Mothers, families share their heart for foster care, adoption
If family is a river, then it’s fed by a million tributaries — each one different, each one important, each one vital.
Every family is unique, and the way it comes together is an intricate flow of variegated influences. Some parents meet their children through fluttery, butterfly movements in the womb, and some meet later. Some families come together through legal paths and what might sentimentally be called destiny.
For families who meet through foster care and navigate channels to permanent adoption, Mother’s Day is especially poignant. It shows that becoming a parent is not the result of some biological quirk, but of choice. And that’s a powerful thing.
Choosing to adopt from foster care, to carry the load of a child’s un-asked-for burdens, to love a person who started out a stranger, is as humbling an act of grace as we can ever hope to see.
At any given time, there are approximately 300 children and youth in Mesa County in nonadoption, out-of-home placement, or foster care, said Karen Martsolf, public information officer for the Mesa County Department of Human Services.
The children are temporarily or permanently removed from their homes for a variety of reasons, including abuse and neglect.
Forty to 50 children are available for adoption from foster care at any given time, Martsolf said, and in 2010, 47 adoptions were finalized in Mesa County.
“We do a diligent search to find a family member with whom we can first place that child,” Martsolf explained. “Then, we turn to one of our certified foster families to place that child temporarily. If, after an amount of time, the children cannot be unified with their biological parents — and that’s determined with law enforcement and the courts — the child becomes legally available for adoption.
“They may be adopted by the foster family they’ve been living with or it may be someone else. Our goal is to always ensure the safety of each child but to find them a home quickly.”
Some children in the foster care system have medical, physical or emotional challenges, Martsolf said, or are part of a sibling group, and those children can be harder to place.
However, the Department of Human Services offers a wide variety of support for parents and families providing foster care or adopting children in foster care.
“We want children to have good, safe, loving homes,” she said, “so we offer a lot of support so that can happen.”
‘God built our family’
The McGinnett family now has a 5-month-old yellow lab named, appropriately, Yellowstone. Charlie picked the color and Neisha picked the name. Yellowstone, the good puppy, is big and getting bigger, and into everything.
Lisa McGinnett, mom to kids and canine, wasn’t so sure about getting a dog. The family already had nine chickens, two guinea pigs and some fish, but the kids gave her the big eyes and the pleeeeeeaaaasse and the we-promise-to-take-care-of-it, promisepromisepromise.
Paul McGinnett, dad to kids and canine, offered the knowing support that only a husband can give his wife as she relents.
So, the family went in search of puppies. They narrowed their choices to two labs, a black and a yellow.
“They’re like us!” Charlie told Lisa. “One’s black and one’s white.”
Lisa immediately turned to Paul and asked, “Should we get both?”
Paul talked her off the ledge, and the kids decided amongst themselves to divvy the color- and name-choosing responsibilities, but it was a poignant moment nonetheless. Anything that reminds Lisa of her family, anything that symbolizes her beautiful children, and she’s helpless to resist.
They didn’t come together on traditional paths. Other women gave birth to Neisha, 7, and Charlie, 6. But Lisa is their mother, not their foster mother, not their adoptive mother, but their mother, forever.
“I wanted them so badly,” she said. “I fought so hard for my kids.”
Before Lisa and Paul, who is the pastor of Central Orchard Mesa Community Church in Palisade, married, they talked about what they envisioned their family being. Lisa’s dad and Paul’s sister had been adopted, “so we always knew adoption would be part of our life,” Lisa recalled.
They’d planned on being missionaries overseas, maybe having a few kids of their own and then adopting.
However, health concerns prevented them from going overseas, and then they struggled with infertility for 10 years. It was time to explore adoption. Because private adoptions are quite expensive, they decided to try adopting through foster care.
After getting certified as foster parents in Wisconsin, where they were living, three siblings were placed with them for 19 months. The children’s dad eventually turned his life around and they returned to live with him, “and it broke my heart,” Lisa said. “I know the goal is to reunite families, but it absolutely broke my heart.”
She and Paul took six months off from foster care, unsure whether, emotionally, they could continue. But one day, they got a call from their case worker, telling them that a baby girl had been born. Her birth mother was incarcerated. She was 9 days old. Would they be willing?
As if they could say “no” to a baby.
Neisha was about the cutest thing they’d ever seen. She was sweet and smiley, a real cuddle bug. That she was a different color, that her first nine days were filled with an uncertainty they could barely imagine, hardly mattered. She was theirs.
The road to family, though, was strewn with obstacles. Neisha’s adoption ended up taking three and a half years to finalize, and in that time various members of her birth family stepped forward to say that maybe they could take her.
Along with the exhaustion and woozy joy of new family-hood, the McGinnetts lived with the constant specter that it all could end. The uncertainty was excruciating, so they did everything they could to solidify their family bonds.
Seventeen months after Neisha came home, Lisa and Paul received another call from their case worker. A baby boy had been born and left at the hospital under Safe Haven laws, and he was due to be released at 2 p.m. that day. It was then 11 a.m. Would they be willing?
The only thing to do, of course, was bundle Neisha into her car seat, buckle themselves in and rush the 45 minutes to the hospital to meet 2-day-old Charlie. They didn’t have any newborn supplies, so Charlie left the hospital in a blanket, hat and dirty little sleep shirt. They stopped at Wal-Mart on the way home, now a family of four.
Charlie’s adoption was finalized in less than six months, a blessing that counter-balanced his colicky, cranky disposition as a baby. He has since, it should be noted, cheered right up.
There was so much that could complicate their family: issues of race, navigating the fraught relationship with Neisha’s biological family, concerns about nature versus nurture, and how to be open with the children about their adoption while reassuring them that the love in their lives is absolute.
