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Local families open their homes and their hearts to adoption

“There are no unwanted children. Just unfound families.” –National Adoption Center

In America, there are more than 135,000 children adopted every year. This number includes children adopted from foster care, domestic agencies, domestic private agencies and internationally. In St. Charles County, the adoption rates have remained steady over the last several years, rising and falling with economic trends. In Missouri, an estimated 11,000 children need to find forever homes.

Within the foster care system adoption rates are climbing. There are more than 550,000 children and youth in foster care in the United States. While it is not always the goal for the child to be adopted while in foster care, many foster children do need permanent homes. Out of the 550,000, about 230,000 of those children need to be adopted.

Many St. Charles County families are making a difference and changing the statistics, one child at a time. Just one child adopted out of the foster system or from an orphanage means positive long-term change in that child’s life.

The Mitchell Family

“We have always felt called to adopt and started the process to adopt from China in 2008 but that turned out to not be a great fit for us due to cost and the waiting period,” Amanda Mitchell said. After watching a segment on foster care about two brothers on the news called, ‘A Place to Call Home’ the Mitchell family was moved to action. Amanda said as she was watching the show she was thinking to herself that it was something her family should do when her son, Jaxon said, ‘Mom, they could come live with us.’

The Mitchell Family of O’Fallon – [from left] Lucas, 13, Adam, Amanda and Nastassia, 17, and Jaxon, 11.

Last year, the family officially adopted Nastassia, the first child they fostered. They are currently fostering another teenage girl, as well. “I was surprised by how ‘good’ the foster kids we’ve come into contact with have been. Books, movies and TV tend to portray them as ‘bad apples’ with tons of issues. While there are definitely tough times to work through, it’s more about the emotions rather than things like drinking, drugs and fighting. I was also surprised at how quickly the connection was made between us all. We love Nastassia like she’s our biological daughter,” Mitchell said.

The feeling is obviously mutual. Nastassia’s eyes lit up as she talked about what it is like to finally have a family, “Being with parents that treat you like their own, like they birthed you…it’s crazy and it’s amazing. We have so much in common and we adapted to each other very fast. This is the most support I’ve had in my entire life. Sometimes I don’t express my excitement because I’m not used to being able to. I usually keep everything in but I’m with a family who is actually going to listen and talk to me. It’s something I’m still getting used to,” Nastassia said.

Even things that most parents don’t think twice about, like checking in and making sure their child is doing homework caused a little friction because Nastassia was not prepared for the change. “It’s what we do,” Amanda said with a smile. “I’m used to going home, doing my homework and no one caring if I did it or not. Having someone checking on me was something I had to adjust to,” Nastassia said. “And it was something I didn’t know no one had been doing for her, so we both had to make adjustments in the beginning,” Amanda said.

Making constant adjustments are an integral part of the foster care and adoptive process, as the Mitchell family is learning. Each day can bring another opportunity for a teachable moment and not always for the children. “I am much more patient with all the kids now that Nastassia is part of our family. I’m very aware of the words I say and how they will be interpreted. I look for the underlying cause behind the outburst. I’m willing to let go of the small things that aren’t so important but used to feel like a big deal,” Amanda said.

All of the parental love and mutual respect is being returned in big ways. Nastassia said, “This is the second time I’ve ever called anyone mom and dad. It would be weird to call anyone else that. I was taken out of my home when I was three and the lady that adopted us was the only person I’ve ever called ‘mom’ before. It doesn’t feel weird. This feels normal.”

After becoming foster parents and now adoptive parents, the Mitchells have one suggestion for anyone thinking about fostering. “I would highly encourage anyone who is even slightly interested in becoming a foster parent or adopting from foster care to take the free classes that St. Charles County offers. The county wants you to be successful. They will bend over backwards to help you when you need it. There are numerous resources available. We made a supportive network of friends in the foster class. We rely on them and they are invaluable to us as people that truly understand the struggles and triumphs we have.” Mitchell said.

