fact break. But, at least I know that today, that little boy didn’t. And that is what I need to take from today. Keep being awesome Liz! You’ve done well by Stephen, just as you do well by all that you encounter…

    • Thanks Amanda, that means a lot to me. And for what it’s worth, I would have scooped up that toddler for a hug and kiss too. That is what he needed.

  19. Liz,
    You and I both knew Stephen. This was a heart wrenching, yet beautiful piece to write on a child who was lost in the system and left the world without having a chance to live his life. I remember him being a funny, loving, sweet boy, who cared about people. It’s tough for any kid to grow up without a constant life long connection, without parents and without knowing his family. I encourage any of you reading this to consider becoming a foster parent, an adoptive parent or a Mentor for a foster child. If that seems too daunting, believe me, I get that! But find out about the process and you may be surprised. Thank you Liz for writing this awareness piece. Stephen got a kick out of you. I can still remember his smile during the Wednesday’s Child taping. This story just magnifies why I remain a Social Worker. I know I can’t prevent this from happening for every youth. Yet, I will do everything in my power to have a different ending. Thank you for making a difference!

  20. Liz, what a touching story about a boy who lived life the best he knew how. He was remembered by me as such a sweet, funny remarkably resilient child. Every kid needs a family. No one can argue this! Yet, the challenge to find families for foster kids remains challenging. I receive calls daily, as a social worker, for kids ranging from infants to 17 year olds who need a family they can be part of. I urge readers to consider becoming a foster parent, an adoptive parent or mentor for a foster kid. It can be daunting at first but so rewarding too.
    Liz, Stephen was a beautiful young man. He knew that the important people in his life loved him. I will never forget his smile. Thank you for bringing awareness to this topic during National Adoption Month. You just gave Stephen and every foster youth a voice.

    • If they have anything like our experience with the foster care system, no wonder there are not more families coming forward. “The System” is the problem. We have adopted one, and wanted to inquire about an older child, but we never heard anything, or were discouraged by or resource support person from even inquiring. I would love for with inept social worker to lose her job. I’ve even thought about filing a civil suit against her and the system, but the the state and the department already have a Federal Law Suit against it in 2000 and is still being monitored to this day for the way it has handled children in its care.

      What a joke!

  21. There are some older adopted kids in my family, and let me tell you, they’re amazing kids regardless of their histories. This reminds me how lucky we all are to have one another. Thank you for writing this. It needs to be heard and respected.

  22. A gorgeous piece. As a social worker too, I thank you twice- once for the work and again for the words.

  23. Beautifully written. Powerful. Heartbreaking. Thank you so much for sharing Stephen’s story.

  24. I’m trying to find words. I am failing.

    Just: thank you for writing this heart-breaking story so amazingly. What you’ve done here is huge.

  25. Nothing is more heart breaking than an unwanted child. I pray that all of them may some day find a home and loving hearts. Thank you for all the effort that you put in to trying to help them. God bless you.

  26. I always had a lot of respect for social workers but DAMN that job is even tougher than I thought. How do you not adopt all the kids? How can you do your job when there’s so much hurt all around you? Makes me rethink just how crappy my to-do list is at work (hint: it doesn’t even register on the scale).

  27. This just broke my heart. I don’t know what to say except that my broken heart goes out to all involved. I will share around.

  28. Liz, this was a truly heartbreaking story. I would have been angry too, at the seeming lack of compassion for such a lost little boy. I can’t help but wonder though – why did so many foster families give up on him? Did he have behavioral issues? Was there something mentally or physically wrong with him that put off all of his foster parents? The statement, made by this young child – of nobody loving him, not even his birth mother – is not the kind of statement that one makes if one has no real interest in being wanted, or belonging, or wanting to be loved. What made this little boy so unwanted by SO many (I am assuming) caring people?

    • There are no simple answers here. In Stephen’s case (like with many of the kids I’ve worked with) it was a compilation of factors that led to so many disrupted placements, including moves to be reunited with his siblings, moves from foster to potential pre-adoptive families, and yes, some behavioral difficulties that were to be expected for a kid with a trauma history. His case was in no way unusual, and he, like the other kids I’ve known, had a deep desire to be loved and to connect.

      Kids enter foster care with a trauma history, which typically does bring with it some issues (behavioral/emotional) that need to be worked through with committed parents. The commitment is key. The families these kids are placed with vary in their levels of skill and commitment, and of course there are many excellent, caring foster parents/pre-adotpive families and social workers involved. However, when kids display difficult behaviors, and families do not have a long-standing commitment to the child, it is easy to walk away. The nature of the beast is that kids end up being disposable, in a way that nobody intends, but which plays out in practice.

      I’m glad you asked this question, because I am sure it has crossed other people’s minds as well. Was there something wrong with this boy? But the answer is not so simple. And again, his case was not atypical. There are many, many Stephens.

    • Melissa Rhodes Reply

      I too wonder if he should have been on an antidepressant. Some depression does not manifest as sadness but aggressive bad behaviour. I hope when my little kids are older that we too can adopt an older child. Right now I am wanting to focus on those that I have. I also would want to protect them from the baggage some foster/adoptive kids bring with them. Sounds selfish of me but I have a responsibility to those I gave birth to first. I have 6 children. Financially I would not be able to do an adoption right now either. I hope that those who want to adopt who cannot get pregnant will consider these older children who so desperately need them.

  29. There is another Stephen out there. Someone help him. We are helping Stephanie, little Stephen and his little sister. There are so many Stephan’s out there. Someone please help him.

  30. This article is very touching. I was adopted, but not part of the “system.” I was left at the door steps of a relative at the age of four. Another relative present took me home and started the adoption process. I did not have to go from home to home feeling unloved; I was stuck in the same home for fourteen years feeling unloved. I know the affects this had on me as a child which still exist today as an adult. It’s still not easy to comprehend that I’ve had four parents and never felt they loved me. I encourage anyone that is able to help a child in these situations to do so. You have no idea how truly loving a child will change their life forever.

