The adoption process goes beyond numbers and paperwork. It can dramatically change families' lives.
By ASHLEY POWERS
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
Darren LaForce's mind started racing even before the caseworker finished saying, "This is your mom and dad."
"How can you call us mom and dad to these little girls?" the prospective father thought to himself. "We've never seen them before, and you're introducing us with 'this is your mom and dad?'"
The sisters -- ages 3, 5 and 6 -- had been shuffled through the foster care system, moving from home to home. They were thrust into the LaForces' world: five visits in just eight days.
Darren, a business owner, and his wife, Siobhan McCulloch-Orr, of Burton, immediately sensed the girls weren't the right fit or the best fit.
Just a quick fit.
Almost two years later, Siobhan's face fell as she recalled the couple's uncomfortable choice.
Couldn't do it: They couldn't adopt those girls.
"It just made me sick to think that we were gonna be one more in this long series of abandonments for these little girls," she said.
"But I thought, that's not enough to take them. They deserve a home that the people are going, "YEA!" Not a home where the mother's thinking, 'Oh my God, I can't do this.'"
The couple was sick, angry and resentful at what they considered a rushed process. They didn't want to go near adoption again. They didn't want to chance reopening the wounds.
That is, until Michael ...
* * *
Adoption statistics sketch only a vague outline of adopting today.
In a 1995 survey, 1 percent of teen-age mothers in the United States gave their babies up for adoption. Most kept their children or had an abortion.
Another federal study from January 2000 shows that less than 23 percent of the 520,000 children in foster care nationwide are eligible for adoption.
In Ohio alone, however, almost 5,000 adoptions were filed in common pleas courts in 1997. That's the most recent available data from the National Adoption Information Clearinghouse, a service of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Also, the number of international and private consultants assisting with adoptions continues to multiply, as do the number of families completing nontraditional adoptions.
For every traditional adoption -- childless married couple seeks healthy white infant -- there are hundreds of others that don't fit into neat categories.
* * *
An estimated 15 percent of the 36,000 adoptions of foster children in the federal fiscal year 1998 were transracial or transscultural adoptions.
-- U.S. Department of HHS
Reece is 5 now, bursting with wide-eyed curiosity.
He hears that Debbie Zohnd, 47, and her husband, Jeff, 44, of Columbiana, were married in October 20 years ago. Turning his attention from the toys scattered across the room, he interrupts: "You got married at Halloween?"
Reece sometimes scans the pale skin of the couple, a school secretary and a steel pattern maker, and their four children: Bridget Phillis, 26; Aaron, 18; Whitney, 16; and Ethan, 10. Reece will search Debbie's round, blue eyes when they talk and grab her cropped blond hair when they hug.
One night about a year ago, Reece asked, "Is Ethan adopted?"
"No," replied Debbie. "Ethan's not adopted."
"Am I adopted?"
Debbie's soft "yes" didn't surprise him. Reece realized his dark skin more resembled the complexions of the foster children who circulated through the Zohnds' home.
Questions: One night, Debbie had to explain to Reece why he didn't need a perm. During another, he prodded Debbie to let him take visitors and "show 'em the brown baby."
The family wrestles with how to best educate Reece about his roots. Said Debbie: "You have to go through and make changes -- black baby dolls, for example. And let the kids know that black baby dolls are beautiful, and you're black and you're beautiful."
Then, there's the potential minefield of his background.
"Well, who's my birth mom?" Reece asked Jeff.
"I don't know; I never met her."
"And that was enough for him right then," Debbie said. "When he asks more questions, we'll dig deeper. It's not up to me to judge her and it's not up to me to make him feel bad about her, because she's a part of him."
Reece's birth parents were poor, unmarried and unlike anything she and Jeff had experienced before his adoption three years ago.
Since then, Debbie and Jeff have served as foster parents for black and biracial children; now, they're hoping to start another adoption process.
This boy is a shy 19-month-old -- still a foster child and, for now, unavailable for adoption. He is biracial, but that matters little to the Zohnds.
Most family members and neighbors are accepting, even caring with Reece. Those less open-minded are dealt with as they're encountered.
Whitney, for one, will calmly display pictures of her brothers -- all three of them.
Black and white issue: "She'll lead 'em on, too," Debbie said, "about whether black children should stay with black families and white children with white families.
"So," Debbie said to Whitney, "what's the response?"
Whitney looked up from the tiny black girl she was cradling, one of the children the Zohnds are fostering.
"So their color makes them different?" she said. "How?"
* * *
Research in the 1970s found 0.5 percent to 4 percent of people completing adoptions were single. The estimate jumped to between 8 percent and 34 percent in the 1980s.
-- K.S. Stolley, "The Future of Children: Adoption," via the NAIC
"We have a child. You can pick her up tomorrow."
Linda Cosby darts around her Bazetta condominium, running down a mental checklist devised so long ago: bassinet, bottles -- wasn't the agency supposed to give me a list? -- diapers, pacifier.
She's breathless, nervous, thrilled.
At least, that's how she feels in this dream, the one she's replayed a thousand times in her head.
"I probably wouldn't go to sleep that night, just watching the child. Probably wouldn't even want to go to work the next day," Linda said.
She's been waiting since the winter of 2000 for this sleepless night to come. And waiting. And waiting.
