The social worker walked in with a binder full of profile pages, summaries of hundreds of children’s lives. I sat there for what seemed like hours, looking through profile after profile, unable to make a decision. How do you choose one child over another? How do you decide which is right from a photo? How do you look at a child with special needs and say, “No, you are too much; I can’t handle you,” just as other adults have already done to them?

My husband and I had decided that with all the children in the foster system, we should start our family by adopting one. So there I sat in the social services agency’s conference room, the place where we had gone through weekends of training, looking at the profiles of children available to be placed with a foster family and possibly create our forever family.

The social worker walked in and saw the pain and confusion on my face. She said, “You don’t have to worry; there are other parents for the other kids. Choose the one who is right for you.” And with that permission—wisdom gleaned from her years witnessing people struggle—I was able to make a choice.

The Photo that Wouldn’t Let Go

There was one picture I kept coming back to, one photo that would not let me go. We thought we would adopt a 7- or 8-year-old who would be the big brother or sister to the infant we would adopt later. Instead, the child calling to me was a 15-year-old boy standing on top of a rock, flexing his muscles and looking as if he didn’t have a care in the world. Which I knew was the furthest thing from the truth. So I turned to the social worker and said, “Tell me about him.”

Before his social workers would allow us to meet Tobias, they wanted something from us. We went to another social services agency and another conference room to meet with his current social worker, a former social worker, a special long-term social service worker, and Lisa, his court appointed special advocate (CASA). Lisa had been with Toby since he was 8 years old and abandoned by his father. She knew Toby better than anyone.

They placed a binder of documents in front of us, at least three inches thick, and told us, “These are all the records of Toby’s time in the foster care system.”

He had had 22 different placements in eight years, not a single one lasting more than six months. In one case, he was to be adopted by a family with two other biological children when the father was severely injured in an accident, causing the family to send Toby back to the foster system.

The larger truth was that Toby was in my heart already. I was all in when I heard he still dreams of a forever family.

Finding a Forever Family

In this mound of documents, there was one compelling statement from one of his social workers: “Despite all that heartache and pain that Toby has been through, he still dreams of being adopted by a forever family.”

That day, they told us everything they knew about Toby and his life. Then they told us they would not introduce him to us or even tell him about us unless we were sure we could handle this. They asked us to pledge that we would not give up on him, no matter what. They feared another rejection would crush him.

They asked us to go home and think about it and let them know our decision the next week.

We did think and talk but it didn’t take long. At first, I wondered how anyone could commit to a child no matter what, then I realized that is what every parent does. So that was an easy yes.

The larger truth was that Toby was in my heart already. I was all in when I heard “he still dreams of a forever family.” What an example of the power of faith and hope! He knew his good was out there in the world, and he dreamt about it.

No Matter What

Two weeks later, we sat across from Toby in a Panera restaurant, already committed to the young man we were meeting for the first time. We asked him what color he wanted his room painted.

His preference was black. We compromised on gray. Later we learned that no one in his life had ever asked him that question before.

Much later, at Toby’s 18th birthday party, Lisa, the CASA worker, turned to us and asked, “How did you two do it? Every other foster family sent him back; how did you two do this?” I replied, “Neither of us gave up on him—at the same time.”

There indeed were days when I was ready to give up. Days when Tobias seemed determined to push us away. What teenager doesn’t? There certainly were days when I had had enough, and the reality of what I was living with was so different than I had imagined. In those moments, I could not understand how we would get through it. Then I would remember the pledge we made to his foster care team: no matter what.

I would remind myself that if I had lived through what he had, if I had been abandoned by my parents, left in the foster system for years, rejected by family after family, never had anything that would always be mine, I would probably make the same choices. This understanding made it easier to see that he wasn’t doing anything to me. He was simply doing it, and I was making it about me. I was the egocentric one, not the teenager! Then I could shift my thoughts and be more loving, patient, and kind—the very kind of parent I always wanted to be.

Toby has been my greatest teacher. I have found myself feeling hurt, angry, disappointed, and ambivalent during the last six years. And I have learned what it means to love unconditionally and to accept love without conditions. Priceless.

About the Author

Rev. Ken Daigle (he, him) is the senior minister at Unity San Francisco, California.


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