The Call to Motherhood
Stories of fostering and adoption are traumatic by their very nature. The reason a child is separated from his or her natural born parents comes out of tragedy. In some cases the root cause of that tragedy was occurring the child’s entire life, perhaps before the child was born or even conceived. As a people who believe every child is a child of God and deserving to be raised in a home that meets some minimum standard of care and safety, the separation of a child from parents can become necessary, and sometimes permanently so.
There isn’t a person among us who doesn’t believe these children deserve to be raised not only in a safe, but also loving and supportive home. But few people are willing to make the whole-life commitment required to be the person to provide that home. The following stories are from three Missouri Conference clergywomen who stepped up to be the mothers of children who desperately needed someone.
Rev. Emily StirewaltEmily and Randall Stirewalt both talked about fostering and adopting when they were still single, before they met. Emily knew family and friends who had said they wanted to be foster or adoptive parents, but after they became natural parents those plans fell to the wayside. So they decided to foster a child before they had a child on their own.
“My calling to be a foster mom was as clear as my calling to be a pastor,” Emily said.
The couple started the process of becoming foster parents when Emily was appointed to Cuba in Crawford County, but the agency they needed to work with was some distance away. Then she was appointed to La Monte. They started the training process in August, and were licensed in February. The paperwork involves very specific questions about family history and finances.
“You don’t have a lot of secrets when you’re a foster parent,” Emily said.
The Stirewalt’s were licensed on February 18 and had their first placement on March 18. Their first placement was three siblings at once: a three-year-old, 19-month old and newborn who was born with an addiction to methamphetamine.
“The first few weeks were a blur. Total survival mode,” Emily said. “We thought it was a good week to start because Randall was working at a school and he had a week off for spring break. He ended up taking the next week off, too.”
Foster parents need to take children to a doctor for a physical within 24 hours of them being placed. Then there is signing up for WIC, finding daycare, and getting necessary childcare equipment. That last part can be a major change. Randall hurt his hand trying to get three car seats in the back of their Ford Taurus. Their other car, a Ford Focus, was even smaller. They called the Haydens, and they told them they had better step up into a minivan (the Haydens have two minivans). So they made the trade, right after the placement.
That initial doctor’s visit didn’t keep the children from getting sick, with the older two running a high fever for a few days.
“We learned it’s common for children to get sick at that time due to the stress of the move,” Emily said. “We didn’t hit our stride until about three months in. A lot of parents told us the hardest jump was going from two to three kids because they could no longer have one parent per child when they needed to. We went from zero to three.”
The oldest child had attachment disorder and demonstrated a lot of aggression toward his foster parents, the family dogs and his little sister. They eventually came to the decision that he needed to be placed in a different home.
“Our friends supported us and didn’t judge us, and we knew it was the best thing for the family,” Emily said. “He needed more one-on-one time.”
The younger children started to thrive after the move was made.
“The difference was phenomenal,” Randall said.
All three children were reunited with their natural parents in May of 2020. Emily started a new job as a chaplain and Randall got a job as a teacher. They thought they would take a year break before they started fostering again, but soon had a 12-day-old infant.
“It was so weird, having one child. We could give her so much attention,” Emily said.
They would like to adopt her, but a judge will make that decision.
“There are no guarantees in life. The process just reminds me that I’m not the one in control,” Emily said. “Reunification isn’t a bad thing. But the children do deserve to be with clean, sober, safe parents.”
Foster parents are dealing with hard concepts like addiction, poverty, inequality – and dealing with them by helping the most vulnerable who are hurt by these systems.
“The system is broken, but it’s all these kids have,” Emily said.
Hearings are ongoing regarding the status of parental rights for these siblings. Decisions often are prolonged without warning, so expectations are often loose regarding timelines for final rulings.
Things can always be postponed and delayed. It’s difficult for foster parents to let go of children they have bonded with, particularly if they fear the children may be going to an environment that is not good for them.
“I do my best to try not to let my imagination decide how they are doing,” Randall said.
Emily always thinks back on something Dave Hayden told her. “It’s not like you’re throwing these kids into a volcano,” he said.
“I know we’ve helped build the neural pathways that matter, and even if they don’t remember us their time with us will be an integral part of them,” Emily said.
Rev. Karen HaydenWhen Rev. Karen Hayden was on Missouri Conference staff as director of leadership excellence, she focused a lot of her effort on helping facilitate ways for people to discern the call to ministry that had shaped her life. But at that time Hayden was also following another calling that certainly shaped her life as much as the call to ministry: the call to be an adoptive mother.
