Tree Re-growing: One Young Man’s Story Through Foster Care and Beyond

Story and Photographs by Kristie McLean

The following is the story of Dennis Allan McCardle, 29, who shares about his experiences in the foster care system and his life beyond. The tone of the fragments is choppy in the way that Dennis’s memories and formative years were choppy. Some of Dennis’s early recollections are included as a crucial backdrop to his aging-out story.

I was born in Oklahoma City. My mom was a carnival person, a Carnie, at that time and she and my dad drove a semi truck. I was just born in a city they were in. My dad wasn’t in the picture very long, and she married a guy named Richard. Somehow Richard got custody of me for a while. Then I ended up with her again. Then she ended up getting arrested. That’s really what I remember from before.

I thought my mom was the greatest woman in the world. I was very attached to her.  The fact is that she was not all that attached to me, or else she would have tried to do better than just to leave us all the time. There’s a lot of the story that I don’t know. Maybe it’s better I don’t know it.

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When I got put in the foster home I wasn’t allowed to see my mom. I had one of those carnival calendars that they make on fabric, the kind with your face and her face, and the calendar on there. It was one of my earliest memories. I slept on a mattress on the floor in a trailer home. I didn’t even have a room. I slept in the hallway right there. And the only thing I had was that calendar.

I have two sisters, and supposedly there’s another brother out there. My sister Rachel got adopted by a great family. When we got back in touch a few years ago Rachel said, “I always wondered why she would give me up and not you,” and I was like, “You got the better end of the deal. Man, I wish I would have got adopted.”

My great grandma’s name is Cleo, and I talk to her. Her husband, my great-grandfather, killed himself. Her son killed himself. And her other son, about 2 years ago, was sitting watching TV and had a massive heart attack on the couch right in front of her. It took the paramedics two hours to get there. So she had to sit and watch her dead son spasm for 2 hours. She had 11 mini strokes after that.

She’s doing a little bit better now, but she’s getting kind of senile. She calls me Dennis, but sometimes I think she’s calling me her son because her son’s name is Dennis Allan McCardle. I actually have my grandfather’s whole name, the one who killed himself.

Supposedly he celebrated the fact that he had a grandson, and he drove home from the bar and wasn’t heard from for a couple days, and then they found his car parked somewhere, and he’d shot himself in the head. But I never knew him. I just know the story.

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The worst part about it is the person who my family blames is my mom’s mother who was a foster child herself.

There’s a lot of pain in my family. It’s all blamed on this part of the family tree. Not my part, because I’m starting anew. I always said I’m not going to keep that, you know. I don’t have to keep that. A tree can regrow.

I first got into the foster care system when my mom was picked up on the side of the road. Some unmarked car just pulled up and picked her up and left me there. Finally someone came back and got me, and they put me in a foster home. It was a very racist home. I got blamed for everything. If it stunk, it was blamed on me. They also weren’t feeding my sister enough. She had discoloration on both sides of her face. I snapped and tried to kill my foster father. That’s when I got taken out of the home.

I got put in the Christian Children’s Ranch when I was 4. I went there on Christmas Eve. They had one of those Wish trees, but because I came on Christmas Eve my name wasn’t on the tree and I didn’t get a present from Santa Claus. I thought it was my fault that my mom went to jail and Santa was punishing me for it. I think Santa Claus felt bad that I didn’t get a present, and he went out to his car and rummaged around and brought back an old green Chester Cheetos’s shirt. I kept that shirt for a long time. It actually meant more to me than just about anything that I had.

I lived on this ranch in Idaho for 4-5 years. You called your foster parents “Mom and Dad.” I actually called there a little while ago, about 6 months ago, and the guy who ran it when I was there still runs it, Mr. Abbott, and he remembered me. He was like, “I remember you.”

My sister was with me, but she was in a different house. There were 5 houses on this estate. It’s 88 acres, and they had 5 big houses, where you have 15-16 kids in each house. She was in a different house. So from the get-go we weren’t close.

When my mom came back around, we begged her not to take us off the ranch. And when we got to the house, my sister threw a bigger fit and said, “I want to go home! You’re not my mom. My mom’s over there!”

You’ve got to understand, my sister was like one year old when she got put on the ranch. My sister didn’t know our mom. So you’re giving a little girl to someone she doesn’t even know. It was a difficult adjustment as a kid. You’re kind of torn. You have other people who you call your parents: another Mom and Dad.

