Lynette Ezell: Welcome to the Adopting and Fostering Home Podcast. Whether your family has been on this journey for years, or you’re just getting started, we’re here to support and encourage you along the way. And now your hosts, Lynette Ezell and Tera Melber.
Tera Melber: Welcome back to the Adopting and Fostering Home Podcast. Today we are joined by a sweet new friend of ours, Colleen Riddle, and she is the director of foster care ministries for the Florida Baptist Homes for Children. Colleen and her husband Shane are the parents of three children. So welcome, Colleen.
Colleen Riddle: Hi, good morning. Thank you for having me.
Tera Melber: Yeah, thanks so much. You know, Lynette and Colleen, Psalm 37:5 says, “Commit your way to the Lord, trust in him, and he will act. And oftentimes when we’re following hard after the Lord, he tends to bring things into our lives that are unexpected, things that we weren’t necessarily thinking would be our path. And I feel like that encapsulates Shane and Colleen’s story of how the Lord grew their family. So Colleen, we’d really like to jump in and just hear about how you got involved in the foster care system and how the Lord grew your family.
Colleen Riddle: Yes, ma’am. I grew up with parents who modeled serving their community. My parents housed different athletes that my father had coached, or different youth in the community, and my mother had fed the community children, we drove children to church. And it was very similar for my husband as well. They first started attending the church that I was at when they were in high school and they had another high school student living with them. I’m pretty sure his mother had fed half the state of Florida. It was just a very giving environment for both of us, both of our parents were very hospitable.
Colleen Riddle: I had wanted to be in some sort of serving career working with underprivileged youth or children and ended up in the field of criminal justice. I started working for Department of Juvenile Justice. I was very young, I had just turned 21 when I took my first full time position. I quickly learned, I think I’m doing this great work, I’m running this transition therapy groups, I’m helping youth prepare to transition back into their homes and their communities, helping them with job skills, interview skills, connecting them with job corps, all of these different things that I thought were great and the answers.
Colleen Riddle: About a year into working there, some of the girls came back and that really surprised me because I thought, “These girls are going to be successful, they have the skills, they know what they need to know.” I dug a little deeper and I quickly learned that we were sending them out on their own. They had no support system, and most of the crimes that they committed were in conjunction with their parents or their older siblings. I really took that opportunity to change career paths and I wanted to work with the entire family, I felt let’s intervene at the level of the child and expect the child to teach their parents a new of life, so to speak.
Colleen Riddle: Two years into my career, so to speak, with Department of Juvenile Justice I transitioned over and started working for the Child Welfare System. I started as a case manager, became the supervisor, and then I had worked in adoptions for a while, and I was a training manager, and then ultimately a program manager for a case management organization. I knew a lot about the child welfare system, the strengths that Florida had as a privatized system, but also a lot of the weaknesses, just with financial barriers and turnover, and it’s a very intense field emotionally as well. And I had interesting experiences as a case manager and as a program manager, [inaudible 00:04:19] the adoption of one of my children.
Colleen Riddle: My husband and I had been married about four or five years, and a couple in our church had approached us about a young man who was in need of housing and some services. We had no children at that time, and we had plenty of space in our home, and so we had agreed to meet. Initially, we were thinking that she had requested … because everybody knew I worked for the child welfare system, they probably just wanted some referrals, the main phone number, places to go. But when we met for dinner, it was very clear that she felt this young man should move in with us and become a part of our family. He was … had aged out of the foster care system, was supposed to be living with some former foster parents, they were moving, basically he was going to be homeless. And so we quickly discussed that this … We had just met him and decided, “You know what, we have the space, this could be the time to say yes. It’s time to practice what we preach, so to speak. We have a home, we need to open it.”
Tera Melber: So, Colleen, at that time, how old were you and your husband?
Colleen Riddle: About 26, I wanna say. 25, 26.
Tera Melber: Wow. So you’re 26 and he’s 18?
Colleen Riddle: Yes.
Tera Melber: Okay. So he moved into your home.
