April Dinwoodie: Welcome to Navigating Adoption: Presented by AdoptUSKids, the podcast where we get a better understanding of what it means to adopt a teen from foster care, brought to you by the United States Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families and the Ad Council. I’m your host, April Dinwoodie. One of the most important things we want to highlight in this show is that along the lifelong journey of adoption, you are not alone.
Joslyn: It was really nice to have that network of not just giving us the knowledge that we needed to do a good job logistically, but also having the support to say this is celebratory.
April: Adopting teens from foster care is indeed a unique experience and centering on love is just the beginning.
Joslyn: If Jeremey and I are nothing else, we are good advocates. We will do anything for our kids. If that means we have to look like we don’t know what we’re doing, then so be it
April: Jeremey and Joslyn, her friends call her Josie, have so much to share. Here’s their story.
Joslyn: We live in Gainesville, Florida, and we are adoptive parents. We have four kids total. Our youngest is actually our son by birth. He’s 12. Our three oldest kids joined us through adoption. Right now they are ages 14, 18, and 22, almost 23. Our 23-year-old was actually our first adoption. We adopted him when he was 15. When we first decided to become adoptive parents, this actually happened before we were even married. I knew when I was very young that I wanted to be an adoptive parent, and it was definitely on my short list of questions to ask someone I was dating.
Probably date number two, I asked Jeremey, “How do you feel about adoption?” He was okay with that. I was like, “All right, well check.”
Jeremey: I was going to say that, I’ve been interested in adoption as well, especially older kids, because I grew up estranged from my birth family. Since that was the case, my dad, the man who raised me and I consider to be my dad, is Hispanic. I grew up in a family with a different culture, so to speak. Because of that, I feel like I can relate to the kids we adopt because they come from a different background and a different culture, if you will and because of that, I felt like we could be a good support to them and be a good role model, almost like a mentor.
April: Joslyn and Jeremey access their state’s heart gallery photo listing database, which is similar to AdoptUSKids national photolisting, in order to see photos of children and teens in the foster care system who are in need of forever adoptive families.
Joslyn: We had located on the Heart Gallery a short list of maybe four or five children who based on their personality and what they expressed as their preferences with regard to where they want to live and the types of things they were interested in. We thought, we can fill those. We can check those boxes for them. Let’s inquire about these kids. One of those kids happened to be our oldest and his name is Glen. We said, “Yes, we would like to meet him if he’s open to that.” He met us and six weeks later, he was in our house.
April: Since their son, Glen, was their very first adoption experience, like any new parent, the Ahlgrens had missteps along the way. One of the most important lessons that Jeremey and Joslyn learned as adoptive parents is that they had to change their parenting style to meet the needs of the child.
Jeremey: He really taught me a whole lot more and probably Josie, too, than I ever could have imagined teaching him.
Joslyn: We’ve actually had a very good support system throughout both of our adoptions. Based on some of the friend networks that I have through the church that I attend, I have a lot of friends there that are in the foster and adoptive world. I got to know some of those people. As soon as I started telling them that Jeremey and I were taking our classes to become adoptive parents, they really latched on. We didn’t even have to try. They were like, “Okay, you’re in our team now. Here’s what you need to know.”
They really did a very good job of taking us under their wing and telling us the things we need to be asking for, the things that we can expect out of other people, out of our family, how to address hard questions. I started sharing with them some of the questions we were getting about adopting an older child They gave us lots of good tips on how to handle that and how to acclimate our children to our house when they got with us, and even doing things like bringing us food when the child first got here.
It’s very different than having a newborn baby. You announce that you’re adopting a newborn baby, and people want to throw you a baby shower. You don’t really throw a baby shower for a 15-year-old or even a 10-year-old or a 14-year-old. It was really nice to have that network of not just giving us the knowledge that we needed to do a good job logistically, but also having the support to say, “This is celebratory. We should be happy for you and we welcome this addition to your family, and we recognize that it’s an important and as important as adding a baby to your household,” which was really special.
April: The Ahlgrens explain how they came to the decision to adopt once again. This time a sibling pair, brother and sister, Nelson, 12, and Lauren, 9.
Joslyn: For a period of time, we had Glen living with us, of course, we had our youngest still living with us. We also had two other teenagers. One was my youngest brother, he was 17, 18 at the time and another young man who was just a friend of our family who was 18, going on 19, and having a little bit of a hard time transitioning out into the real world away from his dad’s house. We facilitated that transition a bit.
At one point, we had three teenagers and an elementary schooler, all boys, super fun, lots of testosterone [laughs] but eventually, Glen decided to move out. Then we were down to just one elementary schooler, which felt real weird. We took about, I don’t know, six weeks to just relish in the peacefulness of that and then we started getting a little bit antsy and we kind of started talking about the potential for maybe adopting again, but nothing terribly serious.
