By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
Laurie Harris was rocking baby Henry, soothing him back to sleep, and wondering what the future would hold for her foster son. She often prayed the rosary at night while bonding with him. On that particular night, “I prayed that he would be placed in a home that would love and protect him. If it’s our home, let it be. If it’s another home, then help me to love and let go.”
As she prayed, “It was truly like a divine moment. I was overcome with peace,” said Laurie, a member of St. Thomas More Parish in Coralville with husband Chris and their children. That evening eight years ago, she and Chris already were foster parents to Henry’s sister Ellie, who was two years older. Ellie arrived that December. In January, the couple received a call from the Iowa Department of Human Services (DHS) asking if they could take Henry as a foster child.
“Most people have nine months to plan for a newborn; we had less than 24 hours,” Chris said. The couple turned to relatives and to friends from their faith community and asked for prayers. People responded, also bringing casseroles, baby supplies and offers to help with chores. One friend stayed up for a night with Henry, who had colic, so Laurie and Chris could sleep through the night.
They chose to become foster parents while trying to grow their family. Chris recalls participating in a Christian Experience Weekend (CEW) during which the topic of foster parenting surfaced. He and Laurie had been talking about it, and finally decided to sign up for training and then prayed about it.
The training impressed Chris so much that he thought every parent should take training. “Kids go through a lot,” he said, referring to children who enter the foster care system because their parents are unable to care for them. “They want love and protection.” About 10,000 children are in foster care in Iowa, according to Families Helping Families of Iowa.
Chris and Laurie initially provided respite foster care to offer other foster parents a temporary break from the responsibilities of 24-hour foster care. “We enjoyed respite foster care,” Laurie said. “It opened my eyes to the need in Johnson County.”
The training through Four Oaks Foster and Adoptive Family Connections prepared Laurie and Chris to deal with a variety of challenges that kids experience because of the crises that require their placement in a foster home. “It’s OK to be open and honest about what you are comfortable taking on,” Chris said.
The journey begins
In December 2012, they accepted a request from DHS to become foster parents to Ellie, then nearly 2 years old, who had been in multiple foster homes, before newborn Henry joined the family the following month. The couple discerned that they wanted to adopt their foster children, but knew the top priority is reunification of children with their birth parents or another significant adult in the child’s life who could take on that parenting responsibility.
Laurie developed a relationship with her foster children’s birth mother who struggled to cope with her own life. Laurie’s heart ached for the birth mother, whose story “was a cycle of abuse.” She offered encouragement and respect, which the young mother appreciated.
The state of Iowa requires that a child reside in an adoptive home at least 180 days prior to finalization of adoption. For foster children, the time spent in their foster home can apply toward the requirement. The waiting period included court hearings, after which Laurie and Chris became the legal parents of Ellie, then 3-1/2, and Henry, then 1-1/2, on Aug.13, 2014.
Their adoption date has become an annual celebration. “We call it our Family Day,” Laurie said. “We celebrate the day they became a Harris. They want to celebrate that, they want to hear that story. Ellie says, ‘Tell me that story about the little girl who came to the door with her purple blanket.’”
The children’s baptism is another date to remember and celebrate. Family members, friends from their CEW community, the parish and other members of their extended faith community attended the baptism seven years ago during the Saturday evening Mass at St. Thomas More and filled the church basement during the party afterwards.
Life in the Harris family has been joyous but also challenging from the start. Henry suffered from colic, reflux and swallowing issues that required treatment at a feeding clinic. Ellie “held on to food and we could not get it out of her hands,” Laurie said. “She wanted to have that control.” Ellie also initially struggled with speech delay. Chris talked and sang with her in the car on the way to preschool and “all of the sudden, she was talking like crazy,” he said. Additional health issues have emerged for Ellie, so her parents take her to specialists at the University of Iowa, which is nearby. The couple appreciates the availability of post-adoption support and resources.
“Adoption support is family driven. It is an option. As an adoptive family, I can utilize adoption support or not,” said Christa Hefel, MPH, the Recruitment and Engagement leader for Four Oaks. She and her husband, Ricky, are parents to 10 children, seven of whom they adopted. They use adoption support services because that support specialist serves as another voice, another advocate for parent and child, Christa said.