    • Tonya,

      Thanks, your comments touched me, and I will try to carry the torch with you.

      My best,


  31. I have a Steven in my life. A girl who I’ve known since she was a small child, who came into care when she was 13 (years too late, IMO). She at least had the stability of one home, with me, with someone who loved her, but I’ve seen the effects of “no one loves me, not even the mother who gave birth to me” over and over again. Bad, unhealthy and dangerous relationships, drugs, run-ins with police, inability to hold a job, dropping out of high school. It’s heart breaking. In her mid-twenties she’s finally getting her life on-track, but the system has failed her in so many ways and her life will always be ten times harder because of it.

    And we, as potential adoptive parents, are failed by the system as well. Whenever we inquire about a child on a photo-listing sight, we are told that we are *too white*, that they won’t place in a home with other children or children who are out of birth order, or that we don’t live in the *right place*. We’ve been trying for six years, and are told over and over again that no family for these children is better than our family.

    The system needs to be changed.

    • I agree Jayne! We’ve been in the foster program for five years and had two babies in our home. One of which we were lucky enough to adopt except its a situation where mom decided to do it. I’ve seen a lot of heartache on both sides of the fence with kids and with foster families who want to be the forever homes! Yet the system fails time and time again. Things needs to be done to change the old school “studies” and “ways of thinking”. We want to stay in the system but its a very difficult thing to do. This article is a good one. I often feel so bad for some of the workers but not so bad for others who obviously are just doing it as a job. But people who aren’t in the system and part of it all shouldn’t judge the ones that appeared to give up on the child. At the same time, it’s a good case to show how broken things can get unfortunately. The earlier these kids get in a foster to adopt or forever home with proper supports, the better. The laws need to change!!!

  32. Tracy M Dennison Reply

    This could’ve been me. I was 10 when my parents chose me and my bio sister who was 6 to adopt. Someone in the stars was watching out for us, because I firmly believe that had my parents not chosen us, I would’ve had a very short life.

  33. My heart broke for this sweet boy and the life he endured. I’ve a single foster home parent for a little over 2 years. I don’t have any kids of my own (although not for lack of wanting them) and I thought this would be a way to have them in my life and maybe at some point have the chance to adopt. Going in I envisioned adopting an infant as I know many who adopt do. Two years ago today, my first child crossed my door step and my life was forever changed. That spunky 4-yr old boy soon enveloped my heart. He is now 6 years old and an incredible first grader that still has my heart and lights up my home. I am so excited that my adoption of him will be final within the next month.

    Your love for this boy is so wonderful to hear. I have worked with several caseworkers with the many kids I have had and some are good and some are bad. I only see one side of what you do and deal with and know that I could never do it. I have great respect for all that the job entails and the heavy caseload everyone must take on. The wonderful caseworkers like you that are able to take a few minutes out of their heavy schedule and need to rush off to the next child in need to give that hug, smile, and comfort are the ones that make a lasting impact not only to the children but the foster parents as well. Thank you for all that you did in your position. You can tell it wasn’t just a job to you and Stephen wasn’t just another case in your pile. Thank you for sharing your story.

  34. I watch the wednesday spots and grieve. I saw a little blonde headed boy on tv , a couple weeks back, I have thought so much about him and why would some adult with the means take him. I am 58 yrs and my husband is 63. Three grown sons and 10 grandchildren. Wish that I was younger so I could make a difference for him. Change his world around, give him the future and hope he deserves. This article grieves me to read but I thank you so much for sharing it……thank you for loving Stephen.

  35. I needed this. Not for something to happen to Stephen (or any child). But I needed the reminder that these kids need us. They need me as a social worker and as a foster mom.

    I want to walk away. I do. Because my heart breaks daily, and I am exhausted. But I won’t. I’ll do everything I can to make sure that the kids I know won’t break.

    • Thanks for saying this Leslie. It just made me cry. With the overwhelming response I’m getting to this piece it makes me feel that Stephen, who was so often unseen in life, is really been seen and felt now. It bothered me greatly with his death that the public did not seem to care. I can see now that people do care. People care when they can come to know these kids, in some small way. Thank you for continuing the work you do, I know first hand how exhausting and difficult it can be.

    • Thanks, Leslie (and Liz).

      I ended up here after following a friend’s “Like” on Facebook, which led to more links, and then a few more. We’re a year and a half into fostering a girl who’s now 13. We weren’t planning on it, but we had a previous connection. The situation is really as minor as it can be and still require becoming part of “the system”. But even if it’s minor, the issues are still there.

      And it’s just so tiring. Exhausting. I’ve also been feeling like I want to walk away. But I can’t. For the same reasons I couldn’t say no when they first asked.

      But Leslie, your comment made me feel like I’m not alone–which makes a huge difference. Thanks.

  36. This seriously made me cry. When you describe Stephen as a child, I can only picture my son. We met him 4 years ago when he was 9. Abandoned my his birth parents when he was 6, he had been in and out of countless foster homes until being placed in a residential facility. He was diagnosed with ADHD, PTSD and anxiety, but his smile never ceased to brighten even the darkest days. Up until the adoption was final, and even a little while afterwards, he was waiting for us to reject him and send him back.
    He’s 13 now and still exhibits some of the behaviors so commonly found in kids who have been brought up in the system, but no matter what happens, we end each day with a hug, a kiss on the cheek and an “I Love You” before bed.
    He is our son and we wouldn’t change a thing!

    • As a side note… I didn’t realize this was just for women. My apologies if I’ve just entered forbidden territory

      • Hi Todd, as one of the editors of BLUNTmoms, I can assure you that as long as you can stand the heat, you’re welcome into the kitchen. 😉

    • Todd, your son is lucky to have you. As you said, while issues are common with a trauma history, there is so much more to the kids than that. We need to humanize them, which is what I hoped this post would do. And we need to stick with them, which is what you have done.

