Adoptive parents express a unique love for life and hope for the future
Five plates were arranged on the kitchen counter, each stacked with a couple of slices of pizza and half of a banana.
"I was totally over cooking for this week," joked Erin Remington, adoptive mother of the five children, none older than seven, following their noses into the dining room.
When Steve, Erin's husband and adoptive father of the brood, brought up the rear of the conga line to the kitchen, the family prayed together, and the kids dug in.
It's been nine months since Steve, Erin and the five siblings - Daniel, 7; Karyna, 6; Angel, 4; Allie, 3; and Jordan, 2 - became a family. The adoptions, all through Oklahoma Department of Human Services, were final Jan. 25.
The Remington family will be one of the two presented with the 2008 Family of the Year award, conferred by the Sixth Area of DHS during its annual celebration of National Adoption Awareness Month, which kicks off Nov. 1. The awards will be presented at Moore-Norman Technology Center in Oklahoma City Nov. 19.
The Singletons, also recognized for the award, are another family of five. John and Mona Singleton have an 11-year track record with DHS, adding three adopted children -- Sophie, 5; Makayla, 4; and Secily, 17 months - to their family of four just within the past couple of years. Their first two children -- Sage, 10, and Michael, 11 - were also adopted through DHS.
Social workers from the Sixth Area - which defines sets of social workers assigned to geographical regions (Tulsa, Osage, Creek and Washington counties) - nominated the families for the award.
"The Remingtons adopted this sibling group of five, and this is their first time to be parents. That's quite a leap of faith and a challenge, and they've done very, very well," said Jane Eneff, adoption supervisor with DHS. "The Singletons have been with us for a long time. They do a super job."
With the awards, "we get to honor people who we think are really special," she said.
If these families are any indication, interest in adoption in the state is growing. DHS authorized 1,579 adoptions during its 2007 fiscal year, an all-time record and up 18 percent from 1,336 authorized adoptions in FY 2006.
"I wish even more people would consider adoption," said John Singleton. "These kids come in all different shapes, sizes and colors, and they need you. When you see them, suddenly, you feel like you can try."
"These are the community's children and the community should be taking care of them. That's not happening," Erin said. "It's our responsibility.
There should not be a child go up for adoption and not be adopted. There is no excuse for that.
"I never tell people they're great kids because that seems so trite. But, they are great people. All they need are the central, basic, human needs met: food, sleep, stability and love. They are like any normal child would be."
Great Expectations: The Remington Family
Even before they met, Steve and Erin dreamed of building a large family.
"I assumed that I would have biological children, and after I had one or two, then I would adopt however many to have a large family," Steve said. "Then we realized that there are no rules saying we couldn't adopt first and then have our own kids."
The journey down the road to a full house began as the couple looked into adopting internationally.
"It's really difficult and expensive," Erin said. "There are age requirements, weight requirements, height requirements. It's crazy."
"Plenty of people do it," Steve said. "That was amazing to me after I found out about all the hoops you have to jump through."
Searches online for more options landed the couple at the DHS Web site.
"There were kids listed on the site that were 10, 11, 16 years old," Steve said. "These weren't babies. They were children, these smiling faces, that just needed a home."
The under-five group of children placed with adoptive families by DHS during its last fiscal year numbered 756, while children aged 5-17 years represented a group 9 percent larger at 823.
"And, they're right here," Erin said. "It seemed counterproductive to go overseas and adopt when we're not taking care of our own children here at home."
The adoption process, not unlike a pregnancy, is rife with expectation. But, Steve and Erin found serendipity confronts parents of all kinds.
"We said, 'We just want one,'" Erin said. "One school-aged girl."
"We weren't in the position where we were unable to have our own kids where we were like, 'Baby, baby, baby,'" Steve said.
At one of the nine-week DHS workshops for parent-hopefuls, Steve and Erin learned more about sibling groups. DHS strives to find placement for siblings, no matter how many, within one household.
"Then we said, 'Okay, we'll take two sisters,'" Erin said.
"I mean, we didn't want life to change too drastically," Steve said, laughing.
