‘I see a news report about a child who was abandoned in a parking lot after a woman fled on foot. I immediately recognized the photo of ‘Baby Jenkins.’ It was Tyler.’

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“From the ages of about 10-14 I was extremely close to my third cousin, she was like a sister I didn’t have. She lived with my family during the summers off of school and stayed over every weekend as well. I was young at the time so my parent’s spared me the details, but I knew that her home life was not the greatest. She started dating a 19 year old when she was 13 (whom I was friends with as well), but my parents were not thrilled about the relationship and she started coming over a little less. Eventually she got pregnant like my parents anticipated and had 2 children by the age of 16. We drifted apart and I would just get updates from time to time from her grandmother (my great aunt). I knew that she and the children’s father had separated and the children would go back and forth between them often. I knew that they both got into drugs and were not living very well. The two children, Hannah and Stanley, went to the elementary school where my mother works when they lived with their father and my mom would give me updates on them. Eventually I gave the father my number through Facebook and the kids would spend the night with me and my husband from time to time. By 2016, my cousin had 2 more children, a girl Heaven and a boy Tyler. I knew that Heaven lived primarily with her father and step mother and I knew hardly anything about the newborn, Tyler.

In May of 2016 my cousin contacted me and asked if I would be willing to babysit Hannah, Stanley, and Tyler while she went to South Carolina to pickup Heaven one weekend. I of course agreed, and the 3 kids spent the night Friday May 13th, 2016 and Saturday May 14th, 2016 with me and my husband. That was the first time I met and saw Tyler in person (at that time 14 weeks old). Fast forward to almost a month later on June 9th, 2016 when I see a news report about a child that was abandoned in a Publix parking lot after a woman fled on foot following being pulled over and questioned by Police Officer Sandra Jenkins. I immediately recognized the photo of ‘Baby Jenkins,’ that was on the news as Tyler.

Screenshot of television news report of woman holding baby who was abandoned in parking lot
Courtesy Jennifer Cortez

I called 911 to give the information I had. The news was reporting that the woman who fled was NOT the mother of Tyler, so after speaking with the police I started reaching out to my cousin to find out what was going on. She eventually returned my calls and told me that the woman who had Tyler was only babysitting and my cousin claimed she was furious and would get in touch with police to get Ty back. I told her if she needed help that my husband and I could take the baby and I pleaded with her to tell that to anyone who would listen. As the day went on, information was being uncovered that I was unaware of. My cousin eventually told me that police and DCF investigators came to where she was living and removed all 4 of the children, 12 year old Hannah, 10 year old Stanley, 3 year old Heaven, and 18 week old Ty, but she didn’t know why. She gave them my name when they asked her if anyone could take the children.

I was shocked and obviously did not understand the gravity of the situation. I was contacted by a DCF investigator on the afternoon of June 9th, 2016 who came to perform a home study of my house and to drug test my husband and me. At that point we were informed that my cousin had actually given Tyler away to this other woman because she could not handle taking care of a newborn. We were also informed that my cousin failed a drug test and the father of 3 year old Heaven, who was also at the home explained he would test positive for cocaine if he was drug tested. We were told that there would be a case opening against all parents involved, and with cases concerning drugs and addiction; they typically remain open for at least 12 months. My husband and I were told that DCF needed a commitment of 1 year from us to take on all 4 children and care for them.

We were completely blindsided, especially considering we had just married February 21st, 2015 and had no biological children of our own. We were told that if we couldn’t take all the kids that they would be split up into different homes. We agreed to keep the children at least temporarily and we would continue thinking about a year long commitment. After many sleepless nights and endless conversations, my husband and I agreed to keep all 4 children during the open dependency case against the parents.

Four young children in foster care sit on couch
Courtesy Jennifer Cortez

The older 2 children, 12-year-old Hannah, and Stanley, who turned 11 just 2 weeks after being placed with us, divulged a plethora of information regarding what they had experienced during their lives so far. I was told about filthy homes with bugs, never having clean clothes, having to sleep on urine covered mattresses, hardly ever having enough to eat, being left alone all night, being made to lie and to not ‘leak’ out any information to ‘outsiders’. They told me of some physical abuse and sexual abuse allegations (nothing prosecuted), having to take cold showers because the gas bill was never paid to have hot water, and for getting in trouble when they would sneak food to the dog that was also starving. They spoke about never starting a school year on the first day of school and switching schools as many as 5 times per school year. They typically missed more school than they attended and were both retained at different times. They explained that DCF was very active in their upbringing, and they had to speak with them regularly. These children were exposed to so much and I was heartbroken for them.

