POSTED ON OCTOBER 31, 2007:
The Making of a Family
There are different ways to make a family, as long as love and self sacrifice are the foundation
There are different ways to make a family, as long as love and self sacrifice are the foundation.
It's the down side of autumn and the weather is doing its best to remind us of approaching winter. Wet and gray, this particular day is shrouded in dense cloud cover and soaked in a cold, steady drizzle. The sun seems to have lost its way.
But there is a brilliance shining from the face of Heather Savage. The pretty 26-year-old is smiling from ear to ear, carrying an umbrella in one hand and a two-year-old in the other. Five other children, ages five through 11, cling to her. Looking overwhelmed, she is totally consumed by love.
The occasion is a photo shoot for UTW and the children (all six adopted, four of those adoptions just recently finalized) are more lively than cooperating with the patient photographer.
Following a quick lunch at Tally's on 11th Street, they file out of the diner, one behind another, splashing in every puddle along the way. The kids are having a blast and Savage is happy just to look on.
She's talking about her experiences with adoption, a subject upon which she is expert--from first-hand knowledge. It consumes her life.
"I became a foster parent when I was 21 years old," she recalled, smiling and laughing just a little. At the time "I looked like a foster child myself."
Savage now has six children in her home, ages two to 11, including a set of six-year-old twins, all adopted through DHS.
"This is a very humorous home," she said. "We look like the melting pot of America. One child is Native American, one is African American, one is Hispanic and Vietnamese and three are Caucasian."
An estimated 114,000 children are in foster care across America, waiting to find permanent, loving families to take them into their homes.
Through no fault of their own, these children enter foster care as a result of abuse, neglect and/or abandonment. The average child waits three years for an adoptive family; 21 percent spend five years or more waiting for a family. Of the 114,000 children waiting for adoption, 36 percent are black non-Hispanic, 40 percent are white non-Hispanic, 15 percent are Hispanic, two percent are American Indian/Alaskan Native, four percent are two or more races non-Hispanic and 3 percent are unable to determine.
According to Jane Eneff, Area VI Adoption Supervisor for Oklahoma Department of Human Services Swift Adoption, in Oklahoma alone, 2,866 children are in foster care eagerly waiting to be adopted. The good news is that more and more children are finding permanent homes because of changes in processing adoptions made over recent years in DHS.
For 2007, the total number of DHS authorizations was 1,579, with demographics breaking down to 51 percent or 806 males and 49 percent or 773 females. Fifty-six percent or 879 children were 0-5 in age; 33 percent or 523 were 6-12 years old and 11 percent or 177 were aged 13-17.
Ethnicity breakdowns include 56 percent white, 21 percent black, 23 percent Indian, one percent Asian or Pacific Islander and three percent Hispanic.
Savage said her experience working with DHS was "phenomenal."
"They have been incredible. They have been very open to having me adopt children of all races. They did not look down upon my own youth, and I would recommend adopting through DHS for everyone," she said.
Savage has a bubbly, energetic personality and an immensely positive attitude that seems to transcend any hardships and difficulties she has faced these past few years. She herself was raised in a big family, and she has the advantage of counting on family support when needed with her new family.
Savage is fortunate to be able to stay at home with the younger children while the older children are in school. She has a full-time job as a writer for a production company, and has the added advantage of being able to work out of her home.
Savage does not fit the profile of many adoptive families. She is young, single with no intentions of being married in the immediate future--and she has adopted six children from DHS.
Savage, whose father was a minister, recalled growing up overseas being a missionary and visiting many orphanages.
"This opened my eyes," she said, to the needs and cries of many children who have no families to care for them. Living overseas had a life-changing impact on Savage, one that moved her heart to do all in her power to care for children without permanent families.
She returned to America knowing she wanted to assist the orphans she came to love overseas, but soon found there was a grave need right in her homeland for children to be placed in homes. She knew she wanted to be a foster parent as soon as she was old enough, and thus, looked into this possibility with DHS.
Savage adopted some of her children at birth, and some at older ages; moreover, some came from sexually and physically abusive families.
"I have a daughter who was on bedwetting medication when I adopted her," Savage recalled. "She told me, 'I'd rather be beaten (for bedwetting) than to be violated.' I feel this 11-year-old daughter is a huge miracle for me."
And, her two-year old was a drug-exposed baby who has special needs. She brought a sibling group, once separated, back together as a family.
Savage does admit to having tough times now and then, saying she has been through "blood, sweat and tears, but there also has been much healing. I could not do this if it were not for my own family--I have a great support system."
"They don't think I'm crazy," she laughed. "I just wanted to do this now; it's the most wonderful, life-changing experience."
