The ride home from Fayetteville marked the last leg of an exhausting Walt Disney World trip. We started off on the wrong foot that morning at 7 a.m. when we left the hotel. I asked the kids and my mother (an Olympic peeing champion) if they had used the restroom before we left. They all said they had already used it. Ten minutes after leaving Disney property and getting on the interstate Phillip looked grey-skinned and scared to death. He said, “Daddy, I have to poop.” I nearly lost my marbles on that one. We were in an odd area with mostly residential housing, so I had to drive well-off the beaten path to find a toilet he could use. By the time we arrived in Fayetteville to pick up Autumn, what should have been a ten hour drive had stretched to twelve. We were exhausted but thrilled to see Autumn after three days apart.
Erin ignored the cigarette odor and loved on Autumn to the point of smothering her. We lavished her with gifts and Carl kept leaning over the seats to see and touch her. I couldn’t pay much attention to her for two reasons: first, I was driving down I-95 and people along that stretch are certifiably insane; and second, I couldn’t get the image of Beth (Autumn’s biological mother) out of my mind. She looked horrible. And the fact that she just handed me Autumn without saying a single word was a bit unsettling. At that point the situation was out of my hands and all I could focus on was giving Autumn a bath and getting ready to return to work the following day.
Autumn returned to her routine immediately. We knew we’d have three full days with her before before her next weekend visit on Friday. Erin and I continued to talk about the strong possibility that Autumn would be placed with her mother on the court date on November 20, which happened to be my birthday. Although we lost our first two foster children after hoping to adopt them, nothing would prepare us for the sense of loss we knew we would have if we lost Autumn.
On Friday morning Erin packed Autumn’s weekend bag and wrote her usual notes for Beth and her mother. Saying goodbye each Friday morning had grown increasingly difficult, and giving Autumn back to Beth after a short week was nearly unbearable. I gave Erin the best advice I could: Treat each day as if it were our last together. Enjoy the time we have and let the cards fall where they will. It was out of our control.
I left Cleveland High at 2:40 Friday afternoon to head home. We planned to have our family portraits made the following morning at Lake Benson Park in Garner and I had errands to run to prepare for the shoot. As I sat at a stop sign near our home my phone rang. I assumed it was my mother since Erin was still teaching at that hour and no one else ever called me except my mother. But this time it was Autumn’s social worker.
“Hello, Mr. Jenkins. Are you home at the moment?”
“No, ma’am, I’m heading home and will be there in about ten minutes. Do you need to do a home visit?”
“No, I need you to drive to Dunn to pick up Autumn. Her visits are cancelled until further notice. Can you meet the social worker at the Cracker Barrel? She’s on her way.”
“Of course, but can you tell me what happened?”
“I’m not allowed to say at the moment. I will schedule a visit soon and we’ll discuss it then.”
That was it. The answer to our prayers came in that phone call. I knew in my heart that Autumn would not leave us in November as we had feared. The following week the social worker came to us for a home visit. We found out then that Beth failed her drug test and had to start her plan all over again. The court date in November stood, but the social worker’s recommendation was no longer that Autumn should return to her mother. Any further recommendation regarding Autumn’s future would left up to the judge and the DSS supervisors. I no longer had to drive to Dunn each Sunday. Plus, Autumn would get to be in our family photo shoot the following day! We felt blessed and lucky that the tide had turned in our favor.
When November rolled around I attended the court hearing. I was told by the social worker that none of the accusations regarding Autumn’s biological father’s visits nor my concerns from the summer regarding Beth’s possible drug use and pregnancy would be addressed in court. Because the investigations did not provide substantiated evidence the judge wouldn’t hear about them. I decided I would stand before the judge and talk about the issues myself, consequences be damned! I was determined to fight for my daughter no matter what it took.
