Gina Sampaio, Foster Parent, On Navigating The Birth Mother Relationship

Here's The Rub Of Being A Foster Parent

This is the seventh post of "30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days," a series designed to give a voice to people with widely varying experiences, including birthparents, adoptees, adoptive parents, foster parents, waiting adoptive parents and others touched by adoption.

My Cell Phone Rang: Could I Come Pick Up the Baby?
Written by Gina Sampaio for Portrait of an Adoption

The first time I met my sons’ birth mother B, I felt like I was going to hyperventilate. I’m not one prone to hyperventilation, but I found it necessary to excuse myself to the bathroom, brace myself and take many deep breaths before I could continue.

I never anticipated meeting her at all. When our first foster son E came to us, he was two-and-a-half months old and had been living in the hospital nursery since he was born. His birth mother’s whereabouts were unknown. I gathered as much information about her as I could; not an easy task since the state only had limited information, and a lot of what they did have was incorrect.

I managed to get in touch with the family that adopted most of E’s older siblings. Years ago, the family had been in contact with the children’s biological grandfather, and through that connection, I knew these things about B: she was tall. She was beautiful. She was smart, but left high school to try to find her own mother. She found the streets instead.

I longed for a photograph of B to give to my son one day. I scoured the papers we had received and found a photocopy of her signature from the hospital. I thought this would be all he’d ever have.

Then right before E turned two, she resurfaced, having given birth to another boy, Z. We picked him up from the hospital, brought him home, and assumed it’d be another long wait for adoption with no contact in between.

To my utter surprise, we got a phone call two weeks later saying the baby would need to start visits with his mom and dad, and I’d have to drive him to the local office. I didn’t think they’d show, but just in case, I decided not to bring 2-year-old E.

After all this wishing for contact, I wasn’t exactly ready for my son to meet his birthmother. I walked into the local children and family services offices and there they were, waiting. “THAT’S the beautiful woman???” I thought.

B was using heavily at the time and she looked awful. Hair, skin, eyes, every part of her body screaming out from the abuse. I had to hand the infant over to her and excuse myself to the bathroom.

I tried to embrace the two hours alone as “me” time (besides the 2-year-old and infant, we also had two biological children, a girl and boy ages 7 and 6 at the time). I got some exercise and errands done and had a good cry in the car.

The visits continued every other week and became easier over time. I eventually grew comfortable enough to let them meet E, after his adoption was finalized and their rehab was underway.

Visits became a relaxing time. I’d have photos and stories from the past two weeks; they’d buy a little bag of pretzels or a small toy to give to the boys. They completed their rehab stint (and the beautiful woman reemerged). They were doing well with outpatient rehab, working on a GED (for B), looking for jobs (for Dad R), getting engaged.

Here’s the rub of being a foster parent: with each success and joy for them, I also worried what this meant for my future with baby Z. I cried at least once a month over the situation. When Z turned 2, we had a mediation at the courthouse. Mediation is normally held before the trial in which a judge would grant TPR (termination of parental rights), freeing the child to be adopted. At mediation, the birth parents might opt to surrender their rights instead. I wondered if they might, my husband said he had no expectations whatsoever.

In the busy urban county courthouse, we waited in the hallway. We saw the birth parents, the lawyers and caseworkers and strangers. Eventually some of the workers came up and told us very nonchalantly, “The parents are going to surrender, so now the mediation will really just be a chance for the four of you to sit down and talk with the mediator for awhile.”

We were surprised they’d inform us like that, so matter-of-factly when it was really life-changing information. Our surprise didn’t end there. They ushered us into a meeting room. It was birth mom and dad, my husband and me, the mediator… and some random courthouse worker using the copy machine.

Four adults were sitting quietly at a table, crying in anticipation of what was about to happen, and we had to wait for some lady to finish her hundreds of copies. It may very well have been the most inhumane moment I’ve ever experienced.

Finally she was done and the mediator found the common sense and compassion to not allow the next person in that wanted to use the copier. B and R told us how much they loved baby Z but knew they still wouldn’t be able to take care of him. They knew that we loved him, too. We promised to stay in touch. I wondered if she was pregnant again but decided that she wasn’t.

The next few months passed uneventfully. We mailed some letters and made plans to meet up at a park in their town. Then I got a call from the caseworker telling me that my suspicions were correct, mom just had a baby girl and would we please come get her?