In addition, by adopting these children, Savage has the foresight to know these children will now have the chance they deserve to grow up in a loving family, where they will have some semblance of stability, where as she says, they will not be deprived of a life they deserve.
"My children are so proud to be adopted," she smiled. "'We come from Mommy's heart,' they say. Today, it is much more open. Parents are telling their children they are adopted at an early age, not waiting until they are older. I tell my children, 'It is a miracle how God brought you and me together.'"
Until recently, it has been almost taboo to even utter the word "adopted." Indeed many well-meaning grandparents and unthinking adults bring old concepts of adoption into the conversion often times making insensitive comments and embarrassing themselves. Strangely, many families choose to keep adoption a secret from those around them and even from their own children.
With every passing generation so passes the notion that having been adopted is something to be embarrassed about, something to keep secret. Today, it is no longer taboo, and in fact, in most circles, adopting has almost become a status symbol. Even Hollywood is getting it right for a change. Consider the media hype and attention to Angelina Jolie and her adoptees.
Adoptees are in good company with many who have come before them: Aristotle, J.S. Bach, Willie Nelson, Dante Alighieri, Elizabeth Gaskell, John Hancock, Maya Angelou, Andrew Jackson, Sarah McLachlan and Jack Nicholson, to name just a few. All were placed in other homes at some time in their early lives.
Positive strides are being made in DHS to streamline the system, affording these swift adoptions.
"Our adoptions are increasing because we are no longer working with child welfare in the areas of investigations and child profiles. Since around 1999, all we do is adoption work," said Eneff.
She explained that now DHS contracts with other groups and offices to conduct the needed home studies of families wishing to adopt and preparing the child profiles, so that DHS can now spend more time on seeing that children are placed quicker.
"This change occurred because of the emphasis of importance and, of course, the federal government drives our priorities," she said.
And in this case, this is a positive move on the part of the government.
She said this emphasis in importance at the government level began with President Bill Clinton. On November 19, 1997, Clinton signed into law the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 to improve the safety of children, to promote adoption and other permanent homes for children who need them, and to support families. With this law came major changes in the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980, the major federal law enacted to assist states in protecting and caring for abused and neglected children.
Part of this new law was the push publicly to break down barriers to adoption and develop new ways to increase the number of children adopted from foster care.
Many recommendations included unprecedented financial incentives to states to increase adoptions, put the safety of children first in placement decisions and set swifter time frames for permanent placement decisions. All of this prompted Oklahoma to make the aforementioned changes, so adoptions are quicker than before.
This has made a difference in the number of adoption finalizations in Oklahoma. In 1995, 226 children were placed; in 2007, there have been 1,225 placements already. Both Eneff and Natalie Clark, M.A., Area VI Adoption Supervisor, explained that when children are removed from their homes for their protection, these cases are dealt with in juvenile court.
"We work with these families on their treatment plan as prescribed by the court," said Clark. "If parents do not fulfill their court-issued treatment plan, it is recommended to the court that the parents' rights be terminated; at that time, the children are in permanent custody of DHS.
"About 80 percent of kids are placed with relatives and foster parents," said Eneff.
"We exceed any other state on this," Clark said.
Eneff added that after trying to place the children with relatives or foster parents, they also try kinship placement, which is placing children with teachers, neighbors or other friends of the family who know the children well and are eager to have them in their homes.
Old Generation Getting Younger
Children of all ages in foster care are eager to be adopted, but statistics show that adults are less apt to adopt adolescent children. Bill and Bernice Hampton, who are 54 and 65 years old respectively, are exceptions to this rule. They specifically asked for older children.
"We have four grandchildren and have been through that," Bernice laughed. "We always knew we wanted to adopt older children."
The Hamptons have one adopted son, 15-year-old Malcolm, who is Caucasian, Hispanic and Black, another 16-year old Caucasian son in the pre-adoption stage.
"The 16-year-old is 6'2" and I'm just 5'5", she said, proudly. "It does take a lot of emotion, a lot of trial and error, like it does for any parent raising teenagers."
She equated it to being pregnant: there are lots of surprises.
The Hamptons found these two boys at a DHS-sponsored adoption party where foster children and prospective adoptive parents come together at a pre-planned party to basically "check each other out." Children visit with the adults at these parties, knowing they are being considered for adoption.
The children and adults get to know each other, and later after the party is over, the adults select what children they are interested in adopting.
Bernice recalled how she and her husband came to the idea of wanting to adopt from DHS.
"We often watched the "Waiting Child" program on Channel 8," she said. Children featured on this program are in permanent custody of DHS, hoping to find adoptive homes. These children are those with special needs or are considered hard to place because of their age or because a sibling group wants to be adopted together.