  37. I sometimes look at my son who was born into the system and wonder what his life could have been if his worker and our worker hadn’t seen the match we all make. He came into the world with many strikes against him and had other families turn him down. I’m so thankful that they chose to say no because he became our boy but what if all he got was no’s? Would he have languished in the system? Would his learning disabilities been diagnosed or dismissed as part of his “problems”? Who would have heard his endless questions, his babbling of facts or received his wonderful bright smile? Thank you Leslie and all the other social workers for doing what you do for these kids. Stephen did have love from you and knew love in his short life. My condolences for your loss.

  38. I have read this 4 times today and shared it with everyone I can think of. Stephen’s story is so close to my son’s it is terrifying. He came to me when he was 10 after more trauma than anyone should experience in a lifetime. 6 years later we are both still dealing with the repercussions of that trauma daily. THANK YOU for telling this story, and reminding me that we are actually among the lucky few.

  39. As a resource home, we’ve adopted one child and tried to look into adopting an older child from foster care. It was very disappointing that we always heard more reasons not to consider a child than to consider a child with special or higher needs. “The System” is broken and needs to be fixed. Most of the people I have meet from foster care organizations look at these kids as just another number and what’s in their past and seem to forget they are a human beings with REAL feelings of hurt and abandonment.

    We are still an active resource home, and looking forward to a young man coming to stay with us shortly. Hopefully “The System” will not do to this child what they did to the last child we were introduced to. [They] approved a plan for us to meet this child, spend a weekend with us, and then stopped the entire process just because his caseworker didn’t like us, and not because we were unfit, or were under any investigation for a complaint. [They] decided they didn’t like us because I called them on too many of their own policies and procedure violations, and [they] were not going to have a foster family challenge them on anything. As far as I’m concerned “The System” is a criminal enterprise in human trafficking.

    So Sad

  40. Sara Kauffman Reply

    Hi Liz – Thanks for sharing such a powerful story. Glad to see you are still advocating for these kids and doing great social work.

  41. This is so beautifully written.
    The sadness seeps into the reader.
    The thoughts become our own.
    The tears we shed, too.
    The what-if and the fear of it happening again…hoping we can make a difference.

  42. Thank you Liz for your story.
    You are right, in every sense our children are broken but fixable with secure attachments and stability.
    We have ten adopted children, only one came home prior to age 6. All in and out of care and fighting to survive the system, my children beat the odds and got out, even with “labels” I’m so sorry that so many don’t. Tragic.

  43. Liz, thank you for your story. I cried, my heart broke, but this story encourages to keep pushing. I am a BSW student in Arizona, and I have spent so much time narrowing down my calling. I feel in my heart and deep in my gut that SW is it. Many times people tell me how difficult the job is going to be, and i should choose another field, but I know this is what I want. There isnt enough people out there to remove their hands from over their eyes to see the real pain that other human beings endure. So many are too wrapped up in their own world to realize the hurt and pain that we live among. You don’t have to change the world, but one person at a time would be a whole lot better then none at all. Thank you for your services Liz, thank you for caring, and even though the pain and heart ache was great with Stephin you still have honored him by raising awareness in hopes someone will have a change of heart.

    • Thanks for this comment Jessica. It sounds like you are exactly the type of person who should be going into the field. Follow your gut, and you absolutely can and will make a difference in someone’s life.

  44. Children break and when we aren’t murdered or strong enough to take our own lives at the end of our imprisonment in foster care, we are left desolate and alone. We fail at everything from college to employment and just as your article so accurately states, the outside world views us as nothing but thugs, drug users, welfare queens… I’ve had people in the worst of times tell me that they understand how my parents didn’t want me. You cannot undo the past but few of us feel like we even have a future. We are always stuck waiting for that home where we will be loved that never comes.

    • Chelsea,
      I don’t know how it is possible for parents to make such a mess of their lives that they don’t put you first. You deserve to be first, you deserved to be loved then, and you deserve it now. You can make a loving circle around you and I hope you will. You don’t have to follow the script you feel you were handed sweet girl, you can write your own.
      I know I am an internet stranger, but I mean it when I say that I wish you love and hugs from people who know your value.
      Our writers on Blunt Moms and I would bet many of our readers are aching for you right now. I hope you can feel it and know that it is genuine.

      • I used to hope for that, but not anymore. I’m dealing with recently being diagnosed with Asperger’s and am in an emotionally abusive relationship. I have kids whom I refuse to abandon despite my inner turmoil. My hope now isn’t for myself, but for them to have everything I never had. If that’s the only thing I leave behind for the world, I’ll be content.

        • Stay strong, Chelsea. My heart goes out to you in your struggles. Know that you are worth it. You do deserve good things in your life.

        • Everybody deserves to be treated with respect and dignity. Good for you for aiming to improve your life and the lives of your children. Remember that the best thing you can do as a parent is to make yourself the best ‘you’ you can be. Loving yourself is the best way to show children how to love themselves. Hang in there. You deserve to be loved, and are love-able. Getting out of an abusive relationship is the only way to show your children that treating someone like that is not ok. I know how hard it is, as I helped my best friend through that situation two years ago. She is now beginning to heal, and I am so proud of her for being able to get out. Reach out to supports in your community. I know it can be very difficult to initiate new relationships when you have Asberger’s , but I know that you haven’t survived this long to give up on yourself now.

        • Chelsea,
          Do you have a chapter of “Safe Families For Children” in your area? They would be a great resource and support for you as you’re adjusting to the Asperger’s diagnosis. As a former foster kid myself, I know how difficult it can be to adjust to adulthood. We spend the first 18 years of our lives with absolutely ZERO power and then we find ourselves out on our own and we’re expected to take charge of our own lives. It feels a little like handing the keys of a high-power race car to an Amish kid and asking him to win the Indi 500!
          One lesson that I have learned is that you can’t allow other people to tell you what you do or do not deserve! That is something that you simply MUST decide for yourself!!! As children, we had no power over the way we were treated. However, as an adult, you teach people how to treat you. It’s a lot like parenting, in that, we allow certain behaviors, and refuse to accept other behaviors. As an adult, you get to decide which behaviors you will accept from others, and which ones you will refuse to tolerate. Figure out where you want to draw that line, and stick to it! Yes, some people will walk away because they don’t want to play by your rules, but they will quickly be replaced by people who will give you the love and respect you deserve! Eleanor Roosevelt stated that, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” Part of being a mom is making the hard choices, but they’re worth it in the long run, and so are you. You deserve to be loved and respected. Anything less is an insult to you, as well as your children. Good Luck!