She experienced this calling as a young woman in college. Through her college years, she worked with children and after that youth. Following her call to ministry, she was in ministry with college-age people. At age 36 she was still single and starting to consider what it would look like to be a single parent as a pastor.
“I had what I now consider ridiculous fears, like, ‘What if my child gets sick on a Sunday morning?’” she said.
Then she met Dave. He was already a foster parent, and hoping to raise a family. They married and were fostering two boys in Mississippi. The first two boys they fostered are now 13 and 11. They were six weeks and two years when they received them. One had club feet, the other a heart condition.
“When we picked them up, they gave us a mostly empty bottle of medicine, and when I asked what it was for she said, “Some kind of a heart thing.”
They had the two boys for a year. They took them along to Explo, the national United Methodist youth event in Dallas, Texas. The infant had casts on both legs. Dave did physical therapy with him every day. It was a critically formative time for the boys, but one they were too young to remember. But it will remain etched in the hearts of the Haydens.
“They were the kids that made me a mother…that made us parents,” Hayden said.
After moving to Missouri, they had been married for two years and resumed fostering again. They took in children they did not expect to adopt, and testified in court on behalf of parents, advocating for birth parents to be reunited with their children.
“As foster parents, our number one priority was reunification,” she said.
Hayden has twice experienced picking up two children
under the age of two who didn’t even have an overnight bag with them. There was a six-week-old who had been on four different brands of formula. Hayden called her friend Rev. Meg Heggeman and said “I need a car seat by 6 p.m.” They were called to be interviewed for children who needed to be adopted, made the final cut twice, and both times were not chosen. There was already a foster child in their care during the second interview.
Then things started happening fast. They were fostering a 3 ½-year-old and a 17-year-old. A co-worker’s spouse informed Hayden of a six-month-old girl needing a home.
Then Hayden found she was pregnant for the first time at age 42. Then she got a call from social services about a 9-month-old needing a home. In July the 3-year-old’s birth mother terminated rights. The next month the teenager went off to college, and the 3-year-old’s sibling was on the way.
“I was 7 ½ months pregnant with a one-year-old and a four-year-old at the house, getting a five-pound baby the next day,” she said.
Although they had years of fostering experience, the Haydens had now become permanent parents of four children – in six months.
“We’re a family that God brought together in strange ways,” she said.
In 2019 the Haydens moved to Springfield, where Karen was appointed as senior pastor of King’s Way UMC. Since the pandemic hit in 2020, Hayden has yet to experience a “normal” year there. Dave has added school teacher to his stay-at-home Dad duties. The couple has their hands full now with their family of six, but plan to return to duty as foster parents when their children are older.
“We will do it again one day,” Hayden said.
Rev. Stacie WilliamsNature has a way of easing people into parenting. Typically, several months elapse between a woman determining she is pregnant and giving birth. A lot of preparation can take place during that time. Chances are 98 out of 100 that she will only have one baby from that pregnancy. Even if a mother wants another child right away, they are going to be close to a year apart in age.
Fostering and adoption don’t follow the laws of nature.
Rev. Stacie Williams always wanted to be a Mom. When she married Mark in 2004 he had two daughters from a previous marriage who were already teenagers. Williams had been told she wouldn’t be able to have children, so her husband and she started discussing adoption. They then heard through a friend about a little boy in need of care and soon had Gabe in their home through guardianship granted by the courts. They were his guardians for a little over a year and were then able to adopt him in June of 2006. During that time Williams became pregnant and Eli was born in August of 2006. Williams went from no children to four children in two years. “Be careful what you pray for, you might get it, all at once.”
Williams started seminary on the same day that Gabe started kindergarten, in 2009. Her first full-time appointment was to Branson in 2013. In 2014 they started providing foster care for a six-year-old girl and her four-year-old brother, who had developmental disabilities.
“People meeting him thought he was about 18 months old,” Williams said.
Both children suffered from extreme neglect and the boy had a rare chromosomal abnormality. The older girl ended up going back home and then 6 months later the boy did as well.
Because of all of the time she had spent with him in therapy, and concerns she had with his parents not being able to meet his special needs, letting go of him was very traumatic for Williams.
“I told my husband, ‘I can’t do this again,’” she said.
Right at that time, Williams’ pastoral appointment was changing from Branson to Springfield. They were immediately contacted about two boys needing a home, one just under two years old and the other three years old. Williams said absolutely not, but her husband encouraged her to meet them. She couldn’t say no after she met them. It was June of 2016.
“We got Sam and Jakob on the Saturday before my first Sunday at Wesley,” Williams said.
