Fostered: Tori Hope Peterson and Jacob Petersen
Growing up with a mentally ill mother and living in twelve different foster homes, nothing was in Tori Hope Petersen's favor. How did she become a Track and Field All-American—and later, Mrs. Universe?
About the Guest
- Visit Tori's website at torihopepetersen.com and check out her instagram
- You can purchase Tori's book at Fostered: One Woman's Powerful Story of Finding Faith and Family through Foster Care
- Tori's organization: Beloved Initiative
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Living in 12 different foster homes, nothing was in Tori Hope Petersen’s favor. How did she arrive at Track and Field All-American and later, Mrs. Universe?
Fostered: Tori Hope Peterson and Jacob Petersen
Fostered: Tori Hope Peterson and Jacob Petersen
Tori: I lived with my mom for eight years, but as I got older and as time went on, my mom’s mental illness got worse.
There was abuse happening in the home. I reported it, and I went to go live in a residential group home. Then from there I moved through many more homes.
Shelby: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Shelby Abbott, and your hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson.
You can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on the FamilyLife® app.
This is FamilyLife Today!
Dave: Here’s a question: “Best moment in the last year?”
Ann: Oh, my. I had no idea.
Dave: You had no idea where I was going to go with that.
Ann: I already know.
Dave: I know what you’re going to say.
Ann: It’s when—actually, we’ve had this happen a couple of times now. It’s when we had one of our grandsons who had been fostered by one of our sons and daughters-in-law, when he was adopted into our family.
Is that what you were going to say?
Dave: Yes, I was just wondering. You know where we are going today. Would you have said that anyway?
Ann: Yes, because it absolutely is one of the greatest highlights for us.
Dave: Yes, when Austin, our son, and Kendall, his wife, adopted Ryder this—I don’t know when it was—a couple, six to seven months ago, and before that, his older brother. That one was on COVID so it couldn’t be in a court room. But this one, just weeping because you are like, “We know what these boys’ lives would have been and what they are now.”
You weep about that, but you also weep [because] that’s our story—
Ann: —spiritually, you mean.
Dave: Our lives being adopted by Christ is like the same thing.
Today, we get to talk about fostering. We have a—wouldn’t you call them the cutest couple you’ve ever seen?
Ann: They’re so cute! [Laughter] They’re the cutest couple, yes.
Dave: We’ve got Tori Hope Peterson in here with her husband, Jacob. Welcome to Orlando; welcome to FamilyLife Today. One of the joys, as you know, Austin.
Ann: —our son.
Dave: He’s your literary agent. Do you know the kids?
Tori: I don’t know the kids—
Dave: [You] never met them?
Tori: —but I remember Austin sent me the Zoom link for when he was being adopted. I hopped on for a little bit and watched that day happen and have been following along the adoption journey as they’ve been on it, which has been cool.
Ann: You wrote a book called Fostered. The subtitle is One Woman’s Powerful Story of Finding Faith and Family through Foster Care.
Then Jacob, you entered this story in college when you guys met. You guys now live in Defiance, Ohio. We found out over lunch that we grew up not very far from Defiance, Ohio. We grew up in Findlay, Ohio. You guys are living there now with your two kids.
Tori: Yes—with our two biological kids. We have a four-year-old and a two-year-old. My sister lives with us, as well. She’s a junior in high school.
Dave: Okay, let’s hear the story.
Tori: I first went into the foster care system when I was three or four years old. I think when you’re that age you don’t really have a concept of time. I don’t know how long I was there. But my mom worked her case plan and foster care system did one of its jobs. It reunified us, so I went to go live with my mom again.
Ann: Tell us about—your name is unique—
Ann: Share about your mom naming you.
Tori: My mom, before I was born, was diagnosed with AIDS. She prayed. She said, “God, if I don’t have victory, if my life isn’t victorious, that’s okay, but please make this baby’s life victorious.”
Then someone sent her a card with the Scripture, Jeremiah 29:11, which is a Scripture where God says, “I have hopes and plans and a future for you.” [Paraphrased] That’s where she—my middle name came from “hope.”
Dave: —hope from that passage.
Tori: Then I was born, and the doctors were very surprised that she had a past or that she wasn’t more ill. They tested her again, and it was a false positive. But that’s still the name that she gave me.
