‘This isn’t the place for me. I just don’t fit in.’ He didn’t want to be adopted. We were broken.’: After foster heartbreak, couple adopt teenage boy, ‘He was given to us in our most desperate hour’

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“Joel and I met when we were 14. I knew, despite being friends, very soon after that first day I would marry him. It took 10 long years, a tragic car accident which left him paralyzed from the neck down and non-verbal, and lots of life experiences to bring us to a point where we were ready to be together forever. We started making plans for a family in September 2014, exactly one year after we were married. After trying for a family naturally for nearly 3 years, we decided after some health goals were reached in Joel’s recovery, we would start the road to adoption. We shared this excitement with our immediate family and closest friends. And it didn’t seem shocking to them — neither the news we were trying for a family, nor the way in which we wanted to pursue it.

We knew we wanted to adopt from the foster care system. After having countless experiences in life with trauma and special needs, our hearts found peace in knowing we could give a loving home for a child (or children) who had been stripped away from everything they knew. We also wanted to provide the best for our child, and we knew the foster care program in Florida would provide benefits for them like a free college education we may never have been able to afford, and the adoption process is nearly FREE.

We also knew we wanted to look at children who were a little older because of the physical demands of Joel’s health on my time and energy, as I was his sole-caretaker. Sadly, everyone thinks the younger they are, the less likely they are to remember trauma and the less damaged they will be. Science and psychology prove otherwise.

We opened our home to some kids in care for Thanksgiving. As a photographer, I got the opportunity to take their photos to update their heart gallery images. We got to interact with several of the children. After that meal, we were told repeatedly of how this teen we call ‘T’ had blossomed that day in our home. He typically never smiled, but he smiled in every photo I took of him. He was a different kid here. He ate a plate full of food and spoke more than he ever had in front of his recruiter. Once our home study was complete, and the recruiters received our file in mid-January, they sent us some general info on five kids. T was the only one on the list we had met in person. He was also the oldest — 15. He loved sports like Joel. And Joel hand-picked him.

On February 13th, 2018, we were officially matched. And on the 14th, he was told we wanted to adopt him! I made a book just for him, filled with pages about our home, ourselves, and our extended family. Our connection with him was immediate. We bonded over basketball at the children’s home together. It was an easy way to connect, because Joel and I loved playing since we were kids. We went and picked him up every other day after school. He planned to come home for an extended 13 days straight, on Joel’s birthday weekend.

He was staying in a local boys’ home, and it has a reputation known for being one of the worst in the state. Dropping him back off there after our one-on-one time felt like sending him to prison. Except, there were no rules, no real authority, the lack of rules there became an issue for us at home. We were told kids in care need and thrive on structure. He was being torn between lives — the life at the boys’ home during this transition and his future with us having rules and being cared for, for the first time in his life. He wanted to be with us but would often say things like, ‘I just don’t fit here.’ ‘This isn’t the place for me.’ He didn’t feel like he was good enough for us. And his behaviors would reflect that.

By late March, T decided he didn’t want to be adopted. We were broken into a million pieces, but it was gradual. We felt the weight during the entire process of trying to hold it all together. We saw it coming, but were so lost. In adoption world, we call this event disruption. We never heard anything about T again.

In the same breath, though, our adoption coordinator told us, ‘BUT, I have a kid who I think you and Joel would be perfect for and his TPR (termination of parental rights) and case file just landed on my desk.’

A thousand thoughts ran through my mind. Y’all, I’m serious when I say we had reached a point in this journey where we questioned if we ever wanted to be parents EVER, if T ultimately decided he didn’t want to be a family! But, I asked Joel, ‘Do you want to hear about another kid?’ He thought for a quick second and then surprisingly nodded ‘Yes.’

She proceeded, ‘His name is Freddie and he is 13. He has 3 sisters- one who is now 18, one who was adopted by a paternal family member (not related to Freddie), and one who was just adopted by her foster mom, but she is eager to maintain connections with the siblings.’ My heart smiled that he had sisters.

Courtesy of Lauren Jackson

Joel and I prayed and thought about learning more at a full disclosure meeting. We didn’t tell many people this time. But, I had spoken with 2 mamas who had similar stories. A terrible disruption happened in their journey to becoming foster or adoptive parents, and then — BAM! — in a silver lining moment they met their forever child. After hearing their stories, I felt connected and convinced maybe I could still be a mom and maybe this was God, moving quickly, tugging on my heart before it became too numb. After all, we didn’t search for this kid or even seen a photo of him. I asked ALL the questions I didn’t know to ask the first time we had been matched. I didn’t find this kid out of desperation, myself. He was given to us in our most desperate hour.

Psalm 30:5 says, ‘His favor is for life; Weeping may endure for a night, But joy comes in the morning.’

This child had been brought to us by our coordinator, meaning we didn’t search for him. And, I thought, ‘Maybe this is a door God opened — since clearly I didn’t open it.’ And I questioned, ‘Do I want to be the one that closes a door God, Himself opened?!’ So, I told Joel that I felt that way, and he did too. So, we decided to move forward.

This time the full disclosure meeting felt different, in a good way. It was completely different. The entire team was on board. They just knew, based on our dedication to T, we were meant to be Freddie’s family. During the meeting, the guardian began texting his big sister and arranged for us to meet her first. You see, Freddie had literally just been presented with the idea of adoption. It wasn’t something he had been thinking about long.