A DHS adoption party, which brings parent-hopefuls and children with a goal of adoption together for an informal meet-and-greet, changed everything for the Remington couple. Generally, DHS hosts six parties per year throughout the state.
At the party, "there weren't any kids who met our 'requirements,'" Erin said.
Then the couple heard a set of five siblings was on its way to the get-together.
"We thought, 'We're here already, we might as well meet them. Obviously, we're not taking five kids,'" Erin said. "But, Angel and his chubby hands - I just could not get over him."
Parent-hopefuls at the party gushed over Jordan, then barely a year old.
"All of the kids had name tags that had the same number of stickers as they had siblings," Erin said. "When those people saw that many stickers on Jordan, those people were like, 'No thank you.'"
But, the Remington couple was smitten.
"We were kind of in denial," Erin said. "I mean, holy crap, there are five of them. That can't be good. It was like, 'What are we even thinking?'"
"We got home, and I asked Steve, 'Do you think we can do it?' And Steve said, 'Well, no. Why would we think that we would be able to do this?' And then, we just did.
"This was a hard-to-place family. Five kids? They could have been up for adoption for years."
The process to place the fivesome with the Remington couple began that evening. One night after the holiday season, the siblings came for a sleepover in their new home.
"We spent Christmas in Africa, and when we came home, we had five kids," Erin said, laughing. Taking on five children all at once "is just like ripping off a Band-Aid. It's the best way to do it."
Children in DHS custody with a goal of adoption live in the adoptive household for six months before the final court date seals the deal. A social worker visits the home periodically to monitor the household and to assist with any transition troubles.
Parent-hopefuls are provided a medical and social background of the child in whom they are interested. Parents-to-be must submit to a home study, a process administered by DHS that provides the agency a background of the adoptive family. The length of time needed to complete this process varies.
The Remington household runs like a well-oiled machine -- most of the time, anyway. But, life together didn't always mean orderly dinners and please-and-thank-yous.
"When some of them got here, they could not handle being told what to do. They just fell apart," Steve said. "They were used to being on their own and fending for themselves. All they needed was stability, consistency and love."
The kids had been through some 15-20 daycare facilities, and Jordan had seen nine foster homes in 18 months before the Remington couple took him in. Throughout their time in foster care, the siblings cycled through times of separation and reunion.
On average, nearly 8,300 children were in the foster care system in Oklahoma each month during 2007, up 4.8 percent from a monthly average of almost 7,900 children during each month of the previous year.
A large family doesn't come without an equally large demand on the pocketbook. When they started the adoption process, Steve and Erin lived in a one-bathroom bungalow. The couple, now the owners of a much larger home, also owned their own real estate business. Changes in the economy forced Steve into the 9-to-5 workforce, and Erin is now a full-time mom.
Good thing parents who adopt through DHS aren't without a helping hand when it comes to the cost of raising children. The DHS Adoption Assistance program subsidizes qualifying adoptive households until the children turn 18, slashing the cost of raising children adopted through the agency.
More than 9,000 children benefited from the adoption subsidy program for FY 2007, up 7 percent from about 8,500 the previous year. DHS spent $36.2 million in 2007 on adoption subsidies, the largest line item in the Children and Family Services section of the agency's annual report, save the $49.5 million it spent on foster care.
The kids also benefit from Medicaid insurance, giving the children free health care until they reach legal age.
"It pays for preschool tuition and extra-curricular activities, and they stay well-dressed," Erin said. "It covers a lot of things that we might not be able to do with five kids."
In a refrain familiar to any couple with a five-year plan, Steve said, "If you're waiting for the right time to adopt, there will never be a right time.
"Make the time. Yeah, you may have a sleepless night now and then, but it's worth it."
Prospective parents looking into DHS adoption would do well to "be open to more than what you think you want, and expand your horizons beyond the white, brand-new baby," Erin said.
"If we stayed stuck in our idea of two elementary-school-aged girls, we would have missed all of this. There is a lot more to this than blue-ribbon babies. These kids need us."
With the family's first holiday season together right around the corner, Steve and Erin look forward to building new traditions with the kids. This time will also give the new aunts, uncles and grandparents a chance to watch wrapping paper fly on Christmas morning.
