Her children’s keeper

Davida Williams, AM’82, helps foster families navigate trauma and find trust.

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While our first foster child raged from room to room, my husband sat next to Davida Williams, AM’82, on our big paisley armchairs and, with a degree of nonchalance that only ramped up my unease, they made small talk about the moon. Apparently, it was especially beautiful that night. Their voices were level and low, as if everything were OK. As if a luminous moon in a February sky could compensate for our home’s current crisis.

Sitting across from them, though, I knew better.

“Did you see the moon, Emily?” Davida asked.

The social worker who trained us the previous summer when we’d started the process of becoming licensed foster parents, Davida had been in and out of our home since our ten-year-old foster child moved in, counseling the three of us through the challenges of learning to live together.

My arms crossed tight to my chest, I stared at the floorboards so as not to look up and meet our foster daughter’s eyes. I knew if I did she was likely to snap, and I was apt to bite back with a venom I’d quickly regret.

“Nope. Didn’t see it,” I told Davida.

“Shut up!” our daughter yelled. “I don’t want to hear about the moon!”

It was clear well before that night that we couldn’t give our daughter what she needed. Still, there had been moments of grace during our four weeks together. Over bowls of cereal one morning, she’d nodded and laughed as my husband, Sean, crooned a familiar Irish tune. We’d braided one another’s hair, done cartwheels through the snow, and read together before bed, as recently as the night before. Our daughter wanted to keep reading but it was late so she went to bed without ado, making a plan with us to return to the book the following night.

The following night, though, she and Sean were barely home after he’d picked her up from school when things suddenly went wrong again. These emotional extremes had been the norm since she’d moved in. Every instance in which we connected and drew closer was followed by an increasingly defiant act that again pushed us apart, and I was on edge.

When I heard the commotion, I sprang up just in time to see her throw the books off our coffee table and kick the table across the living room. I asked Sean to call Davida.

While he made the call, our daughter shouted, “I don’t want to be here anymore!”

“You may just get your wish, honey,” I hissed, picking up books and sliding the table back into place.

“Don’t call me honey, dummy,” she countered, and kicked the table again.

Davida answered Sean’s call immediately and was at our door soon thereafter.

Despite Davida’s presence, our daughter became a threat to her own safety that night, requiring a more intensive intervention than a foster home could provide. Seven hours after she’d arrived home from school, our daughter left our home for good.

Davida stayed with us throughout the crisis, facilitating that intervention and steering us all safely through the storm.

 

Although our experience with our first daughter was extreme, all foster parents work with kids who have been traumatized in one way or another. Some have had multiple hospitalizations or lived in multiple foster homes. Some have seen family members killed. Some have been physically or sexually abused. Some have been locked in their homes, in closets, or worse. Some have been starved. Some have lived in squalor, with roaches in their clothes and hair. All have been cleaved from their immediate families. Whenever possible, these kids are placed with relatives. However, that’s not always an option. Many kids then end up being dropped off to live for who knows how long in the homes of complete strangers.

They are stressed and distrustful of their new environments. Many have trouble sleeping or issues with food. Some are depressed, withdrawn, crying, or wanting to hurt themselves. Others are angry and aggressive, yelling, throwing tantrums, and wanting to hurt others. Some don’t understand appropriate boundaries and act out sexually.

“It’s an exhausting job, but when you can affect one child’s life like our foster parents do, it’s exhilarating,” says Mary Anne Brown, executive director of Hephzibah Children’s Association, the child welfare agency in Oak Park, Illinois, through which Sean and I are licensed. “But you need people like Davida behind these programs to not make these people get exhausted and worn out.”

Hephzibah provides abused and neglected kids from Illinois safe homes in which to heal. Davida has devoted her 34-year career in social work to the agency. This fall she retires.

Sean and I are only two of thousands of foster parents she has trained. Ours is just one of countless families she’s supported and protected. “Once you start working in foster care, it’s really hard to stop. It’s addictive,” she says. “When the kids start to get better, there’s nothing better than that. Right?”

During her career, she’s worked in virtually every branch of Hephzibah. She started out in day care, driving the bus, then working as the building manager. After becoming a social worker, she brought AIDS babies into foster care when no one else would touch them. She helped open and directed Hephzibah’s group homes. She started a program to help group-home kids transition into foster homes—even creating a board game to help ease them through the change.

As foster care specialist, a position created for her in which she is the primary support person for foster parents, she launched a support group that Brown said is so popular that foster parents delay vacations or take off work to attend. “It’s more than a social worker would do,” Brown says. “It’s more than a therapist.”