Newschannel 8 has aired this weekly program since 1980; it currently airs at 4pm on Wednesdays and 10pm on Saturdays. More than 4,000 children had been adopted through this program.
"We saw this program off and on, and it just struck us. My husband never had children of his own, and he wanted to carry on his name. God knew what way we should go," Bernice said.
She herself grew up in a foster home.
"In my family, there were seven kids, and my mom died when I was three. We lived in a small house and dad could not take care of us, so all five youngest children went together to the Odd Fellows and Rebeccahs Children's Home in Checotah," she recalled.
Bernice said it took up to one year before they were able to adopt, but through many days of waiting and waiting, their dream came true.
"Both are very good boys and with their own interests. They get along well together. We adopted one son, Malcolm, but then wanted him to have a brother to have some companionship. Since we are older parents, we wanted him to have someone close to his age to relate to," she said.
"Adopting older children can be challenging," Bernice said. "I like all kinds of music, and Malcolm likes rap a lot. Both sons will 'dig' at us to see how much we can take to test us. They have the 'street smarts' and it makes us think twice about things--it can be hard at times." But, she said, "We are making a difference in these boy's lives."
"Malcolm wanted attention so badly, and our other son would probably be in a group home or juvenile detention if he were not with us," she said.
Looking back over the years, she said, "It really has not been a strain on us," saying she has never felt her age or acted her age, even at 65 years old. She does admit adoptive parents have to have a good, strong relationship with their spouses.
A Special Month
November is National Adoption Awareness Month with Saturday, November 17 being National Adoption Day.
The first major event to promote awareness of the need for adoptive families for children in the foster care system was in Massachusetts. In 1976, then Governor Mike Dukakis proclaimed Adoption Week and the idea grew in popularity and spread throughout the nation. President Gerald Ford made the first National Adoption Week proclamation, and in 1990, the week was expanded to a month because of the number of states participating in similar events.
During November, across the nation states, communities, public and private organizations, businesses and families celebrate adoption as a positive way to build families. Activities and observances such as public awareness and recruitment campaigns will spotlight the needs of children who need permanent families. A highlight of the month is Saturday, November 17, which is traditionally observed in courthouses across the nation as hundreds of adoptions are finalized simultaneously.
As in previous years, DHS plans to have special events during November to bring a greater awareness to adoption.
"We have a statewide celebration each year," Eneff said. "We nominate our Outstanding Family who has adopted and our Outstanding Advocates. We'll have spots on the radio and just do more promotion this month."
Walk the Walk
Lots of people talk about adoption being a good thing, here's your chance to support it
Another major city event is Catholic Charities 5th Annual Walk for Adoption. For more than 30 years, Catholic Charities Adoption Services has helped build families through adoption.
Its program offers assistance with international adoption, crisis pregnancy counseling, social services and support groups for birth mothers and adoptive families. Its goal is to support the sacred value of life and the bond of family love.
Its focus is to bring together expectant mothers in an unplanned pregnancy with waiting adoptive families.
As a way of recognizing the tremendous joy adoption brings to Oklahomans each year, Catholic Charities Adoption Services invites anyone whose life has been touched by adoption to join in the Walk.
This year's walk will be held on Sunday, November 4, from 2 to 4pm at the Bishop Kelley High School Gym, 3905 S. Hudson Ave. Representatives from Birthright, Mend Crisis Pregnancy Center and Project Gabriel will be available to discuss services they provide to pregnant women. To add to the fun, there will be a band, a Jupiter jump, cake walk and other activities. Contact Mary Lee Ingram, Director of Adoption at Catholic Charities, 585-8167, for more information.
"It's not taboo any more," said Natalie Clark of DHS about the notion of adoption. "Many celebrate their adoption saying it's their 'birthday.'"
Across America, it is estimated that there are between five and six million adoptees. For those who have adopted, they are witnesses to the joy that comes with bringing children into their lives, and they the children, too, experience life as they deserve to have.
As Heather Savage (See Cover Story) said, looking at what she has accomplished in her young life, "This is my passion, to know I'm making a difference in children's lives."
She is taking the lead as a young adult to do what she can to help children have a safe, secure and loving home.
"I want to adopt at least two more children in the future. I am doing what I can to change the world, one heartbeat at a time. This is what I have been called to do. And, this has changed my life as well," said Savage.
For more information on OKDHS Swift Adoption call 581-2309 or visit www.okdhs.org/adopt. For more information on Catholic Charities Adoption Services, call 585-8176 or go to www.CatholicCharitiesTulsa.org.
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