Before we even knew God, He used a TV commercial about foster care to put His finger on our lives.
The commercial tugged on our heartstrings, and my husband Al and I decided to get involved. We had a safe home and lots of love to offer. So we said yes, filled out our applications, and in 1982, became foster parents. It was a life-changing decision because, over the next 18 years, we would foster more than 140 children.
At first, we judged and harshly criticized the parents of our foster children. We saw horrific cases of abandonment, abuse, and neglect. We weren’t interested in the parents’ lives or circumstances—to us, there was no justification for such evil. We assumed every parent was a drug addict or on the fringes of society.
Our attitude didn’t leave room for grace or mercy or forgiveness. But guess what? We had issues too, and God, who knew what they were, was about to shake things up in our home. Our hearts needed transformation and humility for where He would lead us (James 4:6).
Through a series of difficult situations and marital distress, God got our attention and brought us to Himself. Acknowledging our sin, Al and I both accepted Christ as our Savior and asked Him to renew our marriage.
As our relationship with Christ grew, it changed our approach to caring for the needs of our children and those we fostered. We could do more than just tend to their emotional and physical needs. We could care for them spiritually too.
The more we learned about God, the more we knew we needed to extend His love and forgiveness to the abusive and neglectful parents whose children we sheltered. God offers His forgiveness freely—who were we to decide who was worthy of His gift? We were expected to share the love and hope of Christ in whatever way we could with every person He put in our path.
But with some of the situations we saw, that was a difficult and confusing conviction. It seemed impossible. If that’s what God wanted from us, He’d have to teach us how to do it. So Al and I intentionally sought His heart in the matter, and as we did, God began to change us.
We’d been fostering children for about 14 years when we faced our hardest test. We had just received an infant into our home and were settling in with her when, a few days later, a Department of Family Services (DFS) social worker called, asking if we had room to foster the infant’s four older siblings. We were all about keeping families together, so this was an easy yes.
It was another yes that would change our lives forever.
Our home was joyful as the Bower children began arriving. There were squeals, giggles, hugs, and happiness as the siblings reunited over a week. The celebration continued until the last child, four-year-old Hannah, walked through the door on June 30, 1996.
Something about little Hannah immediately tugged at my heart. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I trusted the Lord to guide me in caring for her needs as I knew He did for every child.
Everyone adjusted to a new routine that included chores, family meals, and bedtime prayers. Going to church was a family affair. The children responded well to the hugs and affection that awaited them there every Sunday.
I was also volunteering as a lay chaplain in the local jail near our home. I was on call for any incarcerated person who requested a chaplain, and I taught a weekly Bible study to the women there. God had given me a heart for prisoners. I wasn’t sure how that fit in with the call to be a foster parent but trusted that God knew what He was doing.
DFS told us the Bower children would be with us through the fall, so we headed out for back-to-school shopping. Soon we were adjusting to yet another routine. As fall turned to winter, we were blessed to host the Bower children for the holidays.
It was heartwarming to witness the wide-eyed excitement of the children as their tiny hands helped us decorate for Christmas. When we opened a box containing our nativity scene, I shared the season’s real meaning.
“Do you all know what Christmas is about?” I asked.
“Santa brings us toys!” was the unanimous response.
“That’s one way we celebrate,” I agreed, “but it’s not the real reason. Christmas is when we celebrate Jesus’s birthday. He’s God’s Son. He’s the best gift of love we could ever receive.”
The children examined the ceramic nativity pieces curiously. Hannah held up baby Jesus and gazed at Him intently as if she could see something special. Help them to know You, Lord, I prayed as I watched them. Help their mother too. You are their only hope.
The Bower children had been with us for several months when DFS began approving visits with their mother, Karen.
I noticed a difference in the children even after short visits. The two older kids seemed fine, but the younger ones always returned withdrawn. Ahead of every visit with her mom, Hannah acted clingy and nervous. She pleaded with me not to make her go. It bothered me to see her so upset, but all I could do was share my observations with DFS.
Karen was providing a safe environment for the visitation, and there weren’t any visible signs of abuse, so the visits continued. Soon it came time for the first unsupervised overnight visit. I wasn’t surprised, but I did go into worry overload, especially for Hannah.
I prayed continuously during that first visit, asking God to protect them. When I saw headlights in the driveway, I ran for the door. Relief came over me as the children filed in.