Nastassia gushed over how much she loved O’Fallon, the school district and her friends. She is attending Fort Zumwalt West High School and is planning on attending Central College in Missouri, majoring in forensic science.

The Loudon Family

John Loudon, a previous resident of Chesterfield and a state senator from 2000 until 2008, devoted much of his time in the senate rewriting Missouri adoption laws, including the liberalization of the Missouri version of the federal Special Needs Adoption Tax Credit. Adoptive families of special needs children, including orphans either domestic or foreign, were offered $10,000 of federal tax credits. Missouri is the only state that allows an additional $10,000 in tax credits, which they may subtract against the amount of the credit from the total they owe the IRS or the state. However, in 2013 the senate ruled to allow the credit for in-state adoptions only.

The Loudon Family – [from left] Samuel, 12, Lily, 18, Bo, 12, Gina, John, Lydia, 21, and Jack, 15.

The tax credit is intended to help cover adoption costs, like home visits and legal fees and is limited to $10,000 per child. [Many adoptive families argue that this credit does not get paid until years later and some families do not qualify for it if they make over a certain income level.] Senator (D) Jolie Justus of Kansas City, was key in eliminating the tax break for out-of-state adoptions. The senator’s justification for the decision to scrap the tax credit for international adoption was based on the idea that the residents of Missouri should be given an incentive to adopt children that need homes in Missouri before adopting internationally.

Loudon and his wife, Gina, know the surprises and blessings that come with adoption, not only from a political aspect but from a personal one, as well. When going through the adoption of his own son, it highlighted issues that Loudon became more vocal about politically. Loudon said, “I was always passionate about adoption as a beautiful thing and had pushed to liberalize the tax credit. As we started our own adoption process and realized how families had to lay out $20,000 or more and wait years to get fully reimbursed, I certainly felt the frustration more acutely. As a lawmaker who is an adoptive parent, me pushing for the legislative change was harder to deny by those who had opposed me. Politicians can be human. Who knew?”

After traveling around the world to adopt, even looking into a Russian adoption [which Russia has now banned to the U.S.], they felt called to adopt a baby with Down’s syndrome after finding out that more than 90 percent of babies with Down’s syndrome are aborted. They adopted their son, Sammy, in 2005. “We explored international adoption and ultimately found our Sammy in Florida. It was surprising to have to travel halfway across the country but it was worth it,” Loudon said.

“It seems crazy that [adoption] can be so expensive. But it is also sad that there is so little awareness of the creative funding available for couples willing to adopt a child. Missouri remains, to my knowledge, the only state that matches the $10,000 federal Special Needs Adoption Tax Credit with another $10,000 credit. Most people think of special needs as being limited to developmental or physical disability, but that is not the case.”

Loudon shared how adoption has changed his family for the better, “It has thoroughly enriched our lives. We wanted the birth mother to have a ‘happy-ending, birth mother story’ to share with others in hopes more mothers would choose life. We are great friends now and even vacation together. Seeing this immigrant mother, build a successful new life and rejoice that her child has a full life with four doting siblings to spoil him is immensely rewarding,” he said.

The Read Family

After a long year of waiting, the Read family got to bring their son and brother home this February. Kim shared some of the frustrations with the preliminary procedures, “The amount of paperwork that international adoption requires is staggering. It is very personal and the home study portion requires knowing your entire physical and mental health background, family history, details about your childhood and how you were raised. When we started this process, we thought we would be able to go faster than the 10- to 12-month average, but it just wasn’t possible.”

The Read Family of O’Fallon – [from left] Rob, Kim, Maria, 14, Zac, 9, Josh, 22, and Sophie, 11.