A string of events led Linda, 39, to consider adoption.
Doctors wavered: You can't have children. Well, after this surgery to remove the fibroid tumors, you might be able to. You can have children. Why don't you wait a little longer?
During that time, a five-year relationship ended. "I'm not going through relationship after relationship after relationship knowing that I only have so long," said Linda, a buyer at Delphi Packard. "My body clock is going to be ticking. So I thought, 'Well, why do I have to wait on a guy?'"
She prays daily for a healthy child, preferably an infant so she can experience motherhood from the beginning, preferably black so she can share her heritage.
"Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart." It's from the Bible, Psalm 37:4.
Message: She kept repeating it, especially after her first of four daylong adoption classes sponsored by Mahoning County Children Services. The 15 or so students were barraged with horrific abuse stories, Linda said, complete with graphic pictures.
"That's the impression I got. They tried to paint that these kids were not normal. And I don't know any normal kids anyway," she said.
The home and the parents, Linda believes, make all the difference. She came from a loving family. Now, she's willing to go through the credit checks, fire inspections and background searches necessary to provide a good home for someone else.
"I want to give what I have learned and all my experiences and all my love. It's just that inner desire," Linda said. "I do see little kids and I wonder, 'Wow. What would it be like to have a little kid call me Mommy?' But I just keep praying and hoping, maybe one day."
The call had come several weeks ago. It was Amy, Linda's caseworker.
Linda's stomach tightened.
"Oh, she found a child!" Linda thought.
Instead, Amy asked if Linda was willing to be interviewed for a newspaper story -- about being single and waiting for a child.
* * *
In 1998, 46 percent of the 36,000 children adopted from the public welfare system were between 1 and 5 years old. Two percent were between ages 16 and 18.
-- U.S. Department of HHS
Jonah was a 10-year veteran of the Guernsey County system: bitter, confused, disgusted. Why hope for something that would never, ever happen?
If I'm not adopted by the time I'm 16, he told his caseworker, don't bother. I'll be fine on my own.
A two-hour drive away in Burton, Geauga County, his picture told a different story to Darren and Siobhan.
It was a little more than two months since the couple had been through their marred adoption experience with the three sisters.
Siobhan was meandering through an adoption fair in Kent during an October weekend, sifting through heartbreaking profiles.
"There's part of it that's like looking through a J.C. Penney catalog," she recalled. "You're staring at a thousand kids. And with the best of intentions, I could feel myself going, 'Oh, no, not you. This one looks mean. This one is too fat.'"
Just right: Her gaze landed on a 5-by-7 snapshot of Jonah's face: round and young, with unevenly parted hair flopping over thick glasses. At home, Darren pulled the same one from the pile.
That picture hung in their large, Amish-style kitchen for five months. The face on the refrigerator held the promise of an older brother for Siobhan and Darren's biological children, McCulloch, 6, and Liam, 4. To Siobhan and Darren, it already was the face of a son.
"It's Thanksgiving, what's he doing?" Siobhan thought. "Does he have a place to go for Thanksgiving? Now it's Christmas, and he's gonna turn 16 and he thinks there's nobody out there that wants him."
For the most part, she was right.
"Dad would get drunk and be like, 'You're going to foster care, I hate you,'" Jonah said. "The next day, 'Oh, come back, you're my favorite son.'"
So, when a caseworker told him there was a family who wanted him -- about a month after his 16th birthday on Jan. 2 -- he was skeptical, but intrigued.
Which brings the story to a dilapidated building in southern Ohio, with cigarette holes in the carpet and grimy walls.
On March 10, 2000, Darren and Siobhan stepped into that visitation center, and "at first, it scared the bejeezus out of me," Darren recalled.
"I think I was numb," Siobhan said. "I don't have any clue what I first said to him. I just remember smiling inside."
All Jonah could think was, "I don't wanna make 'em mad."
The next months were frenzied, with visits, talks, nights of television with Liam on one side and McCulloch on the other, testing him, accepting him.
This isn't bad, Jonah thought. "Got a mom and dad to say goodnight to, a sister and brother. When I was little, it'd be bedtime, 'get the f--- to bed,' stuff like that. Now, it's just hugs."
Decision: In November, a judge called Jonah into chambers for a final interview.
The boy had a bit of a history, a tendency to bottle everything inside until the anger would finally explode. As Darren put it, "They made him sound like he was a murderer."
Was Jonah absolutely, positively sure, the judge wanted to know, that this was right for him?
Jonah paused. There were his friends, his hometown, to consider. His past.
"Yeah," Jonah replied. It was time to start over.
"Now I don't have to go down the path of Jonah: stay in foster care, turn 18, fight as hard as I can to get a job, find a place to live," he said, looking toward the refrigerator that once displayed his snapshot.
He's 17 now, with contacts, hair in blond spikes. "Going this way, I get to have a family, someone to chill out with at Christmas time, birthdays. I don't have to be emancipated at 18. And, I get a good shot at life."
With a tap of a gavel that day in court, he officially became Michael -- his choice, in honor of Michael Jordan -- LaForce.
New name, new home, new boy.
New parents, too. He had called them Siobhan and Darren through the entire process.
But after the adoption was complete, he turned to face the couple.
And finally let out a soft "Momma."