Jon never figured into our plans to become a family. In reality, he never seemed to fit into anyone’s plans. When the social worker first discussed Phillip and Carl with us, she told us there were four brothers. One was about to turn four and the other was two. The two year old lived with the family who had him since he was an infant and they planned to adopt him. The soon-to-be four year old, Jonathan, lived with an older lady who expressed interest in adopting him. From that point forward the only time we ever heard about Jon was when we pressed the issue. He didn’t come to sibling visits and we knew very little about him. Neither did our social worker.
After several sibling visits with the two year old, I finally brought up Jon and asked what was going on. As it turned out, Jon was served by another agency and another social worker. Because money was involved (the state pays the agencies to supervise the care of the kids on their caseload, so cross-agency swapping is not allowed since both agencies can’t be paid for the same child) we were limited in our interaction. The social worker found out Jon’s foster mother planned to be out of town for a week in August and needed respite care. We readily agreed. But later that evening we received a call from our agency caseworker that we weren’t allowed to provide respite care for a child from another agency. I was appalled. Because of the exchange of money (our agency would not receive payment even though we would) we weren’t allowed to provide respite care. When I asked how could they keep siblings apart like that the worker said we could volunteer to keep Jon on an informal basis but that we couldn’t receive respite care payments. I told the worker I didn’t want any damn money. We were secure financially and weren’t dependent on foster care subsidies. Besides, we weren’t fostering for the money; we fostered to adopt children. Our boys had the right to see their brothers and we intended to make sure that right was recognized regardless of the agency.
In the coming weeks we learned from our boys’ guardians ad litem Jon’s story. After Phillip and Carl were placed in care due to neglect, the family was left with Jon and the infant. The social workers in conjunction with other agencies as well as the local LDS church worked with the parents to see if they could handle raising two children instead of four. When the birth parents couldn’t handle both children, the infant was left in the home while Jon was placed with his grandmother. He stayed there less than a month before both children had to be moved. Because the infant was moved from the birth parents at the same time, the social workers placed both Jon and the infant in the care of a foster family who hoped to adopt. Within the first two days of the boys’ arrival Jon violently tore apart the family’s house. The social worker had to remove Jon while leaving the infant at the home where he would eventually be adopted. Jon next lived with a family who intended to adopt, but a couple of months after Jon moved in with them the couple separated and Jon was placed in yet another foster home. I do not know how long he stayed there, but his next foster home was run by an African American lady in her mid-60’s. She was devoutly religious and fostered many, many kids over the years. Her home was set up like a daycare. I was only ever allowed to stand in her front entry way, but the home was clean and she clearly loved the children, earning their love in return. Her foster home catered to short term and mid term placements. Like many long term foster providers she relied on charitable donations as well as thrift shops to care for her kids. She cooked basic meals and provided toys for the kids to enjoy, although the toys were considered part of the foster home, not the property of the individual kids. In the two years Jon lived with her, he was the only Caucasian kid ever in her care. As a general rule I objected to foster families who relied on the kids as a source of income, but in the case of this particular lady I can honestly say that she did provide appropriate care.
After arranging Jon’s first visit that summer, the guardians ad litem advised us that Jon was quite hyper and that he would have to be monitored even more closely than Phillip and Carl. It seemed as though they were trying to talk us out of taking him in for the week. In retrospect, they knew us well enough by that point to know we would eventually pursue adopting him, a move which they opposed. Their opposition had nothing to do with us or the kind of parents we were; simply put, they felt Jon needed to be placed in a home where he would be the only child and could receive the full attention of both parents. At the time I wasn’t thinking about adopting Jon because we were told that his current foster mother was interested in adopting him. Our goal was facilitating sibling visits and nothing more. Raising two sons with special needs was enough for me to deal with let alone another highly hyperactive child.
