Phyllis Wilson’s floral couch is usually covered in plastic to keep it looking nice. But on a Saturday night in February, she turned the living room sofa into a makeshift bed so that she could sleep next to the portable cribs set up for 14-month-old twins.
Still, there wasn’t a lot of sleep happening that night. The little boy couldn’t seem to settle, so Wilson, with the sore muscles and aching joints of any 63-year-old, spent most of her pre-dawn hours pacing the floor and rocking the troubled baby.
The twins are not her grandchildren. They’re not relatives or the children of old friends. They’re not the next-door neighbor’s babies or kids she frequently babysits.
But they are hers. They all are. Each child who walks through the door of her brick Fort Totten rowhouse becomes — at that moment and for as long as they stay — hers. She has lost count of how many there have been since she became a foster parent a decade ago.
But for every one of them, she has done everything. “Everything that I did for my children that I bore, I have done for the children I’ve taken in,” she says. “The exact same thing.”
On that February night, “everything” included staying up to keep a crying baby from waking a sleeping one, even if it meant that she would be sick the next day, making it that much harder to keep up with the 8-year-old boy and 17-year-old girl also in her care.
But it’s fine, she says with a shrug. “This is what we do.”
“We” is only partly misleading. Wilson is single. She’s a D.C. native who spent part of her childhood living with her paternal grandmother. She married at age 17 and divorced 10 years later, after having two children. But she and her ex-husband continued to raise their kids together, marking every wedding anniversary with a celebration of family. “He and I are still best friends,” she says.
The tall, broad-shouldered woman had a 42-year career as a property manager, the last half of it with the D.C. Housing Authority. That’s how she first came into contact with the Child and Family Services Agency. More than once she met parents who needed housing in order to regain custody of their children. “I’ve learned that a lot of parents end up having children in the system sometimes through no fault of their own,” she says. “Just situations drive it.”
Wilson’s daughter was already in the workforce and her son was off at college when a friend mentioned that she was going to a workshop on becoming a foster parent. Wilson was curious, so she went along.
And she just kept going, through the background checks and the home investigations, until one day at work she got a call about a 9-year-old girl who needed a placement that day. “And once they put the two of us together, it was like she knew me and I knew her,” Wilson says. “It just went so well.”
That little girl stayed for a year and a half before going to live with her father. Along the way, an 11-year-old girl came for several months and other kids came for shorter stints. Wilson tucked them in at night and helped with homework and made sure they ate breakfast and got a hug before school each morning.
And she fell in love. “You can’t help it,” she says. “You don’t have any other choice but to have that love become an attachment. Those children really, really became a part of you.”
Her house started filling up with games and toys and sippy cups. Her friends came to expect that she might always show up with an extra kid or two. And that each one would be introduced as “my child.”
Once, a school secretary announced over a classroom loudspeaker that one of Wilson’s kids needed to be excused because their “foster mom is here,” leaving the child flush with shame and stigma. From that point on, she began to introduce herself, even to the children, as their godmother. “I always tell them: ‘You know, God put us together. Because you needed a little help and I’m going to help your parents. That makes me your godmother,’ ” she says.
And on Oct. 1, 2007, Wilson got a call about a two-week-old baby. “A baby?” she remembers saying to the social worker. “Nah, I’m not going to be able to handle that.”
But she was in the car when she got the call, driving with her best friend and the 9- and 11-year-old girls. “Take the baby!” they all implored. Wilson called the social worker back to say that she would. He showed up at 9 that night.
“Screamin’ and hollerin’,” she recalls.
Wilson took a week off from work, got set up with burp cloths and baby bottles and found a day care that had room for an infant. “And the story goes on and on and on and on,” she says. “And I put him on the bus this morning.”
For 18 months, Wilson worked to maintain the bond between the baby and his birth mom. But by the time he was 2, it was clear that the boy would need a permanent guardian. “I just couldn’t see putting him on the list and the next person taking him,” she says. “He was our baby.”
The “our” in question showed up in court to stand beside Wilson the day her adoption of the child, Jayden, was finalized. Wilson’s grown children were there, as were their spouses, her granddaughter, her ex-husband and her next-door neighbor.
Wilson traded her sedan for an eight-passenger van and set up twin beds that are always ready for a child in need. Sometimes it’s a teenager, angry and sad and suspicious. She shows them to the beds, laid with soft quilts and stuffed animals. “I can get rid of those teddy bears,” she’ll offer. But usually, even the oldest, gruffest kids will respond, “Nah, they aight.”
Give a child enough food and space and time and they’ll eventually want to talk. “One of the greatest things that children work to do is to be heard,” she says. “So you learn to listen.” The kids come with stories of abuse and addiction and poverty and neglect, and “sometimes the details of it are scary.” But she just keeps listening. And when they’re done, she tells them what they can expect of her: “I’m responsible to keep you happy and safe. Those two things.”
LaToya Cromwell had spent two years shuttling between foster homes by the time she walked into Wilson’s house at age 15. She was supposed to stay with Wilson for only a week, but afterward, she kept calling Wilson to ask to be picked up from the group home where she’d been placed. At Wilson’s house, “I didn’t feel like I was in foster care,” Cromwell recalls.
For the first time, she stopped worrying about what would happen to her next, knowing that few people are willing to take teenagers. “ ‘You’re a child,’ ” Cromwell remembers Wilson telling her. “ ‘You have to leave that stuff to the adults.’ So when I came here, that’s what I learned how to do.”
Cromwell never wanted to leave, so last year Wilson became her permanent guardian.
“Having her as a parent, it’s the structure that I need to do what I need to do,” says Cromwell, now a 17-year-old, college-bound senior at Dunbar High School in the District. “But then there’s also flexibility and love, the understanding part.”
Today, Wilson acts as mentor to a half-dozen D.C. foster parents. And when they need a break or some help, she steps in, as she did with the twins in February.
She never knows when a child might need her to open her front gate on any given day. But she knows that once she does, that child will be hers.
This Life is an occasional series about the extraordinary lives of ordinary people.