Hannah beelined toward me, clutching a new doll. With a serious face, she told me she had fallen while bathing. “That’s how I hurt myself.” Her forehead and left eye were black and blue. “Mommy bought me this doll because I was so brave.”
The following day, I reported the incident to the caseworker. I wanted to believe that it was an accident, but I was skeptical.
There were no other injuries after that, but talking with Karen soon revealed a hidden resentment toward her child. One day, I got bold and asked Karen if she even wanted to raise Hannah. She assured me she did, and that’s where we left it.
Ten months later, DFS called, notifying us that a judge had ordered all five of the Bower children to be returned to their mother. There would be no gradual transition, which was unusual. I was to take them to her that day.
Somehow I gathered the strength to do the impossible. We finished dinner, then I steadied my voice and made the announcement. “Your caseworker called with some news. You’re all going home today.”
After dinner, I loaded the car with their belongings and drove to Karen’s house. Hannah’s cries got louder the closer we got. Through her wails, she begged to stay with me. I was helpless. For a split second, my emotions overrode my sanity. I thought of taking Hannah and running away. Then reason returned, and I knew my hands were tied.
My only choice was to surrender her to God and give her back to her mother. Before I left Hannah, I reminded her to pray. “Call on Jesus. He will never leave you,” I whispered. Our eyes met as I hugged and kissed her goodbye. I sobbed all the way home.
For a while, I stayed in contact with the family. I made excuses to visit, taking meals and gifts over in hopes of seeing Hannah—only she was never there. Every time, Karen told me she was at a friend’s or with her father or somewhere else. Eventually, she told me that Hannah had gone to live with a relative for a while.
I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong. So many times, I prayed. I don’t know what to believe, Lord. I have to trust that Your hand is on Hannah. Please be with this family.
But God made Himself clear. The door was closed. It was time to let go.
Several months later, I was surprised by a call from a new DFS caseworker. She inquired if I knew how to contact the relatives of the Bower children. Karen was in jail and on her way to prison. DFS was trying to locate two of her children to place them in foster care. They were missing. Before the caseworker could say their names, my heart shattered. She confirmed it was Hannah and her younger brother.
That same day, the caseworker filed missing persons reports for both children. Four days later, she called again. DFS had located Hannah’s brother with a relative. Then she told me that they had also found Hannah. I braced myself for the worst, but I wasn’t prepared.
“The police discovered Hannah’s decomposing remains in the garage at the Bower home. She was wrapped in plastic garbage bags.”
I don’t remember much of what the caseworker said after that. I was struggling to breathe. Jesus, please, no. Not my sweet Hannah.
I broke the news to my family, and we cried and held each other the rest of the night, trying to make sense of something for which there was no explanation. I teetered between sorrow and rage, questioning God, demanding answers on how He could let such a tragedy happen. At the same time, I leaned on Him for strength. I was so confused.
The next time I answered the phone, I was horrified to hear a recording announcing it was from the local jail. And it was Karen. How dare she call this house! I didn’t want to take her call, but the Holy Spirit was urging me otherwise. No way, I thought. Lord, I don’t want to talk to her! I pleaded, but He did not relent.
I trembled at the sound of her voice. Karen wanted me to visit her. Are you crazy? I shouted at her in my head. God, I can’t do this!
Gently, the Holy Spirit showed me that I did have a choice. I could be an angry, brokenhearted foster mother demanding justice for this tragedy. Or I could be for Karen the same caring chaplain and ambassador for Christ that I was for any other person who called. But I couldn’t be both. At least not visibly.
That night when I checked in at the jail for the chaplaincy visit, I felt ashamed to say the name of the person I was visiting. It was a high-profile case, and I didn’t want anyone to know I was there to see the person who had committed this crime.
Karen entered the visitation room, and a long silence followed. Then she told me she had confessed to Hannah’s murder. She had done it ten months earlier. I listened in horror as she recounted the details of her crime. It was all I could do not to get up and run screaming from the room.
As the visit was ending, Karen informed me that she was facing the death penalty, and then, almost as an afterthought, added, “Oh, I’m five months pregnant.”
I left the jail in a shambles with no intent of returning. I felt like Jonah in the Bible when God called him to minister to Nineveh. Being swallowed up by a big fish seemed like an excellent alternative to doing what God was asking of me in this situation. At least there I could mourn and grieve in peace.
