[Editor's Note: The names in this story have been changed to protect the confidentiality of the clients. Their story, however, is true.]
The perfect image...the perfect family...a mother, a father, and children, living together, growing together.
Perhaps the perfect image, but this is not the reality that clients of Denise Todd-Cottrell, FOCUS adoption recruitment specialist, generally experience.
Her clients -- children in full guardianship in the statewide foster care system in need of a forever family - experience anything but this perfect image. Take Luke, Mark, and Matthew Williams, for example.
Luke, the oldest, is 10. Mark is 8 and Matthew is 6. For most of their lives, the boys have been under the care of the State of Tennessee's Department of Children's Services. At times they were together; at times they were apart.
In March 2013, their parents' parental rights were terminated by the Juvenile Court where they live after years of legal proceedings.
"Our goal at FOCUS [Finding our Children Unconditional Support] is simply to do what's best for the children," explained Todd-Cottrell.
"In this case," she continued, "it would have been much, much easier for us to separate the siblings and place them," two in one home and one in another. That may not have been the best thing, though. FOCUS took the harder route to try to support the sibling connection between the three.
"Their connection to each other was, in many ways, all they had," said Sonora Goodsell, the FOCUS Regional Case coordinator for Middle Tennessee and a staff member of Harmony Family Center. Their father was never really in their lives and their mother was, herself, in the state's custody for a good part of their lives.
Harmony and Catholic Charities are partners in the statewide initiative to find forever homes for more than 250 children who are available for adoption in Tennessee living in foster care or a group home, waiting for an adoptive family.
The majority of these children are between the ages of 10-18. If not adopted by age 18, they will "age out" of foster care, having never known the stability of a family.
"To separate these 3 boys permanently would have added more traumas to the physical and emotional trauma they had already experienced in their short lives," Goodsell added. This would have been especially true for Luke who craved maternal love and attention which simply could not be provided to him.
"Ninety-nine percent of children, regardless of what they go through, want to go home," said Todd-Cottrell. For Luke, Matthew, and Mark, this was not the best solution.
If Luke could not be with an adult in his family, then he wanted to be with his brothers. Todd-Cottrell and Goodsell knew what they had to do to provide permanency to the lives of Luke, Mark, and Matthew. They just weren't sure how it was going to happen.
In February, Providence began to take over at the "Wait No More" information conference in Brentwood. The event drew nearly 1000 attendees, among them family friends of Martha and Peter Simmons, a couple who had provided foster care for the boys several years earlier.
The friends recognized the boys in a photo display and called the Simmons, knowing that they had had a good experience with the boys as foster parents. The Simmons contacted FOCUS and began a conversation about the boys.
After an extensive application/evaluation process, the Simmons were selected to provide a forever home for them.
"The first meeting was a magical moment," recalled Goodsell. The boys immediately recognized the Simmons. Mark and Matthew jumped into their arms.
Although standing back slightly, since he was not as familiar with the Simmons as his brothers were, Luke clearly was happy. His brothers were happy. That's all he needed.
The Simmons and the boys spent part of their first meeting looking at pictures of the boys taken several years earlier. This, explained Todd-Cottrell, is rare in these situations. Most of the children in foster care have very few keepsakes such as early photographs.
After the placement, Goodsell and Todd-Cottrell were involved in weekly meetings - sometimes more than once a week - to make sure that the placement stabilized, providing on-going support, such as that provided by Catholic Charities' Adoption Support and Preservation (ASAP) program, and advice to the family.
Despite these efforts, unfortunately, Luke was separated after three months of placement. It just was not working.
Now, in addition to continuing to support the Simmons with Mark and Matthew, the FOCUS team is back searching for a family that will commit to loving Luke unconditionally by providing him a forever home.
"Keep in mind," Todd-Cottrell said with sadness in her voice, "this child is only 10 years old."
Click here for the entire Catholic Charities of Tennessee Fall 2014 Newsletter.
CALL OUT BOX #1:
Since FOCUS was founded in 2007, more than 800 children have been served with more than half of the children finding permanency through adoption, reunification with members of their birth family, or with a resource family.
CALL OUT BOX #2:
To learn more about building your family through the adoption of a child (or children) living in foster care, contact Denise Todd-Cottrell at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-352-3087 X-236.