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Mia's Journey two families, one little girl and A TALE OF FOSTER CARE IN PLACER COUNTY

It was Dec. 2, 2015, and Tasha Lockhart was at work when she got the phone call she’d been waiting for.

A 16-month-old girl needed placement after being removed from her home by child welfare workers. Could the Lockharts take her?

She quickly left work, and not an hour later was standing in the middle of a Target, hastily googling on her smartphone “What foods do 16-month-olds eat?” A few hours after that, Tasha drove with her mother to Auburn to meet Mia for the first time.

“I got her out of her car seat. She put her arms straight out to me,” Tasha said. “I sat in the backseat with her on the way home … She just kind of just stared at me.”

“We were both two strangers meeting each other.”

Tasha's first day with Mia.

It had only been about six months from the time Tasha broached the idea of adoption with her husband, Aaron, to the night she carried Mia through their door as a new foster mother.

But in many ways they’d been preparing for years. Tasha's two sisters had both adopted children, one through private adoption and another through the foster care system.

“We had seen how much beauty there is in building a family based purely on loyalty,” Tasha said.

They had checked off all the boxes: stable jobs, a home purchased on a quaint street in Roseville. They both knew parenthood was in their future. So when Tasha asked Aaron how he felt about adoption, the answer was swift: “I’d be down for that.”

It wasn’t quite so simple, of course. The Lockharts quickly decided to try to adopt through the foster care system, due to the great need. But that decision came with its own set of fears. Would the child be so damaged by abuse or neglect that he or she would be beyond their help? Would they fall in love with a child only to say goodbye if reunification with the biological family was successful?

“It’s a scary thing going in,” Aaron said.

They reached out to a local agency, Families for Children, and began the certification process: a regimen of classes, home checks and interviews with social workers.

“They really try to get you to think of it from the perspective of a child and what they've been through. You really focus on the child which is sort of a theme throughout the whole process,” Aaron said.

The foster care system in California has undergone dramatic changes following the 2015 passage of Continuum of Care Reform, a state law that aims to create more stability for children in the foster system.

One major result of this reform has been the closure of many group home facilities — including the former children's emergency shelter in Placer County — and more emphasis placed on home-based care, creating more demand for foster families. The foster family approval process has also transformed.

“It's a more seamless process now,” said Kristin Siles, a Placer County supervisor in the Children’s System of Care who worked on the Lockharts’ case. “In the past, if you were fostering and got to the point of adoption, you’d have to go through a home study and there was a whole other process to go through that could take a long time. Now it’s all upfront.”

That means people wanting to become “resource families” — the new term for foster parents used to better reflect their relationship with the child — undergo a more intense screening process at the onset. But should a child be unable to reunify with their biological family, the transition to adoption is much faster and smoother.

“Being reunified with the [biological] parent is always our first and foremost goal,” Siles said. “But if that can’t happen, then the next best thing is that they get adopted into a family that's going to be their forever family.”

In Mia’s case, no biological family members were able to take her when she was removed from her parents’ home, so child welfare staff looked for a foster family who could potentially provide permanency if needed. They found the Lockharts.

Aaron bonds with Mia shortly after her arrival in 2015.

The first night, and many nights after it, were difficult for Mia.

When Tasha picked her up, Mia had a bottle with her — nothing more. There were no other signs of what she might like or dislike.

“It was just a learning process getting to know her,” Tasha said.

Her husband was in Phoenix on business, so for the first night, Tasha just tried to calm Mia, giving her a bottle of milk and a lavender bath.

Aaron remembers walking in the door at 7 p.m. the next evening, bursting with excitement.

“What I found was a tired, traumatized child,” he said. “I could see in her eyes that I was a stranger to her. I don't know what I expected. I realized that this was a tough time for her, and for some reason that surprised me.”

In those early months, there were emotional outbursts and fits of crying that seemed to never stop. It was particularly difficult when visitations with her biological parents disrupted her routine and sleep patterns.

The Lockharts pulled from resources that their social worker offered, but in the end, Tasha said, it was “hug therapy” and love, plain and simple, that seemed to turn the tide.

“It's difficult watching anybody grieve but specially a child who you know hasn't done anything to deserve any type of pain,” Aaron said. “Love is an amazing medicine.”

Mia also had some developmental delays, particularly with speech. She began special therapy.

“We've been provided a massive amount of resources, from the school district and from the state and county, to help her,” Aaron said.

And slowly, Mia began to show signs of improvement. The first name she said was Bane — her cousin.

She was “blossoming,” Aaron said.

Mia in December 2015, her first month with the Lockharts.
Mia in 2016.
Mia with her cousin Bane.

Tasha and Aaron knew their end goal was to adopt, but they had prepared themselves for other outcomes.

“It's tough to fall in love with a kid and see that child go back with its biological family,” Aaron said. “You really have to buy into the notion that if you can make these families healthy, that's the best place for the child. If you don't believe that then it might be a tougher experience than necessary.”

The Lockharts took that belief to heart. They attended wellness meetings for Mia’s biological father and mother, as part of the pair’s support network to help with reunification.