We weren’t actively looking for anyone and somewhere in that neighborhood, I was at work on a Friday afternoon. It was a social worker from the local agency that facilitates foster and adoptive placements here in town. They said, “We are in search of a potential really fast placement of a sibling pair for adoption. Are you interested in being one of the families that we consider?” I thought, “Oh my gosh, that’s out of nowhere.”
They called my work phone number. They didn’t call my cell phone number. It just felt very surreal. It didn’t feel normal. I said, “What are the ages? What are the sexes? Give me a little bit more information on that. “They said, “Okay, 10-year-old girl, 14-year-old boy.” I said, “Well, I need to check with my husband because if I say yes to this by myself, I’m going to get in trouble. Let me call my husband, I’ll call you right back.”
Jeremey: Well, you know the house is feeling empty anyway and I actually feel open to this. Go ahead and get back with them and let them know that we’re open to that option of adopting the two siblings.
Joslyn: They told us as much as they could tell us about the kids, their personalities, their background. We took Sterling with us because they wanted to talk with him as well. They asked him how open he is to having brothers and sisters again, and all these types of things, just to make sure that we really are a good fit. A last-ditch effort to make sure we’re the right ones.
April: Nelson and Lauren arrived with all of their belongings to settle into what would become their forever home.
Joslyn: They were supposed to come at five, and then it got delayed a little bit, which was very nerve-racking for me. I was so excited and Sterling just stood at the window like a puppy dog watching the squirrels or something. He was just ready. They showed up around 5:45, 6:00 p.m. Like Jeremey said, they brought their belongings, which was they each had a book bag and a couple of trash bags full of stuffed animals and clothes and a couple of photographs and family items that they had kept with them. They started the process of settling in.
Jeremey: When Nelson and Lauren came to live with us, there’s two sides of that for me. With Nelson, it’s another guy but fortunately, I had already adapted to having another guy in the house so I was cool with that. I learned not to be so just strong, not to be the bull. We still have rules and we still have things that we all need to agree to. You need to have rules in your home but I learned to be a little more accepting and accommodating to his personality, his views, his thoughts, give him some room to grow, if you will. I learned a lot from Glen because of that.
With Lauren, it was different because I don’t have any daughters. I’ve never had a daughter. I asked her, I said, “Do you want to ride in the front or the back of the car with me?” She said, “I’ll ride in the front.” That right there told me a lot, that she already felt trusting of me and that she was, I felt like, I mean, just in her personality, you could tell she was going to grow.
April: Getting to know one another through fun interactions and testing the boundaries are integral parts of creating a new family dynamic.
Jeremey: It was a pretty smooth transition. What we did is we just do a lot of things together. Like we go on camping trips, movies, out to dinner or out to lunch, going to some trails, going to springs, things like that. We just had a lot of interaction and hanging out at times.
Joslyn: Yes, absolutely. The kids all acclimated to one another very quickly. In fact, the night after their first night with us, the next morning I went in and they were all piled up on one of the beds, all tucked in around a cell phone, looking at something. I don’t know if it was Snapchat filters or something silly, but they were all hovering over the cell phone laughing hysterically and it was just so lovely to see them all sharing that moment of a common thing that they were all having fun with. It was really warming to see that.
I feel like it really set the tone for, “This is how our house is. We welcome you. You’re part of our gang now like this is the footing, this is how it’s going to be.” It really did continue pretty well. I think that things started getting a little harder as they got more comfortable and started testing those boundaries. Lauren tested the boundaries a little bit with her cell phone. Nelson tested the boundaries more with school things.
I think it was really helpful for both of them to see that, A, we were going to stick to the consequences that we had laid out, that those were actual things we didn’t just bluff on those. That was helpful. They figured that one out pretty quickly. They still tested, but they definitely knew what was coming, but also that it didn’t affect how we treated them. It didn’t change the fact that I’m still going to give you a hug tonight before you go to bed and tell you, “I love you and hope you sleep tight,” and it didn’t affect the fact that I’m still going to ask you how your day at school went the next day.
We’re not going to ignore each other just because you’re in trouble or you’re grounded from your cell phone. Like this is just going to keep going. It really helped them say, “Okay, this is how it’s supposed to be, I think,” because it certainly was different from how they had experienced life up to that point. Frankly, it was different how Jeremey and I had experienced life as well. We really were trying to channel how we wanted to be as parents and so much of what we had learned from our first adoption and making those corrections to ourselves.
April: From the very first evening that Joslyn and Jeremey and Sterling welcomed Nelson and Lauren into their home, a new family tradition was born.
