Seven-year-old Angela stared out the window, pressing her face close to the pane. She watched as her mother opened the door of the taxi and climbed in. The taxi driver tossed suitcases in the trunk, and the car sped away.
There were no goodbyes.
Watching her mother leave was difficult, but life with her mother had proved perilous. When Angela was two, her mother sat her on a hot burner. She spent three months in the hospital with severe burns.
Once Angela's mother left, things did not get better. Her father moved her and her brother to Chicago, along with an uncle and his girlfriend. Angela's uncle was an alcoholic and an addict. He was in charge of the children while their father worked out of town for four to five days at a stretch. Each night he came home late after visiting local bars. He was violent and loud and drunk. He beat the children, slamming their heads into walls and slapping them.
The family moved again, this time to Ohio, leaving the uncle behind. Shortly after the move, Angela's father met a woman named Linda on the Internet. She left her husband in Florida to move in with Angela's father and the children. Linda soon decided to move back home, but invited Angela's father to come with her so once again the children were relocated. It was a confusing situation. Linda was married and living with her family, but she was still Angela's father's girlfriend, and they all lived under the same roof.
Linda accused Angela of being crazy. She forbid her to eat with them so Angela ate her meals alone on the covered patio. She was pushed further into isolation when she wasn't allowed to talk to her brother or to walk to school with him.
Every day after school, the young girl was forced to scrub the pool deck with bleach and water. Angela's hands, feet, and knees were red and raw.
Linda often banged Angela's head on large rocks in the back yard as punishment. She hit her and slapped her. She and Angela's father made her take scalding hot baths with bleach, peroxide, baking soda, and dish soap. Along with another family member, they did things to her that Angela couldn't speak of and didn't want to think about.
The abuse continued. The dogs were allowed to live in the house, but Angela was not. She slept in the garage when it was cold or raining, and on the patio when the weather was fair. She was not allowed to come in to get a drink or use the bathroom. She went to the bathroom in the yard.
Then Linda and her father started tying Angela to a lounge chair each night, binding her wrists and ankles with rope and duct tape. She was given sleeping pills to keep her quiet. When ants swarmed her and bites covered her body, Angela's father produced a three-by-five-foot box to replace the lounge chair. Angela climbed into the box every night, and a sheet was placed over wire mesh so that she couldn't see. She was forced to breathe deeply through the spaces between the boards to get enough air.
One blessed afternoon she was called into the principal's office. Angela's teacher had observed scratches on her pupil's neck, bald spots where Linda had pulled her hair, and bruises and rope burns on Angela's wrists and ankles. For the first time, Angela felt safe enough to share the horrific stories of her everyday life. School officials immediately called the police, and later that afternoon Angela's father and Linda were arrested and placed in jail.
Two days before Angela's 12th birthday, she stood on the doorstep of her new foster home. Her brother had been taken to a separate foster family. She had the clothes on her back and a small bag. Uncertainty had marked Angela's life from the very beginning, and it was no different as she began this new phase.
Numbers and Names
Each year, statisticians compile data on child neglect and abuse. The numbers are placed in neat rows and organized columns, and yet the stories behind the numbers represent real children living in real pain. Angela is only one of many of those names and numbers. At present, on any given day there are an estimated 400,000 children in foster care in the United States. The average time a child remains in foster care is nearly two years. Each year, approximately 20,000 children will age out of the system without ever being placed with a permanent family.
Though Angela's case is considered severe, many children never live to tell their stories. The National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System reported that an estimated 1,500 child fatalities are caused by abuse or neglect annually. Seventy-nine percent of child abuse or neglect fatalities are caused by one or both parents.
Foster care is often criticized in our society, citing lack of available or adequate homes or the small ratio of social workers to children and families. And yet every day the foster system rescues children like Angela from situations over which they have no control.
The foster system is not perfect, yet foster homes serve an essential service for children and their parents who must live apart from each other due to physical or sexual abuse, neglect, or special circumstances necessitating out-of-home care.
Challenges and Champions
When a local news station pleaded with the public to consider foster parenting, Patty Davis and her husband were curious and attended a meeting. They had been married for ten years, and their attempts to have children had been unsuccessful. After hearing the information, they signed up to be foster parents.
"We believed this would be a great way to help children who needed a safe place to lay their heads," Patty says.
Angela is one of over 100 foster children who have come into the Davis home since that time. Her foster mother remembers the day she first met Angela.
"She was tough and defiant," she recalls.