Just as the hearing started Beth’s mother shocked us all by stating that she asked Beth to leave her home and that the court allow Autumn to live with her. My heart sank because I had no clue that this would even be a possibility. After all, Beth’s mother provided good care for Autumn during the time she was there. The DSS attorney called me as a witness and the judge allowed me to express my concerns. I told him everything: Autumn’s father’s supposed visits, Beth’s pregnancy, and the signs of her continued drug and alcohol use. If it were true that Beth allowed Autumn’s father access to the baby against the court’s wishes then none of us could guarantee the baby’s safety in that home. Although Beth and her mother denied the accusations, the judge did not believe them. He decided to leave Autumn in our care and have Beth re-enter a drug rehabilitation program. Autumn’s biological father did not attend the hearing which drew a rebuke from the judge. I left the courthouse that day comfortable in our chances of keeping Autumn forever.
Autumn continued to grow and thrive. She began walking and talking up a storm. As she reached 18 months we were shocked at how much she favored me when I was a child. The similarities were eerie. Not only that, but she also began to show interest in books and language the same way I did when I was young.
In December we found out tBeth was, indeed, pregnant again and DSS suspected the father was the same as Autumn’s. This revelation, as well as Beth’s drug test failure in October, proved each of my suspicions was true. Christmas came and went with no word from Beth or her family, nor did Autumn’s biological father attempt to make contact with anyone at DSS. In March of 2015 we found out that the father had absconded from his parole and was being sought by law enforcement. I wasn’t worried that he’d try to find us because he had shown limited interest in Autumn and would probably prefer to keep a low profile while he was wanted in Cumberland County.
The next court date was in May that year, but the case was continued for some reason with another date scheduled in November. I told Erin not to worry since everything seemed to be going in our favor. Beth and her mother, on the other hand, still hoped to have Autumn return to their home as soon as possible.
Summer passed without much happening, mostly because I was teaching twelve months and didn’t have the time off I had in the past. The previous April I spent out of our home (read Carl’s adoption story to find out how this happened) and I was still healing from the psychological wounds I suffered. When fall rolled around I was thankful for some relief from the heat and for the impending arrival of my three favorite months of the year: October, November, and December. On September 13 while I was stopped at the same stop sign I was at when Autumn’s social worker called me the previous yeart to let me know that Autumn’s visits were cancelled, my phone rang. It was the social worker again.
“Hello, Mr. Jenkins. How are you?”
“I’m doing well. How are things with you?”
“I’m doing fine. I’m just calling to let you know that Beth died last night.”
“Oh, no! I never wanted something like to happen.” I fought back tears of compassion for Beth, her mother, and for Autumn. “Can you tell me what happened?”
“She overdosed. I don’t know the details and may never know them. But I can tell you that Beth shared with me that the day she kept Autumn when you guys went to Disney World was the day she knew she couldn’t handle taking care of a baby. She wasn’t able to care for herself much less a child. She gave up that day and never recovered.”
I thanked her for her phone call and then called Erin. She was stunned as well and much more emotional than I was. Throughout this process we never guessed something so tragic would happen. Three days later a private service for Beth’s immediate family was held and her body cremated. The social worker attended the funeral but we did not. We weren’t sure that it would be appropriate.
In the meantime, law enforcement found the father and he was in custody for the remainder of his sentence. He would be incarcerated until the fall of 2016. Beth’s mother no longer sought custody but she did reach out for visitation. By this time the plan for Autumn was adoption and the social worker as well as the guardian ad litem did not recommend further visitation with the biological family. We were in agreement for the time being. We hesitated to become involved with them until after our adoption was finalized. In the few months befor Beth’s death she gave birth to a little boy who, according to the social worker, looked exactly like Autumn. DNA tests confirmed that the baby and Autumn were full siblings. We never met the baby. Beth signed her rights to a family she and her mother knew who wanted a baby of their own. When Autumn was born Beth tried to give Autumn to this same family but DSS ruled against her request. Now that they had the baby boy we worried a bit that they would try to seek custody of Autumn but that never happened. For us the true tragedy in all of this was that Autumn had a sibling she would never know and we had no pictures of Beth to share with Autumn as she grew older. The one thing we did have was a recording of Beth’s voice in a stuffed animal the social worker gave to Beth to give to Autumn for her first Christmas. Our hope is that the bear’s internal electronics will stay intact long enough so that Autumn may one day hear her birth mother’s voice.
