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Accidental foster mother stands by her son

Patricia Simples and Terrence Strong met by chance a decade ago. She has seen him through tough times -- and now prison.

June 08, 2008|Ofelia Casillas | Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — Patricia Simples journeys to a prison in southern Illinois to visit a young man she considers her son.

A guard escorts her to a visiting room, where she wraps her arms around Terrence Strong and tries to hold back her tears.

Their powerful bond was born one summer evening 10 years ago, when Simples, a single pathologist, waited for the valet outside a Chicago restaurant. She overheard an 11-year-old boy in a dirty shirt and broken sneakers say he didn't get any gifts for his birthday. On impulse, Simples went and bought him presents.

Since that moment Simples, now 49, has done something many consider idly but few actually carry out: Step by step, she took an underprivileged child under her wing.

She has stood by Strong through thick and thin, even when he stole from her, even after he was convicted on drug charges.

He, in turn, trusted her -- so much that when he fled the law and tried to disappear to the world, she was the one he called, week after week.

And she faced one of the most daunting tasks a mother could ever face: talking her son into surrendering to the police.

Some say Simples is a saint; others worry that she is being used. She has asked herself the same question.

"Probably to the average person, they can't understand it, and I'm not sure that I understand it," Simples said.

Slowly she is coming to terms with the reality that sometimes you can't force a happy ending. Still, she has found meaning in the journey.

The relationship began in July 1998, when Simples, just finished with a business dinner, encountered Strong. She overheard him saying to a valet parking attendant that he had gotten nothing for his 11th birthday; she handed him a $5 bill and told him to buy himself some ice cream.

That did not seem like enough to her, though. Simples returned a few days later with birthday presents she had bought at a toy store, enlisting an employee to help pick them out. She gave them to Strong, who recalls being shocked. Strong then lived in a public housing complex, where he grew up with 10 siblings. With little supervision, he said, he stayed out late, smoked and skipped school.

Just a month later, Simples came looking for Strong at the restaurant and learned he had was in juvenile detention.

She tracked down his probation officer and asked what she could do to help. The officer made her Strong's mentor. In that role, she picked him up on Saturdays and took him to parks, the circus and tutoring.

During one tutoring session, Simples slipped out to buy lunch for the two of them. Strong feared she would not return. Later, as they planned future outings, Strong awkwardly asked her, "How long are you going to be around?"

"As long as you want me to be around," she recalls answering.

That promise was tested just a few months later.

A juvenile court judge gave custody of Terrence Strong to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services on March 7, 2000, because the judge determined that his mother was unable to properly care for him.

Having often seen Simples at Strong's hearings, the judge had also asked Simples whether she could become the boy's temporary legal guardian.

Simples knew the change would upset her comfortable, predictable life. Still, she brought the boy home and officially became his foster mother that month. She was 41 years old.

Strong's biological mother, Esther Strong, now 50, a nurse assistant, said she was initially hesitant about Simples, but eventually appreciated her.

"I was his mother. I just felt kind of depressed, kind of disappointed. But after that, it was nice. She is a very nice person," Esther Strong said. "I have 11 kids -- any help that I can get would help." The two women never became close, but his foster mother said she always found his family welcoming.

Simples bought clothes for Strong, took him on trips and paid him for doing chores. He went to school and therapy.

But Simples discovered that helping Strong was more complicated than just giving him things. Counseling did not seem to help. And Simples' love could not replace family bonds.

"You think that you take a kid like this, give him clothes, money, food," Simples said. "I naively thought everything would be OK."

Strong appreciated all that. But he was bored too, he recalled, and longed for the freedoms he had living with his birth family.

Three months after Simples became his foster mother, Strong began disappearing for short periods. At one point, he stole $2,000 from Simples.

Simples reported his behavior problems to his caseworker, who took him out of Simples' home. Strong begged Simples to keep him, but she stood her ground, knowing that she could not handle him.

Strong lived in child welfare facilities for about two years. In 2002, because he was behaving better and attending counseling, Simples took him back.

Months later, Simples found 100 little marijuana bags among his things. She told Strong's probation officer and wrote a letter to have him removed again.

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