Strapp held his wife’s hand as he drove, stealing glances at the photograph she held. This was the only picture they had of their son, a photo they received from their social worker. The boy looked to be about six years old, and he had dark skin, darker eyes, and black hair. Strapp and Julie had never met him, but they knew he was theirs.
“How are you feeling, babe?” Strapp asked as they pulled into the parking lot of the adoption agency.
“I just want to meet him. I know this face so well,” Julie said, looking down again into those dark eyes. “I want to know the rest of him.”
She had printed several copies of his photo, and now they each had one. Strapp carried the photo in his wallet. Caroline, delighted to get a little brother, taped the photo to the inside of her locker at school. And Julie almost always had it in her hand.
His name was Joseph. They had nicknamed him Little Joe.
Finally, this day had come. They were on their way to the agency, taking the next step toward bringing him home. Today, they would learn his story.
Strapp parked the car and turned off the ignition. He turned to his wife. “You’re the best mom I know.”
Her smile only halfway filled her face. “I hope we can do this. I keep thinking of the horror stories they told us in the foster parenting classes, all those words about attachment disorders and kids who don’t know how to love or be loved.”
“Julie, they just say those things to prepare people for the worst, and they probably get some people who have no idea what they’re signing up for. People who’ve never parented at all. I mean, I don’t mean to brag… but if they met Caroline, they’d see that we know what we’re doing.”
Julie smiled. “She is pretty amazing, that girl of ours.”
He took her chin in his hand. “And we raised her. You and me. We are good parents. We can do this again. No matter what. We’ve got this.”
She took that deep breath again, and he recognized the sound: the moment just before the point of no return.
Strapp squeezed her hand. “You ready?”
She squeezed back, her eyes shining with tears. “I’m ready. Let’s go meet our son.”
~ ~ ~
As a seasoned caseworker for more than a decade, Joan Davis had processed more foster placements than she could count or maybe even remember. At this point in her career, she wasn’t interested in counting anymore, anyway. Joan no longer allowed time for sentimentality when files were piling high with the names and stories of high maintenance children and even higher maintenance parents. She had this process down to a science of efficiency, and she fully intended to close this file before lunchtime.
Joan had emailed and phoned with Strapp and Julie for weeks now, so it would be good to finally connect faces with their names. She heard two knocks on her office door, and there they were, meeting in person for the first time.
Lord, he’s tall, Joan thought.
She stood to greet them, reaching across her desk to shake their hands. “Well, well! Good morning to you, the new parents!”
“Ms. Davis, I’m so glad to meet you, finally,” Julie said.
“The pleasure is mine. Please, call me Joan.” Julie took Joan’s hand into both of hers.
“I believe you have a child who belongs to us?” Strapp said with a smile as she shook his hand as well. His giant palm dwarfed Joan’s.
“Yes, sir, I believe I might! Let’s get started, shall we? I have a lot to tell you.”
They each sat down across from her desk, and Joan opened the folder that held Joseph’s file. She took out a handful of photos, and she lined them up on the desk like scenes from a comic strip. Joan pointed to the first photo on the left.
“Well, here he is. Meet Little Joe. This is the first photo we have of him, on the day he came into the system. He was about eighteen months old when this picture was taken. The police gave us this photo. Actually, the police gave us most of these.”
In that first snapshot, Joe was sitting in a large chair next to a metal desk in a police station. He was wearing a t-shirt and a diaper, his hands resting on the green vinyl seat of the chair. He didn’t have a blanket or a teddy bear; he didn’t even have a pair of pants. As toddlers tend to position themselves in chairs too big for them, Little Joe’s legs were splayed straight in front of him, so the dirty soles of his feet faced the camera. His dark eyes looked empty.
Julie picked up the photo, holding it so that both she and Strapp could study it.
Joan read from the file, rattling off details and facts with the level of emotion one might assign to a list of phone numbers.
“Let’s see. Bio mom was a severe drug addict, and Joseph was born addicted to drugs and alcohol from the pregnancy. Bio dad was never determined. Mom would leave on drug binges for days at a time, and there was no adult to step in when mom left him in the house all alone. As you can see here,” she offered them the second photo, “the home was in deplorable conditions.”
The house was piled high like an episode of Hoarders. A tattered couch, a stained coffee table, but nothing of consequence or permanence or…a home. Just piles of newspapers and trash.
In the bottom right corner of the photo, Strapp noticed a small bowl, half-filled with food. “Looks like they had a dog?”
Joan scanned her document with her finger and frowned. “Says here, no pets. No, that was Joseph’s bowl. Bio mom would put a can of beans on the floor for him to eat while she was gone.”
Julie put her hand to her mouth, stifling a small gasp. Strapp furrowed his brow.
“What’s all that? Drug paraphernalia, I assume?” Strapp asked, pointing to the needles and syringes scattered on a coffee table.
“Yes, sir. All within arm’s reach of a toddler. That’s a no-go for us, as you can imagine.”
They sat silently for a minute or so. This was so much to take in for an adult, and yet it had been this very little boy’s whole life.
“How did you find him? How did you know this was happening?” Julie asked.
Joan looked up from the file. “Sad story. Bio Mom had a court hearing for drug charges, and when she went through security at the courthouse, they found drug paraphernalia on her person.”
“Right there in the courthouse?” Strapp asked.
“She brought it with her, if you can imagine that. She didn’t get her hearing that day, but she got a ride in the cop car over to the station instead. She mentioned a kid, and when the officers went to her address to check, they found Joseph.”
“Was he all alone?”
“Not that time. Says here in the file that she had left him with somebody she’d met that morning at the 7-Eleven.”
