Grateful for the journey

by Terri Winder
As I count my many blessings this Thanksgiving, I will be celebrating the first anniversary of one of the greatest blessings to have come into my life.
A year ago today, on November 26, Journey Bree was legally adopted into our family.
Born to my husband’s unmarried niece, in September of 1990, she was given the name of Jennifer Winder, along with the horrific legacy of fetal alcohol syndrome.
Her biological mother was living with her own elderly maternal grandmother at the time; it took both of them to deal with the challenges of a FAS baby as one of the classic symptoms is continuous crying.
Jennifer first came to live with us when she was 17 months old and her mother was institutionalized in a mental health facility for three months. After her release, she wanted Jennifer back, but she also asked us to adopt the baby she would soon be giving birth to.
When we went to pick up the new baby, 20 month old Jennifer ran to me, climbing into my arms and wrapping her own little arms around my neck, clinging to me.
Her mother said, “Not you, Jennifer,” and handed me her newborn son, even as she pulled her daughter away. It was a bittersweet moment, burned into my memory.
Thirteen months later we would again travel to the other side of the state, to pick up Jennifer’s baby sister, a third child affected by fetal alcohol syndrome. While we loved and cared for Michael and Beth, Jennifer’s mentally unstable mother struggled to care for her.
At least one time she went to a service station where she ask passing motorists if they didn’t want her little girl, as though she was trying to give away an adorable but demanding puppy. On another occasion she abandoned her sleeping toddler in a shopping cart at Wal-Mart.
Finally, my husband’s sister-in-law reported the situation to DCFS and Jennifer was taken from her mother and placed in a foster home. There was an older Jennifer in that home and so, to differentiate between the two, the younger Jennifer became known as Jenny.
She was also labeled clumsy, to explain the many bruises and cuts that began appearing on her body.
Because we had adopted Jenny’s brother and sister, the St. George office wanted us to take Jenny as a foster child but the acting director of the local DCFS wasn’t willing to allow it.
He said we already had too many children and it wasn’t fair for us to have so many children when there were childless couples out there longing for a little one.
He seemingly failed to recognize three things: first, the children were family and deserved to be together; second, they were all affected by FAS and would be a challenge for whoever took them in—it would take the combined efforts of a large family to cope with their special needs; and third, and most importantly, God evidently wanted them to be in our home.
God won out. Jenny’s foster family dropped her off for a visit one hot August day while on their way to a family vacation in Colorado. They were in a car accident the next morning and consequently never returned to pick Jenny up. No caseworker ever called or came to follow up. From that point on, Jenny was unofficially our daughter.
Jenny turned four years old the next month. To that point, as near as we could determine, she had lived with eight different families. The stress of yet another change manifested itself in the form of Bell’s palsy; her face drooping under the weight of uncertainty and confusion.
I had mothered handfuls of natural, foster, and adopted children and believed love conquered all. However, I had yet to understand the full implications of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and I was completely unprepared for the challenges of Jenny’s more obvious obstacle: Reactive Attachment Disorder.
RAD kids are those who have not be able to form normal attachments to primary caregivers in early childhood, resulting in a loss of trust. I believe that RAD is incomprehensible to anyone who has not experienced it.
Words are insufficient to describe the agonies it entails for these children and those who care for them. A few words that described her personality during this time would be oppositional, defiant, manipulative, tenacious.
There were days when her cries of outrage at the injustices inflicted on her world were matched equally by my own, and my tears matched hers in volume.
I cannot begin to describe her years of suffering—and consequently, the suffering our family endured—but we all learned firsthand what the scriptures mean when they speak of the refiner’s fire.
Painstakingly, through much sorrow and tribulation, we gradually reached the point where we were “refined” and could fully share the love we had been seeking for so long.
We had tried unsuccessfully several times over the years to adopt Jenny but perhaps it was best to wait until she was an adult. In the end, we didn’t adopt her as much as she adopted us.
In a quiet ceremony, the judge completed what God had started. I teased that it was the longest and most painful labor I had ever endured.
Jenny wanted to be rid of her legacy and so she changed her name to Journey, so fitting for a girl who has not only surmounted multiple obstacles but has grown into a beautiful and talented young woman.
She has always been determined to control her future. She has matured in different ways from her siblings, imbued with the wisdom of the ages and a compassion born of an intimate association with fear and sorrow.
They say Thanksgiving isn’t about what is on the table but the people seated around it. This year I am so grateful that Journey will be seated at my side.

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