Jennifer and Evan Brown have more than 30 total years of experience working for the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, and seven years experience as parents of a daughter, but nothing could have prepared them for the sound of their foster sons, ages 5 and 6, sobbing uncontrollably at bedtime. In a moment of desperation, Jennifer recalls starting to sing “Hush Little Baby,” which she can’t remember ever having sung before. The littlest brother stopped crying and looked at her incredulously.
“He said ‘my mom used to sing that to us,’” said Brown. “I realized how much they missed their mom and that they deserved to have contact with her.”
When Brown talked with the boys about their parents and their initial removal from their home, they recalled how much they and their mom cried. Having witnessed many removals in her time with DHS, Brown says that’s not always the case. Knowing the trauma the kids endured in being removed from their home, the subsequent unplanned movement from their first foster home and separation from their sister, the Browns felt regardless of what permanency would look like, they needed to see their parents.
Though the case was heading toward terminating parental rights with no contact, the Browns wanted to develop a relationship with the biological parents, amidst advocating for the speech and trauma therapies the boys needed, keeping them connected to their sister in another foster home, working with their schools to determine academic standings, managing often challenging behaviors and ensuring their daughter was getting the attention and counseling she needed.
Better together The Brown Family Initially, Brown asked doggedly for the mom’s phone number so she could simply send photos and updates. It had been more than seven months since the boys’ mother, Railene, had heard anything about her sons.
“We didn’t know if they were alive, who was taking care of them, how they were being parented, who their teachers were,” said Railene. “I had to go to sleep and wake up knowing my kids were somewhere I didn’t know. The worst feeling is the unknown.”
Wary of the foster care system she was in as a child, Railene was shocked when their case worker said the Browns wanted to meet her and the boys’ father.
“They wanted to have a relationship with us, not just take care of the kids,” said Railene.
Brown advocated for the boys to call their mom on Mother’s Day, then for regular phone calls and finally for supervised visitation.
“She saw the good in us no one else could see,” said Railene. “She knew we were trying and she knew we loved our kids.”
Brown says it’s easy to vilify anyone in the absence of a relationship, but taking the time to get to know her foster children’s parents has given her a greater understanding of their circumstances and choices. She’s found they have much more in common than they don’t and watching them work together to heal has been as miraculous as childbirth.
“They are good parents and they love their kids,” said Brown. “They are working so hard, learning to be safe together, to be safe with the kids, doing parent child interaction therapy. They want more and they want better.”
Becoming a foster family
Though the Browns have a long tenure in OKDHS Child Welfare Services, it wasn’t until fall 2017 that they became foster parents themselves. Their first placements were kinship foster care, kids they already knew whose mom was on Jennifer’s caseload when she was in foster care herself, but breaking the cycle to lovingly care for her three kids herself. She stayed in touch with Brown, calling if she needed help finding resources, Brown ensuring the kids always had holiday gifts, and the families celebrating their kids’ birthdays together. After their mom’s death, the kids moved in with paternal family members until they had to be removed. As the Browns realized there would be a lag in approving the kids’ maternal relatives to care for them, they decided to step in.
“I couldn’t let the kids get split up, and I had told their mom that I would always take care of her kids,” said Brown.
For 72 days, the Browns transported the kids back and forth to their school on the other side of town and kept them connected to safe family members, all while Brown advocated for the maternal relatives to be approved, the process slowed by a delay in the required paperwork.
“I kept saying I was willing to put my job on the line for these people,” said Brown. “I knew they would keep these kids safe. I trust them completely with my own daughter.”
Though Brown says the kids adjusted just fine to living in their home, they are now thriving with their relatives, the chaos in their young lives finally at a minimum.
“Their mom was a really good mom, a hard worker, and I know she would be so proud,” said Brown. “I think they will continue to thrive and they’ll be able to talk about their mom.”
While the Browns had those kids in their care, they decided to become traditional foster parents as well, realizing their knowledge of resources and supportive church family would give them some advantages in helping foster children heal. It was several months before they got a call for placement, for the boys currently in their care, who arrived frightened and unsure. Thanks to the honesty of their case worker, they were well aware of the challenges they would face, manifested from behavior issues and the trauma the kids endured.
