Two mothers’ love
Jonah has no idea that the past seven months have been unusual at all. He’s an observant, active little guy who just learned that shaking his head “no” is the best thing in the world and he’s been hinting at his urge to walk by pulling himself up using furniture around the house.
His big, brown eyes take in everything and to him, everything is normal.
And that’s exactly how everyone wants it to be.
He came to live here when he was 2 days old, when Lisa and Paul McGinnett brought him home from the hospital and his mother went back to the correctional facility.
Today, she comes to visit a few times a week, between her three jobs and trying to arrange a place to live where they can be together again. As Jonah begins his life, Hannah is starting hers over at 25 years old as a convicted felon.
She found out she was pregnant the most recent time she was arrested — Jan. 15, 2016. She was five weeks along but didn’t believe the corrections officer when she told her, even though the urine test was clearly positive. There she was, pregnant, facing time in prison, and each day brought her closer to a stark reality that she needed to get it together.
So she started writing letters. Letters to child protection workers, letting them know the situation and asking them to find a good place for her baby until she could get back on her feet. Being pregnant in jail was a wake-up call for Hannah, who had been in and out of the penal system for more than half her life. By the time Hannah was 14, she’d already spent time in youth correctional facilities and had her first felony conviction as a juvenile. She had recently been involved with a drug gang.
In some ways, the impending arrival of Jonah made things harder, and in other ways, it made it easier. Hannah had a goal, someone to prioritize, a reason to get it together. As her belly grew, the desire to figure things out became more urgent.
When she gave birth to Jonah, she knew a family was coming to pick him up at the hospital. She didn’t know it was the McGinnetts, who child protection workers contacted less than a week earlier and asked if they would take the baby.
They have two teenage children they adopted as babies and were not anticipating adopting more children, though they’ve fostered 36 children in Mesa County since they moved here in 2007. Every single one of those children has a shared experience from when they came to the McGinnetts’ house — when they opened the door, a wafting scent of something good baking in the kitchen met them at the threshold. Whether it was cookies or bread, the mouth-watering smells invited them in. Like those baked goods, Lisa is warm and inviting and sweet.
“I told her, ‘I just want you to know that there is no judgment from me,’ ” said Lisa, who explained that she was going to keep Jonah safe until Hannah could take him back.
Hannah was immediately suspicious of them. Most foster families who take babies have a goal of adopting them, not reuniting them with their biological parents, and she thought this was probably the case.
But eventually, Lisa’s genuine personality and her actions that backed up her intentions penetrated Hannah’s guarded facade.
Jonah joined the McGinnetts’ lives of organized chaos with 12-year-old Charlie and 13-year-old Neisha. He’s along for the ride to sports practices, hanging out at the track meets or the soccer games, a cheerful little guy who rarely cries. But he maintained a connection to Hannah, thanks to the foster family’s willingness to help him build a bond with her.
For the first three months of his life, Lisa and her family shuttled Jonah to Hannah every day so he could be breastfed, because they thought it was important for him to bond with his mother who wanted him and was trying to get her life back together.
Every day, Lisa would give Hannah an update on how Jonah slept, any new quirks, how much he ate, when she dropped him off.
The McGinnetts’ approach to foster care has a goal of supporting the biological parents and building a bridge with them to help the children adjust, whenever it’s safe to do so.
Sometimes that’s not easy. More often than not, the children are placed in their home because they’ve been abused in their own homes.
“There’s always a brokenness,” Lisa said. “But we don’t feel it helps the child at all if we don’t work with the parents.”
After 102 days in recovery, Hannah moved to Community Corrections in November. She earned passes three times a week, where she could leave the facility for four hours at a time if someone picked her up.
Lisa agreed to pick her up and bring her to their home, so she could spend time with Jonah. And that meant spending time with the whole family, and eating dinners together and talking and getting to know Lisa’s teenagers.
At first, Hannah didn’t want to come over to the house where her son was living, with a family he was living with. She didn’t want to see what he had at their house that he didn’t have with her.
But she found that Lisa’s house was so unpretentious and this family was so welcoming that it didn’t feel like that. Now she has a favorite chair in the living room, where she takes naps with Jonah during visitation, and she just walks in the front door without knocking. Since she got out of Community Corrections in March, she has visitation with Jonah a few times a week at their house, which has become a second home to her.
One time, during an approved visit with a two-hour pass, they ran out of time for Hannah to eat and Lisa fixed her a plate to go so she wouldn’t be late, which surprised Hannah. No near-stranger had ever done anything like that out of pure niceness, especially since she started hanging out with the wrong crowd.
She looked at the plate, stunned.
“It’s just a hamburger,” Lisa said.
When the holidays arrived, Lisa got a special pass to bring Hannah to their house for Christmas.
“I know what it meant for me with my kids, that first Christmas,” Lisa said. “There’s all the firsts and you don’t want to miss them.”
Christmas at Lisa’s house was different than the holidays the previous year, when Hannah thinks she was in jail but can’t really remember. Lisa put eight different kinds of salad dressing on the table, to avoid leaving out anyone’s favorite.
It was strange but good to think that everything could reach a new normal, which was better than what got Hannah to this place.
While Hannah gives Lisa and her family credit for opening their home to her and Jonah, “Hannah should get a big kudos for opening her heart,” said Lisa. “She didn’t have to do that.”
For Lisa, this is about helping another mother and her child, who she has grown to love, and it’s about accepting them both into their family.
“I just feel like God has placed us at a very critical place in her life, and we can show her normalcy,” Lisa said.
She sees her job as keeping Jonah safe and enveloped with love until Hannah is ready to take him back, and she does it without reservations, despite knowing that each step she takes toward getting her life back together is moving toward a separation that’s going to hurt when she loses this baby to his mother.
Taking care of Jonah is “the hardest, easiest thing I’ve ever done,” Lisa said.
After Jonah leaves Lisa’s house to live with Hannah, Lisa will still be there, for both of them. They’re family now.
Things are finally coming together for Hannah, but that doesn’t mean she’s just going to take Jonah back and move on.
The McGinnetts have become an important source of support for her and Jonah, and she doesn’t want to give that up. When Jonah grows up, he’ll see them in his baby book, along with the letters Hannah wrote him when she was in jail, explaining everything, that he can open and read when he’s old enough.
Though she never thought she would form a bond with this bubbly soccer mom who is twice her age, with an infectious smile, never-ending optimism and friendly Midwestern ways that almost seem too good to be true, Hannah gained a special person in her life when she lost custody of her son.
“Jonah and I are gonna keep her,” Hannah said. “She’s my best friend.”
And there’s no way she would give up this relationship that benefits her child, after everything they’ve been through. From the letters she wrote in jail, to giving him up at the hospital, to completing recovery and getting three jobs, every step of the way has been about what’s best for Jonah. Having these strangers who have become family stay involved is the next thing that’s best for him, too.
“Jonah is loved from every direction,” she said.
Editor’s note: Hannah asked that only her and Jonah’s first names be used for this story.