WATERFORD, CT - A family portrait hangs in the living room of the Longs’ home. Taken last year at Thanksgiving, it shows Jesse and Jill Long surrounded by five children: three grinning teenagers and two much younger children. It’s an American classic. Norman Rockwell comes to Waterford. And yet the photograph is a testament to something else, a secret that only some families understand: that while love surely makes a family, determination and hard work are often needed to make it work, make it real.
This is the story of how the Longs made it real. In addition to Jesse and Jill, their three biological children--Alexa, 18, Nolan, 16, and Weston, 15--all play a huge role.
And then there’s Jenna and Jackson.
A child bounced among six foster homes before reaching 16 months old could doubt that she belongs anywhere. Jenna Long could have been that child.
Two years ago, the state Department of Children and Families placed Jenna with the Long family, who DCF staff believed would be better for her. It was a rocky time for everyone, but eventually, as a result of her placement, Jenna, now 3, won’t again have to be whisked away somewhere new, her belongings packed into blue Walmart bags.
As millions of families across the country sit down to indulge in a Thanksgiving feast today, so will the Longs. But this family has something extra to be thankful for today: Jenna’s adoption has become final. But it took the unyielding support of her three brothers, her sister, and parents for Jenna, who had developed an attachment disorder, to learn she is finally home.
“No one has to go anywhere. She’s a Long now, whether she likes it or not,” Alexa says. “It was a struggle at some points, but that’s how family should be. It’s always been our family.”
Mommy, you came back
One year ago, Jill took Jenna to her first day of preschool at Kiddie Kampus in Niantic. “I handed her lunchbox, her bag, and her backpack to her teacher. I gave Jenna a kiss and told her to have a good day,” Jill says. Two hours later, Jill returned. Jenna was playing with toys when Jill walked back in and said, “Hi, pumpkin.”
“She looked up at me and said, ‘Oh, Mommy, you came back.’” The blue-eyed little girl looked up at her teacher. “Mommy came back for me,” Jenna told her teacher. “Of course I came back,” Jill said.
A year later, Jill’s eyes well with tears when she tells the story. “In her life, you pack a bag, drop her off somewhere, and she gets a new mom. Never had I ever thought she would think I wasn’t coming back for her,” she says. “I felt so bad. I didn’t anticipate it,” Jill adds, remembering Jenna’s reaction. “I would have stayed with her or been right outside the door. “I have to push those memories back or else I would just cry all day.”
When Jesse Long heard the story, that was the moment, he says, that he learned a child’s mind is always developing. “I never thought they would remember stuff or know what’s going on. It’s obvious that from day one they’re learning, nurturing, aware of what’s going on and who’s around them,” Jenna’s dad says. “From day one they know if they’ve been abused, if they’ve been hurt and if they’re safe. She had to question her safety very early on,” he says. “Think about that.”
Working through the tough times
When Jenna arrived at the Long home two years ago, her outbursts and destructive behavior forced Alexa, Nolan, and Weston to retreat to their rooms. She would scream, knock over garbage, and throw food. She even hurt Cupid, the family’s affectionate beagle. “I thought, ‘This isn’t the kind of family we wanted,’" Jill says today. “I didn’t want the kids to resent me and say that this was my fault or our family fell apart because we wanted to adopt.”
A family meeting was called, and the possibility of returning Jenna to DCF was discussed. “The turning point for us was when we all sat down and said we’re not happy with the way things are going, but we would never want to give her back,” Jill says. Alexa said Jenna would never get better if they didn’t do it for her. Weston cried during the meeting. “He was so upset we were even having the meeting,” Jill says. “He said she was his sister and she wasn’t even adopted yet.”
The family unanimously decided to raise Jenna together, no matter how hard things might become. “She was so little and vulnerable to everything around her,” Alexa says. “She was my sister, adopted or not.”
The family enliested DCF to find resources to help them cope with Jenna’s attachment disorder and also to coach the family with techniques they could use to make everyone’s lives a little bit easier. "We ended up finding the Attachment Institute in Worcester and attended 14 sessions that helped us understand what her world is,” Jill says. “She’s a lot of work."
“A lot of parents adopt because they want to experience parenting, but you adopt from DCF for the child, to give them everything they need.” Two years later, Jenna is blossoming. She greets each member of the family with a hug at the door and bursts into a fit of cackling laughter when Cupid licks her nose.
