'This is it': Adopting Through the Foster Care System
Today’s guests: Jillian and Matty
In this episode, we’re going to hear Matty and his wife, Jillian, describe their path to adoption, through the foster care system in Washington state. Even before they were married, Matty and Jillian Mitchell knew they wanted to adopt — specifically, through the foster-care system in Washington state. But their path to parenthood was not an easy one.
KRISTIN KALNING: When Matthew Mitchell was 17 or 18 years old, he saw a movie called “Major Payne.” If you haven’t seen it, it’s a 1995 comedy starring Damon Wayans as a super-tough U.S. Marine who has trouble adjusting to civilian life. Eventually, he lands at a prep school, training a group of misfits and delinquents to compete in the Virginia Military Games. Along the way, the Major finds himself softening his hard edges, particularly toward a pretty co-worker, and an adorable 6-year-old orphan, who is a cadet at the school.
Here’s Matthew, who goes by Matty, describing what stuck with him from “Major Payne.”
MATTY MITCHELL: and like it’s one of those comedies and he falls in love, and they end up adopting this child at the end of it. I’m not very hippie-dippie, I literally had this flash in my head like, ‘Oh, I’m going to adopt a black child, a child and he’s going to be black,’ I could just see it in my head. It wasn’t something where it was like, I want to do that. It was just in my head.
KRISTIN: If the accent didn’t tip you off, Matty is Australian. And adoption isn’t very common in Australia. In fact, there were only 315 adoptions finalized in Australia in 2017. But for Matty, adoption seemed normal. His mother was adopted by her stepdad, Matty’s grandfather. It wasn’t a big secret, and it also wasn’t any big deal. It was just normal. And Matty thinks that’s why it was so easy for him to imagine adopting, just like Major Payne.
I’m Kristin Kalning, and this is Real Life Adoption, a podcast of stories from people whose lives have been touched by adoption. In this episode, we’re going to hear Matty and his wife, Jillian, describe their path to adoption, through the foster care system in Washington state. A heads up—we are using Matty and Jillian’s real names, but a pseudonym for their 6-year-old son, Jack. I’m doing the same for our two kids, Scott and Peter. OK, on with the story.
In 2004, Jillian Price was 20 years old, a focused, ambitious young psychology student at the University of Portland in Oregon. Toward the end of her college career, Jillian chose to spend a semester in Australia. On her very first night in the country, she met Matty. I’m gonna let her tell it.
KRISTIN: When did you meet Matty?
JILLIAN MITCHELL: Yeah, it was the first night that I got there.
KRISTIN: Wow, tell me about that.
JILLIAN: It was maybe 3 of us that got there a day early in the study abroad program.
KRISTIN: And where were you? What university was this?
JILLIAN: University of Notre Dame Australia in Fremantle. Our liaison student who was looking after the study abroad students said, ‘How about I take you guys out for dinner, since nobody else is really in your dorm yet and I’ll bring a few of my friends.’ So this guy brought a few of his friends and their roommate who ended up being Matty. So there was really only 6 or 7 of us sitting around the table, and he walked in and there he was, it was over.
MATTY: From my side of the fence, it was like: These Americans are coming. I was, being an Australian, being a young lad thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m going to have so much fun, bring on the American girls.’ I walked into the restaurant thinking, ‘I’m going to charm these girls.’ Jillian made a joke and my friend was sitting in front of us and I had to look around and we locked eyes. I literally said: ‘You’re funny.’ And we hung out from that day on.
JILLIAN: Every day. It was something we couldn’t stop. We tried. It made no sense whatsoever.
MATTY: It made no sense.
JILLIAN: We were like, this obviously isn’t going to last. This will just be a fling. You know we really weren’t even telling people.
KRISTIN: Things got serious, fast, with Matty and Jillian. And as in any new relationship, they did a lot of talking – about their ambitions, their plans, and their dreams. Matty’s vision of adopting a child someday came up in their conversations. Jillian thought it was sweet, but figured it didn’t pertain to her. After all, this relationship made no sense. It couldn’t possibly go the distance.
After four months, the semester was up, and it was time for Jillian to fly back to the U.S. It was a difficult separation – both of them cried at the airport, but figured that was it. A few days into her backpacking trip across the East Coast, Jillian called Matty from a pay phone. “This isn’t right, this doesn’t feel good,” he told her. Whether it made sense or not, Matty and Jillian decided that they just couldn’t live without each other, and carried on the relationship long distance until Jillian graduated.
MATTY: I was such a buffoon back then. I was literally paycheck to paycheck, partying or skating or doing something silly with my friends. There was no responsibility other than getting to my job on time. Then as soon as we made that commitment my brain said, ‘OK, let’s get serious.’
KRISTIN: With the couple now committed to a future together, the talk about what their family might look like took on a new weight. And Jillian says she was always on board to adopt.