I really do, despite going into the foster care system and despite my mom’s shortcomings, I know that she did her absolute best to be the greatest mom that she could be to me.
I lived with my mom for eight years. But as I got older and as time went on, my mom’s mental illness got worse. My mom was diagnosed with bipolar and schizophrenia. The abuse in our home also got worse. I had a sister at this point. She is nine and a half years younger than I am. We went into the foster care system together.
The first time I said, “I don’t want to go into foster care.” I wanted to be with my mom as a little girl. But the second time I said, “Okay, this is our opportunity to have a normal family, to escape the abuse, and everything that we were going through. But then within a month of being in that first home, me and my sister were separated.
There was abuse happening in the home. I reported it, and I was deemed a liar. I went to go live in a residential group home. Then, from there, I move through many more homes.
Ann: How many homes have you been in?
Tori: I moved through 12 homes throughout my entire time in the foster care system. Then I emancipated the day I turned 18.
There’s this idea when kids are in the foster care system, they get kicked out the day they turn 18. That’s a myth that used to happen, but it’s been a long time. Now there’s extended foster care. Kids have—well, adults—have the choice whether they decide to emancipate or not. A lot of them choose to emancipate because they feel so burned by the foster care system.
That was the case with me. I felt hurt, not necessarily by my foster parents. I loved the foster mom. I was living with a single foster mom at the time, and I adored her. She was such a good mom and reflected the love of Jesus to me—one of the reasons I finally came to the faith. But I was so angry at the system itself, so I decided to emancipate.
Ann: For you was each family, as you’re going in and out of these homes, were some great and some not so great, too?
Tori: In my 11th foster home, they proclaimed the name of Jesus, had adopted three kids before I entered their home. They started taking me to church every Sunday, and I started to have a lot of questions about God in that home and started to inch a little bit closer to wanting to understand what Jesus was about and understanding that He loved me. But then they abused their kids, so it was really confusing to me.
Dave: Oh, don’t tell me!
Tori: I’m so sorry. I know I’m so sorry I said that, but yes.
Dave: Was this while you were still there?
Tori: Yes, it was while I was still there. That’s eventually why I was removed. I was removed and then I went to my 12th foster home. The foster mom, she proclaimed the name of Jesus, took me to church every Sunday, but she made a lot of sacrifices for me. She loved so well.
I had a lot of questions about God. I would say that I had a really big wall up after that. Because I could not understand why these people who proclaimed His name—what I was learning about Him in church and through these devotions was that He was kind and loving and that He cared for me, which was everything that I wanted. Moving from home to home, I wanted to be accepted. That’s what I was understanding God, who He was.
But then I didn’t understand “Why would His people abuse these kids?” It really angered me and put a huge wall up. My foster mom was so faithful, and she kept taking me to church every Sunday and she was patient with me. I would ask her questions, I think, sometimes out of spite. She would continue to say, “Let’s just learn together.”
Through that community, through her taking me to church and almost every person in leadership at my church was involved in the foster care system in some way. Our founding pastor had started a non-profit to serve foster families. An associate pastor and his entire family were foster parents. There were a lot of people who were in leadership that were foster parents, so I could look to my church and say, “If these people care about these kids, then maybe they care about me, too. If that’s true, then maybe Jesus really does care about me, too.”
Ann: Did you wonder that? I’m imagining—you’ve gone through a lot with your mom emotionally as a little girl figuring this out: “Why am I not with my mom? What’s wrong with Mom.” Then, I think this can happen to anyone with any kind of abuse, it goes inward. This is what I did: “Is there something wrong with me?” Did you face that?
Tori: The challenging part of that is that my mom always blamed me. She said it was always my fault, so I did think for a long time that it was me. It wasn’t until my adult life that I went back to case workers and lawyers and people who lived at my group home, and I was asking, “Was this all my fault? Am I missing something?”
They were “No. this is all lies. You’re going into foster care wasn’t your fault. You and your sister wouldn’t have gone in together, obviously, if it was just your fault. You would have gone in by yourself. It really wasn’t until my adult life that I could get rid of that lie.
Dave: That’s a humble thing to do. Because if you’re more prideful, you’d say, “It wasn’t my fault. I know it’s not my fault.” But if you’re humble, you’re going to go back and say, “Am I missing something.” Is that what was going on?
