Her parents had been foster parents when she was a child, so Verneta Wallace was aware of the enormous responsibility it is to become a foster parent-but she also knew the enormous difference good foster care could make in a child's life. She and her husband David debated the idea very seriously. After all, they already had two young children. But they also knew they could make a real difference.
"We thought we could put a little spot in their heart so that for the rest of their lives they knew someone thought they were really great kids. It was unconditional love," she says. "We went into it fully aware that we would not always have the sweet little kid who would say, 'Oh, thank you so much for taking me.'"
Finances were an issue. Verneta and David were people of modest income, and when Verneta went to Catholic Social Services to inquire about being a foster parent, she learned that she would receive no monetary help from either the state or the Catholic Church. She and David decided to accept the challenge and try to make it happen using their own income.
At age 24, Verneta became a foster parent. Her commitment was tested right away; the first child she was given was a 1O-year-old hearing impaired boy. "He was just learning sign language and I had a minimal amount of training, so we learned together," says Verneta. "The rewards were many. He learned to sign and speak. It was so exciting to see him learn things."
That same year, she also discovered the hardest part about foster care: helplessly standing by while your foster child, the child you loved like your own, is sent back to an unstable environment. "It was always difficult when children were sent to an environment we felt was not healthy for them or where they would not be valued," she says. This possibility was always in the back of her mind, so she gave as much as she could while she had the chance.
There were also moments with children whose parents were drug addicts, abusive, or neglectful that touched Verneta's heart. "This little girl was five years old and she had on boy's undershorts. Not panties that little girls would have but shorts," Verneta recalls. "So I took her to the store and I said, 'You need to have a dress to wear to church.' I let her pick out her dress [as well as some other clothing for little girls], two of these, four of those. You know, the kind of things that our children take for granted.
And she was absolutely ecstatic. She said, 'Oh, you mean I get a dress of my own and I get to pick it out myself?' That's the kind of stuff that breaks your heart but makes it worthwhile."
On Call 24 Hours
Verneta and David opened themselves up to taking in babies and emergency cases, such as infants suffering from fetal alcohol syndrome who needed round-the-clock care. They also took in pregnant girls who were planning on giving up their babies. They would stay for a few months, deliver, sign the necessary paperwork, and be gone.
As she became known as someone who never refused a child, Verneta began to take in a non-stop flow of children who needed a safe haven: troubled, bitter teens who had bounced from foster home to foster home; younger children shell-shocked from abuse; and babies waiting to be adopted. Soon she was on 24-hour call to be able to take in a baby at a moment's notice.
Of course, in addition to special care, babies also require special supplies, which can be very expensive. Still, Verneta trusted that everything would work out. "I had no clue where I was going to get anything," she recalls. "But word got around at church and then it was, 'Oh, I have a bed or I have this ...' People would give us clothes that their children had outgrown, or toys. We hit a lot of garage sales. We were always rearranging the budget."
"No Way to Console Them"
As the years passed, the children continued to come. The Wallaces cared for as many as three at a time, some with physical disabilities. There were the Inuit children from Alaska who needed special meals that Verneta had to learn to make. Most heartbreaking of all, though, were the crack babies suffering through withdrawal.
"It's awful. There is nothing to give them to help them overcome their addiction," she says. "They just have to go cold turkey and go through withdrawal. They've got the little tremors and little shakes and their little chins would shiver. And that harrowing cry ... there's no way to console them." Verneta learned to live in the moment, to attend to the needs of these children without worrying about the reasons they had the need.
Over the years, she also took great pride in the fact that she never neglected the needs of her own children. "I never missed a school concert, play, or baseball game," she says. Her one concession to her family was that she never took in a child the same age as her own children. She reasoned they didn't need the competition.
A Mother's Rage
One of the greatest challenges for Verneta was visitation day. She was obligated to bring the child she was fostering to the very person who caused the child's estrangement-whether it was by drugs, abuse, or neglect. Often the mother, dealing with her own shame and guilt, would lash out at Verneta and personally attack her. They assumed that she was judging them for their poor parenting. Perhaps at first, Verneta did feel a certain resentment toward these parents. After all, she was dealing with the consequences of their actions. But soon she began to understand that these parents, though severely lacking in coping skills, did the best they could. She allowed them to vent their frustration to a point, then she'd let them know where she stood.