But my mom said, “You’re my kids; I’m taking ya,” and we moved to Homedale, Idaho, which was this little Mexican town with like 1,200 people. Lots of migrant workers. They were always doing these busts, the immigration services; they were always going into different companies and doing busts. I started hanging out with gang members from the age of 10, like Hispanic gang members ‘cause they were cool or something, I guess.

We were Northdanos, which means “The Northerners.” We were all the ones who could speak English, and we used to wear red. The Southenos were the ones straight from the border. We used to run amok; but you’re talking about a town that had one sheriff and one cop, and he knew us all by name, and he’d be like, “Dennis, I’m going to tell your mom,” and I’m like, “Don’t tell my mom!”

I have fond memories of Homedale. I remember when my mom wanted to leave, I didn’t want to go. But her boyfriend wanted to leave. He worked up in Seattle and he wanted her to go with him, and she followed men anywhere and everywhere.

My mom favored me over my sister. She had the same mentality that her mom had. She didn’t like women. She used to beat my sister.

I started hanging out with a really bad crowd down in Tukwila, this group of black 74Hoover, a Crip gang. We lived in the La Rochelle apartments on 144th, and that was like their territory, I guess, so you either hung out with them or got picked on every day. So I switched colors from before. I was a “transformer” as they called it. I switched colors.

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The good part was that no one messed with me at school once I became really with it. The bad part was that they wanted you to do stuff that’s bad. They wanted us to do dirt. That’s what they called it: “Doin’ dirt.”

During this time period my mom wanted to move to Houston, Texas, since that was where her brother lived. He had just got out of prison. Cocaine, or something like that.  So we packed up the vehicle and were like, “Alright, we’re going to Houston.”

On our way to Houston my mom sideswiped a vehicle and got pulled over, and they found out she had a warrant for her arrest in Idaho. She said, “I’m not going to prison,” and she stepped on the gas. We were on the news for a 60-mile chase from King County all the way to Chehalis. They closed off the entire freeway. They put the spikes out in the middle of the road and they popped the tires, and she told them not to come near the car. She said, “I’ll hurt my kids!”

I just wanted to get out of the car. But they broke her window with their gun, and they ripped her out. I was tall, so they thought I was an accomplice, so they pointed a gun in my face and told me to get out of the car. And they put me up against the hood of the car just to find out I was a child. So they ended up letting me go. But then we went back into foster care.

Welfare fraud, gang related activity, drug trafficking, you name it, she did it. She felt no remorse for anything she’d ever done. That’s when we knew we were going to be in the system for a while.

I was put into a foster home in Seattle. I stayed there for 5 days. It was only a short-term home. My sister was there too. And then we got moved to Olympia. We stayed there for about 6 months. We had just got enrolled in school. We were just starting to have friends who wanted to hang out and they said, “Well, we’re not a long-term home so you’ve got to go. So we got pulled out of school again. And I got put in Puyallup with the Roths.

When we got put in the State foster homes we kind of felt like nomads in the beginning because we were dumped around from home to home. Finally I met Jeff Claire at the Poodle Dog in Fife. I was dressed all thug-ish, but he used to tell me that he knew right when he saw me that God had his hand over me; ‘cause he saw a kid who had been through a lot but still had a good heart. That’s what he used to tell me.

I ran away just 3 days after we got moved to Puyallup. I went back to Olympia since all of my friends were there, but the Roths came and got me. Sandy (my foster mom) was like, “Don’t do that to us.”

My sister got moved out of that home because she’s bi-polar, fetal-alcohol syndrome. She started showing signs of that, and also because she’s just crazy, really; they’d wake up in the middle of the night and she’d be standing over their bed kind of lookin’ at ‘em, and they were like, “We can’t do this. This is a danger. What’s this kid going to do?” So she got put into Catholic Community Services or Catholic Child Services, whatever it is for high-risk kids. And I stayed with the Roths in Puyallup. So that was the last time my sister and I were together.

I lived in Puyallup and kind of started living a regular life. The state wasn’t always down my throat, although I wasn’t allowed to play sports; I wasn’t allowed to do much of anything since when you’re a foster kid they don’t want to be held liable.

When I was 13 I was given the option to tell my mom that I wanted to sever her rights as my guardian. I actually told her that regardless of what happened when she got out of prison that I would never go back and live with her again. She’d always been talking about when she got out that we’d be together, but I told her that would never happen. I made that decision when I was 13.