I didn’t know why baby A couldn’t go home with her birth parents… mom and dad had done so much work to stay clean and try to create a stable lifestyle. Initially the hospital wouldn’t let the baby go with B, because they still had an open case with children & family services (since Z’s adoption wasn’t finalized yet). A judge would weigh in within a few days but until then baby A needed a place to stay.

When we first started foster care, we only wanted to adopt. I had seen my older kids cry when throwing a Sponge Bob tissue box away; I couldn’t imagine what losing a foster sibling would do to them. But we couldn’t say no to A, she was our boys’ biological sister and if we didn’t take her someone else would… and then what if her case ended up going to adoption? We decided we had to take the chance, let our boys meet their sister and love her as long as we could.

So we scurried to borrow a car seat and some clothes and picked her up from the hospital. Some people have surprise pregnancies; we have surprise babies. We were thrown right back in to the overnight wakings and lots of diapers without months of preparation. It only lasted a few days though. The Judge said A could go live with B as long as they stayed at her Grandmother’s apartment. We went to Wal-Mart and bought one of those large storage boxes and filled it with clothes of various sizes, books, diapers, bottles, pacifiers and more.

Next: "We handed A back over to her mother..."

When we handed A back over to her mother, we gave her the box of supplies. It was sad but it felt right. I had told B ever since the baby’s birth, “This is YOUR baby and we are a team.” I believed it, and I didn’t think 3 days of having baby A would impact my kids or me as much as it did. My oldest daughter, nine years old at the time, sobbed that night for the loss of the sister she never got to really have. The next few days were a bit of foggy haze for me, and I decided I needed to give back all the borrowed baby stuff as soon as possible.

As I was in my parents’ driveway to return the cradle, my cell phone rang.

Could I come pick up the baby?

I asked my Dad to put the cradle back in the trunk.

Another year of weekly visits began. B and R were consistent in showing up; they stayed clean. R secured a job. We navigated our relationship with no guides. B deferred to me on what the baby should or shouldn’t eat. I encouraged the children to go to B and R, to talk to them, to play with them, to share with them.

The baby was the only one that stayed for the visit, but drop-off and pick-up would take 10-30 minutes. I found myself once again publicly rejoicing B’s and R’s advances and privately crying for what that might mean to me.

Then after a year, the visits abruptly stopped. I managed to have a long conversation via text message one day with B, and she told me her relationship with R was falling apart. She alluded to using again; I couldn’t determine if she meant she was or not.

Time passed and we lost all contact with them. I experienced the flip side of the coin -- relieved that the baby would probably stay with us -- but devastated at the thought that B and R were using again and on the streets. I didn’t even know if they were alive and would scroll the online obituaries looking for their names until it occurred to me that if they did happen to die, I’m not sure anyone would write an obituary for them.

The state called for another mediation, but B and R didn’t show. So we went to trial, and the Judge granted TPR. The past two times that we were cleared to adopt our foster children, we already had another foster baby at home. I spent a lot of time wondering if we’d get another call about a surprise baby; I spent a lot of time debating if I could handle another child or not.

I also spent a lot of time wondering about B’s grandmother, the one that let B and baby A live with her for a few days. I wondered how much she knew about us and if she’d like to know more. The state wasn’t allowed to give me her name and address, but they were allowed to send her a letter for me.

So I wrote a letter to the grandmother and put photos of the kids in it and trusted that the worker would remember to address it and send it to her. Shortly before A’s second birthday, the grandmother called me. She was incredibly grateful for the letter, the photos, and the chance to meet her great-grandchildren. She had prayed for years for their well-being and for the chance to meet them before she died. We made it happen within a few days of her calling.

She told me that she had sporadic contact with B and only when B initiated the contact. Amazingly, B did call her and found about our impending visit and showed up at her Grandmother’s house to see us there. We hadn’t seen her in a year. There was so much I wanted to say to her, to ask her where she’d been. She said she had Christmas presents for the kids (it was June) and they were happy to open them, but inside I was screaming, “So why didn’t you get in touch in December??”

But I remembered that time not so long ago when I clung to a photocopied signature, thinking it would be the only link my children would have to their biological family. So I stayed silent and sat with their biological great-grandmother on her couch, looking at family photographs and watching them play with belated Christmas presents from their birthmother.

I still have no guides to navigating this relationship, but at least for now, I think we’re doing alright forging our own path.

Portrait of an Adoption is hosted by Carrie Goldman, author of Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear. If you have a story you would like to submit as a candidate for next year's series, please email it to her at

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