"I'd say, 'Let me just tell you a few things about me. I am not here to take away your child. I can see that you love your child and that you want this child back in your life," Verneta recalls. Still, she spent a great deal of time biting her tongue, taking verbal abuse when she was the best parent some of these children had ever had.
There were other hardships, of course. Over the 23 years, Verneta figures she got about 5 hours of sleep a night. "With the newborn babies that are being taken away from their moms, you're probably up every 2 hours, 3 if you're lucky," she says. "And of course with a lot of these babies, it takes 45 minutes to change them and feed them and all that stuff. There was not a lot of sleep."
Love and Nothing Less
As time went on, friends told Verneta she was crazy for continuing to take in more children. She and David even got into an argument over continuing to take in infants. But she never flagged in her efforts to make a good home for troubled children. What kept her going?
"We made a difference in a child's life!" she says. "We knew that when we had a baby live with us that he or she wouldn't remember us, but children know when they are loved and we gave them that. With the older children, they knew they were safe and cared for and had their eyes opened to a world they didn't know existed."
Verneta admits that having few rights as a foster parent was challenging. "You don't know that you're going to fight the intense feelings I did," she says. "It wasn't like I wanted to keep the child. But I had invested time and a part of my life, and there was a part of me in that child. I've had more than one social worker say to me, 'You know, you really get attached to these kids, are you being healthy?' And I'd say, 'Yes, I'm being healthy for this child.' Did I have difficulty with children leaving? Yes. But I always knew that there would be another child who needed us."
From Foster Mother to Social Worker
Eventually, the lack of sleep took its toll, and Verneta and David agreed they would end their tenure as foster parents. They handed over their last baby for adoption to a grateful family in 1997. But that wasn't the end of Verneta's work on behalf of children.
"I became a court-appointed child advocate so that I could really get in there and advocate for kids and stick up for their rights," she says. "I could fight in ways I couldn't fight as a foster parent. For instance, sometimes kids were returned to their parents and shouldn't have been. As a foster parent you have no say, but as a court-appointed child advocate you have a voice. I may not save all of them, but if I can save one, I feel good about it."
A Wider World
Of course, Verneta couldn't help but be changed by the experience, by all the lives intertwined with hers and David's. She knows that in the true spirit of giving selflessly, she's gained much more.
"My world was pretty small," she says. "I knew people abused drugs and didn't take care of their children. But those people weren't real to me. But once I got into it, I saw that the person was a mama who had gotten into some really dumb stuff, but still loved that child. It gave me a greater sense that the world is not black and white. It gave me perspective. Sometimes it's nicer not to have to know that stuff, but it's reality. You can choose to walk away and pretend like it never happened, or you can whine about it, or you can get in there and do something about it."
Verneta has also shared those lessons with her own children, who she says have surpassed her. "My children have a better capacity for what this world's all about and what it needs to be," she says. "I don't know that I could have given my children a lesson like that in any other way."
Verneta gets letters from some of her 109 kids and has received invitations to graduations from others. Still others have been inspired by her to become foster parents themselves. Grateful parents still thank her for the time and love she gave their children. But the greatest rewards come from knowing how much she gave, and how much her gifts meant, as illustrated by this story:
"I can remember we got three children who we had for a week, and when they got ready to go back home, I told them that the judge said they could go back home and live with their dad. The little girl, who was five, said, 'We thank you so much for letting us come and live with you. We have had such a fun time.' Then she says, 'Where are you going to put the toys after we leave? I need to know in my head so that when my daddy messes up again and we come back to live with you, I'll know where the toys are.'"
"But her dad did not mess up. And when I asked her where her mom was, she said, 'Oh, she ran away; she left us. But we're looking for another one," Verneta recalls.
Verneta knew despite all the work, sleepless nights, and heartbreak, what she was doing was, in a small way, saving the world one child at a time. "It was never easy to give so much to so many children while giving my own family the love they deserved," she says. "But I never considered quitting. I found the strength in my heart to keep going because I knew I was giving these children something many of them had never had: unconditional love. I knew most would not remember me, but I also knew many would carry the imprint of that love with them. It was like giving a tiny piece of myself to each child to carry into their lives. Giving to them gave me the strength to keep going."