FORT GRATIOT TOWNSHIP, Mich. — David is the tiny boy with very light blond hair and bright blue eyes.
He walks slowly past the Christmas tree in the living room to sit down beside a menorah near the fireplace.
“My family is in my heart,” the 3-year-old says. “They’re in my heart where I love them so much.”
He likes to carry a dented blue plastic baseball bat as he walks through his house.
David doesn’t look like anyone else in this Fort Gratiot home, where he was a gift who arrived unexpectedly in the middle of the night in April 2015.
Reid and Nikki Stromberg received a call from a social worker. Might they have room for an emergency foster placement? Their four children slept soundly through the knock on the door. They all woke up the next morning to a 4-week-old baby crying.
“He was so little,” said Mia Stromberg, now 14. “He was so little.”
'I was scared'
In just days, social workers would ask the family to decide whether they wanted the child to stay forever. The mother of four didn't hesitate. Not even for a minute.
“They said, ‘Are you willing to adopt him?'” Nikki recalled, “It was so natural to say yes, I was scared I was missing something.”
This was not at all what they had planned.
It was after Reid Stromberg, a physician, examined a 10-month-old who had bones in various stages of healing that he recognized injuries common to child abuse.
That night, he went home to his wife and asked if they could sign up for foster care classes right away. He wanted to fulfill requirements as quickly as possible in hopes of one day providing a safe foster home for the little girl he examined in his office.
But that 10-month-old baby left Michigan to live with relatives. Yet Reid and Nikki Stromberg continued their arduous weekend foster care training sessions and financial review and reference interviews. They had to write essays about how they were raised. They wondered if there was a purpose to it all.
They waited. And waited. Until David arrived.
His mother died of a heroin overdose while he slept in her bed.
The Stromberg family, clockwise from left, Adam, 12 with dog Star, Nikki, 40, Reid, 50, Mia, 14, Beth, 11, David, 3 and Hannah, 9, pose for a photograph in their Fort Gratiot home on Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2018. (Photo: Kathleen Galligan, Detroit Free Press)
Magnitude of tragedy
The presumed birth father never showed up for his DNA test. And as each week went by, the Stromberg family and social workers monitored the calendar. Siblings Mia and Adam and Beth and Hannah kept asking if the little boy would stay. Their mother knew nothing was certain. She would answer 30 percent likely, 40 percent likely, 80 percent likely.
“What is the percent today? they would ask,” said Nikki. “Finally, one day, it was 100 percent.”
The family of six headed over to the courthouse in Port Huron.
“We were all dressed up,” said Hannah, now 9.
“I got a new dress,” said Beth, now 11.
Adoptions are done one after another after another. Older couples adopt. Younger couples adopt. Single parents adopt. Family members adopt other family members.
Foster children arrive in state care through no fault of their own. Parents are unable to provide care emotionally, physically, mentally and/or financially. Some parents have died or gone to prison.
“Reid and I took our oath, hands raised," Nikki Stromberg said.
The announcement card she sent to family and friends read: “A child born to another woman calls me Mommy. The magnitude of that tragedy and the depth of that privilege are not lost on me."
Above a photo of David, it says: “Born 3.18.15. Home 4.18.15. Forever 1.15.16.”
Months earlier, the Stromberg family went to Lighthouse Park beach on Lake Huron.
Mia, Adam, Beth and Hannah Stromberg with their foster brother at Lighthouse Park beach in Port Huron. The baby arrived at their home on April 18, 2015 and this photo was taken a short while later. (Photo: Joey Smith)
“I wanted a picture of all of us in case David didn’t stay,” said Nikki, who is 40 now. “To this day, it’s sad to me what happened to his mother. Really sad. But he’s ours forever now. And safe.”
'We can't just give him back'
Reid, who just turned 50, didn’t think anything of bringing a fifth child into the family.
“We decided we can’t just give him back. David fit right in," Reid Stromberg said, yawning. It had been a long day at the office and he was headed to a night meeting. "My older brother and sister were adopted. My best friend, as well. Anybody can be a foster parent. Children need homes.”
Nikki and Reid Stromberg on the day they adopted their son, David, at the courthouse in Port Huron. He arrived in their foster home in April 2015 and was adopted in January 2016. (Photo: Joey Smith)
Looking back, Nikki Stromberg simply can't believe how things happened.
“When Reid was talking about his patient, it shocked me,” she said. “It’s just not what I would have expected. He said she had multiple stages of healing of broken bones. He felt this connection to this 10-month-old girl."