Colleen Riddle: Yes. The timing was hilarious, like everything in our life always is. The day after we met him, we were leaving on a two-week vacation. We quickly made arrangements for him to stay … He actually stayed with the couple who had introduced him to us until we got back from vacation. But the day we got back from vacation, we met him at church, gave him a key to our house, gave him some private time so that he could move in and just take in his new surroundings. Cory became our first child. He’s the same age as my youngest sister, so very interesting family dynamic we created right there.
Colleen Riddle: But Cory’s a wonderful young man, he’s a hard worker, very respectful, just, as far as a first experience goes, he was fantastic. He taught us a lot, he still teaches us a lot all of the time. He still lives at home with us. I think having finally found a family committed to him for the long haul, he’s not ready to move out and give that up yet. And we are more than happy to have him live with us as long as he needs. But Cory taught us a lot of lessons.
Tera Melber: So Colleen, as 26-year-old parents to an 18-year-old young man, what kind of boundaries did you all put in place, I mean, how do you all of a sudden become the guardians or the coaches to an 18-year-old young man when you’re 26 and have never parented to that age? It’s almost like you were … You were bringing in a little brother.
Colleen Riddle: Yes. We affectionately call him our “man-child” just because of his age and our age and … So it was very interesting. We set some non-negotiable household rules that we made very clear from the beginning, and just really were very flexible from there. Most of our parenting came after we’d built strong relationships. He didn’t know us, we didn’t know him … We were strangers in a long line of strangers in a long line of strangers that he had lived with. So it took a while for him to realize we cared about him, we cared about his future. We had to do a lot of work to prove ourselves to him, that we were committed to him, and we were invested in his character growth, his long-term outcome.
Colleen Riddle: And I think those trials came through car insurance and getting a vehicle and helping him get to work, and … Get visits with his daughter and all kinds of things where we just had to prove that we were committed.
Tera Melber: That’s right, and it takes your time. And you can’t just leave them on their own to figure all that out.
Colleen Riddle: Exactly. And that … where the environment that he was coming from … And so when we had to [inaudible 00:09:00] time and financial commitment that he was a part of the family, and speaking guidance and asking for help, and we were able to do more coaching and financial planning and some resume building and skills as well that a young adult absolutely needs. It didn’t come immediately, and building those social skills and the trust was very important in the beginning.
Tera Melber: And how long do you think that takes, Colleen, with an older child? Or young adult?
Colleen Riddle: I think you don’t really start seeing significant improvement until after a year.
Tera Melber: I agree. I totally agree. Yes.
Colleen Riddle: So many placements or moves has been left in a year, so when you can hit that one year mark, it demonstrates that you’re committed more so than anybody else has previously been.
Tera Melber: That’s right. So Colleen, how did your parents react?
Colleen Riddle: My parents were not surprised at all. I think they may have been surprised at … That we started with an adult. But knowing my family, and just the friendships that I had as a child and how much I resemble my mother, kind of the champion for the underdog, and really … I mean, the person who started out with less to win and succeed and have more. It didn’t surprise them at all. And I don’t think Shane’s parents were very surprised either. He did marry me, and … That comes with a little bit of it, but like I had mentioned, his mother didn’t know a stranger and she was willing to take in anybody and everybody, so he’s definitely her daughter as well.
Tera Melber: Well, you’re definitely filling a … Fulfilling what the Gospel says, and you’re … and what Scripture says, even in Romans when it says, “When people are in need, be ready to help them. Always be eager to practice hospitality.” This is the highest form of hospitality, to be able to add to your family, especially in this very unique situation.
Lynette Ezell: And I love the way Colleen and Shane did it with boundaries. Because with a young adult, or a teenage son, you have to have those boundaries, but I think that’s a protection around them. You know, “Someone cares enough about me to keep me in boundaries.” They may not always verbalize that, but I see with my own children, “Someone cares enough about me to keep me safe.” Right.
Colleen Riddle: Exactly. Yes.
Lynette Ezell: So Colleen, after Cory joined your family, then we see that you have two other children, so how did the rest of your family grow after that?
