SAN ANTONIO – When the state steps in to remove children from a home, its ultimate goal is to eventually reunite the kids with their families, but when that is not possible the kids are made available for adoption.
According to data provided by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, over the past six years an average of more than 1,370 foster kids per year were waiting to be adopted by a forever family in the San Antonio area.
Four years ago, Stephen and Shannon Ivey became foster parents with the hope of adopting a child. Within hours of being notified by the state they were approved to foster children in their home, they had their first foster child delivered to their doorstep by a caseworker for Child Protective Services.
It all began with a phone call.
"I'll never forget that our case manager said, 'Look there's a little girl that has a broken leg and if you don't say yes, she's going to go into a shelter,'" Shannon Ivey said. "'Do you have an open place right now?' and I said 'Yes, I do.'"
That phone call in July 2013 would forever change the lives of Shannon and Stephen Ivey, their son Isaac Ivey, and Calvin and Megan.
Shannon Ivey answered that call from her foster agency just two hours after learning they had been approved by the state to foster children in their home.
"We had no idea we were going to get licensed that day, and we sure didn't know that we were going to have a baby by 5:30," Ivey said. "We knew that she was female, we knew that she was 9 weeks and that she was hurt. That's all we knew and we said OK."
A short time later the CPS caseworker was at their door with little Megan, who had her tiny little legs strapped to a harness and a tangle of intravenous lines still attached to her small hand.
"CPS is there and they have a broken one, they have a broken baby, and here's this 9-week-old baby who was filthy. She was in a diaper that didn't fit her and she was in a harness," Ivey recalled. "We had never seen a harness on a baby before. We didn't know what it was; we didn't know. We thought OK she's not in a cast, she's in this harness. We didn't know that she had a break clear through her bone. We didn't know how to deal with the harness, we didn't know anything, and they just kind of handed her to us."
Megan had just been discharged from a hospital where she was treated for a severely broken leg caused by abuse.
Despite being in agonizing pain, Megan didn't scream or fuss, the Iveys said. They soon learned that was because Megan's biological mom had not been responding to her baby's cries.
"She didn't cry, because they learn if no one tends to them when they cry, they learn that their voice doesn't mean anything. We thought, 'Oh, we have this baby that's so sweet,' and she would just have tears run down her eyes and we found out later from a specialist that you have to be really on top of kids like this because she's just learned that her voice doesn't mean anything," Shannon Ivey said. "So all this time she was in so much pain, and the only thing we could give her because she was so little was Tylenol."
Months later, the Iveys learned Megan had an older brother who had also been removed from the parents and was living with his grandparents.
They met 2-year-old Calvin for the first time when they attended a court hearing for Megan and they were instantly concerned for his safety.
"I could tell that he was not in a great situation," Stephen Ivey said. "It certainly looked like he wasn't being taken care of because he didn't have shoes on the first time (Shannon) saw him. He was barefoot in the court."
A few months later the Iveys got a call from CPS about Calvin who was being treated for injuries at a hospital.
"They said, 'Could you come down to Methodist Hospital, because Calvin is in pretty bad shape,'" Shannon Ivey said. "I walk into the room, and I'll never forget it. He was beat up from head to toe. Just beat up. He had bruises all over his face, he had a black eye, he had strangle marks around his neck. He had old wounds that they couldn't prove were fresh but they were recovering wounds on his rib cage. The other thing that was really strange was that he had hundreds of bites on him."
The Iveys were asked to foster Calvin and were told he could be a challenge. Caseworkers and paperwork described a deeply troubled child.
"He was no-verbal, he was aggressive, that he was violent, that he had ADHD -- now mind you he's 2 so making those kinds of diagnoses is kind of a stretch -- and that he could be bipolar, and that there was talk of putting him on lithium."
But Shannon Ivey said the little boy in their care didn't match that description at all.
"When I got him I was like, what? Because within the first day he was calling me mom, and he spoke better than both of my kids combined at that age," Ivey said.
The Iveys spent the next several months healing Calvin's and Megan's physical and emotional wounds and attending every court proceeding, knowing all the while the kids could be returned to the family that caused their injuries.
"One of the higher-up attorneys while we were doing this, she came to me and she said, 'Shannon, if we don't keep these kids away, they're going to be dead in a year,' and that always kind of stuck with me, and every single court date we had, I was like, 'Is this kid going to go back?,'" Shannon Ivey said.
"We could see them making progress and starting to come out of it, and then over this whole thing there's this specter of, 'Oh, they might have to go back where they came from to start with,' and we were constantly battling that fear," Stephen Ivey said.
The Iveys were frustrated with the entire legal process. As foster parents they didn't have any legal standing yet and weren't able to share many things they knew about the kids, nor were they asked.
It wasn't until the judge finally saw pictures of Calvin's injuries that they felt the case begin to turn in their favor.
"Because it had been talked about (in court) that he had been hit or maybe abused, but nothing was really sinking in until she showed the pictures, and I remember the judge going, 'OK, yeah, sure, I'll look at the pictures,' and her eyes started to get big and she sort of audibly just let her breath out and slumped, and then she looked up at the grandmother who had custody and the grandfather and said, 'Have you seen these? Have you seen what happened while you were supposed to be taking care of him?,'" Stephen Ivey recalled. "And when you saw him with two beat-up eyes and you know, that is jarring, and you know the judge needed to see those things, and when she did she made the appropriate decisions."
After more than a year of court proceedings, the Iveys were finally able to adopt Calvin and Megan.
The pair are now thriving in their loving home with their big brother. The Iveys say Calvin is doing well in school despite having post-traumatic stress disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Megan has graduated from physical therapy and recently tested at a higher level than her peers.
Looking back at their experience, the Iveys are convinced the system needs to do a better job of including foster parents in the court proceedings that determine what happens to kids like Calvin and Megan.
"I would say one of the things that is broken, it's that foster parents aren't required to attend court dates and are even discouraged from attending," Stephen Ivey said. "The foster parents are the ones who are actually spending the most time and have the most exposure to what's going on with these kids, and so the decision-making is being made by the people with the least amount of information."
They also recognize the need for more families to open their homes to children in desperate need.
"We've got to have people who are brave enough to say, 'OK, I'm going to love them with everything I have for the little time I have got,'" Shannon Ivey said. "If I have to give them back, you know, I'll deal with it. I'll go to therapy, I'll take care of myself, but they need to know at some point in their life what love feels like."