By Jenny Comita
This article was originally published in the December 2021 issue of Parents magazine
Imagine a child in foster care who has lost hope that they’ll ever be loved and cared for. Then meet a few adoptive parents who opened their hearts and homes to kids who now have a bright future ahead of them.
THE NUMBERS ARE mind-blowing. Currently, there are more than 400,000 children in America’s foster-care system. About 120,000 of them are awaiting adoption because the rights of their family of origin have been irrevocably relinquished or terminated. “These are children who have been neglected or abused and are in care through no fault of their own,” says Rita Soronen, president and CEO of the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, a national charity committed to finding forever families for children in foster care. Every year, about 20,000 kids “age out” of the system, meaning they’re declared legal adults without having a family to depend on. It is one of our country’s least-talked-about and most heartbreaking problems.
“Research shows that by the time a child turns 9, their likelihood of being adopted decreases significantly,” Soronen says. “A 9-year-old is still a very young child. And if that child is part of a sibling group, it’s even more difficult.”
Any type of adoption is just the beginning of an ongoing process in which love and joy inevitably share space with more complicated emotions, including real and meaningful loss. And, of course, every adoption is different, with its own unique triumphs and challenges. But there’s one thing all the parents interviewed for this story can agree on: In expanding their families and becoming fathers and mothers to kids who needed them, they got back much more in return.
In November 2018, Ernest and Tiffany Graydon experienced every parent’s worst nightmare: Their 6-year-old son, Evander, died after drowning in a lake near their Midwest City, Oklahoma, home. To say that the tragedy overwhelmed the family with a crushing sense of grief would be an understatement, but the events of that terrible day also left the Graydons with a sense of clarity. “We realized that life can change—or end—in an instant,” says Ernest, a sergeant in the Air Force who works in Religious Affairs. And so, the following year, the couple made the decision to turn one of their “someday goals” into an immediate priority. “Ernest and I had always wanted to adopt, but we had thought we’d wait until our biological children were older and we were more financially stable,” Tiffany says. “On Evander’s birthday, we realized the timing was never going to be perfect. We called and started the process to become foster parents that very day.”
That process, coordinated through Angels Foster Family Network and the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, ended up moving more quickly than the Graydons could have imagined. In August 2019, just weeks after finishing their foster-family training, they got a phone call about two boys—8-year-old Messiah and 5-year-old Zion—who needed a new placement within a few days. Along with their three children, Zanman, then10, Giuliana, then 5, and Aurora, then 2, Ernest and Tiffany welcomed the brothers into their home near Tinker Air Force Base. A few months later, when their caseworker let them know that the boys were officially eligible for adoption, the Graydons found out that they also had two sisters. “We thought, ‘How’s that supposed to work?’ They were only asking us to adopt the boys,” Tiffany says.
During the almost four years that they’d spent in the foster-care system, Messiah and Zion had never lived with their sisters—Jada, who was 11 at the time, and Teresa, who was 7. “To the caseworkers, the idea of splitting up siblings had been normal,” Ernest says. “They were like, ‘This is pretty routine. You can just adopt the boys, and hopefully someone else will take the girls. Placing four kids for adoption together rarely happens.’ But we just didn’t feel comfortable with that, so we prayed about it and sought council from friends and family, and finally decided we had enough room in our hearts and in our home to take the girls too.” Jada and Teresa moved in, and four months later, the Graydons were able to officially adopt all four siblings.
Although the road to becoming a family of nine was short, it still had its share of bumps. The girls joined the household in March 2020, just as COVID-19 was kicking into high gear. “Overnight, we were homeschooling seven kids,” Tiffany says. There were also family dynamics to rejigger. Both Zanman and Jada were accustomed to being the oldest sibling—and calling the shots. “They had a lot of disagreements in the beginning about who was the boss,” Tiffany says. “So Ernest and I had to take over and make it clear that, no, actually neither one of them is the boss. We are the boss!”
Even though Jada was only 11, she felt responsible for her younger sister and brothers in a way that no child should. “We had to convince her to relax and be a little girl, and to let us tend to her siblings, so she didn’t have to worry,” Tiffany explains. “It took a little while for her to believe us and trust us. The fact that the boys had been with us longer helped because they were able to say to her, ‘These are good people. They’ve been good to us and they’ll be good to you.’ ”
Then, in July 2020, just a week after the adoption was finalized, Ernest was deployed to the Middle East for six months. “It was just me with all the kids,” Tiffany says. “It was a time when we really had to rely on our community and friends to help us. We have no biological family nearby, but we have people who feel like family, and it was amazing, the degree to which they stepped in and helped.”