However, she says the path to finding their son has been full of beautiful moments and is the very reason why they adopted internationally. While hearing a friend’s story who adopted from China, they learned startling facts that changed the direction of their future. “Children who are institutionalized in China are often neglected and malnourished but when given the opportunity of family and a loving home they thrive. We learned that the infant rooms in the Chinese orphanages are silent, because the babies have learned that no one comes if they cry. Also, any physical or mental difference, no matter how minor or correctable, is not culturally acceptable and may cause an infant or toddler to be abandoned,” Read said.

Read believes that the state taking away the tax credit for international adoption compounds these problems, “There is a global orphan crisis. The initial cost of adoption is so high it can prevent caring families from providing a loving home to an orphan. International adoptions can cost $30,000 to $40,000, an amount that is needed sometimes over a 12- to 18-month period of time. Any tax credit helps make adoption a reality for more families, which helps more orphans.”

The pivotal moment for the family came after reading about a specific boy in the same orphanage as their friend’s son. He was described as kind, gentle and helpful. “Rob and I fell in love with him from his description and felt strongly that a boy who could show such kindness and concern for others, while being in the most desperate of situations had to be our son,” Kim shared. The family has been back from China for less than a week but Kim says they already love him more than they can express. They are currently teaching him English and his siblings are also helping him learn the language and adjust to his new home.

The Harlow Family

After struggling to get pregnant for six years, Diane and Terry felt a pull toward international adoption after seeing a family member adopt their child from China. But two months into the process, they found out they were pregnant. “As my pregnancy progressed, my heart was often drawn back to the little one in China that I had dreamed would be part of our family. After our precious son Trenton was born, the discussion once again returned to adoption. In August 2005, we chose to start our adoption. Seven months later, we were on a plane to China, eagerly anticipating the day we would hold our daughter, Tessa, in our arms,” Diane said.

The Harlow Family of O’Fallon – [from left] – front row – Truett, 3, Taryn, 2, Diane, Tiana, 7, and Terry. Back row – Tessa, 12, Trenton, 12, and Tanner, 18. [Not pictured is daughter Taylor Harlow Gilliam, 23.]

Diane and Terry adopted Tessa from Nanning, China in 2006 and went back in 2009 and adopted Tiana from Kunming, China but their family was not complete. Years later, they heard about a boy in the same orphanage where they had adopted Tessa and his story made them begin the process again. Not long after hearing his story, they heard about a little girl in Maoming, China that the orphanage thought would be perfect for the Harlow family. The Harlows went to China in 2016 and brought Truett and Taryn home together.

Diane said, “The most surprising part of our adoptions has been how quickly we could give our hearts to a child. Within moments of our first meeting, we were completely smitten with these amazing children. I was their mamma and I would forever be changed because they were a part of my life.” But Diane is also careful to point out the reality of adoption, “Parents need to remember that adoption is hard. These children are coming from a place of significant trauma. The moment they are handed to you can be very difficult for the children. Many people try to glamorize the ‘gotcha day’ but it is a time of extreme loss for these children.” In the middle of that grief are parents who are full of love and selflessness who want the best for all of the kids. Diane explained how adoption has changed her as a mother, “I won’t say I am a better mom but I have found that I don’t sweat the small stuff as much as I did before. With seven children, you learn to laugh a lot and love very big,” Diane said.

These families would be the first to say that the gift of adoption is giving a child an opportunity to rewrite their own story infused with hope. Within adoption, families are made complete, redemption is pulled from the heartache and new beginnings are created from the loss. Possibly the most powerful statements about adoption is not in statistics, facts or even what the parents or lawmakers say but are felt most in the words of the adopted children themselves …

“I don’t know where I would be right now if I wasn’t adopted. I was very sick in China and needed surgery. The doctors there did not know how to help me. If my mom and dad hadn’t brought me home, I may not have survived.” —Tessa Harlow

“Two years ago, I never would have thought that I would have parents that check on me or even have the opportunity to go to college. I can’t believe I’m here. I feel like I have so much support now.” —Nastassia Mitchell.

“I have brothers and sisters. We don’t all look alike, but we are family.” —Tiana Harlow

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