By Joe Pinchot and Judi Swogger
MASURY — EDITOR’S NOTE: November is National Adoption Month.
When we started our second adoption journey, we thought a lot about the result of our first one – our son, Uriah.
Looking at us as a family, Uriah stood out because he is African-American and the rest of us, including our daughters, Natalie and Siri, are Caucasian. Also, there’s a nine-year age difference between Uriah and his sisters.
So, we figured, if we were to going to adopt again, we should try to adopt another boy, with at least some racial mixture in him, of around the same age.
The agency we had worked with in adopting Uriah said it rarely attracted older children, so we decided to work through the state system in Ohio, where we live.
At the end of a four-year journey, we ended up with what we originally wanted. Malachi entered our family on July 24, 2011, and his adoption was finalized on Aug. 14, 2012.
So, you might wonder, why did it take four years? Therein lies our tale – a tale that might seem strange to nonadoptive parents, but rings true to those who have added to their families by nontraditional means.
It was an odyssey that included dalliances with the state adoption system, the foster care system and the independent adoption of newborns.
It was a journey laden with frustration, near-despair, interminable waits and unexpected costs, but – finally – success. Adoption is only successful if you keep focused on your goal, no matter how elusive that goal sometimes seems.
According to a Trumbull County commissioner who spoke at a recent Adoption Day ceremony, there are 100,000 children available for adoption in the United States – out of some 400,000 living in foster care. But, as our brother-in-law, Craig Will-iams, said, “Just try to adopt one,” meaning it’s not an easy or straightforward endeavor. And this is from someone who has adopted five children.
In Ohio, working through the state system, you deal with individual counties to adopt children. Some counties have their own websites with descriptions of available children, while others exclusively use the Ohio Adoption Photo Listing website.
For us, OAPL was not much help because it often was out of date and listed children for whom adoptive families had been identified. The county websites tended to have more up-to-date information, but many counties don’t have listings.
In our county, Trumbull, we talked to Trumbull County Children Services and appreciate and respect the work they do, but they had few possibilities for us – one of which was a family of four boys.
In the midst of this, we received a call from a social worker in Nevada concerning the child of a distant family member who was going through some difficult times in her life and whose infant daughter was in foster care. Our names were given to them as possible adoptive parents for the child.
We spent more than a year communicating with the social worker and various and assorted officials in her state as well as ours, attempting to get all our paperwork in order. The social worker there seemed friendly enough in the beginning, urging us to move quickly with our paperwork. Then, several months into the process, she informed us that relatives in another state also were being considered for the little girl’s placement and that their state was moving much more quickly with its paperwork – seemingly making it an “us-against-them” contest.
Despite numerous checks with our state’s ICPC offices, we could find no record of paperwork being sent from Nevada to Ohio, despite the social worker’s insistence that it had been sent. As the months passed, the worker became more difficult to contact – even though we were calling for updates just once a month – and she rarely returned our phone calls.
We understand that being a social worker is a tough job. Still, we expected a certain level of respect that was lacking. It was another of those frustrations encountered when adopting.
Ultimately, the child was returned to her mother – information we found out later from family members. Last we heard, they were doing well.
It’s difficult to see all the faces of children who need families on county websites, knowing you cannot help them all. It’s hard to imagine what it’s like to work to try to find homes for all of them. But, as parents, we know our resources – physical, emotional, financial – are limited. So, you think a good thought for each of them, give thanks when one of them has found a home, take a breath and move on in your search.
The ability to say no is essential to finding the correct adoption fit.
Working through county agencies and OAPL, you send – usually e-mail – your interest to the home county. It’s at that point you find out how overwhelmed, understaffed and often impersonal the staffs of county agencies are. We inquired about 48 children listed on county and state websites – and got acknowledgments from only six county workers. We were able to find out about nine of the children by calling the county workers ourselves.
Each child who truly is available for adoption may attract dozens of families submitting home studies and letters, but that’s not true for so-called special needs kids: those who are older; have physical, behavioral or emotional conditions; or are part of sibling groups.
That’s where it comes home just what county agencies are all about – rescuing kids who have been abused, neglected, abandoned and orphaned, and have a whole range of issues associated with those conditions.
County agencies need foster families more than adoptive families, and there never are enough foster families.
We did not want to become a foster family because we did not want to lose a child who had come into our family. We grieve every day the loss of our daughter, Seymour, who was stillborn, and know the pain of Williams and his wife, Robin – Judi’s sister – who fostered two boys who were returned to their mother.
But, as our letters of interest for available children went unanswered, and other parents were chosen to adopt children we had applied to be considered for, we started talking about foster parenting. Agencies played up foster-to-adopt programs as being the way to go for those who wanted to adopt – especially those who wanted to adopt younger children.
We started taking free foster classes and meeting amazing parents who had opened their homes to foster kids, or were determined to do so. To the credit of the instructors, they told us exactly what these kids have gone through and what challenges we and our kids would face to welcome them into our home.
In short, we could not do it. We didn’t feel prepared to deal with those issues, take precious time away from our children to deal with them, or to open up our children to them.
It was another of the heartbreaks.
With our quest to adopt an older child going nowhere, we decided to try again for a newborn.
We had no burning desire for another newborn, for the late-night feedings, carrying every provision known to man in the diaper bag just so we could go the grocery store. We had raised three kids from birth and Uriah had just gotten out of diapers.
