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Maxine Archibald is grateful for many things, but ironically, most of all she credits her early youth of chronic illness.
In fact, if not for being such a sickly child, stricken by severe asthma, Archibald, 71, of Wimauma, Florida, isn't sure she would have the full, happy life she has now.
If not for her illness, somebody at her school might not have noticed her dirty clothes. If somebody at the school hadn't notified child welfare – that's her guess on how it happened – she would have stayed with her birth father, who abused her mother and their children. If she had stayed with her birth father, she would not have been placed with a foster family, who took her in and raised her with kindness and love.
A story told in 'if nots'
All life stories can be told with “if nots,” but Archibald's story is different, because she knows what life would have been like.
When she was removed, six people were living in a shack in West Hollywood, Florida, without running water nor bathroom facilities. She had mumps and worms and was dangerously underweight.
“I was a mess,” she said.
Her first memory was of her father banging her mother's head against a wall.
“Some person from school saw where I was living one time and turned me in,” she said, then added, “Thank God.”
The third daughter
She considers herself testament to the hope that foster care offers to children born into unstable and abusive environments. She sees a line connecting her life, marriage, business career, children and grandchildren, back to the child welfare worker.
She arrived at Bill and Paula Pitzler's house on Valentine's Day, 1951, when she was 9 years old, and left exactly 13 years later, Valentine’s Day, 1964, when the man she called “dad” gave her away at her wedding.
“I really felt like I was their third daughter,” she said. The idea of adoption was raised once by her foster parents, but Archibald said she declined, thinking she would not be able to see her siblings again.
A softening around the heart
Even though it was never an official adoption, she called them mom and dad.
When Archibald balked at her homework, and said, “I can't do it,” her mom responded with, “I don't believe in the word 'can't.'”
The adjustment process took time, but she came around to seeing the opportunity she had been given.
“The first time I called her mom, I felt this softening around my heart, I swear, it was the neatest thing,” she said. “I felt safe for the first time ever.”
Although Archibald realizes how lucky she was to be placed with a foster family, her story of “if nots” is more complex than a simple story of salvation.
Although she is grateful for the second chance she was given, she has always been haunted by the knowledge that her three sisters and brother were not so lucky.
Even during her childhood, the relief of knowing she was safe was tinged with the memory of what growing up was like for her siblings. Survivors guilt, she calls it.
“I kept saying every time I would see them, 'Why can't they come home and live with me?' I knew they would have been taken care of,” she said. “After I realized how fortunate I was – it took me a while, of course – I thought that God gave me the chance so I could help my sisters later.”
The daily struggle
She believes that her now-deceased father let her go because of her chronic illnesses, and saw for himself a less complicated way to receive state benefits by guarding custody of her siblings.
“It literally saved my life, but it has been hard to see what they have gone through,” she said. “I struggle with that.”
Archibald has confronted depression, as well learned to cope with the sinking feeling that lingered after visits with her siblings. She has talked about her experiences in foster care, as well as her depression and survivor's guilt, during foster parent trainings and at foster parent conferences.
When her kids and grandkids hear her story, she tells them, “Don't feel sorry for me, I was lucky.”
Her brother died, but her three sisters are alive and well, and two of them she helped move from Georgia to Florida.
“They are doing great,” she said.
Archibald and her husband, David, are looking forward to their 50th wedding anniversary next year. They raised two daughters, and have six grandchildren.
“I have been very blessed,” she said.
Archibald even started her own business with her daughter selling parts for Ford Mustangs. She ran the business from 1986 to 1998, then retired and her and David moved to Wimauma.
For children currently living in foster care, Archibald wants them to know it is normal to feel angry, confused, and scared, but to trust that foster parents are looking out for them.
“If it is a good home, your foster parents are going to help you,” she said. “They will help you in school, and with your confidence, and they will build you up instead of letting your vegetate.”
For foster parents, Archibald is grateful.
“They don't have to,” she said. “It's hard work for them.”