Special education professor Lynn Brusnahan regularly advises parents fostering children with autism. When a social worker called last fall, 59-year-old Lynn assumed she needed a consultation. Instead, the social worker said that Lynn’s 20-year-old adopted daughter had a newborn half-sister with special needs who needed a foster home. And could Lynn help?
“Are you kidding me?” Lynn asked. She told the social worker she didn’t have diapers, she didn’t have bottles, she didn’t have a crib. “I had a list of 10 no’s off the top of my head,” Lynn says. “I said, ‘I can’t do this.’”
The social worker asked if she could just come to Lynn’s house and talk.
She arrived with a crib, bottles, formula, diapers — everything on Lynn’s list of no’s — and a 5-week old baby girl. Lou, like Katie, was born addicted to drugs. She was a preemie, weighing 4 pounds 2 ounces, and had spent her first five weeks in the hospital.
During the meeting, Lynn’s husband, Tim Brusnahan, kept texting her, “No.” “Every five minutes, ‘No. No. Don’t say yes. Say no,” Lynn remembers.
But by the end of the meeting, Lynn agreed to provide Lulu a temporary home.
She set up a make-shift nursery in her living room (so as not to disturb her husband’s sleep) and woke every two hours to feed the baby.
Family friends, a childless couple in their 20s, adored the baby, and offered to adopt her.
“Katie would have always had contact with her sister,” Lynn says.
But, foster parents aren’t allowed to pick adoptive parents.
“It broke our hearts,” Lynn says. “We were given a choice: We could consider adoption, or she would go back into the system, and the state would decide. And what if that person who adopted her didn’t want to stay connected? Didn’t want the siblings to stay connected. If we didn’t adopt Lou, we very well could have lost her forever…What would that say to our daughter? That her sister was disposable, and it didn’t matter where her sister was?”
Lynn and Tim have a 27-year-old biological son, Collin, who was diagnosed with autism when he was 5. Since they didn’t know what was causing Collin’s delays, they explored adoption and privately adopted their now 22-year-old son Devon. Lynn wanted a daughter — so they became foster parents. When they met 1-year-old Katie, they were her fifth foster home. “Katie was born to a drug addict. Her birth mother received no prenatal care — Katie was born on a living room floor,” said Lynn. “Katie was born addicted to drugs and her kidneys weren’t fully developed, she was a special-needs foster care child.” Katie did live with her birth mother for a few months, “they gave her a chance, but that just didn’t work out because of the addiction,” Lynn says.
The Brusnahans loved her instantly. “From the moment Katie was in our house, we were in love with this child,” said Lynn. Two years later, parental rights were terminated and they were able to adopt her.
“We wanted Katie, we fought for Katie, we raised Katie, “ said Tim, 60, a VP of a consulting company.
He couldn’t think of a solid reason he could tell Katie in 15 years why they didn’t adopt her sister, after fostering her for a year. “That made up my mind that we needed to take Lulu and make her a part of our family,” he said.
The Brusnahans had a family meeting to hammer out the details. The biggest obstacle was their age. “We kept saying, ‘We’re too old to do this,’” Lynn says. They worried about what it would be like for Lulu to have older parents. Was it selfish to adopt her? Or was it what was best for Lulu — and for Katie?
No matter what, they would be sisters. But, Katie had to promise that if anything happened to her parents, she would raise her sister.
“I want her in my life. I want to watch her grow up,” Katie says. “I’ve always wanted a sister. Even though it’s 20 years later, it’s just as fun. Probably more fun.” Katie, a sophomore at the University of St. Thomas in Saint Paul, Minnesota studying to be a special education teacher, said she would raise her sister without hesitation.
“I understand everything that she’s going through. I’m excited to see where she goes,” Katie said.
On November 16, National Adoption Day, the Brusnahans legally adopted Lulu at Children’s Court in Milwaukee County.
Before meeting Lulu, Tim and Lynn had been contemplating retirement. They were planning to retire in about five years, when they were both 65, and Katie was out of school. A flight attendant for 25 years before becoming a college professor, Lynn wanted to spend her retirement traveling. They had considered downsizing, and selling their home. But it’s zoned for good schools, so they’re staying put.
“We were just on the cusp of being empty nesters,” Lynn says. “I was soooooo close. So close. I’ll never be able to live in one of those retirement communities because they don’t allow kids under 18. I’m never going to be one of those carefree seniors. I’m starting all over again. Preschool. Kindergarten. I don’t want to get in the swimming pool and swim again — because it’s cold. But I’m going to. The truth is, this has been a joy. My entire family adores this child. Foster care has given us two wonderful gifts, not just one.”