Editor’s note: Shannon Colavecchio, a former Tampa Bay Times reporter now living in Tallahassee, decided in the summer of 2016 to begin the process of becoming a foster parent. Having been raised by her grandparents after her biological mother battled drug and alcohol addiction, Shannon had always felt a tug of sorts to help children in similar circumstances. The process of getting licensed began in January 2017 with seven weeks of state-required parenting classes, and by the end of August 2017 — following much paperwork, a home study, background checks and more — she was licensed to foster children ages 0-5. Shannon, 40, is single and juggles her work as a public relations executive for Moore Communications Group with a fitness studio she owns. Her first child placement came Sept. 15, 2017, the day after she got a call that a 3-year-old "runaway" had been pulled from her home for neglect, the mother arrested and taken to jail. This is her story, told through excerpts of a diary she kept.
The minivan pulls up outside the house. All I know is her name. She is 3½ and was wandering the streets of her small town alone, half a mile or more from home, while no one back home even noticed she was gone.
I don’t know her favorite foods or colors. I don’t know if she has allergies, if she likes vegetables or refuses them. I don’t know if she likes dogs. I have two. I don’t know anything, really. Except that it’s now my job to take care of her. After a yearlong process to get licensed to foster a child, a child is here.
I walk outside and introduce myself to the investigator. She tells me the little girl won’t get out of the car. She was asleep and now she is awake again, and scared. She slept in a strange bed last night, and is an hour from home or anyone she knows.
So I walk around to her side of the minivan and look at her face. Even in her scowling, she is beautiful. Big green eyes. Blonde hair. Freckles sprinkled across her nose like fairy dust.
I don’t really know what to say. So I tell her my name, and I ask her what her name is. She says it softly, barely audible. And then I ask her, "Do you like puppies?"
Her face lights up.
"I have two puppies inside. Do you want to come meet them?"
She smiles and shakes her head yes, wriggles to get out of her car seat, and takes my hand.
Lice. All over her head. An infestation that has clearly been growing on this little girl for a while.
I spot them Saturday morning, not even 24 hours after she arrived. I text some mom friends and my case manager from Florida Baptist Children’s Home.
"I’ll be right over with lice treatment," she says.
We bring the little girl to the bathroom and get her undressed. When we tell her we have to wash her hair to get the bugs out, she refuses to get in the tub.
"I not! I not! I not!" Crying, wailing, stiffening her body so that we can’t get her into the tub.
So I pick her up and get in with her — me fully clothed, her naked and hating every second of this. While the shampoo sits on her head, I just hold her and rock her to calm her down.
We will end up doing this once more over the weekend, and then letting a professional do a third treatment on Monday.
Already, on Day 2, I’m exhausted. But also having so much fun with this little girl who has a huge smile and an even bigger laugh.
Today marks a week since the little girl I’ve dubbed Princess came into our world (‘us’ being me and the pups, Sir Burpee and Lady Bear!)! It has been a whirlwind of scheduling, preschool signup, emotions, new lessons, and confirmations about both the grace of God and the resiliency of little humans.
Being honest: I have cried a lot this week, both happy tears and sad ones, at the enormity of this responsibility but also the joy and blessing of it. I have cried in learning about the life she came from, but smiled in seeing how she is thriving with structure, nurturing and a routine that gives her the safety and security she needs to feel.
She is smart, independent, as sweet as she is sassy, and funny. She has a deep belly laugh that makes my level of fatigue worth it. She loves her morning chocolate milk, the Disney Jr. channel, and stroller runs. And pizza! She also loves the "puppies." When she puts her hands on her little hips and declares "no bark!," I see a glimpse of her in 10 years.
The first couple of days I dropped her off at preschool, she cried. This is a whole new experience, this school thing — with teachers and nap time and rules and so many new little faces.
She’s never been enrolled in any kind of structured school or daycare until now, and coupled with the trauma of being yanked from home just a couple of weeks ago, I sense she is just overwhelmed.
I wonder every day if I’m "doing this right." Speaking of rules, there is no guidebook for regular parenting — much less "insta-parenting" that happens as a foster mom.
So I cling to little things — like a good note from her teacher, or how she has learned to start each meal by saying grace — as a sign that she and I are navigating this thing okay.
"Deah Word (Lord). Fank you food. Amen."
Today, my friend Stacy asks "How is Princess Pigtails doing?," and suddenly we have an official nickname! Princess Pigtails. It is perfect.
I just love it when I plan the entire afternoon — including missing an hour of work and Princess Pigtails missing an hour of school — for a case worker who calls half an hour late to inform me "I won’t be able to make it today ..." with no promise of a rescheduled appointment for a home visit check-up.
I am providing a safe and loving foster home. So whether he visits or not won’t change that for Princess Pigtails. But I am angry for all the other foster children out there who fall through the cracks because their foster homes are not safe or loving — and caseworkers (overworked and underpaid) fail to find out until it’s too late.