"My family always took in strays -- stray animals, stray people. Our friends always had a place to stay," Erin said. "For my parents, this was a natural step. They are still beyond thrilled."
"Our friends were supportive, too. Maybe not at first; I think a lot of our friends thought we were insane."
"My parents still aren't really sure they understand why there are five of them," Steve said, laughing. "They would have been excited if we had gotten just one. They love them and are fantastic with them."
Steve and Erin have talked about adding to the family through adoption, and foster parenting may also be in the cards.
"If you had asked us when we got married if we were going to adopt five kids, we would have said, 'Um, no.' I can't say what we'll do. Who knows," Erin said.
You Can't Stop at Just One: The Singleton Family
John and Mona Singleton started down the road to parenthood 11 years ago when, after 12 years of unsuccessful attempts to conceive biological children, they called DHS.
"Our friends from church adopted this beautiful little girl through DHS. We decided to make the phone call. We went through the training and met other families. It gives you this sense that you can do this," John said.
Within two months, the call came from the agency announcing a 9-day-old baby was available for placement with the couple.
"He was truly a miracle, especially through DHS," Mona said of the baby, whom the couple named Sage. "So many try for a newborn. When there is a newborn, you go up against so many other families who want that child. They've been waiting for years, most of the time."
When the couple decided to adopt a sibling for Sage, Michael was matched to the family. He was four-and-a-half years old -- six months older than Sage - when he became a Singleton.
"It was a great thing for him to come into our lives, and to Sage," Mona said. "They're total opposites, but they're the best of friends."
Still, Mona longed for a daughter. Four years later, the family welcomed Sophie, then three.
Within days John and Mona got word that Sophie's half-sister, the then two-year-old Makayla, could be placed with the family. Since neither DHS nor the Singletons wanted to separate the siblings, Makayla was welcomed into the Singleton home the following month.
Now John and Mona are adopting the third of the sibling group, 17-month-old Secily, who came to live with the family last summer when she was just two months old. The couple hopes her adoption will be final by the end of this year.
"We're so busy, and it's so crazy," Mona said. "We wouldn't trade it for anything. Our children are such a blessing. Of course they get crazy. Kids do. But it'd be awfully quiet around here without them."
In it for the long haul to say the least, the couple's relationship with DHS continues as Secily's adoption moves down the pipeline toward that final day in court. The couple has been asked to speak at agency events about their adoption experiences, as well.
"We've been with them for such a long time," Mona said. "I know I can call if I need anything, and my social worker, who has been with us since the beginning, is just awesome. She is really good to get back with us, and that is not always true with case workers."
Waiting has been the most difficult aspect of the adoption process for the Singleton couple.
"You're waiting, really, for everything," Mona said. "Waiting for a child to be placed, waiting for that child to become permanent, waiting on the adoption process, waiting to hear back. It's a big waiting game."
"With the first four, the mothers' rights were terminated before we got them," Mona said, marking Sage as the exception. While he came to live with John and Mona in February of 1998, his adoption wasn't final until December of that year, partly because of a lengthy parental rights termination process.
Secily is the second exception. She came to live with the Singletons in July, at which time her mother was still fighting to bring her home. The mother has since vanished.
"It's so stressful, not knowing if we're going to get to keep her after having her in our home all this time," Mona said. "You don't know from one court date to the next what's going to happen -- if the parents will show up, if they decide they need visitation rights. You never know, and here's this child waiting in the balance. You want them so badly to be yours, and you have to wait on someone else to decide that for you."
Michael, Sophie and Makayla each had turns in the foster care system, ranging from two to more than three years. While Makayla's experience with her foster home was positive, the others weren't so lucky.
"When Michael first came to stay with us, of course he wanted to go back there [to his foster home]," Mona said. "That's all he knew. But, as he has gotten older, he has told me some of the things that went on that weren't so positive. Some things were good. He got a secure home, but there were other things that happened along the way that he struggled with."
Sophie was placed in 11 different homes during her first year of life, resulting in an ongoing attachment disorder.
