Teen Mom With Triplets Had No Help. Then, Her Babies’ NICU Nurse Adopted Her.
By Sydney Page
As a neonatal nurse for 23 years, Katrina Mullen had seen thousands of worried parents come through the intensive care unit for newborn babies. She began to notice one mother in particular: Shariya Small, an eighth-grader who had just delivered premature triplets, two girls and a boy. Each baby weighed less than two pounds.
When Mullen would see Small around the NICU at Community Hospital North in Indianapolis, “she was always by herself, and she would be there for days at a time,” Mullen, 45, recalled.
A few days after the babies — Serenitee, Samari and Sarayah — arrived at the hospital in August 2020, Mullen approached Small, then 14. She asked her how she was holding up, and whether she had eaten enough that day. She offered to get her something from Starbucks.
“I couldn’t imagine being 14 years old and being not only pregnant, but having three preemies who are all very sick and hooked up to monitors,” Mullen said. “I just started reaching out, just giving her a lifeline.”
The teenager’s situation resonated deeply with Mullen, a single mother of five boys, who gave birth to a child when she was 16. Mullen continued to make small talk with the young mother when she saw her.
Small stayed mostly silent. Her demeanor, Mullen said, was “very quiet and timid,” and she rarely engaged with the medical staff at the hospital.
Small said she feared she was being judged.
“I was really nervous around her,” said Small, whose babies were born in a hospital at 26 weeks gestation, more than three months early, then taken to the NICU at Community Hospital North.
One day at the NICU, Mullen decided to share her story with Small in the hope it might help her feel less alone. Mullen explained that she had also gotten pregnant in high school and given her son up for adoption.
“I am very familiar with how scary it is to be pregnant at a young age like that,” she told Small. “If you need anything, if you need to talk, I’m here.”
That’s when Small — who had a strained relationship with some of her family members — began warming up to Mullen and leaning on her for comfort and advice. Mullen quickly became her primary support.
“I was probably the only teen mom on the floor, and it finally felt good to talk to somebody,” said Small, now 17. “That’s when we started really clicking, because I knew she wasn’t judging me. I started feeling like I could talk to her about anything.”
Once the babies were well enough to leave the hospital in January 2021 — after being there five months — Mullen and Small exchanged phone numbers.
“At that point, I did not know her home life, I did not know where she was living or who she was living with,” Mullen said, adding that she made it clear to Small that she would be there if she needed her.
Mullen quickly realized that Small did, in fact, need her support — desperately. Small was calling Mullen multiple times a day, often in tears.
“When I was upset, overwhelmed and crying with the babies, I would call her,” said Small, who was staying with a relative in Kokomo, about an hour’s drive from where Mullen lives in Brownsburg, Ind. “She would talk to me and tell me to just breathe.”
After countless calls, “it was starting to concern me,” said Mullen. “I started to realize that she really doesn’t have support at home.”
She decided to go visit Small and the babies, and was troubled by their living situation.
“She was sleeping on the couch,” Mullen said, adding that the triplets had one playpen and bassinet between them, and Samari, the boy, did not look well.
“I was really concerned about his health,” Mullen said, explaining that he looked worryingly thin and had eczema and scratches on his body.
Following Mullen’s advice, Small promptly brought her son to a hospital, where he was diagnosed with failure to thrive, because he was not gaining weight normally. Doctors later determined that he was allergic to his formula.
While Small was at the hospital with Samari, she asked Mullen if she could watch the two girls. Mullen brought Serenitee and Sarayah to her house, where she lives with three of her sons, ages 16, 15 and 8.
Shortly afterward, Mullen received a phone call from a caseworker with Child Protective Services, who let her know that it would be removing Small and her three children from the home where they were living. They would then enter the foster care system — and probably all be separated. The caseworker told Mullen that Small had requested to stay with her.
“Would you be willing to foster them?” the caseworker asked her.
“Yes, I’ll take them,” Mullen replied.
“I didn’t even think it through,” she said. “Everybody in my life thought I was insane, and I probably was at that point, but I could not let her be separated from them.”
Mullen completed various required courses and background checks to become a foster parent.
“She’s smart and she’s dedicated, and she wants to be the best mom she can be,” Mullen said. “I just wanted her to be able to continue to be that for them.”
Plus, Mullen said, she knew she could handle it, because “I have so many people in my village: co-workers, friends, family, strangers that were just gifting me every baby item they had.”
Small wasn’t surprised that Mullen was willing to take her and her three children in.
“I had no doubt in my mind that she wouldn’t let us go into foster care,” Small said. “She is selfless, she is caring. She would give somebody the clothes off her back.”
On April 9, 2021, Small and her three children moved into Mullen’s house, with their belongings in just one duffle bag — and they never left.
Although it was an adjustment at first, Mullen’s sons soon embraced Small and the babies, and they found their groove as a new family.
“I just did what I felt was the right thing to do, and I don’t regret it one bit,” Mullen said. “It has been a crazy ride, and it’s hard and it’s stressful and I’m exhausted all the time and so is she, but we make it work.”
“It’s a struggle, but if I had to choose between me and my kids, I’m going to choose my kids every time,” echoed Small. “I never expected it to be easy.”
After Small’s mother agreed to terminate her parental rights, Mullen decided to formally adopt Small. On Feb. 6, they made it official. Small is now Mullen’s daughter, and Serenitee, Samari and Sarayah are her grandchildren.
“I just really felt like she needed somebody to support her and let her grow,” Mullen said.
Once Small moved in with Mullen, she enrolled in an alternative high school that has child care, and she is set to graduate this June. She has been accepted to two colleges, both of which are local, and she plans to study social work and eventually aid other teen mothers.
“I want to do something that will help people,” said Small.
Since their story has been covered in the news media, Small has received hurtful comments about her age and circumstances, Mullen said.
“It’s really hard on her,” she said, adding that the babies’ father is not in their lives, and when Small got pregnant with the triplets, “it wasn’t a good situation.”
Small and Mullen said they have decided to keep the details of Small’s life before the babies private.
The triplets, meanwhile, have made great strides. Despite some developmental challenges after being born premature, they are all growing well — both physically and in personality.
“They’re so fun,” said Mullen, who works at the hospital on weekends and helps look after the trio of toddlers, now nearly 3, during the weekdays. “I am overjoyed to be their grandma. I love those babies.”
“They’re their own little people, and it’s really rewarding to see their little personalities blossom. They’re my best friends,” said Small.
While some people who have heard about their story have been critical of Small, there has also been an outpouring of public support.
“So many people are throwing love and generosity our way,” said Mullen. “It just is mind-blowing to me.”
She is beyond grateful that people, especially complete strangers, have gone out of their way to show compassion to her family. Small agreed, saying that it can be easy to be dismissive and critical of others, but sometimes people can find themselves in situations they never imagined.
Her babies are her main focus in her life, she said, and she hopes to continue to move forward and raise them in a happy, healthy environment.
“If you open your heart and you don’t judge anybody based off one thing, then we’d all be good in the world,” Small said.