Some women know from a young age that they want to be mothers.Others may not be so sure about tackling the daunting task of child-rearing until they’ve matured a bit and been married a few years.And others still may not be sure until well into their 30s or 40s.
But no matter what age a husband and wife are when they decide they are ready to be parents, once the time is right there is arguably nothing more exciting, beautiful and maybe even terrifying as the prospect of bringing a child into the world.
And for many couples, that’s how their lives progress. Through 3am feedings, potty training, birthday parties, report cards and graduations, they experience both the joys and dramas of parenting.
However, what happens when pregnancy doesn’t come so easily? When the doctor visits and fertility medications and procedures fail time and time again? Some choose to accept that fate and live perfectly happy lives without children. But there are others who know that nature got it wrong. That they are meant to be parents. So they take the long, tedious and sometimes painful journey of adopting.
A Different Adoption Option
The family that has made the decision to defy what nature has dictated often begins by weighing their options when it comes to the adoption process. And while the traditional private adoption of an infant may be the route many parents decide to take, the adoption of children in foster care is becoming increasingly common and much needed.
Vanessa Ward, adoption supervisor for Marion County Youth and Family Alternatives Inc. (YFA), has always been a supporter of adoption. She’s been working diligently to match prospective parents with children in the foster care system for 11 years and admits that the people she meets affect every part of her.
“A lot of times people want to adopt an infant, but there are so many older children right here who desperately need homes,” she says. In fact, Vanessa’s branch of YFA handles adoption for Citrus, Marion, Sumter, Hernando and Lake Counties and oversees approximately 100 adoptions a year.
“It’s a process to adopt a child in foster care and not everyone is ready to take on that challenge,” explains Vanessa. Families who are considering adopting go through several steps before they are deemed ready to legally complete the process.
Classes, interviews, visitations, overnight visits and weeklong stays are just some of the steps involved along the way.
“It takes time to make the most appropriate match,” says Vanessa. She explains that some children coming out of the foster care system have a variety of their own issues resulting from their former upbringing and prospective parents have to really know what they can handle.
“Some of the stories you hear can break your heart,” explains Vanessa. “You can’t go through an abusive situation without it affecting you, and parents have to be completely honest about what they can handle,” she says, admitting that the most “devastating” part of her job is when an adoption fails.
But, she points out, there is a misinterpretation of children in the foster care system. True, some have mental or physical disabilities, and there are plenty of families out there who are ready and able to take on those challenges. But there are also thousands of kids who just had the unfortunate luck of being born to people not capable of raising them. And for a couple looking to adopt, sometimes they don’t have to look far at all.
A Twist of Fate
When Danielle and Ray Fitzgerald were planning their wedding in 2009, Danielle admits she wasn’t doing anything special to prevent pregnancy.
“We knew we wanted kids, so we figured eventually it would just happen,” she says. However, over time, she and her husband began to suspect something just wasn’t quite right, as month after month Danielle was unsuccessful at getting pregnant. After doctors’ visits and meetings with fertility specialists, Danielle and Ray concluded that the only way they would raise a child would be through adoption.
“We looked into several agencies but knew we could never afford to go the route of adopting an infant either domestically or abroad,” says Danielle, recounting the thousands of dollars quoted for the process.
After simply searching for “Adoption Florida” on the Internet, she and Ray came across the YFA website and made contact with an adoption recruiter.
“They were extremely supportive,” she says. Danielle and Ray knew this was going to be the best option for them.
“We thought we couldn’t afford to adopt a child, but we knew we could afford to feed some mouths. When we put it all on paper, we knew we would be able to do this,” she says.
After completing a 12-week class that Danielle describes as a “crash course in parenting,” she and Ray began the process of searching for a child.
“It’s almost like Match.com,” says Danielle. “You go online and see a tiny picture and a short write-up about a child and then request more information,” she says.
And that is essentially how Danielle found her son, Jason*, 10, and her daughter, Jennifer*, 12. One evening she was scrolling through the pages of available children online when she came across a “cute boy” and requested more information. On a whim, she decided to scroll through the available girls when she noticed Jennifer.
Shortly thereafter, she received an email that directed her to call the local YFA office. Confused by the message, she immediately called and was completely flabbergasted by what she learned.
“They were siblings,” she says, still amazed by the coincidence today. “Nowhere online did it mention that they were siblings, and of the thousands of children on that site, I pick a brother and sister,” she recalls.
After several meetings with the children’s guardians and representatives from YFA, Danielle and Ray got a history of the children and their former foster home situations, which totaled somewhere between seven and nine.
“They weren’t always together,” Danielle explains. “Jason has some learning disabilities, which made it difficult for foster families to cope, and after a while they would send him back,” she says.