KRISTIN: Were you even thinking about wanting kids at this point?
JILLIAN: Yeah, it seemed like, ‘Well yeah, I’ll want kids’ and that will be a part of our story: Us having a family. Like I mentioned to you before, when Matty said, ‘I really do want to adopt,’ I said, ‘OK, I feel like the right thing for us to do then is foster-toadopt.’
KRISTIN: And you knew that right then? How old were you? How did you have any concept of foster-to-adopt? That’s pretty advanced.
JILLIAN: I was 21 maybe 22 when we talked about the process that we would adopt and that we would adopt a child that needed a home. We would provide a great loving home for someone who didn’t have one.
KRISTIN: But you did not know much about foster-to-adopt?
JILLIAN: Not really.
MATTY: We still looked into other avenues, but that was on the table.
KRISTIN: Did you know anybody who had done that?
KRISTIN: So you were you just kind of idealistic?
JILLIAN: A little bit idealistic, yeah.
KRISTIN: Matty and Jillian got married in 2006. The next year, they moved to the U.S., outside of Seattle, and did what many young couples do: They built their foundation. They knew kids were in their future, but … later. They hung out with friends –none of whom had kids yet. And they focused on their careers. Matty went to design school, and worked at a boutique design firm. Jillian worked – and still works – in health care.
After four years of this, they were ready to grow their family. Matty and Jillian took a different route from most: They chose to adopt from the foster-care system first, and try for a biological child later.
MATTY: We bounced back and forth on this a little bit. Deciding what we thought would be best for the child. Are they going to be better that they’ve got somebody to look up to or are they going to be better that they have our full attention? Then, what age gap is that? We ultimately decided that them having our full attention, for however long it’ll be, was the best route.
KRISTIN: Here’s some background about foster care that will help as we go through Matty and Jillian’s story. There is currently, in the U.S., a massive shortage of foster parents. One reason for the shortage is that it’s hard to recruit and retain qualified foster parents. The other reason is the increase in the number of kids entering care. Much of that is due to substance abuse, primarily, opioids.
In the eyes of the state, the ideal scenario is that the child be reunited with his or her biological family. That can mean mom or dad, or it can mean kinship care, like a grandparent. Adoption by someone not related to the child is the last option.
Of the 10,068 children currently in foster care in Washington state, about 2,000 are available for adoption. They are what’s called legally free. Their birth parents have had their parental rights terminated by the courts, and typically, the children who are legally free tend to be older. Most children in the system are not legally free. They remain in foster care while the birth parents try to work out their issues. In the majority of cases, children are returned to their birth parents if the courts are satisfied that the kids are safe, that their needs are met, and that mom or dad are prepared to parent.
The Mitchells were looking for a child with a low legal risk, or a low probability of the child being returned to his or her birth family. But low doesn’t mean nonexistent, and there’s never a guarantee that you’ll be able to adopt a child that you’ve fostered for any length of time. That’s what’s tough about adopting from the foster care system: You’re looking for permanency from a system where so much is in flux.
In Washington state, prospective parents must be foster licensed, even if their ultimate intention is to adopt. To become licensed, parents must attend an orientation, and complete Caregiver Core Training, which is 24 hours in total. In addition to the training, there’s a lengthy to-do list, which includes a home study and home safety inspection, medical reports, background checks, and CPR certification.
Those looking to adopt through the foster care system can choose to work directly with the state, or through an agency. The Mitchells opted to work with an agency, choosing Amara, which is based in Seattle. According to Jillian, they worked with an agency so they’d have a social worker who could help them navigate through the legal parts while fostering. Their social worker didn’t have much ability to change anything, but he was a valuable support to them.
Once they’d chosen their agency, the Mitchells began working through the to-do list and the trainings. They’d been told by their social worker that the average time to get everything done was a year. Jillian, who describes herself as very efficient, had blasted through the list in six months. And it turned out to be a little too fast, so they stopped, and took a breather.
JILLIAN: It was scary. I think talking about it, training for it, and doing all these preparation things is one thing, but then to start getting those referrals and possibly bringing home a child that next day… was scary. Because then again, usually they say, ‘Usually, it’s about six months.’ But you have to be ready that next day. It could be your child. So once that set in -- this could be a matter of a week or two from right now, from once we get licensed and then we get a child right away –
MATTY: We also had a young friend group. So we were still hanging out doing stuff socially with them.
JILLIAN: We were young.
KRISTIN: How old were you guys?
JILLIAN: 27 and 30.
MATTY: I was 29
JILLIAN: When we brought him home, we were 27 and 30.
MATTY: Yeah, when that part was done. But the whole leading up to it, when we had to sit for six months or a year.
JILLIAN: Six and 29 days
MATTY: I feel like you were less ready than I was.