  45. If his mother loved him enough to show up at his funeral and to comprehend that you loved him too, why in the world did anyone ever let that child believe he was unwanted? Sounds an awful lot like his MOTHER might have wanted him. You know, there are parents who are blind, parents who are deaf, parents who are both (yes, both, in the same family) in wheelchairs. Their kids aren’t taken. They get help raising them. Why aren’t we doing this for parents with mental and social problems? We throw them away and we snatch their children and then we expect everything’s going to turn out okay. Guess what. It doesn’t. EVERYONE reading this, STOP calling these children unwanted. If *they* feel they are unwanted, that’s their own conclusion but YOU have NO business labeling them that way. You don’t know. Unless you get inside the minds of their parents you are never going to know.

    “Stephen” did indeed have a family. Considering that some children are wrongfully removed from their families, what do we really know about why he was kept from that family? I realize that you can’t tell us any further details because of privacy concerns. But it amazes me that everyone here can acknowledge that the foster care system is broken AFTER the kids are in the system but it never once occurs to them that it’s broken BEFORE it takes those kids.

    We’re failing our children in a lot more ways than the average American, including a lot of social workers, seems willing to acknowledge.

    • Dana – of course I can’t get into the details of Stephen’s removal, but I will say this: in years of working with kids in the system I can say with confidence that kids are not permanently removed from their families and put on the adoption track lightly. In fact, the court has a strong emphasis on reuniting kids with their biological parents, and reunification is always the first goal when a child goes into foster care. Many supports are in fact put in place towards this goal, and biological parents have their own workers who are trying to help them regain custody and get the help they need.

      I do understand your point about providing extra support to parents struggling with mental or social issues, and I agree with that. But it needs to be balanced with keeping kids safe from abuse, and many if not most of the kids I’ve worked with have been very seriously abused in their families of origin. It is nothing like having a parent who is blind or deaf, which you compared it to. In hindsight, perhaps some kids may have fared better if they remained with their parents, but it’s a complicated picture and the risks must be weighed in both directions.

      Most children have visits with their biological families at least monthly while in foster care, so it’s not as if they are taken away and told that nobody wanted them. Stephen did see his mother regularly, which is how I came to know her as well. Some kids maintain a very strong allegiance to their birth parents and a feeling that their parents do love them, and others become angry with their parents for not being able to get their lives together enough for the child to return home. Stephen felt how he felt based on his life circumstance, not because he had been told he was unwanted by his mom.

      I’d also say with confidence that social workers for the most part do care deeply about these kids, and do try to make sure that they feel wanted and loved. But making a child believe this is easier said than done given the reality of the circumstances and the lack of permanency that comes with being in foster care.

  46. Such a powerful story. I shed tears, my love goes out to all the children without a mother’s love. You are worthy, and you will be seen. Believe in yourself, I believe in you.

  47. I’m in college right now, barely in a place where I can support myself much less a child. But I can’t wait for the day when I can become a foster parent and hopefully an adoptive parent. I knew several foster kids growing up and as an adult too. These kids deserve so much more than they’re given most of the time.

  48. Sometimes i want to run away from stories like this because they make me cry and sad. The worst bit is that i feel like i cannot do much about such a situation. My Country Uganda is starting to move from Institutionalizing our children to foster care because it give the children a sense of belonging. Does it really? I will choose to pray for all the “Stephens” out there that the God who is all powerful and see them where they are at, can sort them because of his mercies and kindness.

    Thank you for sharing this story.

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  51. I have been the foster mom. I stay in touch with some of the long term placements I have had but there are many more that I have no way of finding out how they are doing. Don’t be too hard on Stephen’s foster families. Some of them would have been honored to have been told by someone and been there for him but that is also part of the system, privacy. We are not “family” and have no rights when the children leave our home. We depend on the love and sharing of families to keep us connected to these wonderful human beings we have the privilege to share a small part of their lives. We hold every one of them in our hearts for the rest of our lives. Thank you for sharing Stephen’s experience.

    • Hi Terri,

      It sounds like you are a great foster mom, and I’ve worked with many excellent, kind and caring foster families over the years. And I totally agree that it’s possible not all of the families were aware of the murder. But it was hard not to notice and be bothered by the fact that so few people were at the funeral. It just speaks to the disconnect that can happen in a system like this. My point was never to vilify any particular foster parents or workers for that matter.

      Keep up the good work with your kids!

  52. Thank you so much for having the courage to write this. My husband and I are looking into adoption and I had it in my mind that adopting an older foster child was too hard. This article made me realize that while it may be hard, it is important. Thanks for opening our eyes and hearts.

  53. But the mother WASN’T there — and thus the damage began. The changes to Stephen’s brain, the fight or flight mode, the CONSTANT state of “survival” his brain was in — where every decision, every thought — from what to order at McDonald’s, to which shoe to put on first, was a life or death moment.

    The blame lies SQUARELY on the birth mother and birth father — because their selfishness, their neglect, their abuse, their abandonment — their drug use – WHATEVER it was they did to Stephen in infancy and early childhood paved the way to his death.

    When social workers FINALLY embrace the reality that is Reactive Attachment Disorder, and the fact that like it or not — it causes these children… these VICTIMS of having the misfortune of being born to mothers/fathers who don’t give a da**… to reject love by foster/adoptive parents. It causes the to make themselves so repulsive, so unloveable, so “out of control” – that it keeps the people who want to love them – AWAY. THEIR behaviors are designed, by their damaged brains, to keep them safe. RAD deceives them — tells them that they are unwanted, unloved — disposable.

    WITHOUT the support and assistance of the CPS’s of the world and adoption agencies to EDUCATE adoptive/foster families about RAD — there will be more Stephens… and it will never end.

