When Shirlee Bedard’s three adopted children were removed from their biological home, the youngest, who was 14 months old, weighed 16 pounds.
Because they had been kept in a closet for long periods of time, they had developed their own kind of language.
They knew little about interacting or communicating in the “normal” world, and they lacked an understanding that things such as a kettle of boiling water could hurt them.
But when she first saw them, Shirlee’s heart melted.
“They were so adorable, and all logic and common sense went out the window. I tend to listen to my heart sometimes more than my brain!” she said.
Shirlee had been a SaintA foster mother for about four years, but she had mainly cared for adolescents. She worked full time as a psychotherapist and felt that older children, who would be in school and would have activities, would be a better fit.
Then in 2013, she got a call asking if she would be willing to adopt three siblings who were in Treatment Foster Care. She had a teenage foster child in her home at the time and Makayla, a teenage former foster child she had adopted.
“I said, ‘Well, I hadn’t thought about that. How old are they?’”
Shirlee had to think hard when she learned the kids were 2, 4 and 5.
“But (foster care specialist) Rachel (Garlock) is such a sweetheart, and she had such confidence that I could do it, I said, ‘Well, I’ll check into it.’”
At that first meeting, in the Treatment Foster Care home, David, the 2-year-old, hid behind a chair at first. “He wasn’t too sure about any of this,” Shirlee said.
But Louie, the 4-year-old, and Annalyse, the 5-year-old, came running up to her, and hugs ensued.
“I just fell in love!”
Shirlee started visiting the children in the TFC home for a couple of months, and eventually David warmed up. But when they moved into Shirlee’s home and she wanted to start interacting with them on a deeper level, she couldn’t understand them.
“They would point at things, and I could make out a couple of words. But there was a lot of frustration. One would try to tell me what another one was saying, and they’d make motions, like ‘eating,’ but they used that same ‘language.’”
David, at age 2, could walk, but not very well. Speech and occupational therapy was arranged for all three children, and now communication is much easier.
As the children became more comfortable in Shirlee’s home, their needs for attention became an issue, she said.
“There was a lot of spiraling out of control. If I gave one a hug, another one would come running, or they’d fight with each other if they felt they weren’t getting enough attention.”
They also seemed to have no sense of time and didn’t sleep well.
“Everything was just so different for them; they were so confused. But I told myself, I just feel so blessed,” and she kept plugging along.
“When I started working with kids in mental health, I saw so many of them that were so sick, a lot of times because their parents were so sick. My heart would break, and I’d think, ‘If you could just be in a different family, if your situation was different… ‘“
So, with these three children, she got that opportunity to provide them with a different situation.
Shirlee has two lovable dogs, Lucy, a black lab mix who is 13, and Emma, a West Highland Terrier mix, who is 5, and they also helped a lot. The love they provide to these children is almost like having two therapy dogs 24/7.
Shirlee had gotten rid of all her breakables, including her beloved glass figurines, and her living room is now a jumble of children’s tables and chairs, beanbags and toys. But she took a long, hard look at her home situation, and she decided to take an early retirement. In April of this year, she adopted the children.
She still keeps up with research in her field, and she tries different things with the kids.
“I’ll come up with a plan and think, this is going to be so good, then it’ll totally bomb,” she said with laugh. “You think you’ve got it all figured out, then these little Munchkins come up with their own plan. Because I forgot to consult them.
“I just crack up and think, ‘OK, let’s try something else!’“
Sometimes Shirlee’s planning has to veer toward the physical. Louie once hit his head while jumping on his bed, then just went to sleep and didn’t tell Shirlee about it. She didn’t find out until the next morning, when she found a big bump and lots of blood.
As a result, there are no box springs or dressers in the children’s rooms, to avoid bouncing and injuring themselves. She took all the bars out of the closets because they were swinging on them, and she keeps their clothes upstairs in her bedroom.
Annalyse once almost put her hand into a pot of boiling noodles, and she came home from school last winter with frostbitten hands because she had not worn her mittens. She didn’t say anything, and Shirlee didn’t notice her swollen hands until bedtime.
“I have to jump in sometimes to keep them from hurting themselves. And I tell them, ‘If you’re hurt, come tell me!’ Or tell someone else, so we can make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
Shirlee conjectures that the kids lack of a sense of danger or fear because of their severely neglected past. She says that maybe, because their needs were not met for so long, they think that if they say something no one will listen.
But Shirlee is listening now. David, the one who has been most difficult to win over, looked at a Christmas picture of the whole family recently.
“He pointed to the picture and looked at it for the longest time. Then he said, ‘Family?’ and I said, ‘Yes.’ Then he looked at me and said ‘Mommy?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ Then he just crawled into my arms and I thought, ‘He’s got it. It’s like he’s finally thinking ‘I’m home!’”
Despite warm moments such as this, Shirlee admits that things still get crazy sometimes. There are still a number of meltdowns, and Shirlee cannot take the children to kid things outside the home like she’d want to, because she can’t rely on them to stay close to her, and she fears for their safety.
“Then I tell myself, I volunteered for this. Nobody forced them on me, I said, ‘Bring them in!’”
But when things get to be a little too much, Shirley gives herself a time out. She just sits in the living room and plays with her dogs, who love the attention and affection.
In some ways, the children are up to speed developmentally, Shirlee said, and in some ways not. But they are progressing. It will just take time and a lot of love and caring, she said.
“That’s what they need more than anything.
“If anyone had told me a few years ago that I could have these kids in my house, I wouldn’t believe them. But they’re just so adorable, who would not love these little kids? I opened my heart and it just melted.”