Mary was almost 60 and planning her retirement when she showed up at her sister’s house to find DCYF workers removing her great nieces and nephew from the home. She offered to take the kids. And in that instant, her life changed. 

I met Mary and the kids this summer in their backyard in suburban Rhode Island.

Mary: It’s a great place huh? We’re in the backyard. I have a huge pool. There’s 1,2,3… how many kids are swimming in there? 5. We usually have 6 on an average day. Look, all of them are watching.

We’re only using Mary’s first name and we’re not using the kids’ names to protect the family’s privacy. 

10-year-old: Why you looking at me like that?

Mary: Just looking at you. Have you been brushing your teeth? No, you haven’t. Go in the house and brush your teeth. God I'm such a mother. Isn't that weird? Mary had spent years worrying about these kids.

Mary: Years, years crying. Years driving over there. Years searching for them.

Her niece had gotten hooked on opioids shortly after her youngest child was born, and Mary often took care of the kids. 

Mary: Years holding her as a little baby, and just sitting in my room and crying. Holding this baby, and just saying, "God, please take care of this baby, please help this baby, please." Because I was afraid the house was gonna catch on fire. I was afraid there was gonna be a shooting. I was afraid they were going to get in a car accident. Like, everything you can imagine when you know that you're dealing with a drug addict, and they have children. 

Two summers ago, her niece decided to go into a rehab program. At that point, she and the kids’ dad weren’t together, and they decided Mary would take care of the kids. 

Mary: So she checked into someplace. And a few days later, he called and said, “Oh, I want to see the kids.” 

This call from the dad set off a tense back and forth over who would the kids should live with. And when Mary’s niece got out of rehab a week later, she and the kids’ dad got into a big fight. Things got physical. And her niece took the kids back to Mary’s sister’s house. 

Mary: The father called DCYF. And that’s when they showed up. 

At that point, Mary was on the road, headed home to her husband in Massachusetts. She had no idea this was happening.

Mary: I was not even going there. I was going home. And on I-495 north I turned around. I just turned around, and said, “You know what, I gotta go see what’s going on over there.” And as I drove down the street I saw two cops cars and a white van. And I’m like, “Okay.” And then another two pulled up. So I went out and said, “Hey, what’s going on?” And they started talking, and what they said was right. They knew what was going on. They knew what was happening in the house. They knew that there were drugs. And so they said, “We’re taking them.” 

DCYF had decided to put the kids in foster care. Thinking back on this moment, Mary vividly remembers what happened next.

Mary: I said, "Let me put them in my car.” And I didn't say, "Let me take them." I said, "Let me put them in my car." Cus all I visualized was them getting in the white van. All of em. 

Removing kids from their parents is a difficult choice. But DCYF had been to the house before, and this time, they decided the situation had reached a breaking point. 

Whenever possible, the department tries to place kids with a relative or close family friend, if they can find someone who’s willing and able to foster the kids. So as soon as Mary said she’d put the kids in her car, they started running background checks on her. In just a couple hours, she was taking the kids home.At their home today, the afternoon sun is fading and shadows stretch over the pool. The kids are munching on chips while they dry off. 

Mary and the kids have been living in this house for about a year, and it’s starting to feel like home. But this isn’t at all where Mary expected to be at this stage of her life. Two years ago, she was happily married, and excited about moving to South Carolina to be near her stepson. Her husband had a new job there. He was actually packing up their house when she decided to turn around on that night DCYF came to take her niece’s kids.

Mary: He's already going. We knew he was going. When I put those kids in my car, I knew he was going. 

Sofia: Did you think about what that meant?

Mary: No, I didn't even think about it. Not a thought. So then I called him and told him I got the kids. And then I took the kids to the house and I knew this was not gonna work. Not at all. Not in the least bit, no way, whatsoever.

Sofia: What did you say to him?

Mary: He just said, "why didn't you call me?" And I said, "I had a minute to make a decision." You know, "Well, why did you take them?" "How would I not take them?"

Looking back now, that decision cost Mary her marriage. Her husband went ahead with the move to South Carolina. She stayed here with the kids. 

Mary: Like, indirectly I chose them over anyone. And I'm not saying I had to. I wanted to.

I would have liked to have been 30, to be honest, cus 60's tough. It's tough. I'm tired. But it is what it is. I can’t be mad. I can’t be angry. I can't be bitter. I can only look at this one right here and go wow. 

We continue Mary’s story with a look at how she and the kids are settling into daily life together, two years later. And in the third segment of this story: how the kids are learning to manage their relationships with their birth parents.