By Natalie Pompilio
The three siblings had bounced around the foster-care system for 10 years, sometimes placed together, more often divided. Twice, they’d come close to being adopted. Twice the arrangements fell apart. All they wanted was stability, a family to support them, a home where they’d feel safe. And as the years passed, they knew their chances of being adopted grew slimmer.
Then John and Jane Thomas found them.
The Thomases, then living in Chester, Pa., saw a photo of the siblings in their church bulletin. Jane’s four children were reaching adulthood and they faced an empty nest. They decided to fill it again.
“Investing in somebody else is much better than investing in the nicest, newest car or adult toy,” John Thomas said. “My peers have nice cars.”
He has his family. In 2009, Isaiah, 15, Alaina, 14 and Jonathan, 12, become part of the Thomas family, along with another adoptee, two-year-old Jordan. In 2012, Dontae, 15, joined them.
They celebrated Christmas together. Alaina and Dontae were home from college. Isaiah took time off from his restaurant job. Jonathan, now a high school senior, and Jordan, age 8, excitedly welcomed their older siblings home.
“The only regret I have is I wish we could have gotten them when they were younger,” Thomas said during a recent interview. “We’re mommy and daddy for as long as they want us to be mommy and daddy. From our perspective, that’s forever.”
Many people think of adoption and imagine a swaddled infant, perfect in every way, being handed over to an eager couple— one man, one woman, probably Caucasian. But for more than 42 years, Philadelphia’s National Adoption Center has worked tirelessly to change that misperception, matching families with love to give with children and teenagers who may have escaped their view. For dozens of reasons, these children have landed in the foster care system. Some have special needs, mental or physical. Some are older, beyond the cuddly baby phase. All of them need love.
“Families can look like anything.”
“We have a slogan here: There are no unwanted children, just unfound families,” said Gloria Hochman, the organization’s Director of Communication. “We’ve never had a healthy baby. They don’t need us. They get adopted very easily.”
The families, too, are different. NAC has since been on the forefront in welcoming single parents, same-sex couples, and transgender adoptive parents, creating families for more than 24,000 in the last 42 years. Family is family, regardless of what that family looks like. Four decades ago, children with Down Syndrome were often institutionalized. But when the Center found a girl with Down Syndrome in the system, they matched her with a single woman living in West Virginia. Twenty years later, Hochman said, that girl came back to the Center with her mother and other family members and said this, “Thank you for finding me a family.”
“Families don’t have to be a mother, a father and two perfect children,” Hochman said. “Families can look like anything.”
The Recipe Box
It all began at Carolyn Johnson’s kitchen table. Johnson and her husband had recently adopted three children considered “difficult to place” because they were older, had spent time in foster care and were deemed “damaged goods” by many adoption agencies. The children — a Persian girl, an African-American boy and a boy with mixed Caucasian/African-American heritage — also didn’t look like the Johnsons, a white couple.
Johnson held a meeting at her church to determine how many people even knew adopted a child from the foster care system was possible. No one did. She set out to change that.
Johnson used a recipe box to organize the names of children who needed homes and the hundreds of families who stepped forward to to provide them. A local newspaper learned about her efforts and wrote an article about them, which lead to another newspaper decided to offer a weekly column featuring children looking for homes. The column is still published today in newspapers nationwide. Television and radio stations also created their version of these promotions.
In the last four decades, about 60 percent of the children featured in this way have found families, Hochman said.
One of those ads brought Joyce Mosley and her son, Kevin, together.
Kevin was 18 months old in the photo she saw in the newspaper, with big eyes, “but sad,” Mosley remembered. “I thought, ’This has got to be my son.’”
Mosley was unmarried, but she was one of five children raised by a single mother and she knew it could be done and done well. She applied to meet the toddler who would one day become her son. She was told he was “hard to place.” She didn’t care.
She still remembers the day the adoption became final. She told the then 4-year-old boy he could change his name if he wished. He told her, “I already know how to spell ‘Kevin.’”
But her brother’s name became his middle name and her last name became his, too. Kevin, now 45, has a wife and three children, making Mosley a proud grandmother. She currently serves on the Center’s Board of Directors.
“It’s important to find home for these kids, even the older ones. Even at 18, 19, 20, you want a family. You want a place to go for Thanksgiving. You want someone around for Christmas. You don’t want to be alone.”
NAC Executive Director Ken Mullner, an adoptive parent himself, echoed the sentiment that “every child deserves a family, no matter how old they are.” He knows one 16-year-old boy who has lived in 19 homes in his short life. That constant disruption and lack of security takes its toll, he said.
“If we can help a child find a family and prevent that from happening,” Mullner said, “I can’t think of a more important mission.”
Adoption and the Internet
The Internet has been a welcome resource for NAC and the children it serves. One of its first online efforts was “Faces of Adoption,” which put photos and descriptions of children who needed homes together on one website.
One of the first foster children featured was Steven, 15, who was mentally handicapped, legally blind and had Cerebral Palsy.
A family in Alaska saw Steven’s face and story. The mother flew to Pennsylvania and met Steven. The bond between them was instant, Hochman says.
“They decided they wanted to be each other’s families,” she said.
It would take about a month for the paperwork to be completed. Before flying back to Alaska, the mother left her new son with a countdown calendar, each day marked with an inspiring message, “29 days until we see you” and “Soon, you’ll have a brother and sister.” The entire family met Steven at the airport when he arrived in Alaska. The first thing he said? “I’m home.”
“We now know that no matter how disabled or compromised or challenged some children may seem to be, there are families out there that want them,” Hochman said.
To further bring that point home, Hochman told the story of a 3-year-old boy who could not speak, had mental issues and needed to use an oxygen machine. His story was included on a television feature. A couple who happened to be watching the program knew the boy was perfect for them.
Why? Because they’d had a 3-year-old child with similarly complex medical problems who had died. They knew the challenges involved in such care, but they also knew the rewards. They adopted the boy, giving him a mother, father and an older sister.
“You never know who is out there,” Hochman said, echoing the sentiment that “Everyone has a potential family.”