Tori: I think when God started to put me in places of ministry, I know that humility is important. There’s that Proverb that says, “First comes the pride; then comes the fall.” [Proverbs 16:18, Paraphrased] I think if there was any reason, I would fall it would be because of my pride.
C.S. Lewis says that all sin stems from pride. I guess it’s something that I really care about being aware of my sin and my shortcomings even if they were that long ago. Because patterns, what we know about trauma, what we know about bad patterns in our life is that they are patterns; they’ll keep continuing if we don’t look at them and change them.
I wanted to go back and ask because I knew if it was affecting me then, it would affect the people who I serve today, and I didn’t want it to.
Ann: I think there’s a beauty in going back to find the truth—we can go back through God’s Word into our past and find it—because it silences the enemies lies.
I remember when were in seminary, I remember discovering “Okay, I was abused.” I had the courage to finally say “I was abused”; where I was before I thought, “Maybe I did something or maybe….” There was something healing about that. I’m guessing that was healing for you.
Tori: Yes, and I had people speak over me the truth when I was growing up. When my foster mom was taking me to that church, the community started to speak a lot of encouragement and life over my life, which was very different from—there was a part of the community that also said, “She’s going to be like her mom; she’s going to be another statistic.”
I really did fear those things--
Ann: I bet.
Tori: —because of what my mom said. When the church was encouraging me, I don’t think I could wrap my head around what they were saying. It was like a lot of Christianese; like, “You’re anointed; you’re appointed; you’re called.”
When you’re 17, you are “What does that mean?”
But then I had a track coach who came along, and he gave me this tangible goal. He said, “I think you can go to the state track meet. I think you can win it.” He was such a terse man. He didn’t say things that he didn’t mean. I think that tangible you-can-see-it truth in which someone else, that was also tangible, believed in me, also was a catalyst that erased those lies.
Ann: That man not only said those things, he had a bigger impact on your life. What happened?
Tori: Yes, he was right. When he told me “I think you can go to the state track meet and win it,” I was saying, “Okay, I’m just going to do what this crazy guy says; I’m just going to train with him, and if it doesn’t happen then it’s his fault. Because it was his crazy idea anyway.” [Laughter]
Even if it didn’t happen, we became very close. He was a father figure in my life, which I didn’t have at the time, because I was living with a single foster mom. Then after I emancipated, I went to live with a woman named Tonya. She was like my mother figure.
I didn’t really have a prominent father figure in my life. He became that. Then I went on to become a four-time state champion in track and field. He ended up bringing me into his family and welcoming me into his home. That is who I call my dad today; that’s who my kids call Grandpa. It’s who I went home to in college during the holidays. He’s always been my dad ever since.
Ann: That’s so sweet. [Laughter]
Dave: I don’t want to fast forward through too much of your story, but as you think about Tori working through that stuff before you guys even met—
Ann: You guys met in college, and you were married. How old were you guys when you got married?
Dave: Yes, are you glad she did the work? Have you seen the results?
Ann: It’s ongoing.
Jacob: Definitely, it’s ongoing. It’s ongoing for both of us. Just because she comes from that background, I have to be very sensitive. There are a lot of behaviors I had early in our marriage that would send her into a spiral. I had no idea; it was completely my fault because I would shut the cupboard door too loudly.
Dave: Really, something like that.
Jacob: The reality is we were just unaware. That’s what we did. We shut it a little louder than most people.
Tori: Jacob grew up with three other boys—[Laughter]—three other brothers.
Jacob: A lot of boys.
Ann: You grew up with a mom and dad in ministry. Your dad was pastor, so your upbringings were very different.
Jacob: Absolutely. I would say, despite that upbringing, when I first got to start knowing Tori, she told me about her foster background, and I think to this day, I still think you’re probably the first foster kid I have ever met.
I don’t know what that means about my childhood, but as far as I just foster kids were not prevalent in my childhood. I didn’t even know they existed. When you told me about this story and your twelve homes, my heart broke. Right? I think that’s—you always say that I became very soft.
Dave: Was this early when you were dating? How long was it before you were married?
Tori: Oh, my gosh.
Jacob: Wow. Between meeting—we met end of September 2017.
Ann: This is your senior year of college.
