Rena and husband Jim Jones already had four biological children when they made the brave move to adopt a sibling group of four from the Ministry For Children and Family Development (MCFD) in 1996.
Using the logic only the matriarch of an already large family could possibly use, Rena said, they had already fed, nurtured, and changed the diapers of four children, so they had experience. At the time, the sibling group –who were born prematurely, drug-exposed, and neglected– were between 11 months and five years of age. The Jones’ biological children ranged in age from six to 12 years.
Not that the Jones intended to adopt a sibling group of four. They initially planned to adopt a group of two. However, a friend who was fostering the children introduced them. Rena said meeting the kids first meant they "sort of hijacked" the adoption process (normally MCFD matches children with prospective parents), but she’s glad it happened that way. "It just seemed like it was meant to be," she said. On paper, she said, this sibling group’s needs "would have sounded too severe."
Meeting them first meant the family had time to get to know them slowly during the eight months it took to complete the process. The youngest was a tiny two-month-old when they first met him, but was 11 months by the time he and his three siblings entered the Jones's home.
Rena said the process from application through to placement took about 15 months, which gave them ample time to prepare. To start, they filled out an application and moved on to the homestudy, which entailed interviews with all family members including the children. They also completed a special needs education component. MCFD then had to ensure that no biological relations (including grandparents) were interested in caring for the children, which slowed the process.
Merging two sibling groups had its challenges; some the Joness anticipated, and some came as a surprise. They accurately predicted that their youngest, who was six at the time, would have difficulty losing her "baby-of-the-family" status. She regressed emotionally, said Rena, and needed a lot of babying. As well, she had fewer nurturing skills than the older three, who were used to changing diapers and entertaining toddlers, and was less able to adopt a caregiving role. At school, while her academic work was advanced, her social skills dropped, and her teacher noted she was less mature than her peers. Within a year the gap closed, and she was well within the normal range.
The Jones failed to anticipate the battle between the two eldest siblings. Rena's eldest biological son, an assertive 12-year-old with excellent language skills, felt threatened by the eldest daughter of the new sibling group who was only five and had poor language skills. She was used to caring for her three siblings and telling people what do. Rena told her son that he didn’t have to take orders from his new young sibling, and they helped their new daughter to relax and trust that the adults would take care of her. However, the Johnsons made sure that her caregiving qualities were nurtured as well. Over time, said Rena, "she stopped being so hovering."
In the early days, said Rena, they wavered between thinking "How did we ever think we could do this?" to "How did we get so lucky?" While they set up their home in a structured way, they still had to relax about tidiness and keeping on top of the children’s schoolwork.
Although, one can’t spend as much one-on-one time in large family, but her older kids can fill the gaps.
She credits them with getting the youngest on his feet so quickly. Rena said the youngest is a real success story. He was low birthweight, and suffered significant gross motor delays. When he moved into the Jones's home, the older siblings made it their mission to get him walking, and in two months he was. Now his speech is better than the eldest of the sibling group, and he’s progressing normally.
Rena said they don’t go on family vacations, and eating out is pretty much impossible.
Overall, the group adapted well. They came from a structured foster home, and the Johnsons attempted to maintain that stability. Rena took a four-month leave. Her husband worked part-time and then took seven months off, so the children had full-time parenting for almost a year. In addition, the Jones have a full-time nanny whose salary is partially paid by MCFD.
Advocating for their new children was a real eye-opener. Rena said she thought the resources would be there, and all she’d have to do was access them. What she discovered was while people would agree with her case, they often didn’t have the resources to help her.
Several battles with various ministries have honed her advocacy skills. She now realizes that it’s up to her to get funding for her children and push to get them much-needed learning assistance when they fall through the cracks.
They get a lot of emotional support from their church, not to mention bags of clothing. They are friends with another large family formed through adoption in which many of the children have special needs. While they only get together infrequently, she said just "knowing someone’s out there" is a great comfort. As well, they’ve met a lot of families parenting children with special needs through their local association for child development.
Adding four children with special needs to a family can be financially burdensome. However, MCFD does have post-adoption assistance in the form of maintenance payments for which the Jones qualified.
Don’t be afraid of pursing it; don’t be afraid of the needs, said Rena. There is advocacy involved, but it’s amazing that what the kids really need is "just a normal family." "They need a stable home with food on the table. That’s more important than a psychologist ... They thrive on the stability that comes from long-term relations," she said.
The older children have benefited in countless ways. "It’s expanded their horizons and how they see the world and how you can make a difference." It’s increased their understanding of justice and compassion and opened up their eyes to what real needs are. It’s opened up their eyes to the damaging effects of substance abuse.