Colleen Riddle: Well, when Cory moved in, he started teaching me a lot about how broken our system was, even to a greater extent than I knew from my adult perspective and my professional perspective. But as a young man who had lived through various foster homes where he had not been treated well, or treated how I thought he should have been treated, and group homes, which is just dorm-style living with eight-hour supervision, different person coming in. I really was struggling seeing a lot of the things that I was in my current position.
Colleen Riddle: Around that time as well, I was approached to do a favor. There was a young lady, her case had become quite politically charged, and there was a need to move her case to new agency. She was available for adoption, she’d been available for many, many years, and I was the only person still trained in adoption competencies but not working for the agency who typically handled all these options. I was asked, even as a program manager, if I would take her case. Not normally holding a caseload, but I agreed, so she was my only case. It was also unusual, I was able to spend an extensive amount of time with this young lady, really poured into her. Did some unusual things, she was moved around to multiple placements through no fault of her own. There were times when I would get up at four in the morning to go pick her up from one placement to get her back to her original school, so she wasn’t moving schools. So just a lot of unusual opportunities to get to know her very, very well.
Colleen Riddle: So this is happening, I’m building a relationship with her, but I’m also kind of looking for my next step career-wise, to see how I can impact our system in a new way, to provide homes for children that really meet the quality and expectations that I would want for children to live in, hearing Cory’s life stories. And so Florida Baptist Children’s Homes was revamping their community family licensing program, and the opportunity came for me to become the central [inaudible 00:14:17] director with Florida Baptist. That was definitely God leading me clearly in that direction. I could share my passion for quality, Christian foster homes who understood what unconditional love was and was going to be meeting the spiritual needs of the child, not just giving them three hots and a cot, so to speak. But I was also very torn because I had developed such a close relationship with this young lady in this unusual circumstance.
Colleen Riddle: As I was transitioning into my new position, the judge decided her case, asked if I would be her court-appointed mentor. And I thought, “Yes, fantastic, I’m going to still be able to be involved in her life. The research shows she only needs one vested, committed adult for a youth to be successful, so, that’s me. I’m signed up, I’m committed, I’ll be her mentor.” And so over the next year, I started picking her up every Wednesday, we would do dinner, we would go to youth groups … I was taking her to youth group at my church. She was actually finally placed in a home that was fairly close, and a more quality foster home that she needed at that time. It was going very well. We continued to get closer over that year. She actually called me her church mom because she didn’t want to go to church and not have a mother like all the other kids, so she called me her church mom, and of course, I was more than happy to be that to her.
Lynette Ezell: And how old was she at the time?
Colleen Riddle: She was 13. So she had just turned 13 right when I transitioned. About … After around a year of doing that, they started the matching process to match her with another adoptive family. At this time, I’m almost 30 weeks pregnant. I’m trying to be involved in this matching process, I have some concerns about the person that they’re matching her with. The person was a wonderful person, their heart was great, just knowing this young lady and what she’d been through, I just had some concerns about the longevity of that option. But she would still remain close, I would still be able to be involved in her life, they were on board with making that connection. I’m thinking, “Okay, maybe I’m just a little too emotional because I’m pregnant, maybe I’ve just gotten too attached, not necessarily this mentor relationship.” But towards the end of the process it fell through, and my husband said to me, he said, “You need to ask if you can adopt her. We need her in our home.” And I thought, “Wow. If my husband’s on board, then the worst that can happen is they say no, right?”
Tera Melber: Exactly.
Colleen Riddle: Very unusual that someone who managed the case and then was a mentor would be approved to adopt, but I said, “Yeah, let’s do it. Let’s put our name in.” So we did. Her guardian ad litem was actually the only other person who’d been assigned to her case since the very beginning, and her guardian ad litem was on board. She was thrilled, she screamed when we first let her know we were interested. She was a huge advocate in making this happen.
Colleen Riddle: As we went through the process, we really thought, “You know what, in reviewing her life, her 13 years at that point, third grade was the only time that she had ever been to one school from the beginning of the school year to the end of the school year.” So we said, “If this is gonna happen, she needs to move in before school starts.” We also felt like she needed to move in before I had our baby, simply because we felt like she should get established in her home before adding another new … A new person to the mix.