So far this week, I have added the Disney app and YouTube Kids to my phone, and now we are at urgent care for a fever and cough that are kicking Princess Pigtails’ poor little hiney. And I feel so helpless because I can’t just instantly make her better. I think this means mom life is officially official.
The mom brain fog is a real thing, and has officially set in. Somehow this morning, I managed to lose my keys in the middle of the street halfway between home and the studio, and had to drive back and slowly retrace the route to find them. Presumably, I left them on the hood of the car while getting Princess Pigtails into her car seat. But I have zero recollection of this.
I. Am. So. Tired.
The star chart on our fridge, used to track good behavior goals, is full of stars! I am so proud of Princess Pigtails. We had a lot of empty spaces the first few weeks together. So much transition, so much change for a little human who missed everything she knew — even if much of that everything was not the best for her, dangerous even.
She arrived with zero structure, discipline or schooling. But five weeks later, she has grown so much — at home and in daycare. She reminds me every day of the joy and resilience that God gives children. Tomorrow night, we go out for an ice cream date!
This morning Princess Pigtails looked sad as she was getting ready for school. I asked her why she looked sad.
"I miss my dad."
And my heart broke.
Because I know too much about why he is in jail, the things little girls in Princess Pigtails’ family say he did to them. But she doesn’t understand — nor should she yet. Because she isn’t even 4.
So I struggled with what to say.
I told her, "I miss my dad, too. He is really, really far away, and I hardly ever get to see him. So I get sad sometimes, too."
And she looked at me and said, "My dad far away."
I tried not to cry and told her, "Yes, but I bet he misses you, too. And I know he would be so proud of how amazing you are doing. And I’m proud of you, too, because you are so strong."
She smiled and said, "I strong."
And I hugged her as tight as I could.
I have no idea if I said the right things. But that was a really hard conversation.
45 seconds of toddler convo:
Mama, what is that?
Mama, where we going?
Mama, what you doing?
Mama, what is that?
Mama, what is that?
Mama, what is that?
Mama, what you doing?
Mama, where you going?
Mama, what we doing?
Mama, I not tired.
That makes one of us!
Princess Pigtails has a big, open heart. Which is awesome and heartbreaking at the same time.
After watching the Trolls Christmas movie on Friday, she could not stop smiling. She woke up the next morning and declared: "Trolls in my heart, mama!" (Translation: Trolls make me happy!)
And then this morning before school, she just plopped down onto the floor and hugged her knees to her chest and sadly declared, "I miss my mom. I want see her. I sad."
I love that she uses her words and trusts me enough to tell me how she feels. But I hate that no amount of Trolls can really fill the hurt she has in her heart, as a little girl who misses what she knew as home.
Things that are true but not easy to be told: "You no mom. You Shannon."
She says this, matter of factly, as we drive home from preschool. I should have expected it, since her visitations with her mother started last week. Still, it hurts.
"That’s crazy!" is Princess Pigtails’ new favorite phrase. As in:
Me: "GUESS what?! You’ll be four in FOUR weeks! And we’re having a big princess party!"
PP: Squeals and giggles. "WHAAATT?! That’s crazy, mama!"
I’m standing with the other parents, watching the holiday show at Princess Pigtails’ preschool. She has been practicing her songs all week — including her favorite: "Tingle Bells! Tingle Bells! Tingle all the way!"
As she comes to center stage and rings her little bells, I hold back tears. She has come such a long way since her first preschool show two months ago. Her teachers are so patient, and they appreciate her strengths as much as they understand the reason behind her behavior struggles. I start wondering what the spring show will be like, but then I stop myself.
The caseworker mentioned in a recent email that he is going to do a home study of the grandmother who has had custody of Princess Pigtails’ half sister since 2011. The state always wants to reunify with the parent — and if they can’t do that, to place a child with family. But this grandmother wasn’t considered for the initial placement, so I am not sure what has changed now to make her more suitable than me.
But I know that there is a possibility — even though she is thriving here — the state will move her again, just to place her with a blood relative. I don’t want to think about that possibility.
Me: Did you have a better second half of school today?
Princess Pigtails: Yes.
Me: Can you tell me why you don’t listen to your teachers sometimes, even though that is one of the rules?
PP: Mama, I no want talk you. No talk. Shhhh.
And so it begins. A flash of age 13.
When you’re a foster parent, you lose control.
You cannot control how a child’s past hurts will impact their current behavior. You cannot control what kind of health insurance they get — or the fact that some random person assigned a St. Petersburg doctor as her primary care provider (even though you live five hours away).
You cannot control the case plan the state gives your foster child’s parent, to get them back — or how many chances they’ll give the parent to complete it. You cannot control how many caseworkers you’ll have to deal with, or when they’ll want to visit the house to check in.