They spoke with their social worker about how to set appropriate boundaries, and began sharing regular updates with the biological parents: Photos of Mia at Christmas, on her birthday, on a hike. A video of the little girl going down a slide.

She wore the little purple gloves you bought for her. They fit perfectly, reads one text Tasha sent the pair.

Mia at Easter, 2016.
On a hike, 2016.
Mia at Easter, 2017.
Mia's third birthday, 2017.
Mia's first day of preschool, 2017.

“We felt a responsibility to provide support whatever support we could. We felt it was the right thing to do for the child and obviously the right thing to do for these young parents who were going through a lot,” Aaron said. “This process allowed us to get to know these parents as people ... They're just real people. If you participate in this process, you will find humanity in everybody. You will find compassion inside you that you didn't know existed.”

The Lockharts felt, too, that preserving this connection put the biological parents more at ease, letting them know that Mia was happy and that they could focus on getting their own lives together.

Communication went both ways. The biological mother and father wrote letters and cards to the Lockharts, asking for updates on Mia.

A Christmas card the mother sent the Lockharts reads:

There aren’t words to describe how grateful I am that such a loving, supportful (sic) and consistent people are choosing to be Mia’s foster parents.

“I never doubted their love for her,” Tasha said. “I just doubted their ability to keep her safe. We can do that, so they can continue loving her and we’re just going to be the ones to keep her safe.”

This open exchange between foster and birth families is encouraged, child welfare workers said, but somewhat rare.

“We tell people it's not a bad thing to have contact with the birth family,” Siles said. “But there's a lot of stigma around it.”

But there are benefits to building relationships between foster and birth families. When Mia was struggling going back and forth between homes for visitation, Tasha began to go with her to the drop-offs and pick-ups.

“It allowed her to see both of her worlds in one place,” Tasha said. “It helped.”

Studies suggest that a positive relationship between foster and birth parents may allow children to avoid the stress of divided loyalties.

About six months after Mia came to the Lockharts’ home, reunification efforts were progressing. Mia had gone from overnight visits with her biological mother to several nights in a row. Tasha and Aaron were told to prepare for Mia to leave within a matter of weeks.

They’d always known this was a possibility. From the beginning, Tasha had reminded herself never to put up walls with Mia in fear of losing her, but to love the girl fully and with her whole heart.

Now, Tasha reminded herself that no matter what happened, she had still played an important role in the girl’s life; that she was a mother when this happy, curious, cuddly child needed her most.

Tasha purchased boxes and boxes of supplies — everything Mia could possibly need for the next year — and packed it up neatly, ready to hand over to the biological parents. She and Aaron braced themselves.

In the end, the biological parents’ situation worsened and it became clear that reunification would not happen. When a child is removed from a parent and they are under the age of 3, parents typically have six months to reunify. If the child is older, that timeframe is extended to 12 months.

“We would have been glad we (fostered) even if she did leave, because at the end of the day she needed a family and a real loving home for that time when she didn't have one. And we were happy to be that,” Aaron said.

They began preparing for adoption.

It was almost a year and a half later — and after a dozen court dates and piles of legal documents — that Tasha and Aaron pulled up to the courthouse in Auburn on Dec. 15, 2017, just a short distance from where Tasha had first laid eyes on Mia two years earlier.

They’d woken up at 5 a.m., nervous and excited. Mia, now 3 years old, didn’t fully comprehend what was going on, but the colorful balloons and the Lockharts’ faces clued her in that something special was about to happen.

The three of them were sitting on Mia’s bed with a few books when the young girl turned to them, grinned and said “Mia happy.”

Minutes later, they left for the courthouse, where Mia would officially become a Lockhart.

Surrounded by a dozen family members and two social workers, Mia sat at a desk between Tasha and Aaron, wiggling in her seat. She grabbed the judge’s pen and managed to sign the adoption papers — even staying above the line, an impressive feat for a 3-year-old — as her parents looked on teary-eyed.

Mia's signature on her adoption papers.

“That’s her saying ‘I promise to love mommy and daddy forever,’” the judge said.

Aaron and Tasha followed suit, signing a paper to assume legal responsibilities for Mia as if she was their daughter by birth.

Finally, the judge signed, and the crowd burst into cheers. Mia was already out of her seat and running around the room.

“It's just this wonderful feeling of relief,” Aaron said. No more upheaval. No more uncertainty.

Mother and father slept better that night than they had in months.

The Lockharts plan to continue sending updates about Mia to her biological parents, for as long as they want to hear about her life. Adoption will be a topic that is wide open for discussion as Mia grows older and begins to have questions.

“She is loved by so many, from her biological family to all of her adopted family. She has a huge support network and so many people that she can go to and talk to,” Tasha said.

The Lockharts pose with extended family members after Mia's adoption is finalized.

“It’s an amazing process to see what her life was and what it is now. It’s a long road … There's no greater experience than helping a child through the most traumatic time in their life. I feel that very strongly. If you have the want and if you have the room in your home, open it up.”

Learn more about becoming a resource family for children in need here in Placer County.

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