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I wanted to have a normal life. I wanted to be like all the other kids at school and be able to just go home to one parent. I didn’t want to be in a gang or be forced into something that I didn’t want to be in because of my surroundings, because of the people SHE felt comfortable with. At first my mom was kind of defensive. She said I didn’t have the power to do that, but Jeff Claire and my foster parents were there, and Jeff said that in the State of Washington I did have the power to do that. She pleaded a little bit, but I didn’t budge.

Jeff Claire is my social worker. He’s still like a father figure to me. He’s one of my best friends. He’s the one who got me connected to SalaamGarage.

I stayed with the Roths for a while, but I started going to bible study with a man named Steve Mosari. I started hanging out with his family. At that time, me and Sandy (my foster mom) were always butting heads and getting in arguments, and Steve didn’t think it was right the way they were treating me sometimes. So he and Jeff made a decision that I’d be better off living with Steve.

Living with the Mosaris had an appeal because they were millionaires. They had like three car dealerships in Puyallup. So we’re talking big house, never wanting for anything. It had the appeal, so I went. And even though I was having problems with Sandy, I was just a kid. Who doesn’t have trouble with their parents? It’s probably one of the biggest decisions I regret in my whole life, leaving the Roths.

I stayed with the Mosaris about a year, and I let my guard down. I felt comfortable. They got everybody to back off. I was able to do martial arts. They got it so that I was able to live like a normal child.

I started having anxiety. Their mom was a nurse, and she really helped me. I didn’t eat for 7 days one time because I was afraid I was going to choke on the food. And she talked me into eating. She showed me how to eat.

Then things started going downhill and they kicked me out. They blamed it on horrible stuff.

First they said “we’re going to make you go to this group home for a couple days so that we can get a bearing on things.”

Then they came back and said, “Oh, well we found this.”

I was a teenage boy; I had a dirty magazine in my room. I was a teenage boy! But they found one of their daughter’s shirts mixed in with my laundry. We all used the same laundry. It wasn’t like it was an undergarment shirt. It was just a tank top. But they accused me of liking their daughter that way, which I didn’t at all. Even Jeff Claire thought it was very absurd the things they were doing.  Her boyfriend was one of my really good friends in high school. I was best friends with her boyfriend’s little brother, so I was like, “No, this doesn’t make sense!”

It was a purple tank top that they found in my clothing, and it was in my laundry basket at that. But they didn’t want me living with them any more. They kicked me out, and my 18th birthday was literally a month and a half away.

They put me in another home with people called the Nesses, but I ran away from there within a week. I called them and I told them, “Hey, I’m not coming back,” and they said, “Well, we’re just going to call the police.” And I said, “Go ahead; let’s see if the police can find me within a month. Because I turn 18 and you guys are going to kick me out anyway.”

And she’s like, “Well, we would at least try to help you before you leave next month.”

But I said, “No, I’ll just help myself.”

I was basically told I was going to be booted out the following month, regardless, so I left early. I went to a friend’s house, and I was homeless for a while. I could deal with the abuse when I was a kid, but the Mosaris broke my heart because I really liked them. Going through all that and building such a strong bond, just to get booted to the street, it was the last straw. I couldn’t go to another home just for it to happen again.

I remember talking to Jeff, right before I went into the Service, and he told me, “You’re not the same person anymore. Your heart, you seem very cold.”

Dennis 03I went into the Service more out of need than out of want because I didn’t want to be homeless. I’d sit at the casino all night because you could be 18 at that time. I’d sit and wait till morning and then go crash out on a friend’s couch.

When I got in the Service I started drinkin’ heavy. I had a higher tolerance level than most people, and I was told it was probably because alcoholism ran in my family. Me and Stephanie got together while I was in the Army and we stayed together for a very short period of time. We ended up splitting up, which was my fault. That was a bad time.

I got out of the Service early because of my anxiety and depression and I became homeless again almost automatically. I reached out to a few people, my friend Dennis and my friend Joey, who are like my two best friends today. I was able to stay at their house and get on my feet, which wasn’t very easy. I failed miserably.

I ended up going and seeing Stephanie. She turned me down, so I left. I went to Cleveland and started selling magazines door-to-door across the country.

I’d call Stephanie from time to time since I had her number memorized. She didn’t always want to talk to me. Or she was busy. I’d always call her when she was at work. I lived in a bottle during that period of time.

I came back to Washington only to be homeless in a matter of weeks. People started spreading rumors in the little Filipino community that we had, saying that I was a mooch and that I was a bad kid. But I wasn’t bad. I was just homeless.