Joslyn: When the kids first moved into the house, the night that they moved in, we were trying to keep things light and fun. We thought we should document this. I said, “Hey, let’s take a selfie,” and so we did. We all gathered around, and we held the camera up and we took a selfie that night. We do it every single February 3rd, which is the day they moved in with us. When we adopted our cats, we held the cats in the picture and it’s so cute.
In each picture, like really the kids changed so much. In one picture Sterling’s hair was blue and the next year it’s blonde and it’s shoulder length. Going from 11 to 12 and from 12 to 13 and Nelson going from 14 to 18, like talk about change. We plan on doing this every year just to commemorate them moving in with us and kind of now formally entering our lives. It’s way better than school pictures. Like family selfie, way better.
April: Babies and young children aren’t the only ones to hit memorable milestones.
Jeremey: To talk about milestones, I guess the best way I can look at it. It’s just really cool to see them grow and change and adapt to the world and just see what their course is going to be. For example, with Nelson, seeing him get his driver’s license, it was really cool to be a part of that. Seeing him get a job and then at first it was a little bit challenging for him, but then you could tell, see the pride and the happiness that he has a job and makes his own money, seeing them do that is really cool.
I guess the way I look at it is, we’re doing our best to be there and be stable and strong for them and know that we’re going to support them and help guide them along, no matter their choices. Like an oak tree, we want to be strong.
April: Now, I want to go just a little bit deeper with some of the elements of adoption that the Ahlgrens have touched on. To help me do that, I’m joined by Mary Boo the executive director of the North American Council on Adoptable Children, or NACAC for short. NACAC supports, educates, inspires and advocates so that adoptive families can thrive and every child in foster care has a permanent, safe, loving family.
I’m also joined by Melinda Lis, vice president at Spaulding for Children. Spaulding for Children was one of the first agencies in the country that specialized in finding and supporting adoptive families for the placement of children with disabilities or other challenges. Mary, I’m going to start with you, and I would love it if you could explain what pre- and post-adoption services are for families that have adopted from the foster care system.
Mary Boo: The main reason services like that are important is because this journey is different. Children have experienced loss, trauma, and their impacts on them and on their family. The parenting journey has to be different as a result. Some of the services, they include information referral to community services, resources about special needs, core adoption issues, there’s training on all sorts of issues.
Educational support, there are parents support groups, mentoring where you can learn from other parents about what worked for them, some new parenting strategies, there’s great activities for kids where they can build relationships with others who’ve been in the same experiences and have had that same lived experience.
April: Melinda, we know that a lot of these services and supports can vary by state and by county and by region, but they’re so, so, so important. Do you maybe have a breakthrough story or an experience that a family might have had, given access to some of these services and supports?
Melinda Lis: Yes. There is a family that I know that adopted three children. At the time they adopted them, they were younger, not quite at the teenage years, and they were related to them. They were distant kin. At that time, both the adoptive mother and the adoptive father felt like they got this, they know the kids, they have a relationship with them. At that particular time, the kids were doing pretty well.
As the children aged and got into their teen years, the problems and the challenges that the family started to experience really amplified They continued to struggle and it wasn’t until they started to join a support group where they learned about expanding their parenting paradigm and why this type of parenting is different and what it looks like and how do you actually do it.
They were able to totally change the way they interacted with the children. I think the Ahlgrens really talked about that as well, of needing to change the way they think about parenting which this family did.
April: Thank you so much, Melinda. Mary, what would you say to a parent or parents that might be resistant to some of these services and supports? Let’s just say that they think, “We got this, we don’t need any help.” What would you say to those parents?
Mary: I’d say your lives are going to be better with those services. One of the reasons I’m glad we’re talking both about pre-adoption services and post-adoption is if you make some of those connections early on, they may not be as afraid to reach out because one of the things that we hear is that families do feel like, “I got approved, they told me I can do this, I shouldn’t need any help.”
The thing is, again, we all need help learning something new and parenting a child who’s experienced trauma and loss is new for most families. Even if they’ve done it before, and I think the Ahlgrens talked about this, if you’ve parented one child, you’ve parented one child, the next one may well be different.
April: This really is a team sport, it’s a team activity. It’s an extension of the parent or parents that are taking this journey of adoption from foster care. When you think about it in that way, Melinda, what part does the birth family play in that extended family or that extended family team?
Melinda: They’re another valuable member and they have information that an adoptive parent likely won’t have and they can fill in pieces that allow the child to have a better sense of who they are and where they came from and something about their identity which will help them to grow and become stronger.
Mary: I’ll just add to that, that the birth family is the reason this child exists. This child doesn’t exist without that family. If you don’t embrace that and the child doesn’t hear you embracing that, they may feel that you don’t value them. I can’t say enough that you need to acknowledge all parts of the child and that includes their birth family.
April: As an adopted person myself, I often think about my parents. I think about them in this way, I wouldn’t exist without one and I can’t imagine existing without the other.