    What Stephen needed was Trauma and Attachment therapy from a licensed professional — WITH his adoptive/foster family — so that there was a CHANCE at success from the very first placement.

    While people glance at the beautiful faces on Wednesday’s Child on their TV’s, what they don’t see is the damage that these kids endured that cannot always be fixed. Some of these children are violent. Some are wildly out of control. Some are even predators (sexual)… All thanks to the pieces of dirt that brought them into this world and the harm they’ve done.

    So don’t blame the adoptive or foster families who try – sometimes in vain – to love a child who doesn’t feel safe being loved and cannot allow it, at all cost — but blame a crappy system that refuses to invest in foster/adoption success by getting these children into the RIGHT KIND OF THERAPY IMMEDIATELY. NOT the standard CBT therapy that is useless for kids with RAD, but RAD therapy.

    Not only are the bio parents to blame — but so is our broken, ignorant system that can’t see the part they play in adoption/foster failures.

    • Hi Kaycee- you obviously have a background or extensive knowledge in clinical work and I agree with much of what you are saying here. However having worked with the biological parents (albeit in a secondary way) of all of the kids on my caseload I would encourage more understanding than simply calling them pieces of dirt. Many of these people are themselves very damaged from traumatic histories in their own childhoods and without effective interventions the cycle goes on and on. I’m not excusing abusive behavior, far from it. But concluding that the parents of all the kids in foster care are themselves worthless individuals is not accurate either, in my experience.

    • For the first year that I had my son with me (six months fostered and six after the adoption} I was angry with his birth parents and what they had done to such a wonderful little boy. I had to get over that, though. He loves his birth father and likes his birth mom and I can’t talk about them in a bad way as that would even further damage my son–“If my birth parents are bad then I must be too.”

      Yes, blame the birth parents for whatever they did. But forgive them as well, if you have their child in your life. They are not perfect, no one is. And in my son’s case these broken parents were able to have a moment of clarity and do what was best for their child.

      I’ve known my son for three years now, he is not whole and he may never be so. But he is happy and almost realizes that he is in a stable place.

  54. Hi Liz – thank you for posting such a heart wrenching story. My husband and I have considered becoming foster parents, but we are so scared for so many reasons….

    • Lisa, if you’re considering fostering but are scared, I would encourage you to take the step of enrolling in a training course for prospective foster/adoptive parents. It doesn’t lock you into moving forward, but it will educate you on the process and you’ll have people to talk to about your concerns and fears. At that point, you can make a decision if this is something you really want to do.

      I know it can be intimidating, but for every hard story there are also success stories and kids’ lives who have been changed dramatically from the intervention of a loving family. Perhaps that family could be yours.

      • My husband and I began fostering when I was 23. We’be cared for seven children long-term and you are right to believe it’s very hard. However, you will have a great deal of support from your agency. We went through Methodist Children’s Home in TX and the agency required training that they provided beforehand. Start out with basic care and you can get an idea if foster care is really right for your family. You are needed, and you can help make sure these children feel loved. 🙂

  55. Rachel Booker Reply

    So those of you who are cryinga hiring from this story, what are you going to do about it? I’ve worked in children’s mental health for more than 20 years andi can tell you Stephen ‘ s sorry is not unique. These children don’t need your pity. They need your roof over their heads, your beds under them and your loving guidance as they try to make sense of the fact that they have done nothing wrong, yet they are being punished. But I caution you, if you do decide to commit your life toa child in this way, you can’t fix them just by loving them enough. I would argue that they don’t need to be fixed at all. But becoming just one more ina song of failed placement does no good at all.

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  58. Liz,

    It’s amazing the way God works sometimes. My husband and I are facing the possibility of raising a child who has been in the system for a long time. We found out a few days ago when her social worker called out of the blue. The child is a relative that we had lost contact with years ago, and now we are her last hope of getting out of the system. If you had told me a week ago that I would be considering taking in a teenager, I would have laughed in your face. I have a hereditary illness, so I made the decision a long time ago not to have children biologically, and some issues of my past would prevent me from ever adopting from a traditional adoption agency. My husband and I had just accepted that the closest we would ever get to having a child is our beagle, Joey.

    When we first got the call, I could think of a hundred reasons not to do it. And only four reasons in favor of it. But those four reasons just kept eating at me, and now I am actually excited at the possible opportunity to be able and make a difference in this child’s life. And ironically, the issues of my past that make me ineligible to adopt from a traditional adoption agency are probably the biggest “plus” I have to offer her. Because we have something in common. And I can understand that part of her past like most people couldn’t.

    Reading your article made me just that much more certain that taking her into our home is the right thing to do — for her and for us. We know that it will be very difficult at first, and there will be times when we will wonder if we made a mistake. But she is not a movie or a library book to be returned when we are “through” with her. She is a human being, a gift from God. If we commit to the long haul, and take “sending her back” off the table as an option, then together we will work through the rough times. We can do this. I know we can.

    I am so sorry that this has been your experience. So very sorry. But I hope it gives you some sense of peace to know that your story has helped another child find a loving and stable home. Whenever I feel scared, I will read your article again, and it will give me renewed strength. I can’t thank you enough.

    • Thank YOU Sherry. I’m overwhelmed by so many comments from people who are walking the walk right now. And I’m so glad that Stephen’s story can have a footnote to his tragedy, which is that perhaps his story will in fact help others.

  59. may your compassion extend to all beings, which, naturally includes mullets.

  60. Stephens Mom Reply

    Thank you for this piece. It comes at a time in my life when it may help me survive the next few months. My wife and I just took in “Stephen”. He is 8 and has been in at least 8 homes, maybe more. It’s a long story of how he was given at age 4 weeks to his great grandmother and then taken by the state into a series of foster homes, one long-term kinship foster to adopt from which he was removed due to physical abuse to him and his sister reported by the oldest sister. He then went to two different foster-to-adopt homes: one from which he was given back after a year and a half. The next one lasted only 3 months. He calls her “mom number 4”. He then went to an intensive foster home for another year and a half.

