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Winning the kid lottery: how adoption changed my life

November 07, 2012

Our son Brandon, who is now 20 years old, came into our lives fifteen years ago. We met him about two months before he turned five. At the time, he was in foster care. His mother had problems with addiction and was not providing a stable home so he entered foster care about a month before he turned three. November is National Adoption Month and I thought it might be a good time to share our story.

When I tell people how our family was created, I sometimes hear things like ‘It’s great of you to adopt an older child,’ or similar remarks that kind of indicate we somehow did something generous or selfless. Maybe that is true in a way but in other ways it could not be further from the truth. I feel like we won the kid lottery. I think all of us—me, my husband, our son and our extended families—lucked out in finding one another. Whether we call it good fortune, a blessing or destiny, I can say the end result is that everyone involved has given and benefitted in equal amounts.

When we first started thinking about adoption, we were thinking about adopting an infant. I called an agency that provided adoption services and the person I spoke with asked if we had considered adopting an older child. My husband and I had not thought about that but once we did, we decided to go to a meeting to learn more. At that meeting we learned that “special needs” adoption could involve children with physical or cognitive challenges (like kids with Downs Syndrome, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, birth defects or disabilities) but it also meant children who were older than infants, children who had conditions like attention deficit disorder, children with mixed racial and ethnic heritage.

We were drawn to the idea of possibly adopting a child who was a little older. I mean, how much fun can potty training be, right? We felt awkward about some parts of the initial process such as the feeling that we were kind of shopping for a child. We were asked about our preferences as to gender, age, race & ethnicity, challenges, sibling groups and many other characteristics of children. We were encouraged to express preferences even if we were embarrassed to admit we had a preference. We were encouraged to talk to our extended families and make sure that our preferences were characteristics our families could also accept.

We decided to proceed and then attended a class called MAPP—Model Approach to Positive Parenting. The class provides information about the process of adoption and foster care and provides information on the emotional needs of children who are removed from their original families. The group started with about eight prospective adoptive families. Some were couples, some single. There were people of various ages, ethnicities and backgrounds. Our group was led by two social workers, one of whom had been adopted as a child. After each group, we were encouraged to really think about whether we wanted to continue and by the end of our class, I think we were down to five prospective families.

Near the end of our class we were invited to an adoption picnic. This was a gathering where prospective adoptive families got together with foster families and social workers who brought children available for adoption. There was a colored nametag system that identified the status of the adults and kids there. I looked around and felt terribly overwhelmed. I went back to the car and burst into tears. I was sad that there were so many kids there who needed a forever family. It really broke my heart and once I stopped crying, I started thinking we should adopt five or six kids at least! These kinds of events are a little bit controversial because some people worry that they put pressure on the kids who attend but since that first event, I attended a few others in connection with my work and I can say they were done with sensitivity and a lot of respect for the kids and prospective parents.

We eventually learned about a four year old boy who had been in foster care about 2 years. We had decided we wanted to try to adopt a child under age 5 and the only other requirement we came up with was that we wanted the kid to be human. We didn’t have preferences about gender or ethnicity or race. As it turned out, the child we met had red hair and freckles and looks an awful lot like me. We met him at his foster home and then began the process of getting to know him. We talked to the foster parents without him present to get a picture of his needs. After each contact, we processed our thoughts and feelings with one of the social workers who taught our class and did our home study which is an evaluation of our readiness to provide a good home to an adoptive or foster child. We proceeded through a few more visits and then Brandon spent the night at our house. When he woke up the next morning he walked down the hallway and said, “You know, where ever you go, God goes with you.” Even at a young age, he had some great coping skills.

While we were processing our visits, the foster parents and Brandon’s adoption worker were helping him process his feelings. We all decided to proceed after each visit. At one point Brandon got upset with his foster parents and we were told that he said, “You better not punish me or else I’m gonna get my new Mommy and Daddy to come over here and beat your (bad word)!” The social worker was thrilled and said this showed he was attaching to us. I was glad to hear that but a little concerned that his primary use for us so far was that he wanted us to serve as his “muscle.” Of course, there were other indications from him that he was attaching to us. He started to go to the door of the foster home and ask if we were coming over soon. We were certainly growing attached to him.

We met Brandon the second week in July and by Labor Day weekend, he was ready to move in. He had turned five in late August. Up until that point he had been calling us Susan and Steve. We told him he could call us Mom and Dad when he felt ready and he started doing that the weekend he moved in. It is hard to describe how I felt when he first called me Mommy. I was thrilled and moved and a little scared all at once.

We continued to have home visits from our social worker and from Brandon’s adoption worker. We spoke to the guardian-ad-litem on the phone. A guardian-ad-litem is a neutral third party assigned by the court to look out for the best interests of the child. We continued to periodically visit Brandon’s foster parents for about three years. It was our choice to continue that long but we were comfortable visiting them whenever he brought it up and they graciously allowed us to continue to come by.

When we adopted Brandon, we knew that he had been neglected by his mother and that he had experienced some physical abuse. We knew his mother had drug and alcohol problems. We did not know if he had been sexually abused but he didn’t have behaviors to indicate that. His father had died in a motorcycle accident and had never met him. He had been diagnosed with the hyperactive type of attention deficit disorder. We learned things that were sensitive to him. He was anxious around the smell of beer. He had a hard time falling asleep. He was really strong-willed and could have tantrums. During one tantrum he told us he hated us, hated our cat, hated our neighborhood and hated the Sunshine Skyway Bridge—we lived in St. Petersburg  and he had been in foster care in Bradenton so we always drove over the bridge to visit him and then later to visit his foster parents.

Our adoption was finalized in February, about six months after Brandon moved in. We went to court accompanied by my mother and my father and step-mother as well as our social worker, Brandon’s adoption worker and the attorney. The judge asked us and asked Brandon if we wanted to finalize the adoption and we all answered yes. Brandon and I ended up changing our last names on the same day. I hadn’t changed my name when Steve and I got married. It was nice to be able to join Brandon in making this identity change.

This is part 1 of a 2 part post. Part 2 will be continued on Friday, November 9th.