Lani Burden was a single woman working as a foster care supervisor for the Department of Family and Children Services in Georgia when she got licensed to adopt from foster care in 2008.
“Most of the people in my classes were married couples who wanted babies. I did not. I was the only one who said they wanted a teenager, or a sibling group that included a teen,” Lani said.
It took nearly four years, but eventually Lani was matched with two sisters: three-year-old Sunny and 14-year-old Ally. They, too, had been waiting for the right match for nearly four years.
Unfortunately, during that time, Ally had lived in several homes. As a result, she was a teen who was reluctant to trust. Her one goal was to be adopted with her younger sister.
“She had never been anywhere long enough for anyone to say: ‘I give a damn. I’m not going anywhere.’ So from the beginning, Ally tried to push me away—to make me react, in order to prove that l was lying and didn’t really want her,” Lani said. She would get very frustrated with what she saw as my lack of reaction, but little by little we were breaking down the walls she had built up.”
Sunny came with a whole different set of challenges. The little girl who was precious and precocious by day would have uncontrollable fits every night.
“It was like a switch would flip. She’d be screaming so loud that the neighbors would call and ask if everything was OK,” Lani said.
Reaching a turning point
Lani says that it took several years of going to therapy, advocating for each girl’s needs, and tapping into “a lot of resources” and support to stabilize her family.
For Ally, the turning point came after a particularly rough patch, when the teen was having run-ins with the law and getting caught doing drugs.
“One especially bad day I confronted her and said: ‘Ally, what are we going to do?’ Ally responded, ‘Just give me back to DFCS.’ To which I replied ‘No. That would be taking the easy way out for both of us. We will work through this as a family—like it or not.’ Something clicked, and after that, we started to move forward,” Lani said.
With Sunny, the progress was more gradual and aided by supportive preschool teachers and extensive and intensive attachment therapy.
“One thing we did for years was to recreate her birth story nightly while giving her something sweet, like chocolate milk, in a bottle. The idea is that you give them a calmer picture of their birth story and change the synapses in their brain. The story would start with a version of ‘If you were born in my belly…’ and then we’d create the story as we went,” Lani said.
It’s been four years since Lani adopted Sunny and Ally, and both have made incredible progress. Sunny’s night fits have subsided and she is “doing fabulous.” Ally is almost 21. She has a full-time job and is living in her own apartment. She has turned into an amazing young adult, who is planning on working with teens one day.
“It’s been really amazing to watch them both come into their own person. Ally is comfortable with herself, and when something is not going right, she calls me and asks for advice. That’s super rewarding. And Sunny has become the sassy, bossy little kid she was meant to be!”
Both girls have contact with their siblings, who were either adopted or placed with their birth fathers, and are in touch with aunts and uncles. And they have a baby brother! Two years ago, Lani got married and had a child.
“Sunny was over the moon to have a little brother. I was worried about jealousy and backsliding. None of that was an issue at all. She was focused on wanting the baby to be a boy. But she was very rational about the whole thing—probably more so than me. Before I gave birth, she told me: ‘I really want a little brother. But don’t worry, I won’t love the baby less if it’s a girl.’
“My daughters are amazing people. I can’t imagine my life without them.”
Lani shared her adoption story with us because she wants people to understand that no matter their age, every child deserves a family. You can read more about the reasons to adopt a teen on our website.