A beautiful young lady answered the door, she looked just like Isabella. “Wow, you and your sister look so much alike!” I didn’t mean to be insulting, but we hadn’t yet seen pictures of Isabella’s sisters. And… admittedly… we were a bit nervous to meet them so… I may have sounded a bit over exuberant. Just a bit…
She (who turned out to be Stephanie) rolled her eyes at me and schlubbed away. “Isabella!” she called leaving the front door open for us to enter by ourselves. She went into the kitchen where her older sister was. Both were polite but definitely uncertain of us. We introduced ourselves to Kiki (age 17) and Stephanie (age 15). They asked where we were taking Isabella. We had plans to attend the International Fair at the university. They were unimpressed.
When Isabella came in the room, she looked beautiful. Her sister, Kiki, had spent time curling her hair. She wore at grey blouse with an embroidered collar and a necklace with a large black stone. It was a blouse all the sisters shared because it was their favorite, today was Isabella’s day to wear it. She was quiet but polite, uncomfortable to be leaving with strangers. We later learned her sisters told her “not to blow it”.
All was fairly quiet for our short drive to the university, but once there, Isabella’s eyes widened and she was full of curiosity and questions. We ate cultural foods from just about every nation out there, Isabella got her face painted and henna done, and we took a photo in front of the huge blow-up globe. Still today, I carry that photo with me every day. I call it “our first date”.
After four hours, we headed to the car. “Can you take me to get a haircut?” she blurted.
I was unsure of protocol, she wasn’t our child yet. We called the foster mom who said it was alright just not above the shoulders so we headed to the local mall where we found a salon open. We discussed hairstyles and fashion. “Would you let me get my belly button pierced?”
“Sure, when you’re 18.” We are liberal for the most part, but not with body piercings or permanent markings – our kids can do on their own time (once they’re 18 and can’t blame us for stupid things they’ve done anymore). She seemed content with that answer.
When we left the mall, I was amazed at the appearance in Isabella. We had picked up a young 13-year old from her foster mom, but we were returning a mature looking teenager, I felt a bit guilty. Isabella was so proud of her new haircut, it looked great on her – I’m just glad we didn’t go for the belly piercing!
When we got back to the foster home, Kiki and Stephanie we waiting at the kitchen table in the same place as when we had left. They were debating about whether or not ghosts were real.
“Do you believe in ghosts?” they asked me.
Startled by the sudden inclusion, I gave it some thought. “I want to believe they do, I hope they do.” They laughed.
“Do you want to meet one?” they asked doubtful.
“Oh yea, I have lots of questions to ask,” they laughed again then turned the conversation to my husband and asked about boys.
“When do you think it is ok to go out with boys?”
He thought for a moment as Isabella slipped away to her room leaving us alone with her sisters. “When girls are mature enough to handle to the stupidity of boys.” They laughed.
“Do you make the boys meet you before your daughter can go out with them?”
“Absolutely. I wouldn’t trust a boy with my daughter. I know what boys are like,” they leaned listening to him dispense dating advice. They peppered him with questions until Isabella came back. She snuggled in around me so I put my arm around her. It was nice to be welcomed in, or maybe it was more of her claiming our attention back and away from her sisters. That was our cue to leave.
We thanked Isabella for a great afternoon and asked if we could call her during the week, maybe meet again next weekend? She said we could, and so it began…
We spent every weekend together for the next few months. We included Kiki and Stephanie a few times and truly enjoyed every minute with them. They loosened up, were generous, and even wanted to call us Mom and Dad. We fell in love with them too. How could we not? They came as a set and our hearts wanted all three. But, just as the social workers had warned, we could see the tension between the sisters – each was battling for attention and affection, each would be harsh to her sisters before praising and complimenting them. It was an abusive cycle that would hopefully smooth over through counseling and in seeing more healthy relationships while in care. We knew they had some personal growing to do and that they loved each other very, very much.
Before we knew it, it was time for us to move across country. It pained us to leave them behind but we had stalled for as long as we could. My husband’s job in Washington was starting within weeks, we had no choice but to go. Since it was early December, we would be missing our first Christmas with the girls, my husband’s birthday, Stephanie’s 16th birthday, and New Year’s Eve. So on our last day as residents of North Carolina, we took the girls out and celebrated “Merry-New-Birth-Mas” – a combination of all the events we would miss until Isabella, and maybe her sisters, could join us in Washington. We had a wonderful time at a funky looking retro dinner, eating huge burgers, devouring thick shakes and banana splits, unwrapping gifts, and dancing to the music of the 1950’s. It was magical.