On the day Jon was to arrive the social worker came five minutes after I got home from the grocery store. When I opened the door Jon , who was holding a green balloon from Lowes Foods, zoomed past me and started running circles around the dining room table. My mouth dropped open from disbelief. I had never seen a more hyper kid. The social worker looked frazzled. She handed me his clothes in a much-used duffel bag and let me know that she would pick him up the following Saturday. Six days of Jon would test every ounce of patience and parenting skill I possessed.
First, his shock of blonde hair stood in great contrast to his brothers who have brown hair. Next, he acted like was driven by a motor. When I picked him up and held him so that he could look me in the face, his eyes darted every where but on my face. I tried the polite, sweet approach first. When that didn’t work, I went all out Alpha male on him. I think it scared him, but it certainly got his attention enough to help him calm down sufficiently to pay attention to what I told him.
I looked him over from head to toe. His finger nails and toe nails were outrageously long. I clipped them all (this would be the case each and every time he visited). Next, I checked his clothes. They were quite old and careworn but clean. When Erin got home we left for the local outlet mall and bought him some new clothes to get him through the week. That night when we were settling down he couldn’t stop himself from running all over our two bedroom apartment. I sat on the sofa and called him over to me. Carl and Phillip sat in the floor watching cartoons. Jon crawled up in my lap. When he wouldn’t look at me I took his hand and placed in on my cheek. He started rubbing my beard stubble. It was the first time he’d ever felt facial hair. He asked me what it was and I explained to him that men grew hair on their faces. That was why we shaved. He stared at my face while he rubbed my cheeks. I asked him if he knew why he was staying with us. He said it was because Aunt Doris (name has been changed for privacy) was on a trip. I said yes but there was another reason. He asked, “Why?” I said, “Because we love you. We love Phillip and Carl, but we love you too. You are their brother, and even though you don’t live with us we still love you.” He hugged me tight and lay across me, finally settling down to watch a cartoon before bed.
Two weeks later we left for Walt Disney World. Jon wasn’t with us but we bought him and the fourth brother presents while we were there. On the next sibling visit just before we all returned to school we took him his presents. I had to pick him up from his foster home and take him home afterward, but it was worth it. Had I not done that Jon would never have been able to participate in any of our family activities. I always had to pick him up, pay for the experience, and then take him home. Those visits allowed us to bond with Jon and welcome him as an important part of our family. We figured that even though he would be adopted by Aunt Doris, we would still pick him up and care for him whenever she allowed.
Our first week back at school we received a phone call that a newborn was available for long term care and possible adoption if we were interested. I will tell the full story of how Autumn came to us later, but for the next six weeks we transformed our home to care for three children instead of two, one of whom was an infant suffering from the effects of prenatal addiction. Erin returned to work in October and we started to find a routine for everybody. Then came the call: Jon’s foster mother was no longer interested in adopting him. She felt that she was too old and couldn’t guarantee that she’d live to see him into adulthood. The social worker asked if we were interested and I said we’d talk about it. Meanwhile, the guardians ad litem called us to let us know what was going on with him and told us although they were sorry, they could not in clear conscience recommend that Jon be placed with us. Erin and I lay in bed that night shedding many tears and trying to sort it all out.
We lived in a two bedroom apartment. Once Autumn reached one year old we knew we’d have to move into a three bedroom apartment or look to rent a house. I had no desire to own a home after a bad experience with a previous house that was a money pit. I was quite happy in my apartment. But every time we thought about Jon our hearts broke. We knew Jon would be placed with a family somewhere but there was a chance we would never see him again once he was adopted. We cried many tears as we tried to figure out the right course to take.
Finally, we reached a decision to pursue Jon’s adoption. I called the social worker as well as the guardians ad litem to let them know that we were going to request Jon be placed with us. Erin, unbeknownst to me, contacted a real estate agent and started the process of convincing me to build a house. And that’s just what we did. We built a five bedroom home to make sure we had enough room for everybody. Construction took four months and we moved in the first week of March, 2014. Jon came to live with us the first week of May.