In an effort to be just like Alexa, she carries a blue pocketbook filled with Monopoly money and a wallet with a picture of Alexa inside. There’s something else “very special,” the little girl says, twisting the cap off the bright pink lip gloss and smearing the gloss across her lips.
At lunchtime, Jill offers her a slice of bread to go with her rolled-up turkey slices. Jenna takes the bread and bites the slice from the middle. Pulling it from her mouth, she notices pink smudges, decides she doesn’t want it anymore, puts it in the trash and asks for a new slice. If you’re 3, you can do things like this when you’re home.
Jackson Long’s chocolate-brown eyes are framed by long lashes, his fair skin dotted with freckles. The 6-year-old has no qualms about acting the role of the youngest, rollicking brother. In another photograph, this one taken when Jackson was a baby, Nolan cradles him, looking into his eyes.
Born addicted to heroin, Jackson was placed by DCF with the Longs when he was 4 months old. Going through the agonies of withdrawal, baby Jackson would often stiffen. “Jack would be rigid and cold and would tremor from coming off his addiction.
"From the moment he came to us, Nolan would hold him,” Jill says. “He always took care of him, he just bonded to him right away. He was the only one in the family who could stop Jackson from crying.” It took two years for Jackson’s adoption to go through. Jill says he was two weeks away from being sent back to his mother who, despite a lengthy prison record and being in and out of drug treatment facilities, was trying to regain custody. For months, the Longs fought to keep the boy, a time that Jill calls “one of the worst times” of their lives. But DCF ultimately supported their efforts.
Today, Jackson is a first-grader who loves baseball and Legos and just cannot sit still. “As soon as he comes home, he’s outside until you force him in for dinner,” Weston says of his little brother.
Three years ago, Jill, a pathology technician at Pfizer, quit her job when Jackson was diagnosed with epilepsy, a result of his birthmother’s drug use. Jill became a stay-at-home mother, although she has recently taken a job at a middle school. Every day she worked to regiment an impatient Jackson, drilling him on how to brush his teeth, wash his hands and pay attention to signs such as the one that used to order him to “stop” before he slid open the glass door of the kitchen. “He would run outside without a jacket or shoes. He didn’t pay attention to cars or anything,” Jill says. “He’d be gone.”
Jesse Long, a full-time corrections officer at Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Center in Montville, gives Jill “all the credit in the world” for getting Jackson to where he is now. “It’s leaps and bounds from where he was two years ago,” he says. “Now, he’ll tell you if he’s going outside, and if he doesn’t tell us, we know where he’ll be and he knows to look for cars.”
Jackson was also diagnosed with ADHD, a disorder Jill and Jesse have decided not to treat with medication at this point because he is able to expel his energy outside when he runs. Sometimes, his bursts of energy are expended inside the house. The wallpaper in the kitchen hangs from the wall, and Jill swears there “isn’t a thing in the house that hasn’t been broken at least once.”
“Now that he’s getting bigger and stronger, we’ve lost a lot of windows,” Jill says. “But that’s just the way our life is; we’ll lose a window here or there, but everything can be replaced. They’re just material things.” Jackson runs up the outside stairs, throws the sliding door open and blows in from outside. Cupid tries to keep up. “Mom,” he pleads, “I’m hungry.”
Jill walks to the sliding door and shuts it, then asks Jackson if he wants a turkey sandwich or chicken nuggets. Standing on a chair, he flings himself over the kitchen table. “Turkey sandwich,” he demands. “What do we say when we ask for something?” Jill reminds him.
He stops to think. The Lego he’s holding distracts him from remembering the one word that separates him from his food. “Please,” he says through a gaptoothed smile. Three bites into the turkey sandwich and Jackson’s done. The sunshine is calling him. He tosses his plate on the counter, forgets to put his shoes back on and flies outside.
At some point today, in between the turkey and pie, the Long family will take a new photograph. A year later, what hasn’t changed is the love and appreciation they have for one another. If anything, it’s grown. “The whole process seems so long, but it’s so worth it. Everything that you go through is worth it,” Jesse says, picking up the remainder of Jackson’s sandwich and taking a bite. “I don’t know how to live a day without either one of them.”
Re-printed with permission of The Day Newspaper, firstname.lastname@example.org.