RICHARDSON — For weeks last winter, FC Dallas defender Ryan Hollingshead confronted a daunting task: to get so much as a giggle out of the stoic 1-year-old boy who recently arrived in his home.
“It’s funny, because I have two biological kids, and I know exactly what I need to do at any moment to make them laugh or get them out of a mood,” Hollingshead said. But with the new baby, “it was so hard at the beginning to figure out exactly what he wanted.”
Still, Ryan and his wife, Taylor, kept at it. They smiled and they joked and they played.
And nearly 15 months later, in the run-up to Mother’s Day, the Hollingsheads took a step toward official adoption after watching the boy’s goofy personality bloom and living through the tribulations and joys of foster parenthood. Ryan and Taylor requested not to use the baby’s name or show his face to protect his identity while they finalize the foster process.
But it’s a story they feel compelled to tell.
The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services reported more than 16,800 children in foster care during 2020, and advocates say the state faces a shortage of homes. Ryan, a fan favorite in his eighth season with FCD, and Taylor said their Christian faith and desire to create change led them through the yearlong process of certification in 2019.
They’ve encountered a range of experiences since: They’re white parents who’ve learned lessons raising a biracial boy. They’ve felt their guts twist when they’ve had to turn down placements. And they’ve returned a baby girl they fell in love with to her biological parents after two months.
When reflecting, Taylor said the thrills of the process trump any trials.
“My biggest thing in advocating for foster care is that normal people can do this; normal people do hard things all the time,” Taylor said from her living room couch in Richardson this week, moments before their foster son, now 2, smiled and leapt from a nearby ottoman to plunge into her lap. “I can’t find a more worthy ‘hard.’”
The boy later scampered outside to hop on a circular swing next to 3-year-old Quinn and 4-year-old Huck, the Hollingsheads’ biological kids. Meanwhile, Ryan and Taylor explained that the persistent need of families willing to care for foster children weighs on them.
Grass-roots organizations are constantly recruiting prospective foster parents to fill the widening gap between children in the government’s care and homes in which they can live, said Frank Lopez, the statewide director for foster care and adoption at the nonprofit Upbring.
“The urgent need for foster families is just so crucial given the number of placements coming in every year,” Lopez said.
Some advocates and a federal judge have critiqued a plan from the Texas Legislature to expand the regional privatization of foster care systems, despite rocky rollouts in Fort Worth and Austin. Challenges abound, as the Hollingsheads learned quickly.
They began to grasp the complexities and struggles of the system when their phone started ringing the same day they completed certification in 2019.
“That first night, I think I got five calls — ‘Hey, can you take this baby? Can you take this kid?’” Ryan said. “Usually, I’m pretty good in those situations. But I was so overwhelmed. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I want to say ‘yes’ to all of them.’”
Shortly afterward, Ryan and Taylor welcomed a 4-week-old baby girl into their home. The return to life as parents of a newborn caused whiplash and exhaustion, and as foster caregivers, they followed strict protocols they didn’t consider with their biological children. They recorded every dab of ointment on their foster daughter in a medical log.
And they fell in love with a new family member.
Then, months later, they returned the baby to her biological family.
Foster families have little say in the legal system, and if DFPS determines biological parents are fit to reassume care, the courts try to reunite them with their kids.
“It breaks you,” Taylor said, “but in the best way. … That was so sweet in that she was reunified with her biological family, which, there’s no better end to foster care — that’s the goal.”
Despite the hurdles and the seesawing emotions, the Hollingsheads doubled down on their commitment to foster care.
FCD president Dan Hunt remembers the moment in 2019 when Ryan made a request during contract negotiations: He said he needed to sign a multiyear deal to remain in Dallas so he and Taylor could fulfill the requirements of foster parenting.
“It was one of those things where when he said it to us, everybody stopped and paused and said, ‘Huh? What?’” Hunt said, laughing. “Then we all just said, ‘Wow. This is amazing. What happy news.’”
FCD obliged, agreeing to a two-year contract with a team option for the 2022 season with a player Hunt called “one of the best left backs in Major League Soccer.”
In February 2020, the Hollingsheads received their second foster placement: a curious and silent boy about to turn 1. Ryan said he also cannot discuss the child’s background or how he landed in foster care.
At first, the boy took in his surroundings, Ryan said, seemingly trying to decipher whether his new home was safe. His foster parents only wanted to help, wanted to see him express himself.
Other considerations emerged, too. Taylor said she’s spent countless hours reading books, talking to friends of color and completing online courses to help her raise a biracial child in a way that respects his identity but does not make him feel isolated from the family.
As the country’s reckoning with social justice unfolded in 2020, Taylor’s mind raced.
“I’ve been confronted with my own privilege in a way that is just so humbling, and you just don’t come back from that,” Taylor said. “It’s no longer that I can ignore it or I can just pretend that it’s not as bad as everybody says it is, because we are raising a little boy that is actively, every day, going to be affected by that.”
Last year, as weeks of quality time morphed into months, the baby’s tentativeness melted away. He started following Huck and Quinn all over the house. He likes to wrestle with his siblings and snatch hold of Ryan’s or Taylor’s pants leg and climb up.
“He began to open up and blossom and become this silly, silly little boy,” Ryan said. “He’s so funny, so smiley.”
Ryan said the state closed the boy’s foster case Tuesday, ending the period in which a biological family member can step forward to claim custody. When a DFPS representative asked the Hollingsheads if they’d like to apply to permanently adopt, they offered a quick answer: “Yes,” Ryan said. “Of course we would.”
It’s a process they expect to take anywhere from one month to six. In the meantime, the family keeps moving, swings keep swinging.
In their front yard Thursday, after the boy hopped off his swing, he waddled to his foster father. Ryan scooped up his son, pulled him to his face and kissed his neck several times.
“I love you,” Ryan yelled between smooches. “I love you.”
The boy erupted into giggles.