One of our first tasks was to seek medical help to deal with Jon’s hyperactivity. Between Erin and myself, we had nearly fifty years experience working with kids. Neither of us had ever seen a more severe case of ADHD. We went through the process with the help of the social worker and the previous foster mother to gather the data needed for the diagnosis. We sought appropriate therapy as well as medication to help him control his impulsivity. This process took a couple of years before we finally settled on the right regimen to suit his needs.
While celebrating Phillip’s birthday that July, we learned that Jon had never celebrated a birthday of his own. After prying a bit more for information, we discovered that the kids in Aunt Doris’ home were treated to a Christmas party at the local fire department, but presents from Santa Claus or anyone else for that matter weren’t provided. Birthdays weren’t paid for by the state, so they slipped by without notice. The following weekend we had a Very Merry Unbirthday Party for Jon complete with presents and cake to help him feel the experience. Our first Christmas together was tough for him. While Phillip, Carl, and Autumn tore into their piles of presents, Jon sat on the sofa not knowing what to do. Erin had to sit Jon on her lap and explain to him that the presents were for him and that he deserved them. That first year was a bit pitiful, but every year thereafter was much better.
One of the earliest of Jon’s quirks we learned was that he was house cleaning expert. He folded laundry, vacuumed the rugs, picked up the trash, etc. At first we were happy that he seemed so eager to help, but we ended up having to make him stop helping so much. He wasn’t being a kid. We assumed he helped out his foster mother in the past, but we felt the cleaning and repair work were our responsibility. We wanted Jon to focus on enjoying being five.
Jon’s transition to our family came with quite a few hiccups. He always sneaked around and seem to spy on everybody. When he climbed in our laps and told us he loved us, there was something insincere about his sentiment. Even my mother commented that Jon seemed to be trying too hard. We could never quite put our finger on it. His impulsivity got him into a lot of trouble. He spray painted the wall in the garage. He wrote on the walls with permanent markers and tried to hide it even after we had told him several times not to do it. The worse thing he ever did was set some toilet paper on fire and then put it in a trashcan without telling us. I found the trashcan half filled with water and scorched Angel Soft.
As I think back to all of those instances, I realize what was happening. Jon never had the opportunity to bond with anybody. He moved between foster families so much that he missed out on that crucial time of learning appropriate human interaction. To be clear, he did not have reactive attachment disorder. Rather, he was a little lost boy in search of his place in the world. He tried so hard to get people to pay attention to him that he came across as fake. Once Erin and I figured out his deal, we took steps to help him to heal.
First, we spent more time with him individually and praised him for the things he did each day that worked. Second, we made a point to talk to him one-on-one every day just to listen to him tell us what he was thinking. He often made no sense, but it helped. Next, we cuddled and held him like we would a baby. He loved the attention. This may seem extreme but nobody had ever held him like that his entire life. It took a long time and many days of addressing his impulsive behavior before we found our happy medium. Once Jon gave himself license to be himself and found the joy in just being who he was he found his peace.
Out of all three of my sons Jon is the most athletic. I have no illusion that he’s the next Tom Brady, but I have a feeling he can hold his own with his peers on the athletic field. I enjoy spending time with him and cuddling with him. On the rare occasion on the weekend when I can take a nap he will crawl on top of me, pull a pillow over his head, and start snoring in less than three minutes. My belly is his happy place.
Our house is the home that Jon built. The only reason we built such a large house was because of Jon, and we don’t regret it one bit. Jon brings spirit and wonder to our house. He loves freely and is a hard worker in all he does. My hope for him is that he continues to see what a special little boy he is. Jon is the final piece of our family puzzle that we never knew we needed. And now that he’s with us, we are all the better for it.
Little Boy Lost: Jonathan’s Adoption Story
Though She be but Little, She is Fierce: Autumn’s Adoption Story