“I couldn’t understand them at all, and they were wild,” said Brown. “We thought their behavior came from the trauma of their parent’s history, and some of it is and they own that, but it turns out much is from ADHD.”
Along the way, Brown has found solidarity and comfort in her relationship with Railene, who reassures her that mothering her boys is not always an easy feat.
“I’m not carrying the whole burden anymore and wondering what I’m doing wrong,” said Brown.
Railene says her boys have always required much patience and internal strength and need a lot of affirmation. Now as they work through their anger, she believes fervently they couldn’t have found a better set of foster parents than the Browns.
“Anybody else would have given up on them or transferred them out of their home because they are too much to handle,” said Railene. “They are amazing.”
That praise includes the Brown’s daughter, who although open and willing to be a foster sister, has endured struggles right along with her parents, initially sometimes the target of the boys’ fear or aggression. In addition to ensuring their daughter receives trauma therapy and is consistently connected to her counselor at school, they regularly talk about personal and body safety with all of the kids and they have set very clear boundaries about what they will and won’t tolerate in their home.
“I have told [foster son] that he deserves to be in a loving, safe home, but so does [my daughter],” said Brown. “We have to guarantee her safety, and his parents are on board with that, too.”
Brown says much of what they are dealing with, talking about body parts, privacy and not hitting, are normal childhood conversations all families have regardless of whether children in the home are related. She makes sure all the kids have time away from each other, or special one-on-one time with them or other special adults in their lives. It’s been a big adjustment for the only child to share her parents and deal with the chaos that now exists in her home, but she embraces her role in helping her foster brothers heal.
“I tell her all the time that God is looking at her and saying ‘well done good and faithful servant,’” said Brown. “She is so kind and so pure-hearted.”
Co-parenting in action
When the boys’ parents were approved for supervised visitation, the Browns invited them to spend an entire day in their home even though visits are usually just for a few hours. They feared a short visit would feel like the boys were getting ripped away from their parents again. Railene hadn’t seen her kids in almost two years.
“They made us feel really comfortable and like their home was ours, too,” said Railene. “The visits are like we are all a family.”
Railene loves getting to bathe and put her boys to bed. Everyone participates in household chores, sometimes they all cook together or occasionally go on an outing, but the Browns also give the boys’ parents the space and affirmation to parent their kids themselves. The team of four parents work together to determine the best parenting methodologies for the boys.
“When it comes to discipline or anything, we all have an input and agree together on what we should do,” said Railene.
When behavior charts aren’t fulfilled or there are complaints about brushing teeth, Brown reports that to Railene who discusses it with her boys over the phone or during a visit. Railene says Brown is in contact with her throughout every day, letting her know about illnesses, upcoming field trips or behavior issues at school. Railene is the first to admit that, like all parents, she has made mistakes.
“They were taken because of domestic violence, and it was my fault I kept them in the situation I was in,” said Railene.
She regrets all she has missed out on as their mom, not getting to take her boys to their first day of school or put her daughter’s hair in her first ponytail, but the advocates she has received in the Browns have encouraged her to keep fighting and not give up hope. Brown has never felt like it’s her place to ‘forgive’ the boys’ parents for their past behavior but rather to love them where they are, for who they are. She has gained as much from the experience as she’s given.
“I watched this mom look at [her son] and say ‘I did this to you and I am sorry,’ and he took a big sigh … he’s probably blamed himself for so long so,” said Brown. “To get to be part of that was beautiful.”
All parties are hopeful the case will move toward reunification and all are intent on the Browns remaining forever fixtures in their lives.
“At first I wanted to have a good relationship with them because I wanted to have access to the kids [if they went home],” said Brown. “Now, I want them to make it and I want to be a support for them. We would miss them like crazy, but they were never ours in the first place. Our role is to stand in the gap.”
Generously sponsored by Kimray, this is part one of a series that will provide stories of OKC foster families. Find more information about the foster care system and how to become a foster parent at www.metrofamilymagazine.com/foster.