Patty took the young girl outside to talk, and Angela spilled everything immediately, as if testing her. She told her that she had learned many harmful things from her father and Linda. She said that she was forced to watch bad movies and that she cursed and talked back. She confessed that she felt like fighting much of the time and that she didn't trust anyone, especially adults.
Angela was one of the tougher cases to come into her home, but Patty decided to take it one day at a time.
"I believe that to be a foster parent you need to have faith in God. I don't think we could go through the things we do with the children if we didn't have faith," Patty says.
Though Angela was angry and hurting, training and experience had taught the Davises that transitions aren't always easy and that every child, especially children who have suffered abuse, need consistency, safe discipline, and love. They began the process that day.
In the beginning, Angela rebelled.
"I wasn't the perfect child. I ran away. I said things that I shouldn't have," Angela says. She suffered from nightmares, imagining hands around her neck and waking up out of breath.
But she was also learning what it meant to be a part of a family, one that was consistent and loving. Every night the family ate dinner together, holding hands and praying. Patty taught Angela to talk to God about anything that was on her heart, including her parents.
The nightmares ceased, and Angela began slowly letting her guard down with her foster parents. When Angela looks back at that period of her life, she remembers the first embers of hope.
"I started to believe that these adults really loved me," she says. "My foster mom set up counseling, and I began to work on my anger."
Angela became a big sister to other children in the household. "It's pretty cool to have other kids in the house," she says. "We're all different, and we all have issues. Some are just greater than others."
Helping and Hurdles
Children are removed from homes every day. State agencies have a difficult time because there are more children than homes to place them in. The greatest need is for children eight to 16 years old, though homes for younger children, babies, and children with disabilities are also in great demand. When a licensed foster home is not available, children are placed in group homes, orphanages, or crisis shelters. While these options do take the child out of the situation, children do not receive the benefits of the loving environment that a foster family can offer.
A foster family can touch the life of a child, but there are challenges. Some problems that a foster parent might encounter include setting discipline in the home, bed-wetting, lying, or rebellion. Foster parents act as any other parent, but with the added challenge of dealing with a child who has a troubled background and a fear of rejection. Since trust and change evolve slowly, foster families need to have tolerance, patience, and flexibility. The foster parent must be able to let go if the child needs to be relocated or placed back with his or her family.
Food and shelter are a blessing, but foster homes need to provide a sense of belonging, acceptance, and love. Often, in the beginning, these efforts are met with resistance, and there could be many early failures in forming lasting bonds.
Angela offers this advice to anyone considering opening his or her home: "I want people to know that they will get all kinds of kids in their home. Some will be great, and some not so great, but one thing that every child needs is love. They want to know that they're worth something. Every child deserves to have a safe place to live, to have food on the table, and to not worry if they will have a bed to sleep in."
Endings and New Beginnings
Four years after the trial of Angela's father (charged only with a lesser offense of child endangerment), all of his and Angela's mother's parental rights were terminated. The Davis family officially adopted Angela as their daughter.
The five years leading up to this day weren't easy for Angela or the Davis family. But, as many who have opened their homes to foster children discover, watching a child grow and thrive—whether she stays with you long-term or is nurtured while her family heals—can be the most rewarding aspect of fostering.
It is the reward Patty Davis sees when she looks at Angela.
"Angela is an honor-roll student. She has a weekend job. She's forgiven her dad and the other family members who abused her. She's a Christian, and her faith in God is very important to her," she says. "She is a totally different person today."
Angela has become a vocal advocate for other children who suffer neglect and abuse. Her long-term goals are to continue to champion the cause of children and speak up for those who have no voice. She speaks at middle and high schools to help children and adults recognize the signs of abuse.
"My parents are helping me fulfill my dreams," she says. "I'm going to attend college and law school. I want to be a prosecuting attorney, and I plan to be a judge."
Years have passed since the hurting child arrived at the Davis home. Angela is a firm believer that foster care rescued her and gave her a second chance. "I believe that if Department of Children and Family hadn't stepped in, I would've died."
Are you interested in touching the lives of one of the thousands of children looking for a safe place to lay their heads? If you are, there may be a child just like Angela waiting to knock on the door of your home and heart.
Editor's note: Angela's brother was also adopted by his foster family. Both sets of parents are friends and live a few miles from each other so the siblings have remained close.
T. Suzanne Eller is the author of The Unburdened Heart: Finding the Freedom of Forgiveness (Regal). She is a veteran youth worker and national conference speaker.
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