Confident that they wanted to pursue both children, after many hours of interviews and meetings, Danielle and Ray arranged their first face-to-face visit with the children.
“We were nervous. What do you say to two kids?” says Danielle, recounting that her and Ray were so excited they arrived four hours early.
Once the initial meeting was out of the way, Danielle and Ray agreed that they wanted to see the children again. Months of supervised day-visits followed before the children requested overnight visits and then extended weekend visits.
“The kids have to request the overnight visits. It has to be their idea,” explains Danielle. Her goal was for Jennifer and Jason to be ready to spend the summer with them. It’s protocol that after extended weekend visits, the children have to live with the parents for 90 days before the court can be petitioned to legalize the adoption.
On June 27, 2012, Jennifer and Jason moved in with Danielle and Ray.
“They moved in and life began,” laughs Danielle, recounting the subtle changes in the children’s behavior as they became more comfortable in their new surroundings.
“When Jennifer went from calling us by our first names to mom and dad, that was big,” she says. And while Danielle admits there are plenty of struggles, they are experiencing wonderful and endearing moments that they wouldn’t have had the opportunity to otherwise.
“It’s hard for them to get the concept that this is their forever home. Sometimes they think they’re eventually going to be kicked out. But we try to focus not on who they were or where they came from but who they want to be,” says Danielle, who hints that she could possible take on a third child in the future.
“Ten years ago, I could never have done this, no way. But you turn 30-something one day and you decide that there are experiences you just don’t want to live without, so you take a chance,” she says, noting that this has been “quite a ride but worth every second.”
From Zero To Five
Diane Morgan always knew she would adopt a child. Her mother was adopted and adopting a child herself was her way of “giving back.” But her initial intentions of having a biological child and an adopted child were thrown a curveball when her attempts at getting pregnant failed.
“We tried everything and even went so far as hiring a surrogate, twice, and even that failed,” says Diane. She and her husband, Matt, had been married 15 years at the time when attempt after attempt failed, and they finally concluded that a biological child just wasn’t in their future.
“It’s not so much the physical toll, but the emotional toll all of that takes out of you. It was a really hard process,” says Diane. But because they had always planned on adopting anyway, they decided to start researching the process.
“We investigated infant adoption and overseas adoption, and it just wasn’t feasible,” says Matt, referring to both the cost and time commitment required for adopting a baby from another country. So they contacted the Department of Children and Families and discussed the process of adopting children in foster care.
“We had to pay for the background checks and fingerprinting and take the classes to get started, so we just jumped right in,” says Danielle, admitting that after investing so much money with fertility experts, this was a much more affordable way to go.
When it came time to discuss what type of family they were envisioning, Diane and Matt told their caseworker they felt two, possibly three, boys was what they had in mind.
“She told us they had a family of five boys at the moment but that she would go back and start looking around for a family of two or three,” says Diane. But there was something about the five boys that stuck in her head.
“We talked about it and thought ‘why can’t we do five,’” she says, recalling that the couple’s first thought was that they wanted the five boys and the second one was “where are we going to put them all?”
However Matt and Diane wasted no time preparing their lives and their home for five new children.
“Our caseworker was hesitant, but we told her we already bought a new car and were converting the office into a bedroom,” says Matt.
They began their weekend visits with the boys and spent the next month getting to know them before they moved in for the next 90 days.
“Our caseworker called us one day and said we could come and meet them. Then it all got very real,” says Matt.
The boys moved in with Matt and Diane on April Fools Day 2010.
“We are so lucky to have them,” says Diane, who can’t get over watching them all grow and mature.
Though it took some getting used to on everyone’s part, like any proud parents, Matt and Diane can’t brag enough about their boys, Jordan, 16, Aaron, 12, Christian, 7, and twins Ethan and Evan, 4.
“They are boys, they’re loud and they wrestle around and that was the hardest thing to get used to,” laughs Matt, “But they are the most loving kids you’ll ever meet.”
“It took some time for us all to learn to live together,” says Diane, explaining that the boys had visitation time with each other but had never lived together under one roof. “But we all just kind of figured it out together,” she says. Though she notes that feeding five growing boys has proven to be one of the biggest changes in their lives. “Our pantry is the size of a small bedroom,” jokes Matt.
“We still sometimes laugh to ourselves and say ‘what were we thinking,’ but we are experiencing some of the greatest moments of our lives with the boys,” says Diane.
One of the biggest lessons she has learned over the last few years is that you don’t need an infant to experience important moments.
“You think you need to have a baby, but I’m happy it worked out this way,” she says. And when asked by others whether they have any doubts about adopting five boys, Matt answers, “you wake up each morning and one does something that makes you start laughing and you think ‘yeah, this is the right thing.’”