But most of all, you cannot control the biological parent. And today, I could not control the fact that Princess Pigtails’ mother and grandmother failed to show up for their weekly visit. The one she asked me about this morning.
I could not control the fact that Princess got so hurt and angry when she realized they were not coming, she punched another child in the face at daycare. Because she is disappointed that someone she loves did not do what they promised.
She doesn’t know her mother has been here before and lost two other kids. But I do. And I remember how disappointed I was when my own parents, also addicts at the time, did not do what they promised.
When you become a foster parent, you lose control. She is going to live with her grandmother, because DNA rules. And there is nothing I can do about it.
This will be Princess Pigtails’ last Sunday at Fellowship Baptist Church. I have to lead a fitness training, so friends make sure her day at church is so much fun. After Sunday school she got to attend a pizza party, to decorate cookies. She went to see The Star, a movie about why we celebrate Christmas. My biggest prayer is that the seeds of what she has been given by our church family these past three months will remain with her no matter what. When I was little, and there were parents fighting or high, I would lie in the dark and just pray. My hope is she never needs those prayers. But that if she does, she knows God has her covered.
97 days ago, she arrived in a brown minivan. Covered in lice and bug bites. Today, a white minivan pulls into the driveway. To take her away. This girl who is safe and thriving and happy and learning new things every day. I feel like throwing up.
Princess Pigtails is watching her Disney show, PJ Masks, holding the Paw Patrol sleeping bag Santa brought her that morning.
He came early because we left him cookies the night before, with a note. He brought Paw Patrol toys and coloring books and pajamas, a Minnie Mouse purse, puzzles, Disney princesses and a purple telephone that talks. He brought her favorite chocolate and strawberry sprinkle donuts for breakfast, with a note:
"You have been such a good girl. I am so proud of you and all you’ve learned at school. You can do and be whatever your heart desires because you are so very brave. Love, Santa."
I tuck the note into her suitcase. I’ve packed her favorite bedtime stories. Her Bible. Her favorite outfits. The red coat she wore for pictures that never became a Christmas card.
I get her dressed after lunch. Fix her pigtails one last time. She runs to the mirror like always. "Mama! I want see!"
I walk outside and greet the caseworker. He sees I’m trying to hold back tears and seems surprised. What did he think my emotions would be?
So now it’s time for them to go, and I lead her to the minivan. I’m keeping my head down because I can’t stop crying and don’t want to upset her. I get her buckled into her seat and tell her where she is going.
"I love you so much, Princess. Always remember that. And make sure to always follow the rules. What are the rules?"
She recites the rules we came up with for school. "No hitting. No fighting. Listen teachers. Follow rules. Go bed. Go potty."
"Good job," I say through tears. I kiss her on the cheek and hug her as tight as I can.
"I love you."
"I wuv you too, Mama."
Dec. 22: Epilogue
My phone rings this afternoon and it’s a number I don’t recognize from the hometown of Princess Pigtails and her family, including the grandmother she has been living with for two days.
I had asked the caseworker to give my number to her grandmother, in hopes she would call or let Princess Pigtails call me.
My heart jumps as I pick up. "Hello?"
But it’s not her grandmother. It’s her mother. This person I know so much about, but don’t really know. I’m not sure what to say.
She says she wants me to talk to Princess Pigtails, who has been asking about me. "I love you and I miss you," I tell her, imagining her chubby little fingers holding the phone.
Her mother comes back on. She tells me she and Princess Pigtails went through the photo album I made of our three months together, and she told her mom what all the photos were about.
"I can tell she was so happy with you," her mother says, almost wistfully. "Thank you for taking such good care of her."
I can hear in her voice that she is sad that those pictures showed her daughter getting experiences she could not provide. Or maybe just not yet?
So I tell her about my childhood. I tell her I was Princess Pigtails’ age when my mother struggled with addiction. That her heart for me was always huge, but the addiction for a long time was bigger. It never made her a bad person. Just someone fighting a really bad disease.
Now we’re both crying. She’s not the monster I wanted to think she was. I’m not the stranger who tried to take her daughter.
I tell her that Princess Pigtails is worth fighting for. Worth cleaning up her life for.
Somehow, this call gives me peace. I can see now that maybe these three months weren’t just about giving Princess Pigtails a second chance. Maybe it was about showing her mother — through that photo album — the life she wants to give her daughter.
This is my prayer, anyway.
Princess Pigtails is living with her grandmother and one of her half sisters, age 6, in a rural community about an hour from Tallahassee. Shannon saw Princess Pigtails a few weeks after state officials moved her there, on her fourth birthday. She gave her an American Girl doll named Willa, who has blonde pigtails and green eyes just like Princess Pigtails. Shannon is awaiting her next child placement, and hoping that Princess Pigtails’ family will allow her to be a mentor to her moving forward. There are typically about 24,000 children living in foster care at any given time in Florida.