NAPA, Calif. — Mary and Tom Riley’s son and daughter were in high school when a fellow pro-life activist asked the couple if they would consider adopting a premature infant with a troubled family history.

The request ambushed the Rileys.

“Adoption was not on my horizon, and my children were already grown,” Mary Riley, the vice president of operations for Life Legal Defense Foundation, a pro-life organization, told the Register, as she looked back on that pivotal moment in 1996.

“I wondered if we had the time in our schedule to take care of this infant, as we both were working,” added Tom Riley.

“I don’t leap into things and like to stand back and see if a plan can be carried out. But once I understood the circumstances and spoke with the birth mother, it seemed that we could do this.”

The Rileys took the infant into their home. Five years passed before the adoption was finalized, but the Rileys never wavered, and both learned to accept the painful uncertainty and delays built into the process of adopting children from an often chaotic and overwhelmed foster-care system.

“My sister lost a baby, and that made me realize: No one has a ‘right’ to a child; they are a gift,” said Mary Riley. “I felt from the beginning, whatever time we had with him was what it was supposed to be.”

Over the past two decades, that life-changing decision has inspired the couple to welcome many more children into their northern California home, with three completed adoptions, along with the recent arrival of two teenage foster children.

Like many other Americans seeking to serve as foster and adoptive parents, the couple found they had untapped reserves of love and energy that expanded to meet the needs of each child who entered their home. And as they have grown more familiar with the foster-care system, they have been shocked by a brutal reality: Tens of thousands of fragile, traumatized children remain in the system for years, if not decades, yearning for “forever” parents who will love them.

At present, the official number of U.S. children in foster care has surged to 422,000, with the opioid crisis steadily pushing up that figure, according to the Fostering Success Foundation.

More than 100,000 children from this group are waiting to be adopted, while many more have been removed temporarily from their homes, with the expectation that their mothers and fathers will find the resolve and the support they need to conquer their problems and reunify their families. Children bound for foster care, foster care to adoption, or direct adoption are often classified separately.

But children temporarily removed from their family home might later become available for adoption if their parents fail to recover and their rights are terminated. Meanwhile, a child initially classified as “foster care for adoption” may be returned to his or her family if the case worker believes the biological parents have reformed.

 

Timothy and Lisa Wheeler

Lisa and Timothy Wheeler learned how to navigate the foster-care system in Georgia after the Atlanta-based couple ended their painful, 15-year struggle to overcome infertility issues and began to explore foster care with the goal of adoption. The formal process of becoming a foster parent starts with background checks, an interview and home study, and an assessment of family finances, among other requirements. The foster-care system isn’t uniform, and prospective parents must educate themselves before starting the process in their community.

Until the child is 18, foster parents receive small stipends that help pay for supplies, such as diapers and food, and activities. Children with special needs receive additional assistance, and some states help with adoption expenses, as well.

The Wheelers hoped to work with the local Catholic Charities, but the agency’s foster care and adoption program had been closed.

“We decided to go through the local county’s office of child and family services to be trained and have our home approved,” said Lisa.

In 2011, just a year later, the Wheelers welcomed Elizabeth, 3, their first foster child, and they adopted her two years later.

Now both 49, the Wheelers have cared for 15 children, with Lisa supporting the family as the president of Carmel Communications and Timothy, a former teacher, raising the children full time at home.

Like many other couples who have accepted the responsibility of fostering children, the Wheelers knew they would have to make sacrifices to provide the care their young charges needed, including regular visits to therapists, but also intensive nurturing.

“We adopted two, and we have had a sibling group of three boys in our home for three years that we are currently in the process of … adopting,” Lisa reported. “There are another four who were in our home and whose parents’ rights are being terminated. It is possible we could have nine children before the end of the year.”

It took two years for the adoption of Elizabeth, their first child, to be finalized, and the Wheelers slogged through court proceedings and multiple care plans.

“That is when we converted from a foster-to-adopt home to a regular foster home. Our classification doesn’t exclude adoption, but we will take any children in need of a placement regardless of their circumstances,” Lisa said.

“Our three boys came to us as a ‘respite’ case: We were supposed to keep them for a weekend. That weekend turned into a three-year journey,” she explained, after additional information raised questions about the biological parents’ ability to care for their children.

“Friends say to me, ‘I could never do what you do; my heart would break if I had to give the child back.’ Our hearts have broken when we have loved a child and watched them move on to their family of origin,” she acknowledged. “But God in his mercy and love models how to be a parent to children like this and allows our hearts to be broken and then to recover from that so we can do it again.”

