December 21, 2011 - Editor's Note: The names in this story have been changed to protect identities.
Oakland County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Pete Burkett, Brandon Substation commander, and Deputy Charlie Liggett with Erica and Andrea at the Oxford Meijer store during “Shop With a Cop” earlier this month. Photo provided. (click for larger version)
Brandon Twp.- Jim and Sally Smith have exactly what they want for Christmas, now they just hope they don't have to return their perfect gifts.
The township residents received news of their present in March, when a foster agency called to ask if they would care for two foster children. The girls, Andrea, now 6, and Erica, 4, had been found by police in a Detroit shed. They had been living there from December to February with their drug-addicted mother, who was absent when the girls were found, with only a space heater to keep them warm in the 8x8 shed.
The Smiths had been about to let their foster license expire after two children they had fostered with the desire to adopt were given back to their grandmother, whom the state had originally charged with neglect.
"I was getting ready to let the license lapse," recalled Sally. "I was frustrated and felt the system had failed the kids. We were going to get out of fostering. We changed our minds, because we couldn't walk away from two little kids that needed help."
The Smiths, married seven years, want to raise a family together. Jim has two adult children from a previous marriage. Sally is unable to have biological children. The couple believed fostering to adopt would be the answer to making their dream come true. They knew they would have to wait longer to adopt an infant and international adoption would be costly. Through fostering, they could find children domestically to love and increase their odds of being able to adopt.
Two years ago, they went through the requisite background checks, references, home inspection, physicals for both themselves and their dogs, and parenting classes. They were licensed on a Tuesday and three days later two siblings, 7 and 4, were placed with them. Six months later, they were returned to their grandmother.
Devastated, the Smiths decided maybe fostering was not for them, but then the March phone call came that would make 2011 a roller coaster of emotions and change everything.
A foster agency representative called at 4 p.m. that afternoon, asking them to take in Andrea and Erica. Jim and Sally bought car seats and Sally went to the agency the next day at noon to get the girls, whom she described as scared, timid, and really tiny. After picking them up, she was taking them to Jim's work to meet him. The girls had no clothes other than what they were wearing, so they stopped at the bank. In the bank's restroom, Sally had to tell Erica to flush the toilet and the little girl started crying. She apologized, explaining she never had to flush the bucket they'd used in the shed.
"That's when I realized how neglected these girls really were," said Sally. "I held it together, but I've done a lot of crying in the shower this year. I try not to cry, because it's really hard to stop once I start."
At Jim's work, the girls started warming up and became "motormouths," Sally laughs. Asked what they wanted for dinner, the girls requested pizza, tacos, hamburgers, macaroni and cheese. Sally and Jim obliged by getting all of it. At home, a box of Cheez-its was on the counter. Andrea asked if she could have some and took one cracker and nibbled it. When Sally told the girls they could have as many as they wanted, they danced around the living room and ate every cracker in the box.
The girls had digestive issues at first and Andrea told Sally her mother had taught her what kind of snow to eat. They had other stories to tell as well—how they would go door to door asking for money and food, how they stood on a street corner with a sign asking for help.
"Andrea told me that we were so generous that now when she stands on the street corner, her sign would say, ' I don't need money or food,'" said Sally. "She thought every kid stands on the street corner in winter."
Sally and Jim spent a lot of time reassuring the girls and the couple learned quickly they had to take all ties to money out. In the grocery store one day, a woman approached them and told Andrea she was really cute. The little girl's response was, 'Thanks. Can I have a dollar?' Sally explained to the stranger that the girls are foster children and came from an environment in which they were told to beg.
Sally has explained to the girls that their new mommy and daddy take care of money and they don't have to worry about it anymore.
The girls are smart, but they have been exposed to way too much, Sally says. Andrea at 5 was able to draw the human body—and also explain how the reproductive system works and how to use a tampon.
Still, Sally said Andrea and Erica have kept the innocence of children, which seems miraculous.
During the day, they were well-adjusted, but at night Sally and Jim were woken by blood-curdling screams and would find the girls standing on their beds, shrieking.
They woke up every day smiling however, and taught Sally about how you can choose your attitude.
"There's lots of singing, dancing, playing the piano," she said. "They were in awe that we have a second story. They spend a lot of time going up and down the stairs, just because they can… We tried to ask them, 'What's your favorite part of the day?' and they would say, 'The whole day,' and not focus on anything."
The initial happiness was short-lived. The girls' grandmother wanted them and the agency took the girls out of their new home in April, less than a month after the Smiths had taken them in.
"I was devastated," said Sally. "I just didn't feel like the girls were going to be safe. In my view, if there was a grandma with the right intentions, the girls wouldn't have spent last Christmas in the shed, Erica wouldn't have spent her fourth birthday in the shed. "
On the way back to the agency, Sally taught the girls how to dial 9-1-1 and told them if they had any problems, they should tell someone who they were.
The grandmother kept the girls for four months, until July, then returned them to the agency. The Smiths were ecstatic to get the girls back at the end of July, and Andrea and Erica felt likewise. Sally recalls that in March, she and Jim had bought each of the girls a pair of red, sparkly shoes, similar to the ones Dorothy wears in "The Wizard of Oz."
"Andrea told us she clicked her heels together three times and said there was no place like home and God brought her back to us," said Sally.
The girls had regressed again. Their nightmares returned and they had trust issues. Sally went out to the mailbox one day and came back in the house to find Andrea sobbing. The child believed Sally was never coming back.
The girls have both needed extensive dental work and are attending counseling. Sally and Jim are not allowed to talk with the girls about keeping them forever. Instead, they've discussed with Andrea and Erica about how their biological parents have made some wrong choices and until they make better choices, they will not go back to them.
The girls' biological father is out of prison and attempting to gain custody. He doesn't have a job, a residence, a driver's license or a car. Sally deals with the fight to keep the girls one hour at a time.
"They ask if they can stay forever, and I tell them we need to see what their birth mom and dad do and if they don't make the right choices, they can stay with us until college, and then they need to take care of us," said Sally with a smile.
Meanwhile, Jim and Sally are getting ready for Christmas with children who have never had a visit from Santa Claus.
"Andrea asked if there was a Santa Claus, and I said yes," Sally said. "She asked, 'Have I just been bad and that is why Santa never came?'"
Jim and Sally took the girls to see Santa Claus and Sally had a little talk with Santa before he chatted with the girls. The man in the big red suit asked them, "Where were you last year? I couldn't find you," and tears came to his eyes when they responded, "In a shed."
Sally has picked out a plate and cup for milk and cookies for Santa and the girls will open a few gifts this Christmas Eve and many more Christmas morning after they have woken, Jim said. The stockings are hung and will be stuffed well.
Asked what the girls will get for Christmas, Jim answered, "I think they got the whole Meijer—electric blankets, toys, Barbies… It's a fun experience to raise two little ones. I am especially happy that my wife, who has never had children, has a chance to raise these two beautiful girls. It's brought life back into the house and knowing their background, they are now getting to live life as children should. They get to be little girls and not have to be grown-ups. I'm hoping we can keep them forever."
Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville