A shot at a good life: Adoptive families share stories of taking in abused, neglected children

Karen and Jeff Jones will tell you their adoption of two young children is worth it just to know they’ll be safe and provided access to the better lives they deserve. That’s after raising three children of their own, now grown, who have already given them four grandchildren.

 

“I wouldn’t change anything,” Karen said. “If we had to do it all over again, 100 percent.”

For Stephanie and Jacob Newton, adoption was their chance to give an excitable girl a shot at a good life. With Stephanie unable to conceive, it was also the couple’s first chance to be called “mommy” and “daddy.”

“She calls me ‘mommy,’ ” Stephanie said. “We took her to Disney for her first time and it was like Christmas for me.”

Both families recently adopted through St. Johns County’s Family Integrity Program, which hosted its 15th annual Adoption Day Celebration Friday at the Solomon Calhoun Center. Each year, all past foster and adoptive families are invited as a reminder they’re not alone in navigating the ups and downs that come with providing abused, neglected or abandoned children a safe place to live.

Michael Forster, program manager for the Family Integrity Program, said the main goal is always reunification, which means putting the child back with its original family and making sure that family is in a better position to care for the child than it was when it entered the program. Sometimes that doesn’t happen, which is where families like the Joneses and Newtons come in.

Since April 2016, Karen and Jeff Jones have been caring for Nevaeh, 6, and Justin, 3. They are the children of some relatives of the Joneses’ who were in and out of prison and other trouble, eventually losing their parental rights.

Nevaeh loves cheerleading, gymnastics and dancing. Justin is “all boy,” as Karen says. He’s heavy into the superheroes.

Justin doesn’t have any memories of his biological father, who went to prison just months after Justin was born. Nevaeh, being a little older, has some memories for which she has gone through therapy.

“No Disney, no zoo,” Karen said. “It’s all bad stuff.”

Jeff said it’s more like memories of never staying put or never having any stability in her life.

“She’s 6 but she’s more like 9 the way she acts,” he said.

As parents, Karen and Jeff said they’re a little more mature and financially stable than they were when they had their own children. They said managing the after school activities or taking on the added costs of feeding and providing for two more children is a small price to pay for the love they’ve felt in return.

Stephanie and Jacob Newton adopted Madison, 6, in June. They were already familiar with Madison through her foster parents and when they learned the biological mother’s parental rights were going to be terminated — and that the foster parents did not want to adopt — they were more than willing to fill the role.

Because of the Newtons’ relationship with the foster family, Madison has been able to transition to her new home with at least some sense of normalcy.

Stephanie and Jacob said Madison doesn’t talk much about her biological parents and that she still has some nightmares. She struggles to find her place, but who doesn’t?

They said the challenges are about what they expected and that the rewards of parenthood far outweigh any negatives. They’re happily kept very busy throughout the week with a daughter who loves soccer and dancing and music and singing.

Stephanie’s message for anyone on the fence about becoming a foster or adoptive parent?

“Go for it,” she said. “Take a chance at making someone’s life better.”

Forster said the reality is you never know what track a child’s case is going to take.

The dependency process starts with a call to the Florida Department of Children and Families’ hotline for possible abuse, neglect or abandonment. The DCF then investigates and determines whether a child needs to be sheltered. If necessary, the DCF shelters the child and it refers the case over to the county’s Family Integrity Program.

The program launches the appropriate services and works with the families on their specific needs until it’s deemed safe to reunify, or to go with a different permanent residency plan if it’s deemed not safe.

Forster said parents are typically given a year for their case plan to show they can make positive behavior changes. Sometimes, cases are kept open longer if the program sees enough encouraging signs of progress. Other times, a year goes by and the program sees no sign of changes and steps are taken to terminate parental rights.

Forster said the program’s reunification rate is somewhere in the neighborhood of 65 percent.

“Unfortunately, that’s really good for the state,” he added.

The program finalized 50 adoptions for St. Johns County from July 1, 2016, to June 30, 2017. It was a record-breaking year for the smallest community based care agency for children in the state of Florida. This year, the program has already finalized 20 adoptions.

Forster said children who are legally free for adoption are, in most cases, adopted by their current caregiver or foster parent who they have been placed with during the dependency process. Others might be in a placement where a caregiver is willing to care for them but they didn’t get into it to adopt.

“At that time, we would start recruiting,” he said.

Forster said some families don’t want to do the foster program and want to go straight to adoption, but everyone goes through the same 10-week class at the county’s Health and Human Services building. There, prospective foster and adoptive families learn about the dependency system and what to expect with caring for these children, many of whom are traumatized, confused, scared or all of the above.

For more information on becoming a foster or adoptive parent, go to www.sjcfl.us/fip or www.adoptflorida.org or call the St. Johns County Family Integrity Program at 209-6109.

 

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