JILLIAN: Yeah, I think so too. I was 26 and I was like, ‘Whoa.’
MATTY: That was real adult stuff
KRISTIN: Matty and Jillian said that initially their friends and family were a bit puzzled by their decision to adopt.
MATTY: People were supportive. But they were always supportive in a hesitant sort of way. Like, ‘oh that’s really good for you, but you can have a biological one…’
JILLIAN: A lot of asking, ‘why?’ Not understanding, why we would. But supportive, like, ‘OK you do your thing.’
JILLIAN: I distinctly remember my dad did not understand either. I remember, we were driving in the car one day, he was driving, I think we were going out to a movie at night. He said, ‘I didn’t really understand once you started talking about adoption, why you would do this. Between your genes, and Matty’s genes you could have a super baby! Why you wouldn’t just do that. Then I think about Henry, your nephew and I think of him being without (he was only two or a toddler at the time) and I think of him not being in the best care or being neglected and that breaks my heart. I can understand now. I can understand and I see how it’s right for you.’ That was huge, to have that support. It felt like a family decision, and ever since then, it’s been a full family supporting network.
KRISTIN: All told, including their hiatus, it took a year and a half to be foster-licensed. And the Mitchells started getting referrals for children immediately. They’d both be notified, via email, and the email would contain information about the child who needed placement.
In some cases, they’d get just a paragraph, with or without a photo. With others, they’d get more information. Sometimes, they’d need to make a decision right away, because the child needed immediate placement. Over a period of five months, The Mitchells estimate that they saw at least one referral per week. And they said yes to about a dozen. But that didn’t mean that they’d automatically get the placement.
JILLIAN: Then, sometimes when we’d say yes then we have our phone attached to us. ‘Cause we could then be getting the call at any time that we were chosen. Sometimes we’d hear back: this child was placed with somebody else. Sometimes we would never hear. So then after a while we’d think, I guess we didn’t get that one.
KRISTIN: What was that like?
JILLIAN: It was a lot of emotional eating.
MATTY: I would say from that point on up until the official adoption … we should have had shares in Menchie’s. We should have started our own shop. We would have been great.
JILLIAN: I would say we stuck together. That was how we got through it. We would be together.
KRISTIN: How did you work? You have your phone on you, your life might change at any moment. What did that feel like?
MATTY: It’s hard to explain. Your interior is nervous, but you’ve got to work. You’ve got to get your job done. So you’re plugging away and I had people at work who knew what we were going through. I was lucky enough, that my boss at the time he had adopted.
JILLIAN: That was very nice, he was very understanding of the whole process.
MATTY: Maybe, even knowing that somebody had been through, hearing his story. I felt, ‘oh okay, these are the bumps in the road that everyone goes through.’
JILLIAN: To go off of that …I had to have the conversation with my bosses. ‘I could have a child at any time. We’re planning to adopt. We’re licensed.’
MATTY: They were very supportive.
JILLIAN: Any day I could have a child.
Kristin: That’s hard to plan around, isn’t it?
JILLIAN: Extremely hard.
KRISTIN: They don’t know when you’re going to be gone.
KRISTIN: So how did the whole process make you feel of seeing these referrals?
JILLIAN: Totally in limbo. But also, really like this was the right thing for us.
KRISTIN: How come?
JILLIAN: It just felt like our child’s out there. Our son’s out there.
MATTY: I think once you’re invested in that far, you’re pretty deep at that point. We’re going to end up with a child. When you think about that process, you actually have a knot in your stomach. It’s going to happen, it’s not, it’s going to happen. The highs and lows are all over the show through the whole process.
JILLIAN: Oh, yeah. Even just planning for anything. I remember that summer, we were just getting licensed, we had five weddings. I specifically remember, we were like, ‘yep, we think we’ll go.’ We just had to know and change our mindset to, ‘we’ll just keep on living and if plans change, plans change.’ Of course it’s going to be happy when it does; we’ll make it work.
JILLIAN: You were saying what it was like at that time, going through these referrals and seeing some very sad stories. I remember almost crying, thinking, feeling the love of our potential child. Thinking, ‘what if our child is out there having some of these stories happen, but he hasn’t been found yet?’ Like if CPS hadn’t found him yet, and feeling the sadness, possibly. It’s a very odd thing.
KRISTIN: Fast forward to the holidays, 2011. December 27, to be exact. The Mitchells were pulling into their garage, after dropping Matty’s grandmother at Sea-Tac airport. She’d been visiting for the holidays. Matty and Jillian had been advised by their caseworker at Amara that things were pretty quiet around the holidays.
MATTY: At that point we thought we could relax. We’ll get back into this in January or February.
JILLIAN: We drove into the garage, I was driving.
MATTY: We both get an e-mail on our phones.
JILLIAN: We hear the ding, we’re in the garage. We open up the referral, and we thought, ‘there he is.’
