Sometimes, everyone fails a child. That’s what happened to poor Jeremiah Oliver, the missing 5-year-old from Fitchburg, whose short life has become a symbol of dysfunction, a reason for increased scrutiny, a cause for despair.
But it’s also worth remembering that sometimes, the system works. It works thanks to people who enter it willingly, with good intentions, big hearts, and surprisingly deep generosity.
I know a story like that.
It begins with two women who loved each other and wanted to start a family. Through the Massachusetts foster care system, they met a 4-year-old girl and fell in love with her, too. After interviews and visits and a long legal process, they brought her to live with them.
They bought her a bed and a flowered rug and a collection of toys. Her favorite was a bicycle, pink with streamers and training wheels, and a matching set of knee and elbow pads. She rode her new bike every day until it got too cold, whizzing down the street with growing speed, always wearing those pads. Strapped across her limbs, the pads made her feel safe.
When the girl turned 5, her parents threw her a party. They chose one of those warehouse-style places filled with inflatable castles and slides, where kids get to jump themselves silly for an hour before collapsing into chairs for pizza and cake. Two of the guests looked uncannily like the birthday girl, with the same eyes and upturned noses.
They were her biological half-siblings, a few years older than she was. They lived a few towns away, in different homes, with different moms. Those women are sisters, each old enough to have grown children. They had been family friends of the kids’ biological mom, had tried to help her through troubles and failings. At some point, they decided that the best thing, for the kids, was to give them new homes altogether.
These women weren’t wealthy or privileged, except in the ways that matter to a small child. Their homes might not have been fancy, but they were warm. One of the sisters had been a foster mother, too, to more than 100 children who needed protection at different times.
Massachusetts has far too many kids like that. In the wake of Jeremiah’s disappearance, Governor Deval Patrick has called for a review of up to 40,000 cases at the Department of Children and Families — a staggering number of children who could be in some stage of limbo or peril.
Sometimes, for one of those children, things change for the better. In the past year, 807 children were adopted through the Massachusetts foster care system. The year before, it was 759. For many of them, adoption wasn’t a closing door, but an opening one. Two years ago, the department established a “Sibling Bill of Rights,” stating that siblings should have contact, even if they’re in different homes. It declares that brothers and sisters should share birthdays and family milestones. It says that if siblings are adopted into different homes, the department will help them stay in touch.
That’s what has happened with this 5-year-old girl, who has seen her brother and sister much more since she exited foster care. When she saw them at the party, she announced to her new mothers, “My whole family is here!”
She accepted this fact easily, because she’s a child, and knows what’s true: that families come in different sizes and configurations, that it’s the connections that matter. She knows some tougher truths, too, that no 5-year-old should know: That people we depend on will sometimes let us down. That abuse and abandonment can turn into cycles of woe. That people make bad judgments, get involved with bad people, do bad things, fail miserably at their jobs.
But this girl, one of the lucky ones, will also grow up knowing that some people are remarkably good. She’ll know that there’s a chance that someone will see a child in need and step in with a room and a bed, a house full of love, a bike to ride. They’ll serve as her padding and protector, too, wrapping her in a tight embrace, making her feel safe.
This holiday season, she’s home.