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A North Texas Foster Mom Shares Her Holiday Story

Holidays can be tough for any family. But when family includes a child or children in foster care, the stressors can multiply. One foster mom in Tarrant County shares her story. (And just a note: We’re identifying the mother and her adopted children only by their first names, at her request.)

Four-year-old Reese and her younger brother Xavier are playing with their new presents, pink and purple toy horses.

Their mother Dawna says she fostered and successfully adopted her little ones only recently.

Drug-Affected Babies

Both siblings were drug-affected babies, and in need of a fresh start.

“When she came to me, she was very teeny," Dawna says. "She was 18 months old. She only had four teeth. She was wearing a size 9-months [-old] clothes. Because she had the drugs in her system, she couldn’t grow.”

And she would carry a cup and a cracker without fail.

“Even if she wasn’t hungry, she'd carry those with her all the time, like she was never going to get food again. And still to this day, we carry a cup everywhere we go.”

Her boy Xavier is three, and still doesn’t sleep through the night.

“The drugs affected his little nervous system. He’s sensory, and so noises bother him, certain textures bother him. I have to make sure that all of his shirts have a tag, just inside, where he can reach up there and grab that tag. It’s just the sensory.”

Dawna is in her late 40s, a single mom, with grown kids of her own. In addition to Reese and Xavier, she’s also foster mom to two teenage girls. And trying to incorporate holiday traditions into theirs can be tricky.

“It’s just weird for them if you try to do their family tradition," Dawna says. "And then their missing out, if you don’t do it.”

Flexibility Is Key

Foster parents also have to be incredibly flexible. A birth parent can add or back out of a holiday visit.

“I’ve had kids that they were supposed to visit with their family," Dawna says. "And then the family backed out, did other things, so then they’re heartbroken, so they’re angry.”

One of Dawna’s foster teens, a shy, brown-haired girl, suggests we call her Sophia. 

“Being in foster care, it’s not easy," Sophia says. "Because you’re not with your family, but at the same time you have something close to it. And they show you love. And they give you what you need. They just care about you. And I really appreciate it. I like it, but I would rather be with my family.”

Sophia’s birth family lives in Mexico. They are Jehovah's Witnesses, so before this year, she never celebrated Christmas, or decorated a tree.

“I didn’t even know what to do," Sophia recalls. "I’m like, what do I do, when we were putting the tree up. And I was just like, this is new.”

Linda Saling is clinical director at ACH, a Fort Worth non-profit. She’s worked with North Texas foster families for more than two decades. Saling says she preps parents a month in advance for the holidays, because there are a lot of highs, and lows.

“And it could get as extreme as kids wanting to be home so badly, that they think if they super act out, that CPS workers will send them home.”

CPS, or Child Protective Services, has had to deal with all kinds of holiday scenarios, including kids hurting themselves and ending up in a hospital. Saling says foster families work hard to help kids heal from their trauma. And sometimes have to deal with holiday melt-downs.

“Meltdowns for the little ones can look like all of the sudden they’re having a good time," Saling says. "And then they’re on the floor screaming in the middle of a store, and telling the parent, I hate you, I don’t want to be here, you’re not my mother.”

Balancing Act

Its a balancing act for both foster parent and child.

“The day before Christmas, they’re all holding it together," Saling says. "And we’re all holding our breath, and then right after Christmas you start seeing that acting out again.”

But that doesn’t deter mothers like Dawna, who’s had 10 foster kids over the years. She says for her and many other foster parents, families are forever, no matter what the sacrifices.

Doualy Xaykaothao is a newscaster and reporter for NPR, based in Culver City. She returned to NPR for this role in 2018, and is responsible for writing, producing, and delivering national newscasts. She also reports on breaking news stories for NPR.