I was looking for a little support. It was basically like being an orphan. My friend Dennis lived with his parents until he was like 28, and I was so envious of that. I would always try to get people to get an apartment with me. When they said, “No, I’m just going to go live with my mom and dad” I hated them for it. I literally despised people just ‘cause they had that option.

I never actually slept on the street. I’d go sit at the casino all night. They started to know me, and the manager used to come over and give me a meal, like a hamburger and French fries for free. But then I got an offer to go back selling magazines, and I ended up calling Stephanie again and having her come meet me at a bar. It was the first time that she would come meet me. We talked a little bit. I gave her a kiss on the forehead and that was it.

I met a girl in New York when I was back selling magazines, and then she said she was pregnant and she went home to Arizona. I followed because I wanted to be a part of my kid’s life. Knowing I was having a kid was when I quit thinking about myself and started thinking about my daughter. That was a good decision.

I found a job within a few days and I saved up money and got my own place, and I kept finding better jobs until finally I had a job that was decent. I started getting more skills under my belt. I made pretty good money, especially for someone like me.

When I actually saw my daughter Addison, that’s the first time I ever felt like there was somebody who shared my blood that was going to need me for the rest of their life. I cried so hard when I had her. She was such a pretty little girl.

Then came 2 other pretty little girls and a chunky little boy. It was the first time in my life that I actually felt like I had a family. In foster care half the time you just feel like a number.

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My kids were my full motivation for being able to cope. I realized that I didn’t like the mother and we didn’t get along at all. I don’t know why I kept having kids with her. But I didn’t want to leave my kids because I didn’t want to be like my mom. I would think, “Well, okay, I can leave her when they all turn 18!” But I ended up leaving her last year.

Me and Stephanie started talking again and we realized we still had feelings for each other. I talked to Stephanie over the years because she would still listen to me. Even though we weren’t together she would still talk to me. Sometimes all that you need is just for somebody to sit there and talk to you. So I came here and we got together, and we’ve been together ever since.

For a long time everything felt so unfair. Why do I have to keep switching homes? Why do I keep having to bump around? Why can’t I have parents who would let me stay with them until I went to college or got a nice job?

I would tell others who are struggling, I’d tell them that it does get better. It’s taken me 12 years and I still would have a problem facing my last foster parents, but life in general does get better as long as you let it. It’s like a disease. You’ve got to cure it or it’s going to keep eating away.

For kids that are aging out, don’t rely on anyone but yourself. You’re a foster kid, and being a foster kid means that there’s a real possibility that you’re going to be doing things alone. Don’t give up, and prove everybody else wrong. Use that as your motivation if you want. Don’t get put in jail just so that you have a place to stay. Don’t do drugs. Just don’t give up. If you give up, all those people who said you’d never be anything, they’ve already won.

I might have been able to get some help, but I gave up when I turned 18. I was just done. I didn’t want anything to do with any part of foster care, social workers, anything. I felt too lied to.

I think of that Carrie Underwood song “Temporary Home” with that little boy. I really feel like that little boy, waiting in the courtyard, to see where he’s going. That was me.

I try to move on from these things and I try to say, “Hey, look what I’m doing now!” but I bet that most of my anxiety stems from this. I went through a phase where I was really afraid that Stephanie was going to leave me. Not because I did anything bad, but because I’m afraid that things are too good to be true. When you come from where I come from, things never get to be too good to be true.

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I appreciate Stephanie with everything. I’m proud of her job in early learning. Everybody says we’re like newlyweds. I couldn’t be with someone who’s better for me. She’s the love of my life. We both know it was probably just bad timing before. We were both being formed.

If a child tells you that they love you, they really love you. It’s your job to hold up to that set of standards that they deserve. My kids aren’t my friends; they’re my kids. They’re my blood and my family.  I’m going to love them, and they look to me for support, not as a buddy to talk to. I’ve seen the friend-friend thing, and that’s the parent who lets the kid smoke cigarettes and do stupid stuff.

When I think of home, I think of my kids. I think of my wife. I think of her kids. Our kids. That’s home. I don’t think of walls, or place. I think of them. They’re my home. Because no matter where they are, they’re going to be my home.


Dennis and Stephanie gave birth to Arabella Serenity on October 13, 2012. The three of them, along with his children and her daughters, continue to learn, heal together, and re-grow their unique and evolving family tree.

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  • Jeff Bettger

    Great job Kristie. this is an amazing story. Thanks for sharing it with us.