But God would not let me run away. Instead, He prompted me to visit Karen again after Hannah’s funeral.
She was waiting with a question. “Is there forgiveness for what I’ve done?”
I gulped. “Whose forgiveness do you want?” She didn’t deserve that. She didn’t deserve mercy or grace either.
I was relieved to hear she wanted God’s forgiveness and not mine. I had to pray for the Lord’s help, but as I did, the Holy Spirit took over. My grief and anger melted away for the moment as He gave me the words I needed.
“Yes, Karen. God will forgive you, even for this. But only through Jesus.”
With tears streaming down her face, Karen told me she wanted that forgiveness and to find hope through Jesus. I held her hands and led her in a short and simple prayer. I left the jail confident that her decision for Christ was real and sincere.
As I drove away from the jail, however, anger and grief washed over me again. I went home to tend my broken heart and grieving family. I wanted so badly for all of us to heal and for things to return to normal, but I couldn’t even remember what normal looked like anymore. And I wanted justice for Hannah.
Before her trial, Karen approached me with an extraordinary request. She wanted me and Al to adopt her unborn baby. “I know it’s the right decision,” she said. “I know how much you all loved Hannah.”
I believed the sincerity in her voice, and I knew the alternative was that DFS would take the child into custody at birth. After much prayer and tears, we agreed. In the spring of 1999, the adoption was final.
After so much suffering and sorrow, God used a beautiful baby girl to bring healing, joy, and life back into our family. She is a grown woman today and a constant reminder of how God truly does exchange beauty for ashes (Isaiah 61:3) and brings purpose to pain.
Karen is serving a life sentence and continues to seek God. She ministers to other inmates when they are interested. I am still in contact with her, and over the years, our relationship has evolved into a friendship. Every time I visit her, I am more amazed at her transformation and spiritual maturity.
I no longer stand in judgment of Karen. She is my sister in Christ. Romans 3:23 says, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (NIV). Jesus shed His blood even for a sin as senseless and horrific as Hannah’s murder. God, in His mercy, has forgiven Karen. He’s also forgiven me of my own sins. Who am I not to forgive?
If someone had told me at the time that God could take such a painful and sometimes unbearable situation and assign it eternal purpose, I would have either laughed or wanted to throw something at them. I have since spent countless tear-soaked hours at His feet, and as I poured out my despair, confusion, and need to Him, God has changed my heart.
My experience as a foster parent, including what happened to Hannah, will not be wasted. It has inspired me to start a nonprofit organization that aims to open the McKenzie Home, Wyoming’s first transitional home that will focus solely on the needs of single mothers and their children. It will be named after my granddaughter, whom we lost to cancer in 2019.
The McKenzie Home will offer single moms from all walks of life access to the resources they need to get on their feet and provide a stable home for their families.
During one of our visits, I shared my excitement about the project with Karen. Her enthusiastic response encouraged me. Then she said, “Maybe if there had been something like that before—”
We’ll never know the answer to that, but I am hopeful that the McKenzie Home will help prevent more tragedies like the one that took place in the Bower family.
We’ve acquired an old burned-down school building that will be completely rebuilt from the ground up. I find that fitting since that’s exactly what God will be doing in the lives of the women and children who walk through the doors of the McKenzie Home.
Despite a daunting estimated price tag for what looks like an impossible project, my faith is firmly anchored, and my heart is wholly committed to completing this next assignment. Planning and fundraising for the McKenzie Home is underway, and many people have joined me on the mission, certain that, since God has called us to it, He will provide and carry us through. I know firsthand what God can do when I place the impossible into His hands.
That impossible thing you’re facing is not beyond the reach of God’s miraculous, all-sufficient grace. Take it with you to the throne of our Savior (Hebrews 4:16). Hand it over to Him in exchange for His grace that will overflow into every area of your life. Every sin will be washed away, and you will be able to do hard things too. God’s grace is available to all who call on the name of Jesus (Romans 10:13). And that call is all it takes to move beyond justice to mercy.
 All names have been changed for privacy purposes and to protect the innocent.
DEBRA MOERKE loves spending time with her husband, Al, six children, and nine grandchildren. As a Christian author and motivational speaker, she testifies to God’s goodness by sharing biblical principles and personal stories from her life. She is the founder of the McKenzie Home; a transitional home being developed to serve single moms and their children in Wyoming. To learn more, visit debramoerke.com.