Four Oaks provides adoption support specialists in 69 of Iowa’s 99 counties, including the 22 counties in the Diocese of Davenport. “If kids are starting to struggle and you’re wondering how to get help, look at our website (iowafosterandadoption.org), or call our number for contact information (Eastern Area: 844-380-2533) for an adoption support worker,” she said.
Network of support
Laurie and Chris believe that Ellie suffers the after effects of trauma she experienced as a baby.
Her parents are seeing the consequences of those early life experiences in some challenging behaviors. “We have to remember, it’s not how she’s acting but what her needs are,” Laurie said. Parenting responsibilities, coupled with education responsibilities during the pandemic led Laurie to become a stay-at-home parent.
“We knew there were going to be challenges,” Laurie said. “We love them. They are family. They are our kids.” Laurie and Chris are grateful for their extended family, faith community and other friends who provide support and encouragement. Laurie’s daughter, Abbie, 21, is a college student who now lives in Texas, but has a terrific relationship with her little sister and brother, who call her “Sissie.”
“When Ellie has a meltdown, she wants to call Sissie. Abbie just pours on the unconditional love,” Laurie said. Other loved ones who come to Ellie’s rescue are Laurie’s mom, Sandy; Chris’ sister, Marilyn; and a summertime babysitter named Kali (a preschool teacher by profession), all of whom are on speed dial.
“Everybody needs a friend to rely on,” Christa said. “You have work friends, church friends. When you are adoptive parents, you are dealing with children with early childhood trauma; it helps to have friends in similar situations. Our adoption support workers set up support opportunities for families to get together.”
Faith is an anchor
For the Harris family, “Our faith is an anchor for us. Our kids are an anchor. They aren’t just part of the Harris family. They are part of the faith community. That’s an anchor,” Laurie said. When Henry made his first Communion this year, he told his family, “I’m so happy.” Henry has accompanied his mother to eucharistic adoration at the Newman Catholic Student Center in Iowa City. Ellie likes to accompany her mother to pray the rosary with some other women. “Faith is alive in our family,” Laurie said.
The children “do give us moments of pure joy,” said Chris. Recently he had a vision. “I know it was Jesus, and he said, ‘Be an advocate for my children.’ I don’t know if he meant Ellie and Henry, or for all of God’s children.” It doesn’t matter. In this Year of St. Joseph, Chris feels grateful to follow in the footsteps of the saint who fostered Jesus.
“Our kids are our best teachers,” Laurie said. Ellie “helps me focus on what’s most important and that’s our faith and family.” Self-care is also important. “Quiet times in prayer, grounding time, so you can be fully present to the kids and go past your needs so you can focus on their needs.”
Foster care and adoption “has opened up our world. We are more compassionate,” Laurie said. “We are our brother’s keeper,” Chris said.
Area Education Agency: AEA offices: www.state.ia.us/educate/aea/map
Adoptive families may contact their local school district to request more information. The AEA website includes a map with contact information for the AEA offices.
Community Mental Health Centers (CMHC): Families may obtain a list of accredited CMHCs by calling (515) 242-5994. CMHCs are available throughout Iowa and may provide services such as evaluation, outpatient, day treatment, partial hospitalization, intensive outpatient treatment, emergency treatment, psychiatric rehabilitation and supportive community living.
Iowa Department of Human Services
When adoptive families have questions or concerns, they may contact the DHS adoption worker who finalized the adoption or DHS staff in the county or area office (dhs.iowa.gov/foster-care-and-adoption).
Support Groups: Many support groups exist in Iowa for adoptive parents and children. Groups are available for specific behavioral and emotional problems, as well as groups for medical conditions and disabilities. The Iowa Foster and Adoptive Parents Association (IFAPA) has a listing of support groups on its website (www.ifapa.org). IFAPA has been serving as a resource to adoptive and kinship families in Iowa for nearly 45 years, according to its website.