What followed was two years of an open case plan and visitations that these ‘parents’ hardly ever showed up to. Also phone calls that didn’t come on birthdays and Christmases, it was the most devastating thing to watch unfold and there was nothing my husband and I could do about it but love the kids and pray for the best possible outcome. In January of 2018, the state FINALLY terminated rights of my cousin, the kid’s biological mother and two of the three biological fathers. Unfortunately, my youngest daughter’s biological father was incarcerated for 15 months during the open case plan, so he didn’t have ‘enough time’ to work the plan so his rights were not terminated. My husband and I were granted permanent guardianship over her until she is 18. I pray when she is 18, she will want us to legally adopt her.

Our adoption for Hannah, Stanley, and (now) Tobias was finalized May 1st, 2018. That was the best day of our lives! Our family gathered together and the overwhelming support was beautiful.

Husband and wife stand with their four adopted children
Courtesy Jennifer Cortez

I wish I could report that we are currently living out our happily ever after but unfortunately, I have to say that the state failed my oldest two children. Hannah and Stanley remained in their awful conditions for far longer than they should have been. I eventually found out that abuse and neglect reports started going into the abuse tip line in 2007 in regards to Hannah and Stanley. They were not removed until 2016! 2016! To this day, I STRONGLY believe that had the media attention not been so prevalent around Officer Sandra Jenkins and ‘Baby Jenkins,’ that day, my children would not have been removed. Every person and child is different and handles hardships in different ways, and for Stanley the transition has been easy. Stanley is so happy and has fully embraced his new life.

On Thanksgiving in 2017, Stanley shared that he is most thankful for being removed from that life and to be with us. He has aspirations to be a firefighter and is literally the sweetest 13 year old you could ever meet. My beautiful Hannah regrettably was far more troubled by the transition. These children were removed 9 years too late and Hannah and our family are the ones paying the ultimate price. I will NEVER regret my decision of adopting Hannah but I cannot say that this road hasn’t been without twists and turns. Hannah has true and serious mental health conditions that arose because of her past. She has PTSD and other undiagnosed disorders. She came very close to ripping our entire family unit apart with lies, allegations, and other forms of manipulation. (I cannot express enough how valuable having cameras all over your home can be!) Hannah has made numerous threats against herself and to others, it got to a point where it was no longer safe to have her residing in our home with our three other children.

Four adopted sibling sit on couch in matching Christmas pajamas
Courtesy Jennifer Cortez

My husband and I have done everything we can think of to try to get our girl back on the right path, but laws really need to change in the state of Florida when it comes to a child’s mental health. When murder plots are being written out, death threats against fellow students are being verbalized, suicidal ideations are constant, knives are found under pillows, running away almost daily and getting into vehicles with complete strangers are not enough to get a child into a locked down residential facility to get her the actual help that she needs quicker than 6 months (and STILL waiting) there is something wrong! To have to go through ‘stepping stones’ to get there when in the mean time someone else or she herself could wind up dead is unfathomable. Especially when all of this could have been avoided if during those 9 years of DCF investigating the children were removed. The state of Florida needs to do better!

Hannah is now 15 and only has 3 more years until she will ‘age out’ and eventually be on her own, or worse go back to the abusive biological parent’s that molded her. Someone very close to me sent me a quote, ‘A child that is abused by their parent’s doesn’t stop loving their parent’s, they stop loving themselves.’ This cannot be any truer in regards to Hannah. I pray every day that Hannah will receive the help she so desperately needs, and we can try to piece back together what fell apart.

In the meantime, my husband and I continue to shower love over our other three amazing children! The support we have from our family is wonderful. It was so beautiful watching our children being welcomed with open arms just as if I had birthed them myself. I have also gained a wonderful friendship with Hannah and Stanley’s biological aunt who tried herself to help her niece and nephew but couldn’t get the severity of the situation through to DCF for all those years. There is not a day that goes by that my husband and I are not thankful for that traffic stop made by Officer Jenkins. We cannot imagine our lives without our children and I cannot imagine a love any greater. If you were touched at all by my story, I ask that you pray for Hannah. She is so lost in this world and I pray one day that changes.”

Father crouches behind bench where his three children sit in Halloween costumes
Courtesy Jennifer Cortez

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by  Jennifer Cortez. Submit your story here, and be sure to subscribe to our best love stories here.

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