Story by Michael J. Bowler
“I never asked for any of this!” screams my sobbing eight-year-old foster son to his new therapist when he learns that, despite being on an adoption track with me, he must endure more therapy and more “services,” which he’d been forced to be part of since the age of four.
Those seven words rip through my heart as they encapsulate the entire foster care experience for all children in care – they don’t ask for any of it, but are forced to submit because of bad choices by their bio parents and the demands of a bureaucracy-laden system forced by government to provide services the child may not want or even need.
My journey as an adoptive parent begins in 2015 when I attend a Raise A Child event in Los Angeles to find out if, as a single man, I’m legally allowed to adopt, and am delighted to learn that I am eligible. I start classes at Penny Lane Centers—a foster family agency—and thus begins the biggest adventure of my life.
Ronald is eight when he enters my home – excited, happy, safe, and comfortable from the get-go. We’d skipped over many of the interim stages that pre-adoptive parents and children go through because we were such a perfect match from the beginning. Our first meeting at his then third foster home (these foster parents are awesome, btw) lasts almost three hours, instead of the typical one, and Ronald wishes it could go on for another three. The very next day, when asked by his therapist about me, he replies, “It’s like we’re the same person!” I felt exactly the same.
Once he moves in, Ronald believes that, since he’s now in an adoptive home, he’ll be free of the constraints of foster care and, more importantly, that the adoption will finalize sooner, rather than later. It takes many weeks and numerous visits by his new team members before Ronald will even speak to them, hence the cry of anguish with which I opened this post.
He started out life in foster care and only lived with bio parents for a few short years prior to age five. The layers of trauma are thick, some abuse and tons of neglect. Thanks to the five different schools he’s attended before moving in with me, “math” is a trigger word of tsunami proportions, resulting in meltdowns to this day. Thanks to a cruel, shortsighted foster parent who locked him in his room and forced him to write and rewrite standards for hours, writing by hand is another trigger area that lingers painfully in his mind and heart.
Anger outbursts or meltdowns are common, at first, triggered by the trauma of his home life and first two foster homes that weren’t much better. He hordes even toys that are broken. Much later I learn why – one of his foster parents, to punish him for “lies” she claims he told, would cut up his stuffed animals or break his favorite toys right in front of him. I wish I could take away all those traumatic memories, but all I can do is love and nurture him, which is easy because he’s so sweet and loveable.
Ronald is now eleven and his adoption was finalized, at long last, in January. After such a lengthy wait, with numerous roadblocks thrown into our path by his bio mother and a court system that sadly, puts the wants of irresponsible adults above the needs of children, his dream of the past seven years finally comes to fruition. He told me when we first met, “I’ve wanted to be adopted all the time I’ve been in foster care,” and, in his excitement, barely sleeps the night before that dream is to become a reality
On Adoption Day, I wake him early so we can get ready and make the hour-long drive to the courthouse. He sits up at once, grabbing me in a tight hug, gushing, “Today’s the day!” I know him well enough to notice the look on his face and slight undertone to his voice – he’s been in the system too long to believe in the adoption until it actually occurs. We dress in matching suits and ties and Ronald, like most young boys, complains about his tie being too tight, while also beaming at the reason for wearing it.
My sister and nephew are in town for the event and we’re joined at the courthouse by my Little Brother mentee and his mother, and Rich Valenza, founder and CEO of Raise a Child, the adoptive-parent-recruitment agency that started me on my journey. There are three adoptions today in the same court, so we cool our heels in a downstairs hallway awaiting our turn.
When finally called upstairs, we enter a quiet courtroom with the judge examining paperwork on his desk. He doesn’t acknowledge us, but merely waits for our attorney to speak. This man has been an intimidating force in Ronald’s life since the age of four and has watched my son grow up in his courtroom over the years as he approved Ronald’s move from foster home to foster home. Not once does the judge speak to my son, congratulate him, try to put him at ease after all those terrifying court appearances in the past. As the judge reads out the declaration that Ronald and I are now a family, my son hugs me. I feel choked with emotion and he looks ready to cry with happiness.
The judge signs the paperwork and allows us to pose for a photo behind the bench. I offer to shake his hand and indicate to Ronald that he do the same. If a judge who works with children day in and day out can’t be upbeat on the happiest day of my son’s life, I will be upbeat for him. His clinical attitude bothers me, but Ronald says that’s how the man has always been. There are some people who should never work with children and this judge is one of them.
Once we’re out in the hallway heading for the exit, Ronald comments drily, “Three years for five minutes,” comparing his time in my adoptive home to the length of the actual adoption ceremony. But at least, I remind him, the court reporter grinned from ear to ear throughout those five minutes. We shrug off the judge’s detached demeanor and exit the courthouse as a family, happy and excited. On the way home, Ronald gushes, “This is the best day of my life!”
I squeeze his hand. “It’s the best day of mine, too.”
Several weeks later, we host a party to celebrate Ronald’s adoption. Neighbors, family, kids from theater companies Ronald is a part of, schoolmates and their parents arrive to delight in our happiness. Some of his foster care workers and two county social workers also join us to celebrate what, for them, is the reason they do what they do. They’ve been part of Ronald’s life long before I even met him and, on some level, the adoption means as much to them as it does to me.
Ronald, naturally, grows weary of everyone wanting to take a photo with him—I keep whispering in his ear, “You’re the star of the show”—because he wants to play, and that anxiousness to get back to his friends solidifies in my mind what this adoption means to him. Yes, he now has the forever home he’s always dreamed of, but just as importantly, he has friends who can visit his forever home and play with him anytime (something unusual for foster kids and unheard of for Ronald). He also has a best friend he can see on a regular basis who helps validate him in ways he’s never felt before. Knowing that his best friend is coming to the party excites him more than anything else, and that boy is the first one to arrive. Ronald happily shows his friend around his home, including his room, and there have been few times I’ve seen him more ebullient. He’s now a “regular” kid for the first time ever.
As other friends arrive, they play giant Jenga, darts, beanbag toss, and Nerf wars in the backyard. Hearing the laughter and good cheer coupled with smiling happy faces, pulls my heart tight in my chest with happiness. We have food and a huge cake, which he cuts and dispenses to kids and adults alike. He opens presents and notes with amusement how many people have given us photo frames with the word “Family” emblazoned on them. I remind him that today is a celebration of our family and he grins broadly.
We have photos on display from the adoption, alongside a commemorative gift I gave him on Adoption Day: father-son bobbleheads depicting me as Batman and he as Robin (though I told him the “R” on his chest is for Ronald). Written along the base are the words “Family is Forever.” The artist custom-made these bobbleheads so the faces look exactly like ours and they will remain a fun reminder of the day we became an official family, even though he was my son from the moment he walked through my door and has never been treated as anything less.
Everyone who joins us today feels the significance of this celebration and none have ever attended an Adoption Party before. Despite the finalization having already occurred, this party makes the reality so much stronger for Ronald, I suppose because we’re proclaiming it to the whole world.
That evening, after family and friends have left for home and it’s just the two of us sitting together on the couch, Ronald prattles on about how much fun he had, exclaiming as he grips me in a tight hug, “This is the second best day of my life!”
Raise a Child has a motto: “Let Love Define Family,” and it’s a saying with which Ronald and I wholeheartedly concur because love most certainly defines ours.
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