Ernest is back now, and the Graydons are busy building a new community at Whiteman Air Force Base, in Missouri, where they were transferred this past summer. “Our adopted kids have brought a lot of love into our lives,” Ernest says. “It’s amazing how well they’ve adapted.” Tiffany adds, “They have given me a real sense of perspective. When you see how resilient children are and how they don’t let their challenges keep them down, it’s so inspiring. They have this view of the world that anything is possible, and being around them makes me feel that way too.”
National Adoption Day Is November 20
This annual event focuses attention on the thousands of children in foster care who need a permanent family. Since 2000, a coalition of national partners and the Freddie Mac Foundation has encouraged courts to finalize and celebrate adoptions from foster care on the Saturday before Thanksgiving. To date, more than 75,000 children have been adopted on these days. The event was inspired by former presiding judge Michael Nash, of Los Angeles County’s Juvenile Court, one of the busiest courts in the nation. Because there was such a backlog of cases, he would open the court on Saturdays to finalize adoptions. This year, National Adoption Day events may be virtual or hybrid. For more information, go to nationaladoptionday.org.
The first time Kimberly and Brian Porter, of Burlington, North Carolina, met with a team of adoption professionals to see whether they’d be a good fit to parent an 11-year-old girl named Tonya, their social worker made a prediction. “She told us later that she’d said to the others, ‘Before long, Tonya’s going to have that man wrapped right around her little finger,’ ” Brian says with a laugh. She was right. Five years into fatherhood, he thinks his daughter hangs the moon. “Adopting Tonya is the best thing we’ve ever done,” he says. “Being her parent is such an awesome feeling that I have a hard time putting it into words. I’ve never been more proud of anything.”
For a long time, it seemed unlikely that Tonya’s story would have such a happy ending. After experiencing abuse and neglect from her family of origin, she spent six years bouncing between relatives and foster placements. Her last foster family wasn’t prepared to adopt her. “I didn’t know if I would ever have parents who loved and wanted me as much as I wanted them,” the now 16-year-old says.
The Porters, who met at work, had talked about having children eventually. “But having a baby kind of terrified both of us,” Kimberly says. “We thought someday we’d adopt, but it took us quite a while to get serious about it.”
They finally decided to take the plunge in 2015, about seven years after they were married. “All of a sudden, adopting was on my mind,” Brian says. “We were at LongHorn Steakhouse for lunch on a Saturday, and I was just picking at my food. Kim was like, ‘What are you thinking about? What’s wrong with you?’ She knew something big was up because I wasn’t eating. And I said, ‘I think it’s time to adopt.’”
They attended an information session at the Children’s Home Society of North Carolina, an adoption agency, and came away with a newfound sense of purpose. “We initially thought we’d want a 4- or 5-year-old,” Kimberly says. “But after hearing how many kids get aged out of the system, we decided to go for an older child because they have less of a chance of getting adopted. It became our mission.”
The Porters started the process of getting certified to foster and adopt, which involved a 30-hour class and home visits from social workers. Soon after they were approved, they heard about Tonya, and everyone thought they might be a good match.
Getting to know one another was almost like dating. After their second meeting, at an amusement park, it was clear they had a real connection. “We saw her in the back of the car with her social worker, waving goodbye, and she looked so sad to be leaving,” Kimberly remembers. “I knew that she was meant to be my daughter,” Brian says.
Today, the family’s tight bond is apparent. They love watching sports, going to the movies, and “just hanging out,” Tonya says. Kimberly and Brian hope to adopt more kids soon. “After we adopted Tonya, I said I wanted seven kids,” Kimberly says. “That’s probably too many, but there are so many kids out there—especially older kids—who deserve a fair shake. Once you realize that, it’s impossible not to want to do something about it.”
As the owner of a preschool in Port Orchard, Washington, Terri Nakamura was used to bonding with children, giving them the skills they needed to succeed, and then launching them out into the world. Eight years ago, when she signed up to be a foster parent, she envisioned doing just that for the kids who’d spend time under her roof. “My ultimate goal was always to try to reunify kids with their parents or, if that wasn’t possible, to help find them the perfect adoptive home,” says the single mom of three grown biological children. “I’d already raised my kids. I never intended to adopt.” But in 2015, a trio of siblings—Michael, 5; Roman, 4; and Liliana, 3—came into her life, and it became clear that the universe had other plans.
