The screams were guttural. Terrified. Inconsolable. Different from those the family was used to hearing from the dozens of foster children that, for a short while, had become part of their lives for the past five years.
Two-year-old Nicole couldn’t stop crying and would only repeat two words in Spanish over and over again: “mama” and “grandma.”
“This one was different. The overall sheer terror of the screaming was different,” foster mother Michelle said. “It was pretty horrific.”
The little girl with big brown eyes and floppy curls had come from El Salvador with her mother. They had been separated by US authorities sometime after crossing the US border with Mexico.
Suddenly, Nicole found herself being sent hundreds of miles away to a stranger’s home in a strange place called Michigan. She is one of the more than 2,300 children who were caught up in the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance policy” toward undocumented immigrants. The policy effectively forced immigration authorities to separate children – even babies – from their parents.
CNN is only identifying the children and their foster mom by one name for privacy and security concerns.
When the family initially met Nicole, she was “shell shocked.” But the next day the fear welled up inside the child and erupted whenever her foster mom left her side. Even if she moved just a couple of feet away.
‘One of the most traumatized’
“She was one of the most traumatized,” Michelle said. “We pretty much couldn’t do anything without holding her. It was intense screaming and crying, more of a terror screaming. Very freaked out that I wasn’t going to come back.”
The little girl was afraid of losing everything all over again, Michelle said. Just like she has done dozens of times before, Michelle began to form a bond with the child. So did the three US-born children Michelle and her husband adopted.
Nicole began to relax into her new but temporary family life. If she was held just right, in a certain position, her tense little body would unfold and she’d become a typical cuddly toddler.
She kept calling Michelle “Leyla” – which the family figured out was actually abuela, the word for grandmother in Spanish. Then Nicole began to mimic and pick up words. The family discovered Nicole loved being in the water. The toddler would completely calm down when they took a dip together.
But the trauma was always present.
The first time Nicole’s mom called, foster mom Michelle wished she wasn’t there listening. “I could have lived a lifetime without hearing this,” Michelle said, her voice cracking with emotion. As soon as the mother and toddler were connected, Nicole’s mom was “uncontrollably sobbing and crying. She was just saying ‘I love you, I love you.’”
But Nicole shut down. She couldn’t face her mother’s sorrow. She looked away in silence. Still, her mother kept trying to make sure her toddler knew that she wanted her back desperately. “That was horrible for me as a parent to hear,” Michelle said, her voice shaking with emotion.
Family bonds broken
Michelle and her husband have been foster parents for five years. She was a teacher who decided her calling was to take care of children in a different way. The family began taking part in the foster care system with children from the United States. They adopted three children who are now 18, 15, and 11.
Just when they were about to walk away from the foster care system, they got a call. “It was a blessing.” It was Bethany Christian Services asking if they would like to begin fostering refugees and immigrant children.
They now know the drill well. The phone rings. Someone from Bethany Christian Services is calling. The organization helps provide for foster children, including matching them with families.
The voice on the other end of the phone asks, “Will you take a child?” The age of the child is given. And the child’s expected arrival time. Usually you only have 24 hours’ notice. For Michelle and her family, the answer is almost always “yes.”
Five years, 107 children
“Sometimes they come in with no way to contact their family. Other times they have little pieces of paper with numbers and names written on them so that they can make contact. The papers are sometimes tucked away in their shoes,” Michelle said.
In five years, Michelle and her husband have fostered 107 children, 13 from the United States, the rest from other countries. Each time, the children react differently to their new surroundings and their temporary home.
But some things stay the same: they all need comfort, love, and assurance that everything is going to be alright. In the past few months they have noticed a change in the level of the children’s trauma.
“I have to tell the children, whenever I have to go somewhere and drop them off, that I will be back. I have to reassure them,” Michelle said.
In past years it was very rare to foster very young children, Michelle said. But a few months ago the ages of the foster children dropped, and their trauma seemed far more acute. There was 2-year-old Nicole, and 4-year-old Mauricio, and 3-year-old Paula. All showed up at the border with parents but were separated from them.
Forming ties that must be broken
When 3-year-old Paula arrived, she didn’t seem to speak English or Spanish. She spoke an indigenous language. No one in the house could understand her, except that she would cry out for her mother all the time.
She also wasn’t eating much at all, Michelle said. With the help of a translator Michelle figured out Paula was still being breast fed.
“We communicated by pointing for a while,” Michelle said. “She would just stare out of the window and want to go outside all the time. She thought if she was outside her mother could find her more easily.”
But when fluent Spanish speakers would come into the foster home, suddenly the little girl would light up. “She would immediately go to them and start talking. ‘They take me from mom, please take me back to my mom.’ She would cling to them. When she realized that they weren’t going to take her, she would come back to me and go quiet.”
Eventually Paula was reunited with a parent.
Praise and judgment
Then there was 4-year-old Mauricio. He handled things differently. He was a ball of fun and energy when they first picked him up.
“He had a huge personality. It was like a party waiting to happen the minute we picked him up,” Michelle said. But as the weeks went by and his mom still wasn’t around, things changed.
“He was like ‘okay I am done, I am ready to go with my mom now.’ The behavior was starting to change when he realized this was not a summer vacation.”
The little boy began having outbursts, like every single child who’s hurting and confused and scared. Mauricio was extremely resilient, though – and he was eventually reunited with family.
When Michelle and her husband first started fostering children, the local community reacted with praise and kindness. But as the political climate has changed, so have the comments. Not from everyone, but enough that it stings.
“We will get comments that ‘you should be taking care of American kids.’ Kids that are here already. That is true,” Michelle said. And they have. But the comments don’t stop there.
“They will start rattling off stuff on their opinion on Trump or the wall or their opinion on illegal immigrants,” she said. “Or they comment that the kids should be learning English.”
Michelle has decided to be more selective about who she tells now. She wants to protect the children and her own emotional well-being.
She is careful about what she reads and how much news she watches. In the end, she says she has to be emotionally and physically present for the kids, and for her family that is an ever-changing kaleidoscope of cultures, languages, and most of all, love. That is her mission. Everything else can be pushed aside.
‘These are children’
“Our faith plays a huge role in what we have been doing from the beginning,” Michelle said. But she has a message for those who try to talk to her foster children harshly.
“No matter how you feel about immigration, these are children,” she said. “Keep your adult comments to yourself.”
Michelle still believes deeply in what she is doing. She has a booklet that the family keeps with the names and something special about each child she has fostered. It gives her peace and joy to look at it sometimes.
She believes in her mission, her Christian faith, and the power of love for children who are caught in the middle of a political fight. Her latest arrival is a 5-year-old boy who came in just a day ago. She still doesn’t know his whole story. A typical stay is a couple of months, sometimes shorter. One child has been at the home for a year and is in school.
Michelle has had to say goodbye to dozens of children she has come to care so much about – including Nicole. She rejoices that families are reuniting. But it isn’t easy to see a child traumatized one more time before they are back with their loved ones.
When she handed Nicole over, she felt a flash of fresh pain go through her heart. All the fear flooded back into the toddler’s body. All the trust vanished when she realized she was being left – again.
CNN’s Traci Tamura contributed to this report.