When 2016 arrived we hoped that our adoption of Autumn would happen quickly, but that would not be the case. In March we were summoned to the trial for the termination of parental rights of the father. He was brought to court in an orange jumpsuit with handcuffs and shackles. To our surprise he wanted to fight for custody. The crux of his argument was that he always assumed Beth would gain custody eventually and that once the matter was settled he would be a part of Autumn’s life. Now that Beth was gone he felt a sense of urgency to gain custody. Of course, the fact that he was in prison seemed to hold no sway over his sense of reality. His girlfriend of the time sought legal counsel that morning to have Autumn placed in her custody until the father was released from prison. The judge would have none of that. During testimony we learned a lot of the man’s tragic background. As with Beth, his childhood was filled with poverty, violence, and tragedy. I believed he wanted to be a father and to do the right thing but he was so far removed from the mainstream of society he had no clue how to function within the law. Erin and I both developed a strong compassion for him, but we maintained that Autumn needed to stay with us. In the end the judge agreed. However, the man chose to appeal the judge’s decision and we were forced to wait once again.
Months rolled by and we heard nothing. We lived our lives as normal expecting to hear about a new court date sometime in the fall. When November arrived and we hadn’t heard anything we asked our social worker what was going on. She had no idea but she said she would find out soon. A week later while at court on an unrelated matter, the social worker asked the lead attorney if there was an update on Autumn’s father’s case. He said, “Oh, yes. That case was dismissed in September. He no longer wished to pursue custody.” The social worker was frustrated and we were shocked, but we were also elated. Our path was finally clear and Autumn was ours to adopt. The paperwork was finalized in January 2017 and Autumn’s adoption became legal on February 10, 2017.
Compared to the boys’ cases, Autumn’s was filled with the most drama and emotional investment. It’s hard to explain to people who didn’t live through it without running the risk of sounding like we love our children to different degrees. That is simply not true. Phillip and Carl came to us after the court established a trial date for the termination of parental rights. We weren’t involved in any reunification efforts because those took place before we even met the boys. In Jon’s case, he came to us at our request in order to keep him from being adopted away from his brothers. He was already cleared for adoption. Autumn, however, came to use from her first days on this earth and we were the only parents she never knew. We put in so much time and effort to give her the best start to life we could. To make matters more complicated, we feared for her safety each time she left to visit her birth mother. We were totally emotionally invested in Autumn and the thought of losing her devastated us.
Not long after Autumn was born my brother and my father cautioned my mother not to become so emotionally attached to the baby. They feared we would lose her the same way we lost our first foster daughter. Although I understood their concerns I thought their sentiments callous. I asked this question to my entire family: Which of the two is worse: An adult who grieves the loss of a child loved without reservation or a child who never knew the joy of being loved unconditionally? It is far more tragic to deny a child the love she desperately needs than for an adult to suffer the loss of a child.
Now that it’s all over we can sit back in hindsight and see our errors along the way. But we also see an amazing journey that brought peace and contentment to three little boys and a solid start in life to a little girl who nearly died before her life even began. When we see our crew together, even if they’ve been arguing and fussing, we still smile knowing they are our babies. We love them all as much as if they came from our bodies.
The boys know they are adopted. Autumn does not. She is much too small to understand how that works. But we have no plans of hiding it from her. The fact that all her brothers are adopted should make it easier on us all. I’m sure there will be questions and desires to connect with her biological family in the future. We are OK with that, with all our children.
Our family has been through a lot over the last four years. It seemed overnight that Erin and I went from newlyweds to having a houseful of kids. Many times we struggled and cried. But when the dust cleared and paperwork signed, a new family emerged that fulfilled the dreams of each person: I wanted a wife and a companion with whom I could have a large family to spoil and love without condition; Erin wanted desperately to be a mother, to have the full experience of having a child from infancy; Phillip needed a father to take away the pressure of having to be in charge of his life and to take care of himself and his younger brothers; Carl needed an extended family to show him the love and support he never received when he was a toddler; Jon needed to find a place where he belonged, a permanent family that would give him the time to figure out who he was; Autumn needed someone to fight for her very survival. Not one of us came out of the experience without scars. We may have been bloodied and bruised, but we are all still standing. In the end we were victorious. We are the Jenkins. We are a family, and nothing can ever change that.