At foster care, I sobbed as I grasped his tiny hand.

“I was walking down a hallway with my kid after the conference at Isanti Elementary School when I spotted this young woman standing there with a leaflet.” People avoided making eye contact with her, so I assumed she was trying to sell something or get parents to join another time-consuming group. I saw she asked parents for a minute of their time to chat about foster care as we got closer. I’m not sure why I stopped and listened because I felt like I was already struggling to raise my children most days, but I did. Even my rambunctious first grader, who usually wouldn’t sit still and listen, sat still and listened when she started talking about the need they had. We left after hearing her speak, and I drove the five minutes home, came in the door, and exclaimed, “We are going to foster!” to my husband. I expected him to start citing all the reasons we shouldn’t be taking on any further responsibilities. We seemed to have barely sorted out life, let alone parenting; instead, he looked at me, smiled, and nodded.

Our licensing procedure was the same as everyone else’s, and after a long wait, we eventually received a call! Kara, the same social worker I met at the school, called and said they had a small kid who needed a vacation because his parents were overworked. My initial impulse was to flee; his parents couldn’t handle him, and there was no way we could take him. He was nine years older than our two kids. He wasn’t a ‘good’ match for the job. These reasons began to go through my mind, and terror entered the picture. We were afraid that they wouldn’t call us again for a ‘better’ match if we said no. But, after all, it was only a weekend, so how horrible could he be? His mother wanted to meet us after we agreed to provide respite care for him so we would know what to expect and how to handle him.

We met Rachel on a Friday in March. She arrived with Kara and a therapist who assisted with the foster care program’s administration. Rachel began telling us everything we needed to know about Zackary. He’d pretend to be too feeble to help with tasks, making everything more complicated than it needed to be. She mentioned, for example, that she purchased a case of Mountain Dew and requested that he carry it in. He threw it down because it was too heavy but boasted that his minor sister couldn’t carry the same object inside. She continued by saying that he destroyed everything. He had destroyed all of her equipment somehow, so her basement was filled with them. ‘Be sure to look under his bed,’ she added. He’ll take your knives and bury them beneath the ground. He’ll also hide his pets, which he takes in outside and who I frequently find dead in a box.’ Zackary likes to light things on fire, so she cautioned us to be on the alert for matches and lighters. I was sure that the next Ted Bundy was on his way to my house at this moment. This conversation lasted over an hour, and when Rachel eventually ended, everyone was speechless.

After an awkward quiet, I finally said, ‘What does he enjoy doing or receiving when he is good?’ ‘I don’t know; he’s never good enough to deserve a prize,’ Rachel replied. My heart and I believe everyone else’s, fell in despair instantly.

Courtesy of Emily Boettcher

The rest of the conversation was a blur as she continued to talk about how he intentionally wrecked her shoes and clothes. He plays dress-up with them, how he was a difficult child to feed because he was so picky, and how he tormented his siblings in the house to create their own diagnosed trauma. Her final statement was that she wouldn’t take him on family holidays because he was humiliating. She won’t take him to any restaurants or shopping because he’ll raise a commotion. I heard it, but my mind was still replaying the exact words. ‘He is never deserving of a reward.’ What makes him think he’ll never be good enough? She was gone, and I was more afraid than ever that this tiny monster would come over for the weekend and torture my family and me.

We met Zackary around two hours later. We were perplexed when we took him around the house because he was quiet and polite. When we asked what his favorite food is at dinner, he answered, ‘Eh, whatever,’ he said. ‘I’m not fussy.’ What’s going on here? ‘What is going on—been he’s playing quietly with our daughter, saying please and thank you for everything, and now he’s stated he’ll eat everything I put on his plate,’ I wondered. Isn’t this supposed to be a joke?’ He was drawing us in with a false sense of security before transforming into the terror his mother had just described.

‘If you could eat anything, what would it be?’ Brandon, my husband, asked him again.’

‘WellI like Hamburger Helper,’ Zack answered. The taco one, of course! ‘My husband Brandon was thrilled—he, too, enjoys Hamburger Helper, and because I am not a fan, it was never cooked. I sent Brandon to the shop because we couldn’t all go because we had Zack, who, according to his mother, would throw a tantrum and raise a commotion whenever he was out in public. I was terrified, and I knew I wasn’t prepared to deal with it.

Courtesy of Emily Boettcher

We received our first true peek of Zack while eating supper when he casually commented, ‘I can’t believe I got to have this!’ He was ecstatic at something I considered to be practically inedible. ‘I should have ordered for steak and lobster!’ he added, laughing. We all laughed, and the tension vanished in an instant. We didn’t have to wait any longer for this kid to torture us. I wasn’t sleeping with one eye open any longer; it was just relaxing and enjoyable, and he seemed to fit in and be a ‘good’ fit after all. Because his parents ‘couldn’t manage his conduct,’ Zack began to come over more frequently.

Courtesy of Emily Boettcher

Rachel would text me about how awful he’d been, and we’d try to help by talking things over with him when we got there, but we never had the same problems. Zack was well aware of our expectations and would go above and above to meet them. He had confidence in our ability to look after him. We liked having him around because he was a ‘good’ boy. He was the complete polar opposite of what we had anticipated. He was gentle with our other two children, always playing with them and assisting them with tasks they couldn’t handle. He helped us carry groceries up the steps, such as cases of water. Except for dirty clothes, he never concealed anything beneath his bed and would clean them up if asked.

He really wanted a pair of wheelies later that spring. I was tempted to purchase them because he was always so pleasant when we had him. He slipped them on and went out into the garage to test them out. ‘Zacky wounded himself and can’t get up!’ Lillah, our daughter, came storming in after two minutes—literally two minutes—screaming. We dashed out to see a small Zacky slumped on the garage floor, his arm twisted in the opposite direction.