“I had the kids with me for four years,” says Terri, who was working with her local foster-care adoption agency to search for an ideal forever family for them. But the three siblings had very little chance of being adopted together. “The agency had a stack of files of adoptive parents who said, ‘I just want her or just two of them,’ and it was so hard for me to see that,” Terri says. Another stumbling block to finding a “forever family” for the children: They’re members of a Native American tribe, which makes the adoption process more complicated. In 1978, after it came to light that American Indian children were being removed from their homes and communities at a much higher rate than non-Native children and placed with white families, essentially erasing their rich heritage, Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act, which seeks to keep Native children with Native families whenever possible. Terri hadn’t planned to adopt—but then couldn’t imagine a life without this trio in it.
The kids had also experienced trauma in their family of origin, resulting in behavior that many prospective families weren’t equipped to deal with. Terri had managed long tantrums, at least one child jumping out of a car and running off, school suspensions, and—after advocacy on her part—an ADHD diagnosis that finally brought much-needed help.
Ultimately, the greatest obstacle to finding a new home for Michael, Roman, and Liliana was that they were so happy with Terri. “At one point, two of them went to live in a prospective adoptive home, and they had a really hard time being there,” Terri says. “They missed being here, and I missed them. So I started thinking, ‘Why are they going to live with someone else? I love them. We’ve spent all this time together as a family.’ I couldn’t see life without them.”
In June 2020, after getting approval from the children’s tribal council, they made it official with a Zoom court appearance to which they wore matching T-shirts they’d designed to represent the kids’ tribal background and the heritage of Hawaii, where Terri was born and raised. COVID has prevented them from celebrating their new status on a grand scale, but they have big plans for the future. “I’m going to take them to Hawaii so they can experience my history, and then the next trip will be to Alaska, where their tribe has its roots,” Terri says. “And after that, of course, we have to go to Disneyland.”
Questions for Families Thinking About Adoption From Foster Care
Before prospective parents commit, there are key issues to consider. Foster-care adoption—or adopting a child out of the foster system—may not be a good fit for every household. On the flip side, it’s also important that would-be families don’t rule themselves out before they start the process. The notion that you have to be a young, straight married couple who owns a home in order to adopt is, happily, a thing of the past, says Rita Soronen, of the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption.
Are you open to an older child?
“There are fewer infants available, and they tend to be adopted much more quickly or to be part of a sibling group,” says Soronen. “The average age of a child in foster care waiting to be adopted is about 8.”
Is everyone on board?
“It’s important that your family supports and understands what you’re doing,” Soronen says. This applies to members of your household, extended family, and even close friends. Will your own parents consider a child you adopt to be their grandchild? Will your biological children be able to accept the child as their sibling?
Are you open to staying connected to the child’s extended family of origin?
If you are considering a transracial adoption, will you help that child, throughout their life, understand and be connected to their heritage?
Are you equipped to deal with the aftereffects of trauma?
“Children land in the foster-care system because of abuse or neglect in one form or another,” Soronen says. Adoptive parents need to be prepared to educate themselves about trauma the kids have experienced and the possible mental, emotional, and physical impacts, and be committed to getting their child the help they might need.
Are you ready to navigate red tape?
“Foster-care adoption entails stepping into a complex and sometimes frustrating government system,” Soronen says. “In some instances, navigating that system can be fairly easy, and in other instances it’s more complicated.” Adoptive families need the time, patience, and emotional bandwidth to roll with a sometimes bumpy or drawn-out process. “However, if you want to adopt from foster care, you can specify that you don’t want to be matched with a child who has the potential of being reunified with their family of origin,” says Soronen. “It’s important to know that every state and often each county within a state operates its foster-care and foster-to-adopt programs differently. You need to check with your local government to fully understand what is required.”
Are you financially prepared?
While adopting from foster care is essentially free, keep in mind that how much post-adoption assistance you will receive for education and medical- and emotional-care services varies from state to state. “For example, if you adopt a 15-year-old, you haven’t been saving for 15 years for college, as you might have done with a biological child or an infant adoption,” Soronen says. “Make sure to investigate adoption tax credits as well as employer-adoption and foster-care benefits and resources in your area to help with education costs or other possible expenses.”
If we’re interested, what’s the first step?
You can adopt via a local private agency, which will contract through your state, or you can go through your state agency directly. The Child Welfare Information Gateway is a good place to start, and there is also a helpful adoption guide at davethomasfoundation.org.
Used with permission from Parents December 2021, Meredith Corporation. All rights reserved.