From Tragedy to a Toddler

Three-year-old Lyle Potter doesn’t stop moving. He’s on the couch, on the floor with the two small dogs, laughing and talking non-stop in his toddler-like way. His hands are covered in green Ninja Turtle gloves that he just got, and his arms are smeared with bits of sticky crispy treats.

“What happened last week?” His mother, Denise Potter asks him.

“I got adopted,” he says matter-of factly. Then he moves on to play with something else.

His two brothers, Andrew, who is 31, and David, who is 16, are in and out of various rooms in the lovely, spacious house. There are photos everywhere of the family, which also includes Nick, 26, and Sarah, 18. Dad John proudly shows a video Sarah created. It’s a scene of family serenity and harmony.

You’d never know that five years ago, this family was struck with unspeakable tragedy and almost frozen in grief. Son, Nathan, a 21-year-old student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, was gunned down in a senseless murder in River West. That was July 6.

Potter Family
Denise and John Potter with Lyle

Two days earlier, at a crowded, festive July 4th celebration in the Potters’ back yard, Denise had spoken briefly to Nathan about the family’s plan to become foster parents. She wanted to take time individually with all of her children to explain their thinking. Because they are middle-aged, the couple said they hoped to get a 5- or 6-year-old.

“No, you gotta get a baby!” Nathan told his mom. Then he went about having fun with people, which was Nathan’s way.

“We never really finished the conversation,” Denise said, sitting at the family’s dining room table as Lyle squirmed around happily, going from one thing to another.

Lyle was the answer to Nathan’s wish – and, as it turned out, the family’s dreams.

The Potters were supposed to have a home study two days after Nathan’s murder. It took more than two years before they were emotionally able to get back into the fostering process. Once they did, things moved quickly.

“Before you knew it, we got a call and they told us, ‘We have a baby for you. He’s 5 weeks old, and he’s in the hospital,’ Denise said.

The Potters were the third family the SaintA worker had called. The others didn’t think they could provide the right care for Lyle because he was born drug addicted and was in withdrawal. When Denise, John, and Sarah first saw this tiny child, who was shaking and whose hands were tightly balled up, they instantly fell in love.

“Right off the bat, all our kids loved him,” John said. But as they took the baby home after five weeks in the hospital, John said it was kind of surreal.

“You realize that another whole family is devastated. You almost feel guilty to be happy.”

The road to the ultimate termination of Lyle’s parents’ rights had many twists and turns.

“We kept telling the kids not to fall too much in love because he could leave us,” Denise said. And he did for four days, when he was placed with his grandmother.

“But she called us at 10:30 at night on a Friday and said she couldn’t keep him.”

Because of his drug exposure, Lyle has serious sleep problems, and it was too much for his grandmother. The Potters drove right over and told her not to worry, that they’d take him back home with them.

By Monday she withdrew from the case saying, “I’m a grandma, not a mom.”

An aunt has custody of four other siblings and said she would have taken him but she just couldn’t. His mother showed up for only a couple of visits with her son. Lyle’s biological father contested the termination of his rights, but at the hearing he told the judge he thought of the Potters as family, that they took the infant in and loved him as their own.

“The judge was puzzled,” John said. “It was like he was doing a five-minute commercial for us.”

At one hearing, Lyle’s biological mother asked Denise in court what the Potters would tell the child about her.

“That you loved him enough to have him, and we’re lucky enough to get him,” Denise answered.

“I can live with that,” the mom said, and cried.

“I think she resolved all of it at that point,” John said.

None of the pain and emotion of the roller-coaster ride to adoption ever really threw the couple, John said.

“We’d dealt with the most difficult thing a parent ever has to; our hearts were already torn apart,” he said.

Lyle’s biological dad didn’t show up on the second day of his court proceeding. The judge said that was it, terminated his rights (the mother’s rights already had been terminated), and asked the Potters if they could come back on Oct. 29 for an adoption.

Potter Family
The Potter family in court

That was a very special day, with the whole Potter clan, including extended family, all there. Judge Mark Sanders made the experience even more memorable by giving Lyle a baseball cap and shirt and a stuffed animal. He even put David, who is high-functioning autistic, on the stand and asked him to swear to be a good big brother. David loved it, and smiles were beyond abundant.

Lyle officially became the Potters’ son.

“But he’s always been our baby, our little love,” Denise said. “From the minute I held him in my arms I said it would be really hard to part from this one.”

John said one of the most rewarding things for him was watching his other children accept Lyle, “with unconditional love. They all surround him with love.”

“They fight over who’d get this guy if something happened to us,” Denise said with a laugh.

John has given a lot of thought to everything the family has been through before reaching this very happy ending. He understands that Lyle’s biological family – and Nathan’s murderers — were caught up in a cycle of dysfunction and poverty. Part of wanting to adopt Lyle was the Potters’ wish to, with at least one child, break that cycle.

And because the two murderers were black, “it would have been incredibly easy to walk away and become racist,” John said.

But Lyle also is black. And the family all learned very quickly not to judge anyone by skin color, not to lump individuals into a category because of race, he said.

Lyle is aware of Nathan, and will point him out in family pictures. When asked where he is, Lyle says, “in heaven. Bad guys killed him. Killing is bad.”

Lyle also will grow up knowing he is adopted. “It just creates problems down the road if you don’t acknowledge it from Day 1,” John said. The Potters have neighbors and friends with adopted children, “so it just seems totally normal for him.”

The Potters also are keeping the door open to contact with Lyle’s biological family.

“You don’t want him in adolescence to say to you, ‘You held me from them,’” John said.

Because the Potters’ experience with fostering, then adopting was so positive, they tout fostering all the time with others. They have referred three families to Saint A – which they said was incredibly helpful to them all the way through their process — and they have a support group at their church for foster families.

Two sisters got involved in foster care through them. And they, and the Potters, admit that things can be a bit lively with young children in the home. But when they ask them, or themselves, what life was like, or would be like, without these kids, the answers make everything possible.

“Becoming a foster parent was like God’s will,” Denise said. “What better thing is there than helping a child? It’s about giving a child all the opportunities possible.”

Added John: “And unconditional love.”

And in the Potters’ case, it was about opening up a door to sunlight after one had closed.

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