About Davida’s impending departure, Brown added, “I have never been so concerned. And I don’t want to talk about it. It’s very hard. We’ve got some staff that want to try to take her place, but nobody can take her place. It’s going to be a huge loss.”

 

Davida always wanted to work with kids. Just out of Illinois Benedictine College (now Benedictine University) in 1978 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a minor in literature, she says her mom pointed her toward “that place on North Boulevard” for a job. Opened in 1897, Hephzibah operated as an orphanage until the early 1970s, when it became a day care, later adding foster services and group homes. When Davida rode her bike to the facility, the day care director, Rudi Vanderburg, interviewed her on the spot. Two days later she received an offer to work in the day care. When she began to itch to do more, Brown, who’s been at Hephzibah for 37 years, said, “You’re not going anywhere.” Davida continued working for the agency while she applied to graduate school at the University of Chicago to become a social worker. She started at the School of Social Service Administration in 1980, volunteering in hospice and completing internships in health care and at the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.

The youngest of five siblings, Davida says her father was a physically and verbally abusive alcoholic who, the morning after inflicting horrendous violence on his wife and kids, would wake up having completely forgotten everything he’d done the night before.

Because of her childhood trauma, Davida says she promised herself she wouldn’t work with abused and neglected children, thinking it would be too painful. Throughout graduate school, however, she maintained ties with Hephzibah, working there in the summer and on weekends. The fall after graduating, she interviewed for a job as the foster care social worker when the program was in its infancy. Once she started working with the kids there, she says, she couldn’t stop.

Brian Fruits, one of the first kids to live in Hephzibah’s diagnostic group home, says “Davida changed my life and saved my life. … She was the first adult I ever trusted.”

Fruits, who is now 33 and recently earned his MFA degree, says when he was a child his parents were divorced, his mother was an alcoholic, and his father was a workaholic who struggled with substance abuse and could be physically and verbally abusive. “Davida always saw the good in both of my parents,” he says. “She knew the demons that they wrestled with.” When he and his sibling moved to Hephzibah, he says his dad was there five days a week to visit. “My dad busted his ass to get us back.”

Davida became friends with Fruits’s father. After Fruits was reunited with his dad, she remained close with the family. “Even when my dad and I weren’t talking she would fight for me to reach back out to him,” Fruits says. “Finally I made that amends with him a few years before he passed.

“She taught me how to love people unconditionally.”

Davida says she’s learned through therapy how to deal with her own childhood trauma. She says the children at Hephzibah—whom she calls “my kids”—don’t yet know how to handle what’s happened to them. “They don’t have the frame of reference of education and nurturing care,” she says, adding that her goal is to open that door for them.

Fruits was in first grade and living with a foster family that was “very abusive” when his case was transferred to Hephzibah. When Davida came to remove him from the home, Fruits remembers looking out the window from the couch to see her on the porch. As she drove him and his sibling away, she asked how they were.

“We told her everything,” he recalls. “It was just so easy to. She was warm and sweet. She had that innate, maternal quality. She’s just so loving, quiet, and soft-spoken. Not a threat.”

Today, a few months before her retirement, a drawing Fruits made when he was a child, showing Davida seated behind her desk, still adorns her office. Dozens more crayon and pencil pictures from her kids surround it. Interspersed among them are framed photos of her kids and their families.

In one photo, Davida sits between a young man and woman holding their baby. When the man was a boy, she says, his mother threatened to kill him, Davida, and herself with a butcher knife if Davida tried to take her son away. Davida returned to the house with police to take him to Hephzibah and eventually placed him in an adoptive home. As an adult, he asked her to be the “best lady” in his wedding.

Remembering another child, Davida says, “You know what we had to do? Take her into the bathroom and at the mirror we taught her how to smile.”       

“What do you do?” she asks. What do you do if you’re a child who has watched her family be murdered or whose mother has threatened his life—who’s been confined to a roach-infested apartment above the barn at the racetrack, been sexually abused or beaten, or otherwise forced to submit to the depraved whims of sick adults?

Asked how she could continue in a line of work that required her to face a daily barrage of horror stories, she says she’s sought help from a trusted therapist. She’s turned to gardening, growing plants and trees and building a sunroom in her home. Finally, Davida says, she’s always refueled on the energy of the people with whom she works.

“My love and admiration for foster and adoptive families is profound,” she says. “What am I going to do without them? They blow me away with kindness.” You make connections working in foster care, Davida says. “We get as we give to these children, don’t we?”

