My first encounter with the idea of children in care who needed families was during a church service as a little girl.
The speaker shared unsettling statistics about kids who age out of care and end up incarcerated, homeless, or worse; kids who are separated from their siblings; and young adults who have no place to spend the holidays or summer vacation. I suppose it all resonated with me because I came from a family of five siblings, and I couldn’t imagine my life without them. At that church service I made up my mind that I wanted to adopt older kids one day. That was the beginning of my journey.
My husband, Sean, grew up in Toronto. The thought of adoption had never crossed his mind. When we were married in 2009, he was hoping we would get pregnant. I had already told him that at some point, I wanted to adopt older children. I think he thought I was kidding. After a year of marriage, though, there was no baby in sight. Sean was 40 and I was 36. When I brought up adoption from foster care again, he jumped on board.
My husband is a sonar operator in the Royal Canadian Navy, and we were stationed for four years at the Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Washington; therefore, we looked into adopting a child out of the US foster care system. That was the start of hours upon hours of emails, phone calls, international conversations, and detangling misinformation as we figured out what it would take to become licensed for adoption in the US and later bring that adopted child into Canada.
Deon was raised primarily by his great-grandmother, but she wasn’t able to care for him anymore. His social workers were struggling to find him a foster placement. He realized that he needed to pursue adoption in order to finish school and have a chance of a future that he was excited about. Even though he knew the odds were against him, he decided to put himself out there. That was when we came across his pictures and video on an adoption website.
Getting to know you
When we expressed interest in getting more info about Deon, we were set up on a phone conversation with him and a social worker. Deon tested us with some questions about drug use. He was in the middle of attending court-mandated drug testing and counselling, and he wanted to know if we could handle that. At the end of our conversation, he said we had passed his test. The next weekend we drove five hours to meet him for a short visit. In the end, it took exactly nine months from our first Foster Care Orientation class until we met our son for the first time. The next weekend he was at our house overnight, and two weeks after that he moved in with us. That was quick! But it wasn’t a fairy tale. We soon discovered we all had a lot to learn about each other.
It turns out that the profile we had read about Deon, which had been written by him, wasn’t exactly accurate. None of the things he’d claimed in his profile turned out to be true – not his interest in sports, not his religious beliefs, not even his love of animals. He admitted that he lied and said all the things he thought people would want to hear. I think this is pretty common with teenagers in the foster care system.
I’ve come to believe that our role as adoptive parents to a teenager is to give them the security and confidence to discover who they really are beyond the label of “foster kid.” We want to give Deon the chance to actually become the person he is, instead of having to invent someone he thinks other people would want him to be.
Deon had to learn that we meant it when we said we expected him to actually get up and go to school every day and work to pass his classes. We learned that it’s really challenging to bring a young adult into your home and try to parent him when so many other people had raised him with very different expectations or standards. Or should I say a lack of expectations and standards? Deon found it hard to trust our intentions and figure out how to fit in with our family. My husband found it hard to share his leftovers with a hungry teenage boy. I found it difficult to deal with a husband who is very much an alpha male, and a young man who was used to being the caretaker of his little brothers.
“Stuck with us for life”
We had to do a lot of learning and adjusting. We still do. But on May 5, 2014, our adoption was finalized. We told this wary, kind-hearted young man that he was now stuck with us for life. We speak with his great-grandmother on a regular basis, and we send school pictures and post photos on Facebook for his birthmom and brothers. Deon just turned 17 and is attending high school in Victoria, BC. He now has dual citizenship, attends school every day, and has joined the wrestling team at school. Recently, we began taking boxing classes together. All in all, the strength of our family is growing every day as we learn to trust and rely on each other.
When people hear that we adopted a teenage boy, they look at us like we are saints. We aren’t saints at all. We are a multi-cultural, multi-national, Christian family who wanted to give a young man a chance at something beyond the dead-end life for which he may have been headed. And what did he want? Parents who would be there through thick and thin, supporting him, challenging him, and encouraging him to go farther than he ever believed he could. He isn’t a perfect son. We sure aren’t perfect parents. But isn’t that what families are all about? Imperfect people loving each other in spite of our imperfections? When people ask why we would take this risk, we just say that Deon was worth any risk on our part. We hope he feels that way about us as well.
Read Deon's journey with adoption in part two: Choosing adoption.
Joanna Church is married to Sean Vaillancourt and is the proud mother of Deon, as well as aunt to 11 nieces and nephews and 9 great nieces and nephews. She is a Canadian Permanent Resident, a Christian, a singer, and an advocate for teen adoption. She works as the Virtual Program Developer for the Canadian Military Family Services, where she connects Canadian military families stationed in the US with online meetings and programs.