Jacob: Yes. We started dating and we were getting serious, and then we got pregnant before marriage. That’s sped up our timeline really fast. That was a hard season finishing up track, academics, not actually knowing what we were going to do school wise—
Tori: —navigating the sin that was very open to everyone around us.
Ann: Everybody knew. Did you come out. What was that like?
Tori: Yes, something I didn’t talk about is that I was conceived out of abuse, and my mom chose life for me. It’s one of the reasons I see her as the bravest person ever.
That was always my stance and that was Jacob’s stance. We knew that we didn’t want any other option. We never even thought of another option. For that reason, we knew that we just had to confess and tell the people around us.
It was hard. We went to a college, probably one of the most conservative colleges in the nation. I was also in leadership in ministry. I think I hurt a lot of girls that I was leading. I would never want to do that again. I was on the track team, and I was a leader on the track team. I know I hurt a lot of people on my team. We hurt Jacob’s parents; we hurt Jacob’s family.
It was heart wrenching. We were hurt, too. We were hurt by people’s reactions. Because we did want people to celebrate the life, and we wanted people to celebrate what we were doing next. Not accept our sin, but just celebrate what was happening.
Ann: Life is a blessing. This is your little boy, who’s four now.
Tori: Yes, who’s four now.
Ann: Yes, and if God gives you life that’s a blessing.
Tori: Amen; yes. It was a challenge. But when you have the foundation that is Christ, you really can get through anything. That’s how we got through it, but it was definitely hard. There were a lot of lessons learned.
I came to the Lord—I think a lot of people that come to God under this idea of “You are a sinner saved by grace and Jesus nailed your sins to the cross” —I knew that but when I came to the Lord, I came to Him like, “He is my dad; He is my Father and He’s the Dad that I’ve always been looking for.”
That sin, the part that I was very sinful never really sunk in until this time. I had a great job opportunity, like a dream job, out of college working in foster care advocacy and helping girls who were aging out of the foster care system, and I lost that job because of it. They were a Christian organization, and I was going to live among the girls. It was “You can’t live among the girls with your husband.” It was totally reasonable.
I felt like it was God saying, “This is what’s going to happen if you don’t obey me.”
Ann: There are consequences.
Tori: Yes, there are consequences if you are going to proclaim My name and not actually live it out. There were a lot of good hard lessons learned early on in marriage.
Dave: Yes. What would you say to the parents of a child who finds himself where you are? They either get pregnant out of wedlock. You saw the good and bad of that. What would you say to a parent who says, “Okay, how do I help someone? How do I help my own kid?”
Ann: “How do I receive them?”
Jacob: That’s a good question, and I don’t know if I’ve really thought about that, “How would I have wanted my parents to receive what we gave?” Because when we told them, we told them over Zoom, and I think they were expecting an engagement announcement. I remember them being so sad, and disappointed.
I was “Okay, disappointment is an okay feeling to have, but I think I wanted them to reassure us that everything was going to be okay. I think that’s what I really needed.
Tori: Yes, we totally understood people’s sorrow and grief, but we needed encouragement because we were pretty scared. But we put on good faces because we also wanted everyone else to know it was okay—going to be okay. But at the same time, we needed other people to tell us it was going to be okay.
Ann: I think the thing, as I listen to you guys, Tori, it’s sweet to see God’s hand on your life from the way your mom named you and how she named you, to watching your journey through foster care, through meeting this coach, through meeting Jacob, and then you didn’t necessarily do it perfectly. But when you read the Bible, it’s this beautiful mess. [Laughter] You know.
Dave: He redeems.
Ann: He redeems, and you have this beautiful son and another daughter now. Thanks for sharing all of it and not leaving any pieces out.
Shelby: Hi, I’m Shelby Abbott and you’ve been listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Tori Hope Peterson and Jacob Peterson on FamilyLife Today.
This has been such a powerful story about redemption and care and hope and running to Jesus in the midst of some very difficult circumstances. You can find Tori Hope Peterson’s book called Fostered: One Woman’s Powerful Story of Finding Faith and Family through Foster Care. Just head over to FamilyLifeToday.com and pick up a copy there.
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Tomorrow we’re going to hear from Tori Hope Peterson and Jacob Peterson again talking about the importance of realizing the things that are in our past, the baggage that we bring into our current relationships and how our suffering is going to bring about one day the glory of God. That’s tomorrow. We hope you’ll join us.
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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