    We had the good fortune to adopt his two older sisters, now 13 and 10. After having them for 2 years we decided a few months ago that we couldn’t sit back and watch him bounce from home to home and then have visits with his sisters (at our home) and beg to come to live with us. Knowing we didn’t really have the time or energy (we are in our 50’s) or the space in our lives to take him, we decided we couldn’t NOT take him. We couldn’t live with ourselves if we kept sending him back to a foster home.

    We have had him now for 7 weeks. He has diagnoses of PTSD, RAD, and ADHD. He tantrums. He hits. He kicks. He screams. He slams doors. He throws things. He refuses to eat. He refuses to brush his teeth. He refuses to go to bed. He doesn’t sleep through the night. He talks incessantly. He never stops moving. He complains. He whines. He begs for toys and to be taken to the store. When we call him, he refuses to come and says, “Am I in trouble?” When really upset, he bangs his head on a flat surface (hard) and says, “I’m a bad boy. I’m a bad boy.”

    His 10 year old sister said when we told them he was coming to live with us, “It’s my dream come true.” Last night she said this is her worst nightmare. He went hiking with a neighbor and his son the other day. The 13 year old said, “He’s been gone a long time. Maybe he go lost. Maybe hel’ll die.” (She was joking — a bit of wry humor — and last night after his tantrum she said, “Maybe we could sell him.” (Again joking, but clearly fed up.) She said to us, “It’s not 100% for sure we’re keeping him, is it?” We delivered the bad/good news: Yes, we are keeping him. No matter how long the tantrums last, we are keeping him.

    Because we can’t live with ourselves if we send him away. But I’ve been crying for 3 days straight and I don’t know where to find the love in my heart that I need to see him through.

    But I’ve bookmarked your essay and when I feel as thought I’ve hit rock bottom I will read about Stephen and remember why we are doing this.

    Although Stephen did not make it into home where he was loved unconditionally, our son did. And as I struggle through the trauma of living with his trauma and the sister’s reactivated trauma, I will read Stephen’s story and remember why we are doing this.

    Thank you for writing bravely about Stephen’s suffering, and our collective neglect of vulnerable children, and of the life-long pain that comes from accompanying young children and youth thru their trauma. The risk you took in writing this heart wrenching and sorrowful post is worth it: you have given me just the message I need on a day when I had an unexpected 3 hour period alone and can really take it in.

    When I take my next deep breath and respond with calm in the midst of a tantrum, I will invoke Stephen’s name. Thank you.

    • Thank you so much for this comment. You sound like EXACTLY where that boy needs to be. If you need something else to help you through the tough patches up ahead, I’d encourage you to read the book “The Things I Want Most” by Richard Miniter. The child Richard and his family adopted went through some extremely difficult times that sound much like what you’re going through right now. It’s an excellent read and helps you to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

      I’m so happy that you came across this post when you did.

    • It sounds like he may be testing you so that you will prove your love. He is so used to being shipped back that he wants to be shipped back on his terms instead of loving you and then it happening on your terms. I went through the system and there are lots of kids, myself included, that just wanted to not feel. Give him time, he will begin to trust again.

    • Stephen’s Mom: I too am a foster/adoptive parent of a trauma disordered child. He came to us at 16 and is now 22. We adopted him at 21. I know quite well of what you speak. I have had doors ripped off hinges; holes in wall, trash barrels thrown, called every name in the book and threatened. I refused to give up on him though at times I felt I just couldn’t go on. I have fought with school administrators at IEP meetings (sobbed at some too!), yelled at DCF staff and “educated” family members who could not understand why we kept him in our home. I often felt so alone. I read everything I could get my hands on regarding attachment disorder and trauma disorder. I found Attach ( an organization filled with wise wonderful people going through the same things. Our son has made so much progress and when people ask me what I think helped him I always answer “we never gave up on him” and believe this to be true; no matter the therapies or meds or neurofeedback etc, if we had given up it would have confirmed his own beliefs that he was not worthy of love. I wish you the best of luck and thank you for not giving up. I suggest to anyone thinking of foster/adoption; read up on everything you can get your hands on regarding the issues of traumatized children and be prepared. Don’t go into it thinking ‘well if it doesn’t work out we will just give him/her back”. This is a major commitment and not for the faint of heart; however, the impact you will have on a child’ life is immeasurable. I have learned so much from our son about the resilience of the human spirit. We could not have helped him if he did not want the help even though he buried that want very deep. Thank you Liz for this article. It brought up so many emotions for me that I was speechless. I know that had we not found each other, our son’s future would look very much like Stephen’s.

    • Stephen’s Mom,
      I strongly encourage you to read the book “The Connected Child” by Dr. Karyn Pervis. It will be the lifeline you’re looking for! It’s definitely worth finding the time for!

  61. I have been mentoring a child in the foster system for two and a half years. She is a former student of mine. I have thought about fostering but I just don’t think it’s right for our family. I have been the only stable adult in her life through four foster homes. Even her mother sometimes cancels visits, but I always come when I say I will. I try to be like a Grandma is in a child’s life, thinking that everything she does is wonderful, and telling her how special she is. I often wonder whether spending time 3-4 times per month will be enough to keep her from being a Stephen. It’s the best I can do, but I don’t know if it’s enough.

    • As a former foster kid, I can assure you that mentors have more influence than most in a foster kids life. In a child’s mind, foster parents, social workers, and teachers get “paid to care”; whereas, a mentor is there because they genuinely care about you. Now, obviously, we know that no rational person decides to become a foster parent, social worker, or teacher for the money!!! 🙂 However, in a child’s mind, they are simply doing their “job”. On the other hand, a mentor isn’t required to show up and doesn’t get paid. This means that their motives are “pure” and automatically makes them more trustworthy in a foster child’s eyes.
      As a long term mentor, you are providing something for this child that no one else is…You are bearing witness to her life! This is VITAL to her emotional and relational development! You are teaching her what a long term relationship looks like. You are the sharer of her stories…the keeper of her trust…the witness to her life! Your relationship with her will change her life! I promise!

