Tell Me Your Story: Of a Boy Who Changed Your Life

Adopting with a partner is not easy, but adopting as a single parent is even harder. As a young social worker, Tia saw a need that needed to be filled, and at just 27 years old, she became the parent of a 13 year old boy. She quickly learned how difficult it was to provide structure to a child who had never been given any. She also realized how important it was for a boy to have a father figure. But through their difficult struggles, Tia was able to share moments with her son that they will both never forget. In her own words, Tia tells her story of a boy who changed her life.

My story is not a common adoption story.  I was a social worker for the Florida Department of Children and Families for 12 years.  It was during my tenure with the Department that I was introduced to a very lively and active 5-year old boy.  This child was not on my caseload, but he was in the office on a daily basis due to being kicked out of his biological relatives’ home for behavior issues.  My son’s story is all too common of a child born into the foster care system.

My son and his biological brother bounced from one relatives’ home to the next until there were no more relatives willing or able to care for them.  Once this happened both boys were placed in foster homes.  The brothers would be separated due to the lack of available foster homes with two beds open to keep the boys placed together.  This is a sad reality of the system.  The children are first traumatized by the removal from the birth home/family, and then often despite the best efforts of caseworkers the siblings are placed in separate homes rarely, if ever, to be reunited.

Once my prospective adoptive son began going from foster home to foster home, his behavior continued to become increasingly difficult to manage.  He was scared, confused, hurt and myriad of other feelings that I will never be able to fully wrap my head around.  I was one of the only two social workers that was able to connect with him and to that end began a 6-year journey that would result in adoption.  You see I eventually worked with his case and got to know his biological mother.  I will not disclose the reasons why my son came into the system, but I will say that his entire biological family continue to battle the same issues that many of our inner city families are experiencing.

His biological mother loved her children but could not seem to overcome her circumstances in order to be a parent to her children.  I saw her struggle, and I personally made a promise to her ‘woman to woman’ that I would do my best to watch over her boys until they turned 18 or became adopted.  Did I mention that at this time I was a single woman and only 26 years old?  I really had no concept of what I was getting myself into, but I am a person of my word.  From that moment on I made sure that both boys were in good foster homes, and I would be sure to visit them on weekends to be sure that all was well.  My son’s brother was eventually placed with a foster family that committed to keep him until his 18th birthday.  My son was still not able to maintain in a stable foster home environment and was moved into a local group home facility.

At this point, I was taking him out every weekend for church and lunch.  It was one day after church that he asked me if I would adopt him.  I had never considered adoption.  So after careful prayer and discussions with my parents, I decided that it was something that I wanted to do.  I loved this young man, and I had become vested in his future.  The process was not easy because I had worked with him and his family on a professional level.  Since the time that I worked on his case I had been promoted and transferred into another division, but still careful consideration was taken before they would allow me to adopt.

As a single woman, adopting a teenage boy from foster care it was probably the most challenging thing that I have done.  The process of adopting from the foster care system is fairly painless because the need is so very great.  They prepare all prospective foster and adoptive parents in a lengthy training program, Model Approach to Partnerships in Parenting (MAPP), that allows you to become familiar with the ins and outs of foster care and adoption.  However, just as most people will say to that first-time pregnant mother, nothing can really prepare you for bringing home your first child.

 My son first came to my home at the age of 13 years old.  He came with his clothes in one very small, dirty suitcase with the remainder of his belongings in a black garbage bag, and his defenses were up.  No matter how much he wanted to be adopted by me, his life experience told him that no home is permanent.  This would be my struggle for the next three years.  In retrospect, I feel that having a husband to share in the parenting would have made it easier for my son and me.

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photo credit: Weldon Ryan

I am sure that my next statement will be very controversial, but I must put it out there.  I firmly believe that there are aspects in raising a male child that can only be effectually addressed by a man/father figure.  I look back on a few parenting and disciplinary issues that arose during his teenage years knowing that if a man were in the house we could have avoided some major issues.  There is a certain energy that a dad brings to the equation that offers balance in the home.  Of course I am only referring to dads who are emotionally and physically present in the home.

As a social worker, I thought that I knew all that I needed to know.  I was certified to teach the MAPP courses to prepare families for fostering and adopting, I had worked with hundreds of foster kids and their families, and I knew my son since he was 5 years old.  I thought I had everything under control.  That could not have been further from the truth.  Yes, I knew my son’s background better that any other non-familial perspective adoptive parent of a foster child.  However, all of the training and working experiences with foster children could not prepare me for the daily reality of being a parent.  The first day that I brought my son home was nerve wrecking!  My son was already a preteen when he came to live me!  I think the honeymoon period was about a week, and then it was time for me to learn how to be a mom and prove to my son that I was not going to be another adult that let him down.

It was very important for me to have established my support system prior to making the decision to adopt.  I knew that adopting a teenage boy that had been in foster care for his entire life would be challenging and that I could not tackle it on my own. Thankfully, I had the support of my parents, prior foster parents and my neighbors.  We worked as a team for my son.