A lot of kids in foster care don’t wish they had another family — they have a family and just because the state removed them, it doesn’t make them love them any less — no matter the trauma. It’s just human nature to love your parents, no matter what, and to want to be with them. So, we decided it might be better for us to meet his big sister first, so she could tell him what she thought about us becoming his family. She came over for dinner one evening after visiting with her youngest sister. However, to our surprise, little sister’s adoptive mom dropped her off. We got to meet two of his sisters the very same day — and one of their moms. As it turns out, the adoptive mom is from my little hometown, 6 hours away from where we were in Jacksonville at this time.

The night with his big sister was a blast. She even called Freddie and tried to play family-matchmaker herself at the first meeting. He was SOOOO quiet and wouldn’t speak much to us. A few weeks went by, and we got to meet him and big sis with the whole team for ice cream — not gonna lie, this whole ‘supervised visitation’ thing makes things SOOOO weird. He was still quiet. He didn’t have any questions, like most kids. But big sis is a talker, so she and I kept the conversation going. And of course, we brought Mocha (our dog) along with us, and she’s always a trip.

Courtesy of Lauren Jackson

We met him about a week or so later, again at a park, and then, on Mother’s Day weekend, we made plans to go see a movie for our first unsupervised visit. We planned to surprise him and have all 3 of his sisters together on my birthday weekend to celebrate big sis graduating from high school — which would be the first time they were all together in over a year. And they had no clue it was my birthday, but I was basking in mama-mode and loving every second. He came over early to help me make a cake for her from scratch and decorate it.

Courtesy of Lauren Jackson

On the last weekend in May, we got to have him spend the night for the first time. We took him to Joel’s last therapy session for the year to show him how Joel walks using the support of a harness and a Zero-Gravity machine. And, since it was Memorial Day weekend we got to keep him from Friday until Monday night. AHHH! It was great! We installed his TV that weekend and started making his room his — letting him add his own touches. He slept all the way back to his foster home, exhausted from the fun we had had just being a family.

Courtesy of Lauren Jackson

June 1st, he began his first week-long stay. The plan was to have him transition over the summer, in time for school to start. We would focus on letting him visit for a week at a time with us and then a week with his foster family over June. But, after talking with him and the team, they decided to move things more quickly. He was ready. I know it seems nuts — especially for a kid who seemed not to attach easily to people. (Oh, the diagnoses they give to kids just to put a label on their behavior!)

His foster family only chose not to adopt him because he wouldn’t open up to them. And this is the very reason our adoption coordinator had thought we would be the perfect family for him, because she knew we had shown with T we could love a kid unconditionally. He was in control. I won’t say it was normal, but it was necessary for the circumstances. And for kids who have lost all control and say over their life, this was a big deal to allow him to lead. It also proved to him we cared about his thoughts and wanted him to feel this was his decision, not just ours.

We did some things differently this time. We were a little slower at everything we did. We didn’t sit him down and tell him how many aunts and uncles he had or give him a book so he could learn everyone’s names. We just let it happen. We focused on him and us and becoming a family of 3. We were mirroring his pace a little better — something we were encouraged to do to make kids feel comfortable. Something I didn’t change was letting him know how much we love him. Every single day, even though he was not used to hearing it — ever. (Let’s be for real, after being in foster care for over a year and a half, not hearing that and then all of sudden hearing it and seeing it, it can be scary — especially for a teenager).

Courtesy of Lauren Jackson

So much has changed since then. He was adopted just after his 14th birthday in August of 2018, but 8 months after we met him, my husband tragically and unexpectedly passed away from a triple heart attack. He and I have grown closer going through it, and he actually gave me my first hug shortly after Joel passed away — and he hasn’t stopped giving them. He walks in a room to offer one to me regularly. He’s the one there for me when my tears are flowing in grief or just in daily life. He is loud and fun. He is so caring and so loving. We drive each other crazy, since we spend 24/7 together now, because he chose to do online school to stay focused on his education. We enjoy cooking together, kayaking, tubing, and most of all being on our farm with all our animals, which was my lifelong dream. We moved back to my home in South Carolina to be closer to my support system — friends and family. And, shortly after, his youngest sister and her adoptive mom from my hometown moved back too!

Courtesy of Lauren Jackson
Courtesy of Lauren Jackson

And some things haven’t changed. Freddie loves animals — especially his ducks. He enjoys making music on his computer, and he’s super talented at it. He even has a couple of his own businesses making beat tags and working with producers (not gonna lie he’s REALLY good — not just saying that because I’m his mom) and making dog treats for our online market. He’s an entrepreneur like me. He hates being in a crowd, but he’s the life of the party once he knows you. He is a fish; he loves the water. He HATES photos and videos.

Courtesy of Lauren Jackson
Courtesy of Lauren Jackson
Courtesy of Lauren Jackson

Now, we are soaking up this life together. Adoption has changed me for the better. And, while I know I’m not his only family, he knows I chose him. I’ve learned that love is choice. It’s a choice you make every single day. Emotions and butterflies are something extra and a bonus, but you also have to let love in to let love overflow. And, when you take that step, it’s the most freeing and overwhelmingly peaceful thing about life. There was one thing that I told Joel early on in our adoption journey and it’s something that I think about often, ‘The longer you wait to find a child, the shorter time you have with them.’ I didn’t realize his time with Freddie would only be 8 months, but something about that stuck with me, and I am so glad we didn’t wait ‘til the perfect time. Life is short, friends. Why waste that time? Love now.”

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Lauren Jackson of Donalds, SC. You can follow her journey on Instagram, Facebook, her community group, and her blog. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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