Julie gasped again, finding it harder and harder to breathe as she considered what this small child’s life had been. How could a mother…?
Joan glanced up at her over the rim of her glasses. Then she took them off and placed the glasses on her desk. “Mrs. Strapson, with all due respect, I must encourage you to get a handle on your emotions. We have a lot of information to get through here. Unfortunately, if you let it all get to you, we’ll never get down the list.”
Julie took Strapp’s hand. She sat up taller.
“I apologize. I just…”
“I know it’s a lot. Believe me, I know.”
“How do you hold it all?” Julie whispered.
Joan held Julie’s eye contact, dealing with the reality of her emotions that she always tried to keep tucked safely away, separate from her work. “Ma’am, I cannot hold it all. So, I send them on to parents who can.”
She opened the file, and she continued with Joseph’s story.
“Joseph went into the system when he was just under two years old. A family took him in with the intent to adopt him, but it took about two years for him to become legally free for adoption.” She pointed to the next photo in the lineup. A young couple with two blond children, and Joseph.
“One month before the adoption would be finalized, the adoptive mother died from… let’s see…” Joan scanned her finger down the page again, looking for a diagnosis or cause of death. “Ah, yes. Here it is. Cancer.”
Julie and Strapp looked at the photo. The lovely blond woman, with the kind and loving face, had died.
Joan prattled on. “Adoptive father decided to go through with the adoption after his wife died, and within three months, he had married his wife’s best friend.”
She looked up at them over the top of her glasses. “Deduce from that what you will.”
Strapp raised his eyebrows. Julie swallowed hard.
“So, the dead wife’s best friend stepped in as Joseph’s third mother figure, and after six months, she had had enough. Something like an ultimatum, I suppose. ‘Get rid of the boy, or I’m leaving.’”
“She wanted him to get rid of Joseph?”
“Her agenda for her new family did not include him, it appears.”
“So, then what?”
“Well, the adoptive father put Joseph back into the system. Joseph went to live with what we call ‘professional foster parents’ at that point. They have six foster children living in their home.”
“Six?” Strapp asked.
“It adds up to federal stipends as income, sir. It’s how some people take a paycheck. It sounds like a lot, for sure. Some foster parents actually do it very well. But not all.”
“And he’s with them now?”
“He is, and I will tell you, this is not a good situation.”
“There have been some allegations of abuse, and perhaps some, shall we say, unconventional discipline. But those are unsubstantiated.”
“Please, Ms. Davis—I mean, Joan,” Julie said, “How soon can we start the transition into our family?”
Joan closed the file and looked at them. “Well, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about today.” She took off her glasses, set them on her desk, and folded her hands on top of the closed folder.
“Normally, we would introduce you to everyone on Joseph’s care team to begin a transitional phase. That varies among families and placements, but typical progression begins with simply a lunch date with the child. Then you spend a couple of hours together next time, then an overnight visit, and then you’ll bring him into your home as foster parents.”
“Yes, that’s what we learned in our classes,” Strapp said.
“That’s what we are anticipating,” Julie nodded.
“It’s actually not what we recommend for Joseph,” Joan said.
The air stood still in the room.
“I’d like to recommend that you take him home with you today.”
Julie’s eyes grew wide.
Strapp said, “What? Today?”
“Yes, Mr. Strapson. The care team has discussed Joseph’s needs at length. As we consider all the transitions he has experienced, we deem it would be best for Joseph to have a clean break.”
“But…but we…please, we are not prepared to take him home today.”
Joan’s brow furrowed. “You are not prepared?”
Julie thought immediately of their empty guest room. “We have a bedroom for him, and there’s a bed. But that is all. I wanted to prepare more of a space to show him we were ready for him.”
“Mrs. Strapson, a bed is all he needs. That is more than he has had in his past.”
Julie and Strapp looked at each other, wordlessly.
Joan interrupted. “This child has had four mothers, and he is not yet in kindergarten. If you are confident that this is the direction you’re headed, and if you intend to make him yours eventually, then we recommend beginning as soon as possible. Permanence is what he needs the most.”
Julie and Strapp held each other’s gaze. He raised his eyebrows, and he took one more deep breath. She nodded almost imperceptibly.
She watched her husband turn back to face the caseworker. His chin jutted forward, his jaw resolute. Strapp spoke with confidence. “Then today is the day. Let’s bring him home.”
~ ~ ~
So they brought him home, and this little boy vined his way deep into their hearts. But the honeymoon ended, as all good things do.
One evening, everything changed. The unexpected became a new reality, as a father wrestles through the challenges of raising a boy who refuses to be a son.
It’s based on a true story, sort of a Tuesdays with Morrie meets The Shack. I wrote this book in collaboration with Jeff Hutcheon – author, pastor, mentor, and good friend. It was one wild ride, and we’re pretty proud of what we made.
My first novel.
p. s. I can’t wait for you to meet Hank. He’s my favorite.
“Strapp, I’ve coached and mentored many, many men over the years… including your dad. When I see despair on a man’s face, especially to the degree that I see on yours, the root is almost always a misunderstanding of God’s character.”
“Our journey started on a Sunday afternoon in the late fall. My wife and I had always wanted to have two children, but due to complications during our first pregnancy, we were not able to have any more…at least not biologically. But through a miraculous sign from God, we were directed to adopt a boy. A dream had come true, as it is the hope of every father to have a son.
But what happens when expectations don’t meet reality? What happens when a son rejects the love of his father and chooses to remain an orphan?
Join me on this journey and together we will discover the life-changing treasure that lies just below the surface.”
~ Jeff Hutcheon