 

Children’s Advocate

Lisa Wheeler, like many foster parents, has become an advocate for children who are stuck in the system — neither returned to their parents nor made available for adoption. But she also emphasized that prospective parents “need to be aware of what they are getting involved with: It is the complete relinquishment of your privacy. Therapists and doctors are coming in and out of our home, as required by law.” Couples exploring foster care must also be prepared for the possibility that their child has faced a significant amount of trauma in his or her young life and will need careful attention and nurturing.

Other parents who spoke with the Register — some of them off the record to protect their child’s privacy — echoed this point and offered a list of likely difficulties that could trouble the child into adulthood. Many continue to deal with separation anxiety and other signs of neglect and abuse dating back to their early childhood.

In one case, a 21-year-old woman still clings to her adoptive mother and rushes to get home before nightfall. Seventeen years earlier, she was removed from her biological parents’ home after a social worker found the child penned up in a crib that served as the household’s trash receptacle.

 

Foster-Care Legacy

Children who were born to drug-addicted mothers may continue to live with intellectual and physical disabilities.

And years after their adoption, some still jealously guard their food and possessions, a legacy of their time in some foster homes, where they never had their own clothes and were refused the treats and vacations that others in the household enjoyed. But while some children suffered from mediocre or negligent care in foster homes, others have benefited from loving, heroic foster parents, like those who care for babies born to mothers who use opioids, including prescription pain relievers or heroin, and need to be carefully weaned over weeks or months.

“When I try to counsel families about this process, I tell them, ‘It’s not about what you get out of the experience,’” said Suzy Younger, a Catholic fertility practitioner in South Bend, Indiana, who has adopted one foster child as well as three other children through private arrangements.

The children’s needs must be paramount, and even if a foster parent yearns to adopt the child, that may not be possible.

Younger, 41, and her husband Dave, 40, were childless when they baby-sat a 4-month-old infant in the care of a foster family and “fell in love” with him.

The Youngers went through training to become foster parents, working with child protection services in the state of Indiana. “We knew he needed a ‘forever family,’ and at the termination of parental rights, we were able to complete the adoption,” Younger said.

But there were many rough patches, when Younger, still recovering from her struggle with infertility, feared she would face more disappointment. “How could I bring that child home and then have them taken away? I was scared,” she told the Register.

Then, while praying before the Eucharist, she felt the Blessed Mother “nudging” her to overcome these fears. “There is a beautiful statue in our parish of Our Lady holding out the Christ Child [as if] she is handing him to you. As I was praying there, I heard her say, ‘If I couldn’t take care of him, would you take care of him for me?’”

That was the turning point. Over 11 long months, Younger felt more at peace as she continued to “love the ‘Christ child,’ not knowing how this story would end.”

Looking back, she describes the experience as something akin to “putting your heart in a blender and pressing ‘pulse.’” Younger has come to understand that a foster parent’s work is necessarily an act of self-sacrificial love. “We are laying down our own desires for comfort and security so the child will have a healing place of love,” she said.

 

Truth Into Action

Back in Napa, California, the Rileys have sought to put this truth into action, as they care for two teenage siblings who have spent their childhood in 12 foster homes and almost as many schools.

“My kids are very different from one another,” said Tom Riley. “But I was a teacher, and I learned to adjust to different kinds of kids.”

His wife enthusiastically described the couples’ decision to take all their children, some of whom, now adults, are living out of state, on a special family vacation.

“I am not going to treat any of them differently, whether they are foster or adoptive or natural,” she said. “They get the same benefits.”

The teenagers, who are Catholic, have also been enrolled in confirmation class, 4-H Club and music lessons. While the younger sibling is an energetic athlete, her older brother shows a gift for jazz piano, and both are on the honor roll. Mary describes her foster son as “a philosopher king who likes to think and debate. He loves my husband, and they bonded immediately.”

After learning that many more local children are still in need of stable homes, she has urged Catholic friends to consider fostering and adopting needy children or supporting families that take on this responsibility.

Empty nesters may not be called to have a child or young teenager in their home, said this woman who has delayed the option of a quiet retirement for years to come.

“But look around to see what you can do. We have a lot of wounded people in our communities, and we need to do more to help the families that are taking care of them without taking on the whole enchilada ourselves,” said Mary. “It takes the whole Body of Christ to do God’s work.”