With Sam and Jakob, they had no bio parent involvement. Williams adopted the boys in November of 2018, after having another appointment change to Arch UMC in Hannibal.
Then in February of 2020 Williams received an email from Iron County Family Services. It was about Sam and Jakob’s older half-sister. She had been living in extremely difficult circumstances. Her biological father was sent to prison for abuse. She had been living with her stepmother and half-siblings. It wasn’t a good situation and she had run away several times. Family Services said they had nowhere else to send her and the only option for her was a residential group home. Sam and Jakob were the only family she had left.
Williams drove four and a half hours to pick her up. On the ride back to her house, she told her straight up that they wouldn’t be able to deal with things like her running away or violent behavior.
“I want this to work, but we have our hands full with your little brothers,” Williams told her. “We’re old. We can’t deal with you running away and aggressive behavior. I know we’ll have the normal teenage stuff, and the occasional disagreements, but we’re just not capable of managing someone who is aggressive.”
Jasmine assured her that so long as she was treated well, she wouldn’t be a problem. And she’s stuck with that.
“She’s been wonderful,” Williams said. “This was a kid who at 14 could quote the statistics about what happens to girls who age out of foster care without having a permanent family. She knew the numbers about going to college and unemployment. She just wanted a forever family that would love her.”
Williams said Jasmine found her two little brothers to be really cute, for about 48 hours. Then she started to see how they could really be a handful. She asked Williams why she did this…why she took the boys in...why she took her in. She gets the same questions from adults sometimes. Williams said many people from her churches have praised her and her husband for taking children in, but she doesn’t view it as a sacrifice.
“We’re so grateful to have been given the opportunity to adopt Jas. We’re the ones who are blessed,” she said. “I can’t imagine life without her and all of our children. Sure, it’s not easy and it’s disruptive and everyone has to adjust, but it is so worth it. It will change you forever, but it’s a wonderful change.”
Jasmine started school in Hannibal in March of 2020. After a couple of days of being in school, it was shut down due to the pandemic. Williams and her husband adopted her on February 8, 2021, on Williams 50th birthday. Jasmine not only took Williams’s last name, but also changed her first name to Jasalynn. (Lynn being Williams middle name).
Williams worries about all the children who do age of foster care without being adopted. Before becoming a pastor, Williams had a background in developmental disabilities and behavior disorders. Through that work, she was already very familiar with social services. But navigating the fostering and adopting system still wasn’t easy.
“The social services system is broken,” Williams said. “I wish they talked to each other more, from agency to agency, county to county, but I know they are overwhelmed with cases and with children with emergency needs.”
Adoptive parents are given subsidies for daycare. But Williams has had her children kicked out of the daycares that accept subsidies because of their behavior disorder problems. School isn’t easy either. She gets phone calls about once a week to talk to the principal about a problem with one of her young children’s behavior.
“Everyone is called to something different,” Williams said. “Part of my work for the kingdom is to do what I can to help vulnerable kids. I’m passionate about the next generation and how they come to a life of faith. When I met Jas and drove her all that way to our home in Hannibal, she told me she wanted to be a tattoo artist when she grew up. Turns out she is a remarkable artist. However, her life goals have changed. Now she wants to be a forensic scientist and go to medical school. Hope did that!”
William’s husband is an accountant with offices in St. Louis and Kansas City. He has to travel some to those offices during the busy tax season, but most of the time he works from home.
“He manages the household,” Williams said. “He gets people where they need to go and he manages our family schedule.”
With five children at home, Williams feels they have maxed-out the church parsonage but they have made it work. Mark’s oldest daughter lives in Kansas City and has a child of her own, and his youngest lives in Colorado and is expecting a baby in July.
“This is all about our faith. This is discipleship for us,” Williams said. “Everyone has their thing, and this is ours. It’s how we leave our mark. We do it because it’s what we feel called to do.”
Throughout her appointments, she has felt love from her congregations through the process.
“We couldn’t do what we do without the support of our churches,” Williams said. “When we brought Jasalynn home I couldn’t even tell you how many people brought over clothes for her and food for the family.”
One person did tell her they thought she was crazy, but she didn’t see a way to say no to a 14-year-old when she had her two little brothers.
“I’d be lying if I said every day is roses and sunshine. It’s not. Anytime you’re involved with kids it’s not going to be,” Williams said. “It’s a crazy ride, but so worth it.”
For more information about how to become a foster parent in Missouri, go to https://dss.mo.gov/cd/foster-care/becoming-a-foster-parent.htm.