“I know that every mother worries,” Lisa said. “But as an adoptive parent you’re also aware that your children have experienced this primal loss. I can never go back to those nine months in the womb that they had with their birth mothers.
“So, we’re really open, especially because we don’t want Neisha to feel separate because Charlie looks so much like Paul. We tell them, that’s how God built our family.”
The kids have questions sometimes, and Lisa admitted that it takes a lot of work to not feel jealous and to not judge the birth families. She and Paul tell their children that their birth mothers made a really hard decision, and that giving them up doesn’t mean the women didn’t love them.
It’s a message all children need to hear, and it’s one Lisa and Paul have shared with every child they’ve fostered.
After moving to Palisade four years ago, they fostered a family of four children for several months. When they left, it devastated Neisha and Charlie. Lisa said the family is taking a hiatus from foster care.
“I feel that right now, I want to focus on being a mom to my kids,” she explained. “I feel that I am responsible to God for how I raise my kids.”
So, the family goes camping and to the park, plays outside, reads books and does every other normal family thing. They’re busy. They’re happy.
And they’re well aware that it’s time to walk the dog.
‘She was meant to be ours’
So, Tara and Matt…
Wow, Abi, your kitty is so cute! You’re right, it does sound just like a real one.
Anyway, Tara and Matt, your family…
Thanks for the tea, Abi! Oh, it’s soup? Mmmmm!
OK, so you had three girls of your own and then…
Ooh, look at your fancy red lip gloss, Abi. So pretty! And, um, a little bit on your shirt now.
Foster care isn’t easy, of course…
Look at you, Abi! You run so fast!
“Abi was our…” Tara starts to explain.
“Baby!” Abi finishes.
“That’s right!” Tara says, grinning. “You were our baby.”
“And she was our fifth foster child,” Matt adds. “It was such a perfect fit, a magical fit.”
“She was meant to be ours,” Tara finishes.
Blue-eyed Abi Lemon, 4, princess of all she surveys, beams at her parents. They are hers and she is theirs, and Tara and Matt Lemon still marvel at the unexpected ways in which their family came together.
After meeting as students at Palisade High School, they married in 1996 and had their daughters Naomi, now 16, Cora, 12, and Elsie, 10.
Matt, who works at Ute Water, and Tara, the early life coordinator at Victory Life Church, were busy and happy with their family.
But because they were active in the community, they were aware of the urgent need for good foster homes. When she was a child, Tara and her family provided respite care on the weekends for a boy who was deaf, so at a young age she developed a heart for foster care.
She and Matt were certified through the Mesa County Department of Human Services and, more than seven years ago, met their first foster children, a brother and sister, a week before Christmas.
“Our girls were old enough that we could explain to them that there are kids who have certain needs and that we can help them,” Tara explained. “And they could realize what they have in their family, that they have a stable home and love and security.”
With their first foster children, Tara said, they began learning about the extremes of good and bad that people can experience. Bad: These young children, just toddlers, had already experienced heartbreaking neglect. Good: The doctor who performed their well-child exams sent a mountain of Christmas gifts to the Lemons’ home afterward. The memory still makes Tara cry.
Giving foster care “affects your extended family,” Tara said. “It’s kind of awkward for them, in a way. Do you give Christmas presents? Do you give birthday presents? Some of our family thought we were nuts and said it would take away from our daughters, and some supported us 100 percent.”
Being involved with foster care also taught the Lemons that, more often than not, it ends in goodbye.
“Ultimately, you have to remember it’s not all about you, that these kids need a place to be safe and so you have to look past yourself,” Tara said. “But when they leave your home, it’s like a death, but there’s no closure. Will they stay with their family? Are they happy? You know they’re out there, and you know a lot of them do end up back in the system.”
Then came Abi. She was just 4 months old and had entered the foster care system because of medical neglect. Her first two days in their home, Matt recalled, she never even cried, probably because she’d already learned that it wouldn’t do any good.
She was born with hip displaysia and needed therapy three or four times a week, Tara said, not an easy job for an already busy family. But she emerged as such a bubbly, sparkly little thing that the family was happy to do whatever they could for her. Tara and Matt, Naomi, Cora and Elsie fell in love with her.
When Abi was 8 months old, Tara recalled, it became apparent that she wouldn’t be returning to her birth mother. The Department of Human Services began exploring options for her adoption, leaning toward other family members, “so we filed a petition with the court to be considered in that decision,” Tara said.
“It was so scary to be sitting there (in adoption hearings) and the fate of your family is in the hands of a judge,” Tara said. “It lasted one week and you hear people take the stand and talk about you and talk about your life. There are no secrets in this process.”
“But it was so worth it,” Matt added.
“She has changed our family and changed our lives,” Tara said. The adoption was finalized 20 days before Abi’s second birthday.
Sometimes, Tara said, she looks at Abi and considers how different her life might have been. One call not made, one concern not voiced, and Abi might have remained in a situation where it was useless to cry.
They don’t want to judge, Tara said, and emphasize that they’re grateful decisions were made with Abi’s best interests at heart. And they want to be open about how their family came together.
On her fourth birthday, Tara and Matt told Abi that she’s adopted, and how her other mother had given her life and what a gift that is. They told her how a man had called them to come pick her up, and how they brought her home and knew she belonged with them forever.
Abi was intrigued for a while, Matt said, but then steered the conversation toward something more interesting — Disneyland, say, or princesses.
The experience of bringing Abi into their family has made their older daughters more sensitive to others’ needs, Tara said, “and that’s something I love about them.”
“We can’t solve all the problems out there, obviously, but we want to do as much as we can.”
And then, there’s just the regular family stuff, the 4-H meetings, the sports and violin recitals, the camping trips and visits with grandparents and cousins. It’s a full life and a happy one, with everyone, it seems, keeping a watchful eye on the brilliant little comet streaking through their lives.