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From Unthinkable Tragedy to Unbelievable Grace

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FOTF - Brian Mellema
Why one foster-care mother chose to extend God’s love to another woman, even though she was in the midst of feeling anger and great loss

“I’ve learned never to underestimate what God will do with a yes,” writes Debra Moerke in Murder, Motherhood, and Miraculous Grace. Her daughter’s story began when a social worker from Casper, Wyoming’s Department of Family Services (DFS) called one warm June day in 1996.

“Hi, Deb. This is Ellen.” 

Debra smiled at the familiar sound of the social worker’s voice. After 14 years of fostering about 140 children, Deb was on a first-name basis with most of the social workers.

“Would you be able to take a 4-day-old infant?” Ellen asked. “The mother is still in the hospital after a C-section. Both she and the baby tested positive for cocaine. We are ordering an investigation and need the baby to be in foster care during that time.”

Hours later, Debra held baby Ally in her arms, surrounded by her husband, Al, and her own three young children.

A second call

Two days later, another call came: “Ally has siblings who need fostering, too.”

“How many?” Debra asked.

“Four. A 6-year-old boy, two girls ages 4 and 5, and another boy age 3. Will you take them?”

“Yes. Bring them all,” Debra said.

While Debra and her family showered love on all five of the Bower siblings, she drew especially close to 4-year-old Hannah. It soon became apparent to Deb that Hannah had been the scapegoat of the family—a child singled out for abusive treatment. 

The Moerkes did everything they could to help Hannah learn to trust them and feel safe. Soon Hannah was filled with giggles and smiles.

As a foster care mother

Weeks turned to months, and the bond between the Moerkes and the Bower children grew stronger. Debra understood that families can and do change. Part of the reason she helped foster children was to support parents who needed the time to make those changes.

During the Bower children’s stay with her, Debra had the opportunity to meet with Karen, the children’s mother. Debra would give Karen updates on how the children were faring. 

Before and after every home visit, when all the children went to Karen’s home, Hannah was upset. So Debra began to explore the relationship between Hannah and her mother. Though she’d hoped Karen was changing, the more Debra learned, the more alarmed for Hannah she became.

The unthinkable

Nearly a year later, Debra got an unexpected call from family services. She was to return all five siblings to their mother that very day—with no reunification period. Usually there is a time when children live with their foster parents but are slowly transitioned to living with their biological parents. This helps parents, foster parents and especially children make the adjustment emotionally.

In this unique case, the reunification process was waived. Alarmed for Hannah’s safety, Debra pleaded to be allowed to retain the one child a while longer—but the judge’s decision was final. Debra had no choice but to comply. 

She delivered all the children to their mother, including the sobbing, pleading Hannah. Debra had scratch marks around her neck where she had to pry Hannah’s panicked fingers free.

Debra was assured by DFS that home visits would be made to check on the well-being of the children. Debra knew DFS workers were busy and had large caseloads. She wished there were a Court Appointed Special Advocate volunteer or Family Visitation volunteer to follow up with the children—someone with authority who would have eyes on the children weekly during the early stages of reunification. 

But in this case, there wasn’t. So Debra made a number of visits to the Bower home. She took presents, meals and even a birthday cake, but each time she visited, Hannah was nowhere in sight.

“She’s at a friend’s house,” Karen would say, or “She’s visiting her father,” or “She’s with her grandparents.” After each visit, Debra called DFS reporting Hannah’s absence. 

The fears of a foster care mother

Months passed. With every visit, Debra’s fears for Hannah grew. Her calls to DFS became more desperate. She felt the system, in this case, was failing to appropriately provide adequate support. 

Then one day, a phone call came from DFS.

“What are you doing right now?” the social worker, Jill, asked.

“Cooking dinner,” Debra said.

“I think you need to sit down.”

Debra’s stomach tightened. “OK. What’s up?”

“They found Hannah,” Jill said.

Flooded with relief, Debra said, “Where?”

“They found her body in the mother’s garage,” Jill said. “She’s clearly been dead for some time.”

Debra listened in horror as she learned that Hannah’s broken body was found stuffed in a black garbage bag. Debra felt pain everywhere, clawing at her stomach, ripping through her chest, squeezing the breath out of her.

Karen’s question

Karen confessed to the murder and was arrested that night. DFS took custody of the other children upon Karen’s arrest. Debra had no say in where they went. Fortunately, they were all placed in good homes with loving friends or family. 

Debra didn’t think she could bear her grief. The horror of the situation overwhelmed her. But in the midst of her pain, she received a phone call from the jail. 

“Will you come see me?” Karen asked. 

Debra felt like the world had stopped spinning. Rage roared through her emotions. She wanted to refuse and slam down the phone. But she sensed the Lord speaking to her. You are My hands and feet and voice. Do you represent Me or not?

Debra believed in always answering God with a yes, no matter how she felt. So that night she went to the jail.

Karen told her, “I’m pregnant,” and she did not want to abort the child. Once Karen knew she faced either the death penalty or a life sentence without parole, she asked Debra, “Will you adopt my baby?”

Debra’s choice

Still filled with rage toward Karen, Debra struggled over what to do. She couldn’t answer her at first.

But the Lord was not silent. 

Debra was seized with the realization that she, too, had ended the life of a precious child—she had once aborted a child of her own. Humbled and assured of God’s incomparable
mercy and forgiveness, she had no choice but to forgive Karen. She and Al adopted Courtney.

Karen was given a life sentence. Debra, compelled by the Lord’s mercy, shared the Gospel with Karen. Eventually, Karen accepted Jesus as her Savior and began her own journey of healing. 

Now, over 20 years since the murder, Debra regularly speaks to Karen by phone and visits her in prison, sharing pictures and stories of Courtney’s life. They pray together as sisters in Christ. 

“Having a pro-life perspective
goes so far beyond opposing abortion or supporting a crisis pregnancy center,” Debra says. “Valuing human life motivated me to say yes to foster parenting, yes to adopting Courtney, yes to
sharing the Gospel with Karen and yes to continually reaching out to Karen in prison. We never know how God is going to use our yes, only that He will.” 

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