Kate and Gillian always knew they wanted to adopt a child who might not otherwise find a family. - Photo by Ellen Guettler
Kate Martinson and her partner Gillian Martin knew they wanted to adopt a child ever since they got married. They looked for a house with at least two bedrooms. Kate quit her corporate job with long hours to help Gillian with her bookkeeping business; she wanted to be home for the child they knew they'd have someday.
"All the major decisions we made in our relationship, always there was the conversation of 'How does this fit with the adoption plan?'" Kate says. "And it wasn't the child plan, it was the adoption plan."
Kate and Gillian didn't want to adopt an infant. Kate had spent years working with homeless teens. There was violence in Gillian's home when she was a girl, and she wanted to give a kid the chance at something better. The two women wanted to bring a child into their home who was struggling, a child who might not otherwise get to be part of a family.
When the time came to find this child, Kate and Gillian thought they'd adopt siblings, since it's often hard to find homes where these children can stay together. They looked through Minnesota's online Heart Gallery, which features children in foster care, including many teenagers and sibling groups, who have a hard time finding homes.
But Kate and Gillian were drawn again and again to one girl, a 14-year-old we'll call Laura. She had a sarcastic sense of humor. She liked to cook, knit, and go to garage sales.
"Every time we saw her picture, we kept going, 'What about her?'" says Kate. "There was something in her face that made me go, 'I want to know her.'" She and Gillian couldn't shake the feeling that this girl was meant to be their kid.
Laura had been in foster care since infancy. Her case file contained a staggering lifetime list of 45 foster placements, including homes and institutions. Laura hadn't lived with an actual family since she was 10 years old. What was more troubling, at least four families had stepped forward to adopt her, and all had fallen through.
Kate and Gillian weren't surprised to learn that Laura was diagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder. Children with RAD struggle to form trusting relationships, often because they were abused or neglected when they were little. Laura had spent the past four years in a residential treatment center for kids with behavior problems. There, she'd been known to hit the staff in moments of anger.
But Kate and Gillian were never looking for an "easy" child. They exchanged letters and photos with Laura. They finally met her after her 15th birthday, and they felt an instant connection.
"We have really similar senses of humor," Gillian says. "When we first met her she said she liked us because we were so 'funny and cool.'"
Together they saw movies, went out to eat, and watched fireworks on the Fourth of July. Their daytrips turned into sleepovers and weekends together. Laura seemed to love being part of their family.
"Backrubs and bedtimes and stories and pink fluffy pillows and her slippers." Kate lists off Laura's favorite comforts of home. "She's got, like, 50 stuffed animals."
Kate and Gillian saw a vulnerable little girl inside their new daughter.
"It's like having to do this warp-speed parenting," Kate explains. "Because she's had some really horrible experiences in her childhood and I wanted to take care of that little baby. [But] I also have to treat her as a fifteen-year-old who needs to know how to be in the world in a way that's not going to send her to jail or get her killed."
That's the risk Laura faces if she stays in foster care until she's 18. Many teens who age out of care wind up homeless or in jail. Laura has spent almost a third of her life in residential treatment facilities; her workers worried that she'd never learn to be part of a family.
"How do you help her prepare to become an adult in a world that's not going to institutionalize her?" Kate asks.
Two months after they met, Kate and Gillian started talking with Laura's social workers about when she could move in with them for good. In their home they could give her more attention than she'd get in an institution. And so her workers agreed that it was time for Laura to join her new family.
Five days after Laura arrived, Kate and Gillian had their first big test as parents. After a bike ride to the local convenience store, Laura became angry with Kate for not buying her more chips and Gatorade. They went back and forth. Kate tried to be gentle, but firm. Laura would relent, then bristle at having lost control. Kate says it started to feel like a stand-off. Laura threatened Kate and finally, she punched Kate in the face. Kate was startled by the hit but was even more surprised by Laura's response.
"I was looking at her face when she punched me," Kate remembers. "What I saw in that face just broke my heart. Her face just crumbled. It looked like she disappointed herself in such a profound way that maybe she didn't know how to come back from it. She hadn't assaulted anyone that severely in a long time, and it was me, who she told everyone she liked."
Kate says she regrets getting into a power struggle with Laura. She now understands how she could have done it differently. But the problems didn't end there. Laura ran away from her new home. Kate and Gillian found her the same day, but they worried about her having been out on her own. In one outburst Laura ripped up a phonebook and started throwing coffee mugs, cracking one living room window. Gillian and Kate did their best to respond calmly; they expected to be tested by this child who had been cast aside again and again.
"[Laura] kept saying, 'So you're not going to get rid of me? You're really not going to get rid of me?'" Gillian recalls. "And we kept saying 'Well, no; we understand that you're breaking things and we don't want you to be doing that, but we love you more than those things. The way she kept saying 'get rid of me' made me think she's not really saying she doesn't want to be here, it's just too scary to trust anything."
"It's like she doesn't expect anything good to last," Kate adds. "She'd rather destroy it on her own terms than wait for someone else to do it, for it to just fade away somehow."
For Kate and Gillian, having Laura as their daughter can be bewildering, and sometimes chaotic. There are moments when they feel like they've given all they can give.
"I found myself shutting down," Kate explains. "I found myself just saying 'I can't feel a thing. I just can't put one more thing in my heart to feel.'"
But then Kate looks at it from Laura's perspective. "I started to think, what is that like for a child who has gone through the first nine years of her life not knowing where in the world she's going to live, or who is going to protect her, or feed her her next meal, or any of that stuff? What does that do to a child? And to think that I've only had to deal with it for two months and she's had to do it for fifteen? No wonder she's so angry."
After living with Kate and Gillian for almost two weeks, Laura ran away a second time and was out all night with a man she met at a bus stop. Her workers began to worry for her safety. They thought she might be better off back in the residential facility after all. Kate and Gillian knew they couldn't prevent her from running away and endangering herself again. They agreed it was best for her to move out.
But they didn't "get rid of" her. They still call her their daughter.
Now they travel three hours most weekends to visit Laura in residential treatment.
They'd still like to adopt her. But they can't afford the care at the institution where she lives. And if they adopt her, the state won't pay for it anymore.
Still, they still think of themselves as a family.
"It doesn't feel like it's over and it doesn't feel like it's failed," Kate says. "I mean, adoption is bringing someone into your life that you call your kid. And that claiming never goes away. I can't imagine saying, 'You're not my kid anymore.'"
"It would be like a death in my family."
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