Courtesy of Emily Boettcher 

Our first foster child had been broken. We loaded him into the car, and I contacted Rachel to inform her that I was taking her child to the ER. Zack, Rachel, and I stayed for approximately four hours, just the three of us: Zack, Rachel, and myself. This is the first time I’ve genuinely gotten to observe them interact. This is when I witnessed a small kid, desperate for attention from his mother, begin to act out because she was adamant about neglecting his demands, even though he was lying in a hospital bed. This is how Zack went from being a happy kid to a monster… I was discouraged. I knew neither the parent nor the child was awful people; they didn’t know how to communicate with one another. I brought Zack back to our house after he was cast because he refused to leave with Rachel, and my heart broke for a mother who had been rejected by an injured child who should want their mother; it also failed for Zack, who had already realized his mother couldn’t take care of him the way he needed at such a young age.

Following that, we began working with social workers, skills workers, therapists, and anyone else who would be able to assist us in repairing our relationship. I could see Rachel adored her son, and despite her inability to prioritise her child, I liked her. She was a ‘nice’ individual. The more I learned about her and came to know her, the more I wanted to assist her. When Zack wasn’t in our care, I’d stop by and try to settle things down on both sides, or convince Zack to unbarricade his door and do what was requested of him. I would accompany them to counselling and assist them in seeing the other’s perspective. This carried on for a long time… until the therapist finally called in CPS as more and more details emerged, and it became evident that Zack was no longer secure in Rachel’s home. Zack was now failing school and exhibiting even more behaviors, resulting in his spending most of the day in the particular education room, playing on an iPad. I had expressed my worry to the principal, Mr. Drubie, during an IEP (Individualized Education Program) meeting. He told us that it didn’t matter if Zack was learning the topics or not; they would continue to pass him. After all, if he ever needed to know basic multiplication, he could use his phone’s calculator. Zack’s life was swiftly devolving into a failure to thrive situation, and we felt we needed to get more involved than ever.

Courtesy of Emily Boettcher

He moved in with us full-time, and I was told that no one else was interested in taking him in. CPS wanted us to adopt him after terminating parental rights. I may have panicked out a little, panic set in, and despite our love for Zack, we weren’t ready to be his parents. For us, it wasn’t a lovely time. I was starting a new job and wasn’t sure how my boss would react to a request for additional flexibility than he had previously offered. We declined. How could I, after all, give up hope? How could I take this child away from his mother, whom I considered a friend and knew could be a good parent? After all, she was in love with him. Shouldn’t a mother’s love suffice, even if she has no idea how to express it?

This is the component that most people are familiar with or can assume. We didn’t have to report on her, no matter how much we helped or how accommodating we were with visits or therapies, because she would inform on herself. She was brutally honest, which only motivated me to work harder because I knew she was doing her best. I wanted them to have a good ending, and I wanted to assist them in reuniting with their family. Looking back, I believe I did more harm than good. I should have reported him, I jumped at the first opportunity to adopt him when it came along, and I noted my fear kept me from doing so. I could have saved this youngster a lot of pain. Rachel might have sought treatment sooner if she had known about it. Maybe they’d have a romantic relationship. Perhaps she would not have lost her other children. Maybe I could still call her my friend, and we could have thrown his graduation celebration together. Possibly his story would end on a happier note.

Courtesy of Emily Boettcher

When Zack called, it was a fantastic autumn evening. He hadn’t been gone for more than 12 hours on a weekend home visit with his mother. Zack requested that we fetch him, claiming that Rachel was out of control and that he was terrified. He was sheltering in the driveway as a storm approached. He was at a loss for what to do. I got in my car and drove away. He raced over to the car and leaped in when I pulled up. I couldn’t see him because it was dark, but I could tell he’d been crying. We sat in the driveway, and I inquired as to what had occurred.

‘She’s taking me away to a facility because I’m a horrible kid and I’m ruining her life,’ he explained. We both started crying as all of his most significant worries surfaced and he wondered why no one wanted or loved him. Why couldn’t he act and behave the way she wanted? Why couldn’t he be a good boy? As we drove home, I clutched his little hand. We entered the house, sat in the living room with my husband, and inquired what had triggered her rage.

‘Nobody wants me because—,’ Zack began. ‘Nope, it doesn’t matter what happened, you need to hear this,’ Brandon swiftly intervened. We’re looking for you. We adore you and believe that you always have a place here, no matter what.’ I cried harder than I’d ever expected and realised how much we loved him. We adored him as much as our children and would have done anything to alleviate his suffering at the time. Zack raised his head, barely looking us in the eyes, and asked if we truly loved him. ‘Will you adopt me?’ he then inquired. What had sent me into a panic a few months ago is now one of the most memorable events of my life. Of course, we said yes. It didn’t matter if he was a ‘good’ fit; what mattered was that he was the missing piece we didn’t even realise we were lacking until he entered our lives.

Courtesy of Emily Boettcher

Today, Zack is a first-year college student who is one of the most kind persons we know. He never ceases to amaze us with his courage to keep giving his all in life. He graduated from high school with a 3.93 GPA and was one of six students awarded silver cords for their commitment to hard work and unrelenting pursuit of knowledge. He works at Unique Dining Experiences Catering alongside me, and he is passionate about assisting clients. He also lends a hand at a local farm, where he helps with horse care and property maintenance.

That night, instead of finishing his narrative, Zack summoned the confidence to ask us to adopt him. Who knew a small young boy would have such a positive impact on our lives, encouraging us all to be a bit braver?”

Courtesy of Emily Boettcher
Courtesy of Emily Boettcher
Courtesy of Emily Boettcher

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