We drove away from North Carolina the next morning, that is when the waiting really began…
Isabella was supposed to arrive in February, just a couple of months after we left, but she didn’t. Then they said she would come in June, but she didn’t. They said August, but she didn’t. Then they said October, but… … so, we just waited. In the meantime, both of her sisters asked if we would adopt them. We were so proud that they wanted to be with us.
In March 2013, KiKi “aged out” of the foster care system without a permanent family. It was a difficult time for her, she was scared and very confused. From Washington, I wanted desperately to reach through the phone line and hug her with the reassurance that we were her forever family, with or without legal paperwork. That summer, she was able to come to Washington and stay with us for a couple of weeks. Love that girl! The summer also brought Isabella and Stephanie – but only for a short visit. The paperwork still had not been completed and because they were “in care” they couldn’t stay more than a week. We were working under an ICPC (Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children), an agreement between states over the care of children in custody. It really complicated things and make it hard on families.
Over the course of the next couple of months, KiKi and Stephanie decided they did not want to move to Washington to be adopted – they didn’t want to leave their friends in North Carolina. We understood and supported their decision, although I selfishly wanted them in Washington with us. They were family and I wanted to share in what was left of their childhood. The mothering instinct was strong, but I couldn’t force them to come.
Finally, in December 2013, an entire year since we left North Carolina, Isabella moved to Washington without her sisters, a daring move. She settled in quickly but held many fears and doubts in her young heart. Over time, she made friends, joined a sports team, and is now enjoying having brothers and a multitude of sisters in her new life. She also has four grandmothers, three grandfathers, lots of aunts, uncles, and cousins – all who have wrapped their love around her and include her as family. But, with all that love around her, a piece of her is still missing. I know it, she shares about it, it is a piece of who she is and we love her for her honesty. She misses her sisters, her biological parents, her previous foster moms, and her extended family where she once felt secure. So, we talk about them often and reflect on the good memories she has from her childhood. Among the tough memories, there are good ones of a family who loved each other. Memories we want her to treasure.
One of the hardest things for Isabelle, other than finally signing the adoption papers (yes, she has to sign that this is what she wants too), is deciding on what her last name was going to be. It truly distressed her. With her current last name(s) there is a history and a loyalty that said she was still linked to her sisters and the biological parents she loved. We understood the importance of that. She wanted to keep her whole name, it was a traditional name that included her first, middle, paternal, and fraternal names, but she also wanted to add ours. Adding another would make it very long, but the choice was hers.
We are a blended family, most of us do not share the same last name (it is very confusing for the postmaster). To us, the last name didn’t make us a family so we really didn’t care what she decided upon, but something had to be written on the final paperwork. We joked that if she didn’t decide, then we would write her name in as Minnie Mouse, I would simply call her “Miss Mouse”. We loved her no matter what her name was, even if it didn’t change to include our last name.
After a few months of laboring over the issue, she filled in her portion of the legal documents, although she didn’t tell us what her official name was going to be. She wanted to keep it a surprise. At a family event, with all the family gathered, she announced that she had added our last name and removed her mother’s maiden name. I was happy for her but knew it still held a bit of a sting. She didn’t want to lose any part of her name, but she had done it for us – to fit in. She’s such an incredible young woman and I am in awe of all she has gone through just to have a family that she deserves. We are truly lucky she chose us.
On November 4, 2014 we received a simple letter in the mail –
“NOW THEREFORE, it is hereby ordered, adjudged, and decreed by the Court: that from the date of entry of this Decree herein, the said minor is declared adopted for life by the petitioner(s)…” her new official name was written at the bottom (not included out of respect to her privacy).
“… adopted for life…” never have I heard sweeter words as when Isabella read the decree out loud. Tears, tears, and more tears. Tears as I write this! Tears of joy and tears of loss and sorrow. Tears of joy: for us for having gained such a lovely person into our family “for life”. Tears of loss and sorrow: because she has legally lost her biological family (including all her relatives) that she loves and they have lost her. We encourage her to remember that we are additions to the family she already has, we are not replacing them, she has not lost them – there is no reason she can’t love us all. I know someday, she will meet her biological family again and have her questions answered. She’ll need that for her own growth and closure, and we want that for her too.
