Thursday, March 01, 2007

Grandmother and uncle adopt five children

From foster care to family forever
Steffens, Sara. Contra Costa Times, Feb. 28, 2007 .

Clean white shirts, combed hair and a stern timeout conspired to keep the five brothers from their usual roughhousing.

So as they waited for their adoption hearing Tuesday, John, 13, identical twins Joel and Jeramy, 10, and fraternal twins Justin and Jordan, 9, burned off energy by exploring the courthouse lobby together, marveling at the marble and high ceilings.

"It's pretty cool," said Justin. "It's kind of like a castle."

Their older sister, Jamie, 15, perched nervously on a bench, checking her hair in a pocket mirror. It was her first trip to Contra County Superior Court, too.

"It's going to be better when we get adopted," said Jamie, a high school freshman. "No more visits from social workers or anything."

The eldest in the family, Jamie decided to keep her original last name, Bodal. It just sounds right, she said.

But her brothers chose a new identity: Hyland, the name shared by their maternal grandmother, Jo, and their uncle, Patrick.

Five years ago, the siblings were living in three separate foster homes in San Bernardino County. When Patrick got a letter from his sister explaining the situation, he immediately called the children's social workers and arranged to fly down and visit.

"We took it from there," he said. "It was a slow process at the beginning. We didn't know what was going to happen, but it didn't take us that long to figure out what we had to do."

Social workers strive to keep siblings together, preferably in the home of relatives.

But with six children to house, the Hylands had to get creative.

Jamie, John and Jordan moved in nearly four years ago with Jo, whom they affectionately call Nana, in Discovery Bay.

"Boy, do they keep me running," said Jo, 70, a widow who lives on Social Security.

Patrick and his wife, Ann, who live in San Jose, took in Justin, Jeramy and Joel.

Although Patrick has a grown daughter from his first marriage, the couple never imagined raising a houseful of children themselves.

"All the way till they go to bed, it never ends," said Patrick, 48.

"Before we had kids, my hobby was the house," he said. "It's taken me awhile to understand they're going to tear it apart."

At both homes, the energy level is unflagging, with Jo shuttling her children to basketball, baseball and choir, and Patrick helping his three boys improve their grades and learn baseball.

"They didn't really even know how to play the game ... they could hardly catch the ball," Patrick said. "Now, one of them is on the all-star team."

All they really needed, Patrick says, was a chance.

Despite living in separate homes, the children see one another often. They even visit their birth mother, who for a variety of reasons will not be able to regain custody.

"In a lot of ways, everybody was blessed," Patrick said. "She realizes that this is the best thing, due to health issues and other circumstances."

Nessa Wilk, an adoption worker for Contra Costa's Children and Family Services, spent the past year working with both families, getting the children settled and guiding the parents through a seemingly never-ending pile of paperwork.

"The children themselves were wanting this, to know this is where they were going to be and not moved around," she said.

Stability is important, but being adopted has a much broader meaning for children, Wilk said.

"It's like unconditional love," she said. "The parent is saying, 'We want you no matter what; it's not just going to be until you're 18 ... I'm going to be there for you when you graduate high school, when you have a baby, when you get married. If you fall down, I'm there to help you get up ... for life.'"

"I think that kids really feel that this is forever," she said. "We call it a forever home."

When their case was finally called, the Hylands filed into the courtroom en masse, trailed by a lawyer and three beaming social workers, none of whom could resist the chance to share the happy ending.

Too many foster children lose track of their siblings, they know. Too many never find permanent families.

The Hylands have made the best of a bad situation, said Joy Metoyer, who completed the required studies for both homes. "It's family, and this is what family do. They get by the obstacles and help each other."

Lined up, the children filled half the seats in the jury box.

"I think you're the handsomest jurors I've ever had in my court," Judge Lois Haight told them, smiling broadly.

She introduced herself, took a few moments to learn the children's names, and pleasantly prohibited spinning in the chairs.

From there, the formal proceedings went surprisingly quickly. Ann, Patrick and Jo sat elbow to elbow as they answered Haight's questions:

Do you agree to treat the children in all respects as your own natural children?

Do you understand that you will be responsible for their education and medical care, and that you will be responsible for their teenage years?

And finally: Do you have any doubts about the step you're taking today?

"No," said Jo, emphatic.

"Nah, there's no doubts," Patrick agreed.

After the ceremony, the children took turns climbing into Haight's chair.

The bailiff patiently took Polaroid after Polaroid as each child posed hoisting the gavel, flanked by the judge and their new parents.

When the film ran out, a clerk fetched more from another courtroom so the whole family could pose for a few last frames, crowded in together.

Haight told them: "You'll like this picture later."

By the numbers
--When children must be removed from their home, social workers strive first to place them with relatives, which can mean grandparents, aunts and uncles, and even second cousins.

--Of the 1,580 youths in Contra Costa County's foster system this month, 37 percent were being cared for by a relative.

--Of the 383 children adopted out of foster care in Contra Costa in 2005 and 2006, 39 percent were adopted by a relative.

--About 41 percent of youths in foster care live with all their siblings, and 60 percent live with at least one sibling.

How to help
Contra Costa Children and Family Services needs foster and adoptive parents willing to take in two or more siblings. To find out more, call 866-313-7788.


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