  62. Stunning piece. I’m so sorry for your loss! I mentored a teen mother in our church for a few years and that was difficult when I had to choose to separate our relationship. (I was enabling her and she was happy to milk the generosity of our church.) My heart is still hurting from her. And disappointed I think. 🙁

    I’ve long had foster and adoption on my heart. But I’ll be honest. I’m scared. I have two bio boys and I’m terrified of being placed with a child that somehow harms them. I know there is a need for the older ones. I’m just not sure I have what it takes. And I’m not even sure what my husband would allow it, after seeing what our teen mother put me through.

  63. As a young teen our next door neighbors became foster parents. They were a short term “emergency” type home. Many times I would be over there visiting their biological son as we were best friends. I would see children come and go. The one time I actually witnessed one of the foster kids packing their bags in garbage bags I was disgusted by that. I bought and begged every suitcase I could, cleaned and repaired many so at least the kids next door didn’t have to be “garbage”. It broke my heart. Even as a 16 year old boy I knew, somehow, that these kids were not disposable. I did all I could to provide them with ANYTHING other than a garbage bag for their stuff.

    Then I met “Samantha” (not her real name), I was helping bathe the little ones when she came in the bathroom and undressed. She was 11 years old. I knew it was somehow wrong the be there with her undressed and as I gathered up the toddler in a towel she offered a sexual “service” in trade for a snickers candy bar! I was floored by not only her statement but by her nonchalance of it all. I immediately told “grandma” what happened and was in tears as she explained this poor little girl grew up thinking this was normal and a way of expressing love. I was literally sickened by it.

    It shames me to admit that because of that incident I avoided getting close to the kids and avoided even going inside if I didn’t have to, I didn’t want to be hurt again and didn’t want to believe that kind of thing was even possible. It really awakened me in a way that I wasn’t ready for at 15.

    Your story about Stephen really touched me and made me cry all over again for Samantha. I haven’t thought of her in years and I wish I knew what happened to that poor little lost soul caught up in that system.

    Thank you, simply thank you for what you do.


  64. My mom was killed when was 8, my sisters were 7,4, and 3. My parents were divorced and he had remarried a woman with 3 boys. They came to New York and moved us to Florida where they lived. we were expected to be perfectly behaved kids We weren’t after a few weeks we were sent to a childrens home. The youngest was adopted shortly thereafter. then the next youngest was adopted, then the other sister found a forever home.
    I stayed at the home for 3 years then went into the system Every time I would be placed in a good home I would get moved. 11 homes in 6 years. No sense of security or of being wanted and loved.
    At 18 I aged out and since then have made a life for myself.
    I never had children, thought with my upbringing I would be a horrible parent. Now at 53 I find myself the legal guardian of 5 kids under 5 that were removed from their home.(their mom was at one time a friend, and I have known the kids since birth)
    I try to be the best parent I can be for them, but the most important thing I do for them is let them know they are safe, loved and wanted.
    I was Stephen.

  65. Cannot stop crying:( Until I got to his murder part, I was thinking that I should talk to my husband about adopting Stephen as we’ve already adopted an older girl recently……then I read that he’s gone:( Thank you for being his best friend….xxx

  66. Hey Liz: A very powerful blog. I’d like to interview you on our radio program about it. Will you e-mail me with your information when you can.

  67. My husband walked into the room to see tears streaming down my face. This was so heartbreaking. Thank you for sharing this story. These children, all children need a voice.

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  71. The system does not only fail the kids, it fails the foster homes that are in it for the right reasons. I have the toughest of children that RTC refuse to take or have kicked out, ones that are severely behavioral and mentally ill. I have been broke by the system; degrading, covering their hind ends by pointing blame at our home. Sadly we will finish out the time with the ones we have with us, then close this chapter in our life. Being a foster parent was my passion, these kids deserve it. All it takes for you to become a bad foster parent is a social worker trying to cover their mistakes. The young man you speak of in your post, I have had more then you can count on your fingers and toes, some aged out, some adopted some adopted by us. Yet they ALL still call me mom and still come “home” for every holiday, special occasion and just because. It is sad when the system fails so miserably.

  72. Wow, reading this was very emotional for me. I adopted a child through foster care and she has been displaying some “challenging” behaviors. It has been depressing me lately and I was started to wonder if adopting this child was the right thing for me. After reading this story, I remember why I did adopt her and I’m so glad I did. She will never again have to leave a home to go to another or think that she is not loved. Thank you!

  73. As both an adoptee and social worker, I want to thank you for this thought-provoking article. I also appreciate your respect and dignity you gave Stephen’s birth mother. You are truly compassionate and admirable!

  74. Hi Liz,
    I’ve worked as a social worker, so I know well the heartache of placing a child in a new home time and time again. I understand what it’s like to lay awake at night and worry over the futures of so many little lives. I’m familiar with the heavy burden that comes with wishing there was more that you could do for these kids. I know the guilt that comes when your best doesn’t seem good enough. However, you provided something for Stephen that you may not have even realized you gave him. You provided him with a witness to his life. I know that this may sound mundane, or even corny, but I can assure you that it is vitally necessary.
    After spending a total of 14 years in foster care myself, before I aged out at 18, I know how important it is to have a witness to your life. Imagine growing up without hearing any stories about your past…because no one knows them. Imagine not knowing what your first word was, when you learned to walk, or how you got that funny looking scar. Imagine never hearing the story of your birth or your childhood exploits. When you are constantly living in a new home with new parents who don’t know much at all about you, it’s almost impossible to gain a sense of who you are as a person.
    When children are young, we subconsciously evaluate them, praising them for the things they excel in and helping them improve in areas where they don’t naturally succeed. The praise we give toddlers for their natural abilities actually helps to steer them in the direction of their natural talents, and then on to success. Devoid of this praise and affirmation, these children are left with a loss of identity; which often leads to depression and substance abuse in adolescents.
    For Stephen, you were the one constant presence in the ever rotating carousel of foster parents. Please trust me when I tell you that he knew you cared! Foster kids can always tell whether someone truly cares or not! It’s a survival skill we pick up quickly in our birth families. 😉
    For a foster care “lifer” like me, childhood can easily feel like a string of random snapshots with no common thread to tie them together. Because of all the trauma, our memories are often unclear or unreliable. It’s easy to believe that social workers know more about our lives than we do because our memories are those of children. There isn’t anyone who can answer “yes” when we ask “Do you remember when…?” because there is no one who knew us for more than one foster home or “snapshot” of our life. You were there for Stephen through countless homes. You were the one he came to when life got hard. You were the string that tied his snapshots into a story. You were the witness to his life! Thank you for honoring his memory by telling his story!

