Journey to the Son: One mother’s heart wrenching journey

Guest post by Carla A. Carlisle

On March 22, 2010, my life was forever changed when I became a first-time foster parent to a beautiful 10 day old, two-month premature baby boy. I knew that becoming a foster parent would mean major lifestyle changes, I didn’t know that my connection to this child would change me at the essence of my being. I was told that 99% of children taken at birth don’t go back to their birth parents, but this one fell in the 1%. At six-months-old, this dear sweet baby boy was returned to his birth mother. In the six months I interacted with his birth parents, I learned about what I can now call “generational trauma”.

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Years of work experience, degrees on the wall, and a tremendous support system meant nothing in the face of the next eight years. I almost immediately gave up my foster license since I couldn’t stay connected to the birth family that this precious son of my heart and be licensed by the county.  I tossed that license out like trash on Sunday because it paled in comparison to the life I knew was in the balance.

For the next six years, the birth parents and I had a tumultuous relationship. I felt, and continue to feel, such compassion for them both – as they grew up in survival mode without the foundation of love, life skills, and the village many of us take for granted.  I learned of horrific experiences the birth mother experienced. and at some point, I wondered how she could be expected to care for this child – or the other 10 she lost to the system long ago. 

At age 5, the child of my heart spoke of dying by suicide. I shouldn’t have been surprised because he heard it from his birth mom daily, but it broke my heart in a million tiny pieces. After an overnight observation, it was brushed off as bullying at school. This told me that the observation psychiatrist did not read a word of his file, did not look at birth parents’ mental health records, or even read what I shared despite my life being in danger at the hands of the parents.  At age 6, this big brown eyed angel attempted to die by suicide twice. The system told me he didn’t mean it.  They said his mom’s voice recorded death threat wasn’t made against him, it was made against me, so it didn’t matter. The son of my heart was now in patient at a behavioral health facility.  

Although I had talked to attorneys and child advocacy groups over the years, I was told there was no path to custody because there was no blood shared between us (and that meant there was no way to get him help).  But wait, I remembered my estate planning attorney shared the names of three family law attorneys and the next three days changed everything: 

Day 1 : I called all three family law attorneys and the last one was the charm. Talking to the paralegal let me know I was with the right person.  The same day, birth father terminated the service provider who was trying to provide therapeutic services. 

Day 2: I met with the attorney, he collected my evidence and made me aware of “in locos parentis” – in place of the birth parents – or simply I had been acting like his birth mother most of his life. The same day I received a call that the birth father withdrew him from school.

Day 3: We went to court and got domestic violence restraining orders on behalf of my son and me as well as emergency custody.  I took the protection orders to behavioral health immediately. Shortly thereafter, the birth father went to behavioral health to check this sweet, yet confused child out of behavioral health.  Due to the restraining order, he was not allowed on the floor.

My sweet, innocent child had experienced more trauma than anyone had imagined.  He had seen his birth mom try to kill his birth dad multiple times.  I was ashamed for a while, but he also saw his mom strike me in the face. This became a major traumatic event for him (and me). He saw drugs, domestic violence, porn and so much more.  He lived in two worlds: with me and then in a chaotic world with no boundaries – there was a mother, a father,  and a boyfriend in the house.  The husband was in prison.  My son was threatened, he was put in the position of an adult with adults who were emotionally frozen in their childhood, lacked maturity, understanding, and empathy.  But I can’t blame them; this was all they knew.  

Watch Carla read a chapter from her story below and check out her book here.

Since October 2016, we’ve been on the path to healing.  What worked best? Trauma Focused – Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT).  He learned at a 6/7-year-old level, he trusted, and he able to share his trauma stories with me.  We had sessions together, we processed together, and we grew together. On the other hand, I had service providers who charged for services they didn’t do (yes I reported it), and underpaid/overworked Qualified Professionals who were there for a check.  Yet, I did meet people along the way who cared, who went above and beyond like that very special teacher we all run across at least once in our lifetime.  Intensive In-Home therapy was helpful once we got to the third service provider.  We had a plan that worked for my son.  

After two years in court, tons of money, and oh so much stress and fear, the adoption is final and my son is doing well.  Despite the diagnoses of PTSD, ADHD, DMDD, major depression and anxiety, I have a resilient child who is playing tackle football, thriving from music therapy, increasing his gross motor skills through day to day activities and occupational therapy.

I’ve been diagnosed with situational depression and anxiety.  I have to force myself to focus on self-care, but I do.  I have to focus on hope; although I have moments in which I’m discouraged. I pray.  I believe in prayer with works.  I have to work to make things better. I do vent, but I keep working.  Helping one child, one parent, one situation matters. 

We’ve added two older sons to our family, which has given him the big brothers he really wanted.  I can’t say I’m going to give him the dad, he may just be stuck with a family of four and two dogs for now. 

I share my journey to motherhood; the love, isolation, failure, disappointment, drama and trauma as well as the triumphs, small steps forward and love of my son in my memoir, Journey to the Son. If nothing else, I hope our story says you are not alone. Our struggles may be different, but it is exhausting, nonetheless. Take good care of yourself. 

Carla A. Carlisle is the author of Journey to the Son, an emotionally riveting memoir about a woman’s eight-year battle with the system for the child of her heart, who suffers from prolonged trauma caused by his birth mother, a victim herself of perpetual physical, emotional, and mental abuse. Carla is a child and mental health advocate who is leading a movement to educate community and faith-based leaders, public officials, and child and family services providers about trauma and its impact on abused children to provide safe and healthy environments to keep them alive, safe, stable, and resilient. For more information, visit or find Carla on social media at @CarlaACarlisle.

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