Colleen Riddle: So we were approved, we were going through the process, and then it came back, “Oh, by the way, you guys need a different house, because it needs to be one designated bedroom per child due to some of her trauma history. There could be no room-sharing.” We were originally thinking, “Oh, the baby would just stay in our room for a little while we have some time.” Now we have an extremely condensed timeline. I’m about 34 weeks pregnant when we found that out. So we said, “Okay, if this is meant to be, then God will open the doors.” And he absolutely did.
Colleen Riddle: We found a for sale by owner. The seller was very gracious, she heard our story and wanted to close quickly, so we were able to do that. So we bought a house on a Monday, our community group came, moved us that evening. They really took care of everything. The ladies came Tuesday and Wednesday to help me unpack and get the home set up Wednesday, and then Britney moved in Friday, turned 14 on Saturday, and three weeks later, which was also Britney’s first day of school, I had our baby Owen. It’s been one year since then. So the last year has just been a whirlwind of helping Britney settle in to the new home, her new school, the school that she will graduate from, she completed ninth grade. She just started tenth grade, again, she’s starting her second year there. Adjusting to a newborn, as well as … Now fifteen, and we still have Cory, who’s now 25, as well. That is our whirlwind of how we went from zero to one to three.
Tera Melber: Wow. So Colleen, because of your role, you’re the director of foster care ministries at Florida Baptist Homes for Children, you help recruit families. I know that one of the things that families are concerned about is the timing, whether it be good timing or bad timing for their family. So what’s something, what’s an encouragement that you give to families when they’re seeking to consider foster care?
Colleen Riddle: Well, first I tell them there’s no good time. It’s never convenient. It’s taking classes or going through a home study. There’s no good time. And then I will obviously share a little bit of my story, and be like, “If I can move in a teenager and then three weeks later have a baby…” Oh, what I failed to mention is we were also in the NICU for about a week and a half after I had Owen. So, that just complicated everything a little bit more, but clearly, there’s no convenient time if we’re looking at our schedules. But it’s really not about our convenience, and if God has called you to do this work, then he will provide a way. He’ll provide the support, the babysitter for your other children that you need care for, finances to do whatever changes you need to do for your home, people in your church who will encourage you … There’s a way if God has called you to this ministry, and it’s not about trying to find the right time. It’s about just doing it and letting God take care of the details.
Lynette Ezell: I can see how the Lord would use Owen being in the NICU, because he has an older sister and an older brother who want him to come home, who are advocating for him. I can see how the Lord used that time. I’ve sat in the NICU myself with a grandbaby, and you just … God just bonds your heart, as a family, during that time, because you rally together.
Colleen Riddle: Absolutely, yes, ma’am. And it was really awesome … I think Owen has done wonders for our family in that he only knows life with Britney and Cory. He has no idea that they were not birthed the same way that he was, that they weren’t always a part of the family. He adores them. He gets so excited when they come home, he wants them to play with him. He’s just really been a blessing in that sense, kind of bonding everybody even with all the different backgrounds and life stories.
Lynette Ezell: Well, Colleen, you have definitely had an unorthodox way of building your family, and we are fascinated by your story. I know there had to be some trauma techniques you used, some therapy techniques, to help your children maybe move past some bad memories or some really difficult times. Adoptive foster moms, we all kind of walk that path, but it’s encouraging to hear one another’s stories. We are out of time today, but we are asking: would you come back and join us tomorrow so we can pick up and talk about maybe some specifics you’ve done with your children that you’ve really seen some healing take place with them?
Colleen Riddle: Absolutely, yes, I would love that.
Lynette Ezell: That’d be great.
Tera Melber: Thanks for being with us today, Colleen.
Colleen Riddle: You’re welcome. Thank you for having me.
Tera Melber: You have been listening to The Adopting and Fostering Home, a resource of the North American Mission Board. For more information about today’s podcast and other relevant resources, visit namb.net/sendrelief.