"She was a very difficult child to be around because she couldn't make any attachments. Then, they would move her, and that would just make it worse," Mona said. "We really, really struggled with that -- trying to let her know that she is safe, that she is going to be with us and that no one is coming to take her."
John and Mona, both having grown up with multiple siblings, had always wanted a large family, financial and other costs notwithstanding. John works two full-time jobs -- one as a church pastor at Mounds Assembly of God and the other as a human resources manager at the new Belk's department store at Tulsa Hills -- so Mona could be home with the kids.
"I have two full-time jobs. My wife has a non-stop job," John said.
The Adoption Assistance subsidy program, along with the Medicaid insurance for the kids, makes a huge difference in the Singleton home.
"We wouldn't be able to make it without that," Mona said. "Sage takes so much medicine for his ADHD and Asperger's Syndrome, so it would just break us if we had to pay for it."
The Singletons' home is spacious by most standards, measuring 2,800 square feet. Though space is plentiful, privacy comes at a premium. The three bedrooms in the home are split between John and Mona, the brothers and the sisters.
"We've been talking lately about converting our two large attics into bedrooms," Mona said. "When we built this house seven years ago, all we had was Sage. We've gone from one to five in just a few years."
That the children are adopted isn't always easy for them to understand, Mona said, and the words to describe the details sometimes don't come easily.
"Sage has asked me if he did certain things when he was born, and Sophie has asked, 'When I was in your tummy, did I do this or that?'" Mona said. "They've been told, but they don't comprehend. Or, maybe they just don't want to."
"They were born in our hearts, and that's what we teach our kids," John said.
Many adults remember the schoolyard as a treacherous place, and that the adopted child in class seemed like a honing beacon for the school bullies.
"There have been a few kids at school who are mean to Michael, saying things like, 'At least we weren't adopted.' They're just being mean. John told Michael to tell them, 'I was chosen. Your parents had no choice with you, but mine did,'" Mona said, laughing.
Ventures into public places as an adoptive family of seven presents its special set of challenges. Michael and Sophie's African-American heritages are on proud display, and since John and Mona are obviously not African-American, the family garners quizzical glances from time to time.
"I've asked Michael if he thinks it's weird that he has an all-white family, or if he wishes that he didn't. But to him, we're just his family now," Mona said.
The demographics of DHS adoption depart significantly from the figures gathered by the U.S. Census Bureau on the national population. The race or ethnicity of nearly 60 percent of the children placed with adoptive families through DHS are classified as white, while about 20 percent are listed as black and 20 percent are American Indian. Overall in the U.S., whites make up about 80 percent of the population, while black persons account for 12.8 percent and American Indian and Alaska Native persons account for 1 percent.
"I don't think of Michael in terms of color. When I see him, I don't even see that anymore. He's my son," Mona said. "The same goes for Sophie."
As the diversity in the Singletons' shrinking house shows, "if you have a specific child in mind, you're going to have a difficult time with DHS," Mona said.
"We wanted a baby so badly. The girls came when they were three and two, but then, what do you know, a few months later, here comes a baby. You never know what's going to happen. God puts you together, and if you're willing to wait, you're going to get the child that is meant for you. You have to be patient."
John and Mona found that all parents, whether biological or adopted, stand to learn the same lessons from the process of building a family.
"I really didn't know what unconditional love was until DHS helped our family grow," John said. "Now I have a firm grasp on what it is to love without conditions, without measure and without limits.
"I hate to compare it because I have never had children, but I have seen a child born, and I have been with people who have gone through pregnancies. Adoption has its same pains, and the reward is the same. When you meet them for the first time, something happens inside. Something happens and you know that you're going to do this."
"There is a big hole in your home when you don't have any children," Mona said. "You're really missing out on a lot. There is a lot of heartache and stress, but there is so much joy."
The Singleton Seven are already packing for their Thanksgiving trip to Branson, where they will meet up with extended family to make the rounds to the parks and holiday shows. Christmas, celebrated across the street from the Singleton clan at Mona's mother's house, has always been a family event, attended by Mona's sisters and their children.
"Our kids are just as much part of the family as anyone else. It's big, it's fun, it's crazy and it's loud," Mona said, laughing. "It's everything a big family should be."
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