Before adopting I did not realize how much my parents did behind the scenes for me as a child.  My life suddenly became more about what I could do to reach my son.  However, in my situation I felt like I was in a race with time because I only had five short years to prepare him for adulthood.  He had missed out on so much parenting from birth to 13 years of age.  Simple things that those of us who grow up with the same caregivers take for granted became critical to impart.  My son basically did not know what it was like to be apart of a functioning family where people do things for one another because it benefits that household.

My advice to anyone interested in adopting an older child is to make sure you obtain and understand the child’s background.   Take an inventory on how you were raised and how that environment has shaped you as a person.  What expectations to you have on adoption?  Talk to your close friend and relatives and ask them how they feel you would be as an adoptive parent and if they are willing to be your support network.   Set up your support system, as well as your child’s support system, because they are not always the same people.  Lastly, don’t forget to have fun!!  Teenagers can be a lot of emotional work even in the best of situations, but they can also be a lot of fun.  You don’t have the luxury of time when you adopt an older child.  The best lessons are learned through laughter.

One of the best memories that I have with my son was when I took him to my childhood home in New Jersey for Christmas.  As a foster child he had never left the state of Florida.  He really had never left the tri-county area.  Taking him to the airport for the first time was magical for this 15-yr old boy.  The trip was marked with so many firsts for him.  He had never experienced freezing temperatures, and although there was only a dusting a snow on the ground he was just hypnotized by it all. He was just so happy and thankful that entire week that we spent at my grandmother’s home.  I think the best thing about the trip was that he got to experience the love of family that I had known my entire life.

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Tell Me Your Story: Of a Full House

When the alarm sounds at 6:30 in the morning, Katie rolls over, rubs the sleep out of her eyes, and spends the next few minutes checking Facebook. Then she makes her way into the kitchen to make breakfast for her seven children. Yes, seven children.

Katie and Tony Gonzalez started their adoption journey by adopting through foster care. In 1999, they adopted a 15 month old little girl, and for over ten years, Gabby was an only child and took pleasure in being her parents’ “center of joy.”

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Gabby, Katie & Tony

Katie and Tony always wanted to have a big family, but were cautious about stepping back into the adoption process after Gabby. In 2010, through a “chance conversation”, they learned that three siblings  were in foster care and needed a permanent home. After a year of “forms, medical checks, background checks, and waiting,” Gabby became a big sister to Lydia, Will, and Madi on her 12th birthday. Although the transition from a family of three to a family of six was difficult, Katie is proud of her oldest daughter for showing tremendous maturity and adjusting to her new big family.

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Lydia

Will

Will

Madi

Madi

 Three years after welcoming Lydia, Will, and Madi, Katie received an email from her agency. She was asked to reach out to first time parents in the process of adopting three siblings from foster care. The parents were “struggling badly and drowning in needs they had not expected.” Katie reached out to the struggling parents, but they made it clear that they were not ready to adopt. Katie felt in her gut that she and her husband were being called to provide a home for the siblings. She brought it up to Tony who was apprehensive. Where would everyone sleep? How would they transport all seven children? Would there be enough to go around?

There didn’t seem to be any easy answers, and even friends and family thought they were getting in over their heads and expressed their concerns. Katie and Tony were receptive and discussed the potential adoption with their families at length. And they prayed. Katie knew that if God was calling her to adopt, He would also walk by her side. Katie and Tony took a leap of faith, confident that things would work out. Today, the three children are living with the Gonzalez family waiting for their adoptions to be finalized.

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Tony, Katie, and their seven children.

Katie and Tony’s seven children range from ages 5 to 16. To keep sane, Katie created a family schedule that would impress a drill sergeant. During the week, she is part of a homeschool co-op and teaches several 10th grade subjects. The oldest four are also homeschooled, while the youngest three attend public school. After the youngest are picked up from school, there is snack time followed by at least an of hour play time. All of Katie’s children see a Play Therapist once a week, and her youngest have an additional session with a Behavioral Skills Therapist.

The family gathers for dinner at six, and everyone pitches in to help clean the kitchen. Bath time begins shortly after dinner, and bedtimes for the six little ones are staggered throughout the evening starting at 7:15 and ending at 9:00. Katie tries to fit in one on one time with Gabby and quiet time with her husband to dicuss their day and read the Bible. This is enough to make anyone’s head spin, but Katie also manages to find time to keep up a family blog.  Although things do not always go as planned, Katie says, “it is her morning prayer that she would have an organized day.”

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Tony, possibly taking a nap?

Katie knows there is a need to foster and adopt, and takes the opportunity to spread awareness whenever she can. On her blog, Katie explains that she once read that adoptive families are not God’s plan A, but His plan A was for the biological family to work. But what happens when Plan A is broken? or fails? Katie says, “Looking around at my messy house, hearing the children laugh and yell,…helping our children cry over wounds they are too young to consciously remember…Yes, I think I am OK with that. Remember this is all Plan B. Plan A was a garden. A garden where foster care, orphans, and pain didn’t exist.”

On any given day there is laundry to be folded, meals to be made, and dishes to be washed. There are also lesson plans, homework, karate, and  band practice. If anyone thinks what Katie and her husband are doing is impossible, they don’t seem the least bit deterred. The name of Katie’s blog is “Seeds of Hope”, and written on the header is Matthew 17:20:“ I tell you the truth, if you can have faith as small as a mustard seed…Nothing will be impossible for you.”