Isabella became a legal member of our family a couple of weeks ago. We still cannot believe the adoption journey has finally come to a close! no more social workers. yay! no more following the Department of Children’s Services guidelines and rules. Yay! and no more limits to what we can let her do. Yay! We are now free to be a family and to raise our daughter. YAAAY!
This Christmas her sisters are coming. Stephanie will turn 18-years old while she is with us, she is “aging out” of the system without being adopted. However, she has her forever family as does KiKi. We are a family tied together forever at the heart and now legally in writing because of Isabella and her willingness to adopt us as her family. We don’t need to adopt her sisters to know they are our family too.
We added three exquisite flowers to our family bouquet; it is such a beautiful thing.
As any mother knows, labor and childbirth is an intense experience where your physical world collides with your emotional world. It is the very moment your protective parenting instinct kicks in and the little beast-of-energy hordes all the love your heart can hold. It is impossible to comprehend the capacity we have for love until that baby is born. I have experienced childbirth and can testify that for those of us that have adopted, we have a much longer labor and delivery, but the unrequited love for this child not of our blood is no less than that of a biological child.
My husband and I love(d) the experience of raising our children in a yours-mine-ours-and-then-some family. As our children moved on, we felt we weren’t finished adding to our family and wanted to adopt. Our children have known for years that this was something we wanted to do, but did we really know?
We researched, considered, researched more and considered some more as to whether or not our family was ready to put ourselves out there for adoption. After lots of discussion, addressing heartfelt concerns, and making plans, we decided we wanted to be adopted by a child that wanted a “slightly off-kilter” forever family. And so, our labor of love and the search for a “match” to our family began…
We are located in the United States. We started with our county’s Children’s Services Department then went through a local adoption agency in North Carolina, Children’s Home Society (http://www.chsnc.org/ ), for our required Home Study and guidance. After the 6-month process of background checks, trainings, and multiple meetings with social workers, we were deemed worthy to parent a child in “care” (or foster/adopt) – even though we had already raised five of our own biological children ages 14-28 and were grandparents. We had no criminal records, educated, and our other kids still wanted to be around us – even after we raised them. I learned that your income didn’t matter, you can have some past issues with the law, and you don’t have to be a “model family”. And, I now believe the long process was a good test to see if we were strong enough to stand by a child and protect their welfare, no matter how hard it was or how long it took. We were ready.
We originally sought a child around the age of 9-years old, preferably a girl but open to a boy, until we learned the sad truth about the system. Once children who are termed “Legally Free” (for adoption) turn around 13-years of age, they can be separated from their siblings to make for easier adoptions – even twins! The system has a very difficult time securing families willing to adopt older children, especially sibling groups because most parents want babies or toddlers. We were extremely uncomfortable learning this, and so we changed our approach – we were now willing to take a sibling set of two over the age of 13. We truly loved parenting in the teen years and empowering youngsters to open their minds to the world that they can influence. It is a wonderful experience (when they’re not grounded-for-life, of course).
We discussed our decision with our social worker and she said, “…in my experience, most teens are actually easier and for those who want to be adopted, they are ready. They have been to counseling, they have learned to communicate, and how to address their issues. I personally prefer the teens.”
We began searching on www.adoptuskids.org, a great website that will give you a bit of information about each child and later, more details on the children once you are a licensed foster parent. Some of the information can be heartbreaking and you just want to embrace all the kids and give them your family to love, but the reality is that you cannot adopt over 101,000 children. Can you imagine dinner time?!
The Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute states that in the U.S. there are “397,122 children are living without permanent families in the foster care system. 101,666 of these children are eligible for adoption, but nearly 32% of these children will wait over three years in foster care before being adopted. In 2012, 23,396 youth aged out of the U.S. foster care system without the emotional and financial support necessary to succeed. Nearly 40% [of those aged-out] had been homeless or couch surfed, nearly 60% of young men had been convicted of a crime, and only 48% were employed. 75% of women and 33% of men receive government benefits to meet basic needs. 50% of all youth who aged out were involved in substance use and 17% of the females were pregnant.” (http://www.ccainstitute.org/)
Having a permanent family to love and care for you, matters. It changes everything for the future of a child who has already been through so much that was not their fault.