But, we knew that we eventually would be able to adopt a newborn because we would be talking with birth parents, not social workers, and it’s the relationship with birth mothers that’s important, not what forms and reports say about us to a social worker.
We re-upped with the Independent Adoption Center of Pleasant Hill, Calif.; secured yet another round of documentation for our home study – we went through criminal and child abuse background checks three times throughout this process – and worked with our counselor to prepare our birth mother letter – the document detailing our family that is presented to birth parents – and website.
We were told that it likely would take some time – from months to even years – to be contacted because we already had children, so we resigned to get on with our lives and to be ready when someone contacted us.
Then, we got a totally unexpected e-mail.
One of the social workers we had contacted three years earlier, when we first began our second adoption journey, e-mailed us to ask if we would still be interested in adopting the little boy we had inquired about. Three years. Judi cried to see that he had gone all those years without a family.
The first time, we had turned down the chance to be considered for him, because the county agency who had custody of him wanted to place him and his older brother in a home together. But his older brother had issues we did not feel we could take on. Now, here we were being asked if we were still interested in the now 7-year-old boy, for whom the intervening years had not been kind.
With heavy hearts, we once again declined – our own situation being the deciding factor this time. It was another heartbreak, but we turned our focus back to the birth moms who had contacted us.
It took 11 weeks to receive an e-mail from a Pittsburgh-area birth mother. While we never heard back from her, we soon got two contacts – from Malachi’s birth mother, Krystal, and from another woman with a 5-year-old daughter. Both families lived in Georgia.
Malachi’s birth mom interrogated us about all kinds of things that were important to her. We tried to answer as honestly as we could, but the more things she wanted to know, the more we felt we weren’t doing a good enough job.
We took a trip to Georgia and met both birth moms and their kids. The 5-year-old, being older, was more wary of us, while Malachi just kept looking at us with that big smile on his face – the same one he greets us with every morning now.
We e-mailed and talked on the telephone with each family, but Skype turned out to be a remarkable tool for all of us to get to know each other. Krystal, especially, wanted to watch our faces when we talked to her and interacted with Malachi. In fact, it was while on Skype that she told us she had chosen us to be Malachi’s new parents.
We made a second trip to Georgia with our kids and even got together for lunch with both birth mothers and their kids. Joe will never forget that day, because it was Father’s Day and he was given a card signed by all five kids.
The girl’s mom eventually decided against an adoption plan for her daughter, and we dealt alone with Krystal and Malachi.
We had a match meeting with our agency counselor and Krystal, and moved toward the legal transfer.
When we look at Uriah’s adoption and Malachi’s, it’s hard to believe that they resulted in the same thing. The processes were diametrically opposed to each other.
With Uriah, we had to stay in Michigan for a month, waiting to get permission to leave, but we never appeared in court and finalization was handled by a petition filed by Uriah’s birth parents’ counselor. We only had to stay in Georgia 10 days before getting permission to bring Malachi home, but Georgia would not finalize his adoption. It took more than a year for four attorneys – three of whom we paid directly – to work until a judge was comfortable that all laws had been followed.
On July 24, 2011, Malachi’s birth mom signed the papers that terminated her parental rights and gave us legal guardianship of him.
We spent the next 10 days – as a family of six – in a motel waiting for Georgia and Ohio to work through the Interstate Compact for the Placement of Children process.
Although our Georgia attorney was appalled with how long the process took, we were happy that it took only 10 days, considering how long it took with Uriah.
We thought the short stay was a good sign. As it turned out, the wait to finalization was longer than anyone thought it would take.
Once again, red tape and what someone told us was another example of state officials either not understanding or misunderstanding adoption law held the process up for several more months. The delay also added another layer of review to our case – review of the work of two agencies, two lawyers and two state ICPC offices – and two often frustrated parents. Make that three – Malachi’s birth mom was awaiting the final legal hurdle, too.
It was frustrating to have to repeatedly verify the work of all the people we had paid to do their jobs the first time, and it also magnified the feeling, for us, of living in limbo.
Although we felt the tenuousness of our circumstances, we worked hard to make sure that Malachi didn’t feel that way. We were “dad” and “mom” and he had sisters, a brother, grandparents and a phalanx of extended family members and friends to get to know. We wanted him to feel secure in his new family – no matter what legal wranglings were going on about him.
We adopted his new middle and last names from the day we took custody of him, and he was a Pinchot through and through by the time he legally became one on Aug. 14, 2012 – one year and 19 days after we were granted custody of him.
So, we’re frequently asked, will we do it again? At this point, no. Our home is just about full to the brim – two boys and two girls per bedroom in a three-bedroom house. Our seven-seat van is nearly maxed out. Our finances are stretched feeding six of us now – with ever-growing appetites. Most importantly, though, our appetite for the emotional and financial roller-coaster ride of another adoption just isn’t there.
This has been a long, sometimes painful and often emotionally draining journey – albeit one with a happy ending. So, our answer would be “no.”
Still, there’s that one little boy who remains in our hearts and minds four years after we first saw his photo on Ohio’s adoption website.
Every once in a while, we check Ohio’s photo listing site – hoping he’s found his forever family.
He’s still waiting.
Joe Pinchot is a Herald staff writer. Judi Swogger is a former Herald staff writer and copy editor. They live in Masury with their four children.