Patrick Clark responds to The New York Times Magazine article “God Called Them to Adopt. And Adopt. And Adopt”

The New York Times Magazine: Letter to the 11.17.13 Issue

Misty and Jon are rightfully praised for opening their home. But your article missed an opportunity to critically examine the foster-care system from which this couple adopted so many children. The paucity of families willing to adopt is not the main problem; it’s that too many children languish in the system when they could be safely returned to their loving parents. Of the children who are in foster care, 47 percent of their parents have trouble paying for basic necessities. Yet under the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, states are encouraged to invest in adoption instead of reunifying families. Your story of the kind saviors who rescue children perpetuates the misguided view that the government can best care for children by removing them from their homes.

– PATRICK CLARK, Staff Lawyer, Family Defense Practice, The Bronx Defenders, N.Y.

In response to the following article:

God Called Them to Adopt. And Adopt. And Adopt.

Misty and her husband, Jon, arrived at a house near Denver one day several years ago to pick up the two boys who would become their sons. A dirt yard led to a screen door dangling from its hinges. Inside, grime coated the linoleum steps to the living room, where a kind, if overwhelmed, single foster mother introduced Misty and Jon to Shon, 2 ½ years old, and his 9-month-old brother, Cory. She gave the couple a tiny suitcase with a broken zipper, a few borrowed clothes — some too big, others too small — and a piece of advice: Don’t touch Shon’s head or lift your hands near him. He will cower. Then she handed Jon a huge bag of frozen fish sticks. The kids love them, she said.

Misty, who asked me to use only first names for her family to protect the children’s privacy, latched onto the idea of adopting from foster care after hearing an ad on K-LOVE, a Christian radio station, about a new organization, Project 1.27, that was helping Christians adopt foster kids. (Project 1.27 is named for the biblical verse James 1.27, which calls for Christians to “care for the orphans and widows in their distress.”) “Has God been calling you to adopt?” the voice-over asked. She and Jon had talked about the possibility of adopting, but international adoption, which can cost $20,000 or more, was too expensive.

Misty told Jon about the radio ad, and the couple talked and prayed about it for more than a year. Jon wanted to adopt one or two children at most, none with physical disabilities. Misty longed for a huge family — six, eight or more — and was open to mild disabilities, possibly more serious ones, depending on the situation. Their four biological children, ranging from 6 to 13 at the time, signed onto the idea, as much as kids that age can. They were excited about having new babies in the house. “I’d seen ‘Annie,’ ” Lauren, the oldest, told me not long ago. “I thought: How hard can it be?”

Misty and Jon knew only a few things about Shon and Cory’s early life. Misty says they were told that the boys’ mother dropped them off with a man who didn’t know their ages or names and never returned. In the first weeks after Misty and Jon took the boys home, Shon would slide his plate over to his brother and refuse to eat until Cory did. Some mornings the family awoke to the sound of crashing pots and pans, as Shon tried to prepare breakfast for Cory. Misty once found spilled muffin mix and a spray bottle of bleach in the boys’ bedroom — presumably the ingredients for an aborted meal. At bedtime, Shon lay on his back, his head in his hands, and stared straight ahead until Misty left the bedroom. He awoke each morning in the same position, as if he were on guard all night.

About eight months later, as the adoption proc­ess inched forward and the boys began to adjust to their new life, a county caseworker came by. Shon and Cory’s mother had just given birth to twins, a boy and a girl. They were only 24 weeks old — at the edge of life. Each baby weighed a little more than a pound. Given the mother’s history of abandoning her children, Misty says, the county wanted foster parents who could visit and hold the babies in the hospital. Misty and Jon had a couple of days to decide.

Misty, who is 39, wanted to bring home more needy children. She loved taking care of kids and had been running an at-home preschool for Shon and Cory and three other children. But Jon, who is also 39 and a sheriff’s deputy, has a tendency toward more sober realism. He worried about being able to care for kids with disabilities or getting attached to foster children who would eventually leave. Still, the twins were Shon and Cory’s biological siblings. The couple said yes.

The baby boy died just days before Misty and Jon’s first hospital visit. His sister, Olivia, hooked up to a ventilator, had heart problems that might prove fatal. For six months, about every other night, Misty tucked her youngest kids in bed and drove 45 minutes to a Denver hospital to hold Olivia.

When Olivia finally came home, she was a calm baby with a full head of black hair, a tracheostomy tube to help her breathe, a feeding tube and full-time nursing care, paid for by Medicaid. Misty, a former nurse for dementia patients, was eligible to work as one of Olivia’s nurses, allowing her to earn money while staying home with the children. That first year, Olivia was in and out of the hospital about a dozen times, often with Misty at her side.

Then a caseworker called with one more request. It was February 2011 — almost two years after Olivia’s birth. The county, which by then knew Jon and Misty were highly competent foster parents, needed a short-term placement for a baby whose mother was expected to regain custody. The 4-month-old girl named Raena weighed only 11 pounds, no bigger than a hefty newborn. According to Misty, a relative’s boyfriend had shaken her and thrown her into a bassinet. A CT scan revealed two brain injuries: one new, one old. Jon and Misty decided they could temporarily make it work with one more child.

At home, Raena, who suffered from seizures, required constant vigilance. She couldn’t hold her head up or grab her bottle. She slept in a crib in Misty and Jon’s bedroom. Misty — and soon Jon — became deeply attached to the elfin girl with big brown eyes and ears that stuck out. “I decided from the start I was going to love Raena to death and my heart might get broken,” Misty said. Then, Raena’s mother lost her parental rights — she had drug problems, Misty says, and was in and out of jail — and she and Jon eagerly started the process of adopting Raena.

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