April: What are some sage pieces of advice that you would give to parents who are thinking about taking this journey, this important, this valuable, this love filled journey of adopting from foster care. What would be the pieces of advice you would give to them.
Mary: My first piece of advice is to keep your expectations in check. Which means, we all have fantasies and ideas about what our lives are going to be like but wait, get to know your child first and then build your expectations. I think one of the things we hear is that expectations can be a real problem. When parents have a fantasy of the child coming into their house, then they have a hard time accepting the child as who they are. That’s the first thing I would say is that, wait, pause, get to know your child.
The second thing I would say is be prepared to change as much as we are asking a child to change. Children who’ve been in foster care have had to come into new families. They’ve had to learn things all the time. Parents need to learn too. We need to think about what our kids have been through and be willing to do at least as much work on our end.
April: How about for you, Melinda? What would that advice be to parents that want to take this parenting journey through foster care?
Melinda: I would have three pieces of advice for parents who are starting this journey. One, attachment is the most important thing, more important than anything else, grades, sports, outcomes, but having that relationship and attachment is essential. Two, redefine your definition of family, make it expansive versus narrow. Three, always be honest and truthful with the child about what you know, and don’t know, the mistakes that you make along the way and how you can work together to move forward.
Mary: Again, I feel like we’ve talked all about challenges and I want to get something in about joy. I think that’s one of the things that really well-run support groups can do so well. Where they’ll have moments where one parent will remind them, “Okay, what’s the best thing that happened this week? What’s the best thing that your kid did this week?” Reminding families to celebrate successes and to have fun together. It’s really important for families to learn from one another about how you build attachment by having fun together.
If it’s all about the struggles or the challenges, you don’t build that attachment, which is so important and what this family journey is all about. I think one of the core elements about post-adoption services is that they remind us we’re not alone. We’re on this journey together, both parents and kids need that sense of togetherness and community.
April: Melinda Lis and Mary Boo, thank you so much for being with us and for sharing all of your experiences.
Mary: Thank you, April. It’s always a pleasure to talk to you.
Melinda: Thank you, April. I appreciate you having me here.
April: Now, let’s go back to the Ahlgrens and see how they’re doing today. One of the things that we’re focused on in this podcast, this episode, is really about this idea that you’re not alone and building family by choice. How did you go about really intentionally building the extended family?
Joslyn: For us, with regard to the extended family for our children and really bringing in the siblings of our adopted children and the parents of our adopted children and the nieces and nephews of our adopted children that we’re very close to them, it was important for us to really reinforce this idea that good people make bad choices, and that you have the ability, even at your age, at your age of 10, you have a voice in this house and you have the ability to set those boundaries and we try really hard to facilitate that for our children.
Jeremey: I’m comfortable with our children having a relationship with their birth family.
Joslyn: With Lauren and Nelson, again, we were like, “Okay, I don’t care what anybody tells us. If the kids want this connection, we’re going to figure out a way to do it safely.” It was also important for us to make sure that we were doing a good job by reaching out to the professionals and the services that were available to us. It’s a little hard for us to ask for assistance, to reach out and say, “Hey, could you do this for me?” but we recognize that if we did not do that, it would be to the detriment of our children.
Again, we had to check our egos and we had to say, “We don’t know these things. We will have to ask these things.” For us reaching out to the social worker if we had a question, calling the counseling center and saying, “Are there services for this, this or this? I don’t know. I don’t even know what’s available. Can you tell me everything that’s on this smorgasbord.”
If Jeremey and I are nothing else, we are good advocates. We will do anything for our kids. If that means we have to look like we don’t know what we’re doing, then so be it.
April: Well, it sounds like what you were doing is really modeling a few things. One, is being in relationship to complex realities. Number one. When you think about the lifelong journey of adoption and the need for a community of extended family members around you, why are those two ideas particularly important for anyone to think about as they consider becoming a parent through adoption?
Joslyn: Having a network or a community that is familiar with adoption and fostering is really helpful. logistically. Like having someone to go, “Oh my gosh, I know exactly what you’re feeling right now.” It’s very comforting to know that you are not alone in that feeling. It really, sometimes in really tough moments helps you to collect yourself and say, “Okay, this is a doable thing. This is not an impossible journey. People do it all the time. We can do it too.”
Jeremey: Accept them where they are, love them and support them.
Joslyn: I would say, be okay with having to reevaluate what you bring to the table.
April: It’s been so nice to get to know you and how you live this lifelong journey of adoption so thank you so much.
Joslyn: Well, we’re still learning. [laughs]
Jeremey: Still learning experience. Thank you.
Joslyn: Nice to meet you.
April: If you are interested in adopting a teen from foster care, AdoptUSKids has adoption specialists ready to guide you through that process right now. Learn more by visiting adoptuskids.org.
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