My husband and I searched, documented, and inquired on about 25 different children looking for a good fit for our family. We went to some “matching parties” and met several children that could have been good matches except that there were issues within the system or with the child(ren) themselves. We were a family that was planning to relocate out of state, so it was a big consideration for any teen when contemplating a new family (yes, the kids have a say in who adopts them).
But then, nearly 9 months after our search started, we got a call…
Mark, a social worker we had met months before and had several interactions with through adoption events, met a sweet 13-year old in the lobby of the social services department. He was just casually chatting with her about “life” when he learned she was there to meet with her social worker, one he knew was an adoptive worker. He called us and shared about his meeting “Isabella”. We had many interests in common and she had a similar ethnic background as some of our other children. He asked for our permission to check with her social worker to learn if she would be a good match for us. We trusted his judgment.
A week later, we received her profile without a photo. With the exception of a few things, like two older sisters (ages 15 and 17) whom at this point, had no desire to be adopted, she seemed like a very good match for us. But, we were torn – Do we move forward meeting this young lady and forming a relationship with her only to pull her away from her sisters, the only family she has remaining, and move her across the country? Was this a cruel thing to do to a child? We took our time contemplating if we could provide her more than what she was receiving now and if we could help her maintain a healthy relationship with her sisters. The next week we had social workers in our home, interviewing us, and sharing more about Isabella.
She had only been in care for a year and a half, removed from her family due to physical abuse by her father and abandonment by her mother. Her older sister, Kiki, had the role of mother in her life, but her other sibling, Stephanie, was the dominant sister. Still Isabella was the curious one and wanted to be adopted, whereas her sisters were hesitant. She was smart and energetic, and the social workers felt that she was being “held back” by her sisters. They felt that separating them would be beneficial because each of them could use individual attention, especially when they had grown up parenting each other.
Since we already had several children, we were opposed to separating siblings if at all possible. We know how close our children were to each other and how they valued the sibling bond. We were told that her sisters had no interest in adoption but over time, perhaps the sisters would change their mind and want to be adopted too. That would make three more children when we were only considering two. We asked to see Isabella’s photo (typically they are attached to the files). There she was, a beautiful Hispanic girl with long black hair, bright doe eyes, and a gorgeous smile. She reminded us of our own children… we were in love.
It is a strange phenomenon that, at this point, something inside gave us permission to love this child. It was like a guard came down and we were allowed to become emotionally attached to her – someone we had never met. Just like anticipating the birth of a baby, we were waiting to meet our daughter for the first time. With no further thought, we would be willing to adopt all three if they were willing to have us. We decided to meet her.
One week later, my husband and I were in a conference room surrounded by an adoptive social worker, Isabella’s social worker and her intern, the current foster family’s social worker, Isabella’s therapist, a Guardian Ad Litem and her intern. Yikes! And even though they asked us to relax and make ourselves at home, it felt like an interrogation session. We were asked several questions, then asked several more, before they felt us worthy enough to meet Isabella – who at the time, was in the hallway eating chicken nuggets.
When they went to bring her in, we could hear her arguing about changing her mind. She was nervous and scared, just like we were. When she slipped into the conference room, we caught a glimpse of our beautiful daughter for the first time. She didn’t look at us and quickly sat at an angle behind her therapist so not to be seen. They tried to get her to move toward the table but to no avail, she was too scared. They tried getting her to speak by asking her silly questions, but she wouldn’t budge. Finally, we told her were nervous too, we heard her confirm with the social worker about whether or not we were nervous and the social worker told her we were. So, I jetted in and told her that her chicken nuggets smelled good then asked her what her favorite food was.
She softly told the social worker, “They wouldn’t understand, no one knows what it is.”
We told her to “try us.”
A shy voice spoke up, “Carne Asada.”
All the social workers looked at each other, no one knew what that was.
“Yummm,” we said in unison.
She looked around from the side of the therapist, and finally focused on us. “You know what that is?”
“Yes, it is one of our favorites. We’re from California, it’s part of the culture there. We used to have it all the time.’
We must have passed her scrutiny because she scooted up to the table. “What else do you like?” she asked.
“Chicken Mole, Tamales, Enchiladas…”
And so, a simple discussion about favorite foods broke down the barrier between a nervous child contemplating the biggest decision of her 13-year old life and prospective parents contemplating one of the biggest decisions in their 40+ years of life. We had our “first date” a few days later and met her sisters for the first time at the front door when we arrived to pick her up.