WASHINGTON – When Linda Patterson decided to become a foster parent, she did not envision a child with disabilities — nor did she ever intend the arrangement to be permanent.
But when the 37-year-old mother of two met Latarsha Booth, she was smitten.
“All of a sudden I wanted this child, because she had so much potential,” said Patterson, of Baltimore.
Latarsha, now 9, is mildly mentally retarded and has speech and language difficulties due to Down syndrome, but Patterson said she could see beyond that when she brought the girl home three years ago.
“She was so loving and caring,” Patterson said. “She did have a lot of problems, but we could work with them. I just got so attached to her, I didn’t want to let her go.”
But Patterson did not get to that point without some second thoughts.
Early on, she said, when Latarsha “didn’t want to do something, she would just stretch out on the floor.” The girl threw surprisingly forceful tantrums, hurling picture frames “or anything she could get her hands on. I wasn’t used to that at all.”
Patterson also got daily calls about some of the same behavior from Latarsha’s school.
It got to the point where Patterson considered giving Latarsha up.
“She was tiring me out. I was taking so much time out from my family,” Patterson said.
But after some soul-searching, Patterson found the resolve she needed to go on: Latarsha had been in other foster homes, and Patterson worried that “if I give her up, where is she going next? I have to do this.”
She also realized that she had been “a little too soft,” allowing Latarsha’s disabilities to excuse her behavior.
“She knew it, and she knew how to work on my soft spot,” said Patterson. She began setting limits, putting Latarsha in “time out” when she acted out and giving the girl tasks to keep busy when Patterson had other chores. She also put valuables away and made parts of the house off limits.
After several months, the strategies worked. Latarsha’s behavior vastly improved, both at home and at school.
“It was a struggle, but now she’s doing great,” Patterson said.
She credits the rest of the family with helping in that struggle. Her husband, Odell, “was my shoulder and I was his. If I were a single parent, I don’t think I could have done it. We were each other’s crutches,” said Patterson.
Her two children, now 20 and 16, came around to the idea of a foster sister after some initial hesitation.
“They were a little skeptical at first,” Patterson said. “They didn’t want us to be foster parents, because they thought we would take some of the love away from them.”
The Pattersons have since embraced the idea of making Latarsha a permanent member of the family. Patterson said she never set out to adopt Latarsha — even though the girl was available for adoption from the start — but that “I grew on her and she grew on me, I guess.”
“I couldn’t let her go, I couldn’t stand the idea of someone else adopting her,” she said.
That point was driven home when someone else considered adopting Latarsha, taking the girl for a weekend visit.
“When they came and got her, I missed her,” said Patterson. “I didn’t know how much I’d miss her. And she missed me, because she wouldn’t do a thing they wanted her to do.”
To Patterson’s relief, the family decided not to go forward.
“I was relieved, but I couldn’t let them see it,” said Patterson. “When they brought her back, they said, `We don’t know how you do it.'”
Latarsha was also happy to be back, Patterson said. “She just ran to me and grabbed hold. . .as if to say, `Don’t let me go.'”
After that, the Pattersons began adoption proceedings for Latarsha.
“She’s excited because she calls me `Mommy,’ calls my husband `Daddy,'” Patterson said. “She’s so lovable. She knows we’re getting ready to keep her, because I tell her all the time.”
For Patterson, it’s a natural step, even if it took her by surprise.
“I’ve always been that motherly-type person. . . .I just spread my love to someone else who really needed it.”