 

Juanita Broscheit is a veteran foster parent whom Davida trained 14 years ago and who, with Davida, cotrained Sean and me in the summer of 2010. The Broscheits have adopted two kids and have provided a foster home to dozens more. They have often turned to Davida for encouragement. When they were deciding whether to adopt a child with special needs, Davida spent hours counseling them and making them aware of future challenges they would face. “Davida helped us to really, I felt, realistically think through the decision we were making,” Broscheit says. She adds that Davida has always gone out of her way to get kids anything they might need or want that their parents might not be able to, from winter coats to sports gear, sleds, bicycles, and musical instruments and lessons.

In training, Davida teaches breathing and relaxation exercises to help parents regulate their responses to their kids’ behaviors. She encourages them to involve their kids in activities like art, music, theater, or sports; to teach them how to wash and dress themselves; and to give them responsibilities and even decision-making control around the house. She emphasizes the importance of never making food an issue, since many kids in foster care have not experienced many foods or will hoard food as a result of the abuse or neglect they’ve experienced. She also drills into foster parents that they can’t—and their kids can’t—do it alone, and that she is always on call to help. “Whenever it’s convenient for parents and for children, that’s when Davida works,” Brown says.

David Neubecker says Davida is why he and his partner decided to start their family through foster care, then adoption. They formed a relationship with Hephzibah through Davida in 2007 and later that year received a phone call about two siblings who needed a home. Despite Neubecker’s degree in early-childhood education, he found parenting the children, who’d previously lived in several foster homes, challenging. “By the time the kids came to us, they really didn’t trust adults at all,” Neubecker says.

After the kids moved in, Davida frequently dropped by, always bringing a small gift for them—usually a book—and encouraging Neubecker to take care of himself and recharge. After reaching what he called his “lowest point,” when he questioned whether he could continue, he turned to Davida and she found the right respite worker to assist his family. “All while doing this because she knew it was the right family for these kids and that as a family we could get through it,” he says.

Davida does everything she can to keep families intact, says Mildred Moore. Moore has been a foster parent for nearly 20 years, having provided a short-term home to about 60 kids, a long-term home to about 20, and adopting three. No matter what she went through—whether a child set fire to her house or was experiencing a psychotic break and heading to the hospital in the middle of the night—Davida was there when called for help.

“There were times when I’d take a kid to the office and say, ‘I just can’t do it anymore,’” Moore says. Davida would sit with her for hours, suggesting ways to provide additional support and developing a plan to work through the issues.

“She never gives up. She never says, ‘I’m tired. I can’t come out to your home. I can’t meet you at the hospital at three in the morning.’ So that keeps you motivated. It keeps you looking for ways to work with the children and making sure they’re going to be OK.”

 

On a walk with Sean the night after our first foster child left, that same crisp moon lit the sky.

“Look, it’s Davida’s moon,” I said.

“How about that?” he said.

“You guys were right. It’s incredible. You should call her and tell her.” Before we could, we arrived home to a voice message from Davida:

“I don’t mean to disturb you guys but I just had to call you. Did you see the moon tonight? It’s just beautiful. Just like last night. I saw it and thought of you both and had to call to let you know. Make sure you take a look, OK? It’s really something. OK, sorry to bother you. Hope you’re OK. Take care.”

Over those next days and weeks as we processed the night our daughter left, the preceding weeks, and the loss of the first child we’d loved as parents, Davida remained in close contact, encouraging us not to quit foster care. Over breakfast, she challenged us to reexamine our goals. She invited us to the foster parent support group she led. She e-mailed often, confiding once, “Rarely, but sometimes, even I get discouraged,” then later asking, “Don’t hearts touch through our work?”

Davida inspired us to continue, and Sean and I shared many subsequent joyful foster parenting experiences. We quickly came to love all of the kids who lived with us, no matter how hurt, angry, or challenging they could be, because the flip side to their pain was incredible joy, and we were thrilled to share in it.

Now, with our ten-month-old biological son nearly sleeping through the night, we’ve registered for one of Davida’s final trainings—on parenting children who’ve experienced trauma—required to maintain our license. We dream of a house with more bedrooms to accommodate more kids. And we attempt to live her legacy, asking ourselves with increasing urgency: when can we foster again?

 

Emily Dagostino has a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University and graduated from the University of Notre Dame. Her writing has appeared in Catholic Digest, Hospital Drive, and Notre Dame Magazine and is forthcoming in the anthology My Body, My Health: Women’s Stories. Read more at emilydagostino.com or contact her at etdags22@yahoo.com.

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