    • Melanie, I wonder if you haven’t touched on an idea that could turn into something that really, really might help kids in foster care. Do social workers routinely make memory books? I wonder if that would help them to keep their ‘story’. A few photographs for each year even, with a few notes from whatever foster home they are in to be added over time. The social worker could be the keeper of the book- it would be in the child’s file, and brought out for visits- go over pictures, teach his new foster family about the child, etc etc. it would have to be something that would be trialled, and evaluated for privacy reasons etc., but I think it could really give a child some sense of ground under their feet. Your own personal history shapes you. I’ve read a lot about how tough it is for everyone involved- Foster parents, social workers and kids. This could actually be something concrete that could be done….

      • That is a brilliant idea. My kids sit around looking at photos I have put in books for years and watch their videos. It grounds them in their secure world and of course foster kids would benefit so much from that.

        • Melanie- thank you so much for writing this comment. You sound like an exceptional person, and the fact that you took the time to write down your thoughts on the importance of being a “witness” to another person really means a lot to me. Thank you.

          BC Mom – Yes! This is already done as a practice in my area – it’s called a “Life Book.” It is a fantastic model to be using – the issue that I found when I was working in the field was that the caseworkers are so overburdened with the basic tasks of the job, that maintaining a scrapbook can get overlooked. It is an important idea though, and after thinking more about what Melanie said, I believe it’s even more important than I had realized.

  75. I read this on Sunday morning, later went to church, the service was ironically devoted to children, and started crying in the pew.

    My home was my son’s third placement in his three years of life. He came to us with two garbage bags of clothes reeking of cigarettes two days before Christmas and six before his birthday; the previous placement was so furious that they were found to be unfit foster parents that the gifts that were under their Christmas tree for my son, did not travel with him.

    I swung him up on my shoulders and he had a huge smile. Christmas came and all was good and I was thinking this foster business is pretty easy. That night he was crying uncontrollably, that deep, empty cry of a world being lost. And that’s when I knew that this was not going to be so easy.

    He is better now, three years on. DCS greased the way for our adoption, but he is not whole. And that article just showed me the alternative future of one that I have loved since I first saw him.

    I’m a guy, guys don’t cry, but I did for probably for the first time in over 20 years. I’ve had two sleepless nights now after reading this, so sad for Stephan and so scared for mine and what could have been.

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  77. Our adopted son came to us at birth through foster care. His FASD presents daily challenges, and sometimes I get upset with him, even though I shouldn’t. But reading this story makes me SO, SO, SO, thankful that he is MY son and will NEVER have to prove he is worth something. Thank you for reminding me to hug him even more tightly.

  78. When I first read this, I was sobbing. We had just completed the adoption of our daughter. The second time I read it, it got me moving on something I have been wanting to do for a long time. I bought the website domain sharehugs(dot)org I got in contact with a company that makes laundry bags out of reclaimed mesh. The feedback on the sample laundry bags from the caseworkers have been great. The bags partially stand. They can also be used as a backpack. The mesh was donated by the Museum of Art in Birmingham and will be bright and fun. The label is where the caseworker can write the kiddo’s name and then, an emergency contact number. It looks like thru friends and family we have raised enough money for 120 bags ($16 apiece). We are also doing the no sew blankets to accompany the bags. I wanted to let you know that your article inspired me to get to moving on this project. Thank you.

    • Niki – That is amazing! Thanks for sharing this. I’m so glad that the article didn’t just make you sad, but inspired you to do something that will be helpful to other children in difficult circumstances. Such a great thing you are doing, and I really appreciate you letting me know.

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  82. This must have been so difficult for you to write. Embracing heartbreak long enough to put it into words, when all you really want to do is seal it in a box and bury it, is excruciating. Thank you for sharing Stephen’s, (and your), story, and for working for children who don’t have a voice of their

    Two of my siblings were adopted, but some of their biological siblings grew up in the system. The difference between their emotional development and mental health, and that of my adopted siblings is striking.

    It breaks my heart that anyone has to grow up without a family to love them.

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  86. I was in foster care for a good portion of my childhood. After the third or fourth home I developed a bit of an attitude problem. It was obvious which foster families cared and wanted to help and which ones were in it for the money or expected free labor.

    I had every label possible slapped on me. Was told I had to enjoy my childhood. Was told I had to follow foster Mom 10s religion. Foster mom 10 would also tell complete strangers why I was in foster care and beam like she was a matyr for taking for taking in the girl that wasn’t wanted.

    I ran away a few times.

    My last foster mother was a woman who worked in the cafeteria of my middle school. She has an older biological daughter, but unlike the other foster families she didn’t raise her child on a pedestal next to me. She didn’t throw me away to the next family when I was angry. I was adopted November 1, 2004 seventeen days before my sixteenth birthday.

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  88. This is heartbreaking! The only thing that comes to my mind is How can we, as a whole society, be failing our children so badly?
    My best words for all the foster and adopting parents, social workers and anyone who care for and love the less fortunate children and make a positive change in their lives, one day at time.
    Liz – thanks for sharing Stephen’s life story and make him relevant and loved. Hope it can make the difference in other Stephens lives! Lots of love x

  89. PLEASE tell me that this is an amalgamation of many experiences and not the true story of one little boy.

    • It is the experience of one of our writers with one boy. This is a true story of a child who had nobody and nothing from his family.

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