Nikki Stromberg explained, "My parents had four kids and we were all healthy. We had four kids, all healthy. We have good jobs. We feel pretty lucky. We felt like we should share."
She always worked the night shift, leaving at 6:15 p.m. Her husband put the children to bed, woke them up for school, took them to day care. So she knew he could handle it.
These days, the former pediatric nurse plays the flute in a local orchestra when she’s not working at the veterans clinic. Mia is a cheerleader and basketball player. Beth plays soccer, softball, clarinet and piano. Hannah plays soccer and acts in community theater. And Adam, when not acting, is preparing for his bar mitzvah. Mia will have her bat mitzvah with him in a joint ceremony. (Nikki is Christian, Reid is Jewish and the family recognizes both faiths' traditions.)
It's a busy world in the Stromberg family.
“I thought I had it down until the dog came. That pushed my sanity to the limit,” Reid said, nodding toward Star, a Great Dane puppy.
David Stromberg is a lucky boy.
There are about 13,500 children in foster care in Michigan alone. Some children will be reunited with their birth families. Many children are not adopted before age 18 and age out of the system alone with no family. Today about 2,000 children are available for adoption, and 300 have no prospective families willing to adopt them.
He is the one
"If you love children and have a big heart, we encourage you to find out more about becoming a foster parent," said Lynn Sutfin, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. "If a child cannot be returned home, foster parents are often asked to provide permanent loving and supportive homes."
Nikki Stromberg shakes hands with Judge Elwood Brown during adoption proceedings in Port Huron as her husband, Reid, watches. She holds her foster son, David, as his new big sister Beth watches proceedings on Jan. 15, 2016. (Photo: Joey Smith)
In the Stromberg house, a booster seat sits on a chair at the dining room table.
“David is annoying but he’s cute," said Adam, who is 12. "We play Star Wars and superheroes and Legos. When I’m singing a song and he’s in the room, he sings along.”
Nikki and Adam took part in a local production of "Annie." Adam sang chorus.
“David just randomly starts singing in the car. Like, from Annie, ‘I’m never fully dressed without a smile,'" Beth said.
Most of the family is preparing for "Lion King" auditions these days.
Mia and Adam and Beth and Hannah have very different interests now.
“David is what unites them,” Nikki said. “They fight over who gets to snuggle with him. He is the one we all are attached to."
She said it’s easy to forget David is not her biological child.
“When he gets into trouble, like when I told a coworker he wasn’t being good, she said, ‘It must be in his genes.’ And I thought, ‘Reid must have been a troublemaker when he was little.’ It sort of took me aback. Then I realized, no, that’s not what she was saying at all,” Nikki said. "David is my son. And I don't think about it any other way."
Nearly half a million kids are in foster care in the U.S.; 123,000 await adoption, according to 2017 federal data.
While people know foster care helps children, few realize the impact it can have on families.
"It brings us together," said Bob Herne, national project director for AdoptUSKids. "Do you know why the majority of people who have contemplated being foster parents don't do it? They don't think they're good enough. You don't need to be perfect to be a perfect parent. Our kids just need people who support them."
'In my heart'
Mia said she wrote about David for an assignment about "a change in your life."
And Beth responded with surprise, “Wait, I did the exact same thing.”
Nikki looked at each of her daughters, after listening awhile, and said, “With David, we feel stronger as a family. I feel like he’s ours. Not just mine and Reid’s. David is all of ours. He’s all of our responsibility. I mean, we’re already a blended family with Christmas and Hanukkah, right?”
A Christmas wreath and a Jewish mezuzah greet visitors at the home of Dr. Reid and Nikki Stromberg who celebrate both Christmas and Hannukkah with their 5 children in Fort Gratiot, Mich., Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2018. (Photo: Kathleen Galligan, Detroit Free Press)
On the front door hangs a Christmas wreath.
On the doorpost beside the wreath hangs a small scroll in a ceramic casing, a traditional mezuzah that distinguishes a Jewish home as a holy place and that those who enter and exit should act accordingly.
As David approaches his fourth birthday, he talks a lot about playing air hockey with his brother and sisters. And just hanging out together.
"I like to watch shows with them. I go in the car with them. They are my family," he said. "They are in my heart and I am in theirs."
Call 855-MICH-KIDS to talk with a foster care navigator, an experienced parent who is available to answer questions and assist prospective foster parents in becoming licensed. Call 800-589-MARE to learn more about adoption.
Contact Phoebe Wall Howard: firstname.lastname@example.org or 313-222-6512. Follow her on Twitter @phoebesaid
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