INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Mike Blackburn had a question for his soon-to-be son.
Mike, his wife, Luanne, and their adoptive son Brandon, had taken a brief getaway to Destin, Florida. Brandon, who had spent most of his life in the Indiana child welfare system, loved fishing, so Mike took him to the deep sea to see what they could catch. (A 4-foot-long reef shark, Brandon boasted.)
One evening, as the family was walking away from the beach, Mike paused for a moment. He asked Brandon to look around him. At the beach and the ocean. Reflect on what they’d done and seen so far.
“A year ago, today,” Mike remembered asking him, “did you think you’d be here?”
November is National Adoption Month, and Brandon — whose adoption was finalized in September — is spending it with his forever family. Across the state, around 1,500 Indiana children are eligible for adoption. While many are currently in placements and have plans in place, hundreds are still awaiting the chance at their forever homes.
In Indiana, a child in the foster care system whose biological parents’ rights have been terminated are eligible for adoption. According to data provided by the Indiana Department of Child Services, of the 1,539 adoption-eligible children, over half are male; more than 1,000 are ages 6-19; and the overwhelming majority are white.
Mike and Luanne began their adoption journey in April 2019, in part to test the waters for their niece, who was facing infertility and for whom adoption was becoming an increasingly likely path forward. But they also felt the need to do something significant for someone. To make a difference.
The couple, both in their 60s, had already raised three adult children, now aged 31 to 40. The last of their children had been out of their home for years. They were considering their retirement plans.
“When I was 30, 35, I wanted to get a house, build things, accumulate things, get things for my kids. Well, I don’t need to do that anymore,” Mike said. “I feel the need to share.”
The couple were realistic about their limits. They couldn’t take on a medically fragile child or one who might never be able to live independently. They didn’t want a girl — they wanted to round out their family of two daughters and one son with another boy.
Luanne was particularly concerned about youth who “age out” of the foster care system — those who turn 18 and transition to after-care services rather than plans for permanency.
“Where do they go for Christmas?” she said she often wondered. “Where do they go for Easter?”
As they navigated the required training to become an adoptive family, Luanne routinely read through the profiles of Indiana’s adoptable children. But by the time she and Mike were approved to begin the adoption process, those children had already been inquired about or matched with other families. But the week they got their approval, a new child who caught their eye was added.
“It was just this amazing confluence of things that happened,” Luanne said, “that led us to him.”
Brandon had been in the foster care system since he was 3 years old.
Growing up, Brandon said he believed his mother found him to be a priority and that she loved him, but reunification, the agency’s preferred plan of permanency for children impacted by the system, was unlikely. He estimates he’s been placed in well over a dozen homes.
After spending the better part of a year with one foster family, he thought his adoption was inevitable. But one weekend, just days before he said the adoption process was to begin, he arrived home from a church camping trip only to find his case manager and not his would-be family.
He wasn’t wanted anymore, he said.
His court-appointed special advocate, or CASA, began to pray for him. They knew there may be a long road ahead. The older a child, the more difficult it can be to find an adoptive family. But not long after he was added to the list, Mike and Luanne reached out.
“My CASA and I really thought it was God,” Brandon said, “because that doesn’t happen often.”
They exchanged numbers and began talking almost daily before meeting him for the first time at a DCS office. They went to a Mexican restaurant — Brandon’s choice — and spent the evening talking.
A few things about Brandon stood out to Mike.
First, that he asked whether he’d have a bedroom of his own — a luxury he hadn’t been afforded when he was in foster care. Second, that he didn’t seem completely closed off. He was still open to them and to the idea of becoming part of their family.
“He’s still a kid,” Mike said. “He’s not been so hardened and so hurt that he’s just completely shut us off.”
Brandon, who said the thought of them not wanting him was always lingering in his mind, was struck at how genuine the couple seemed about adopting him.
“They wanted to put effort into me,” Brandon said.
Brandon visited Mike and Luanne for a weekend that December, meeting much of the family at a Christmas party. Luanne said it was a joy to watch him play video games with the other children.
“He just fit in with everybody,” she said, “and they just loved on him from the very first.”
Brandon moved in not long before Christmas last year. Since then, they’ve undergone some significant life changes — Luanne’s retirement, moving into a new home, then the novel coronavirus pandemic and virtual schooling. But they’re in it together.
It hasn’t always been easy. Brandon experienced some anxiety and started to act out once he moved in. That anxiety only got worse as his adoption day approached — almost as if he was waiting for the rug to be pulled out from under him at the very last minute.
It wasn’t unexpected, Luanne said. He’d had to be so independent in foster care that he wasn’t always used to working as part of a family. And as they learned in training, once kids start to get comfortable, they allow themselves to start experiencing emotions. Sometimes those emotions can be overpowering.
“When you’ve had to be so strong, how do you be vulnerable?” she said. “How do you let your guard down?”
Like other teens, they’ve had disagreements over homework and keeping his room clean. But for Brandon, some of these things — expectations from parents and an emphasis on schooling — are new. In frustrating moments, Brandon said he turns to a friend he’s known for years who has a family and asks: Do your parents do this, too?
“‘Yeah. That’s just what they do,’” he remembered the friend telling him, “‘because they try to make you better.’”
For the first time in his life, Brandon can think about the future, not just surviving the present. While he’s mostly concerned about finishing high school, he’s also thinking about what comes next, what he wants to be when he’s older. Maybe, he said, he’ll turn his passion for fishing into a full-time career somewhere.
“We can’t change his past,” Luanne said. “But we told him that his future’s unwritten, so it’s up to you now.”
After spending most of his life bouncing between foster homes, Brandon wants other kids who are in the child welfare system to know they shouldn’t give up hope. They can lean on their friends or, like him, their faith. But they can set their mind on something and make it happen. And to foster and adoptive families: “Just give a kid a chance.”
“Yeah, there’s frustrating times,” he said. “but just don’t give up on them.”
It’s worth it, Mike said.
“Whatever you give, somehow, in a mysterious way, you get more back,” Mike said. “If you’re doing what you’re supposed to do — and we were supposed to adopt Brandon — we’re getting more back than we’re giving.”
INDIANA'S ADOPTABLE CHILDREN:
November is National Adoption Month. In Indiana, over 1,500 children are eligible for adoption. While many are currently in placements and are on the path to adoption, hundreds are still awaiting the chance at their forever homes. To learn more about adoption and to meet some of Indiana’s adoptable children, visit indianaadoptionprogram.org.
Source: The Indianapolis Star