MATTY: We were sitting on the couch, we had made a decision, and we thought, ‘This is it.’
JILLIAN: So we went inside and we were sitting on the couch and we were reading over it over and over again.
KRISTIN: But how did you know, yes? Tell me what it was about that specific referral, that specific child that made you say yes after seeing dozens.
MATTY: Have you ever made a half-court shot in basketball?
KRISTIN: I can’t say that I have.
MATTY: But have you ever done something like that?
MATTY: So you’ve let the ball go, you’ve done something where the motion just lets you know that whatever happens at the end that, is going to be perfect. So we get that e-mail it just felt like, we both looked at each other and thought, ‘this is it.’ Just like when we looked around the table at each other and thought, ‘this is it.’ Maybe that should be the story when we write a book?
KRISTIN: I might steal your title.
KRISTIN: The child in the referral was a four-day-old baby boy. His birth mom, who we’ll call Anna, had tested positive for PCP. But the baby was full term, and showing no signs of withdrawal. And it looked like this child was likely for adoption, because Anna had had a child previously who’d been adopted. This baby needed to be placed within 24 hours. He was being discharged the next day.
Matty and Jillian gave an unequivocal yes to their caseworker, and then, they waited. Matty was off work until New Year’s, so he was at home. Jillian went to work, but it was nearly impossible for her to focus. She called Matty at home to see if there was any news, and while they were on the phone, their social worker called on the landline. That’s a requirement to be a foster parent, you gotta have a landline – and so Matty had his wife in one ear, and the social worker in the other.
Matty learned that the state social worker would be going to court that day to finalize Jack’s placement. And the Mitchell’s would need to be at the hospital to pick him up at around 2:00. Matty got the details, jumped in the car to pick up Jillian, and off they went. Jillian remembers walking into Univeristy of Washignton hospital with an empty car seat, and walking out with it full.
KRISTIN: Describe what it was like to see him.
MATTY: That’s like the best part of the story. We walk in and we see this child sitting there. We go in, they take us into this room. There’s this child in this medical bassinet and they’re talking to us and we just feel like there’s nothing around. There could have been an elephant running through the room next to us and we could not have noticed. We were just look at this child. We used to go through scenarios like, “who’s going to hold him first?” I was like I’m going to hold him first. When we get to that situation I thought, “Of course I want the mother of my child to hold him first.” So Jillian picks up Jack … he’s sitting there and we know that it’s just little baby nerve reactions, but he opens his eyes and wiggles his head over to me and back over to Jillian, and this smile comes over his face and then he snuggled in and goes to sleep and we thought to each other, “did that just happen? Are you serious?” We were smiles, ear to ear. They put us through the nursing tests, you’ve to feed him, you’ve got to change him. They would tell you things like, “if he’s crying, it’s okay to just walk out of the room.” They tell you that over and over again. I think after two hours then we head home.
JILLIAN: It was crazy.
MATTY: Crazy. Such a good feeling
KRISTIN: You get him home. You spoke earlier about the QFC moment. Can you talk a little bit about … so, it was theoretical, you have this child, then you have this child …
JILLIAN: We have this child and I didn’t foresee an infant. Infants are so rare to go through foster to adopt. So we had pictured toddler. We get this infant, we get him home. We brought a couple packs of the formula from the hospital that they provide for us. We had a card table that we put up for a changing table that had towels on it. We got everything jimmy-rigged for the first couple of nights. We get home and we get it all set and I thought, ‘oh god, we need to get more food for this child.’ I can’t physically feed this child anything other than formula. I was like, oh! The one thing I have to do!
MATTY: The first thing we did … we read that if you hold the child to your…
JILLIAN: Oh yeah, we did some skin-to-skin.
MATTY: It wasn’t all panic, it was the excitement and stuff. I think once stuff settled down we then thought, ‘we’ve got to do some adult stuff here.’
JILLIAN: I was like, ‘I’ll go to the store to get some formula.’ I go and I was starting at this wall of options and it was all swirling around. It was the first time I was like, “whoa, this sh*t got real.” I’m in charge of this person and this is the rest of our lives. It all starts today.
A week later, Jack started his court-mandated visits with Anna, his birth mom. The visits were four times a week, for three hours at a time. A state social worker transported him to his first one, but after that, it was Jillian or Matty. There are people whose job it is to transport foster kids to their visits, but the Mitchells were adamant that they should be with Jack as much as possible.
So, four times a week, Matty or Jillian would make the 30-minute drive to the children’s services office in South Seattle. They’d drive in the back, to avoid contact with Anna. The state social worker had warned the Mitchells that Anna was not happy about the situation, and that it was best if the two sets of parents didn’t interact.
MATTY: I think at first you’ve got a little bit of naiveness. I mean, it’s hard --
JILLIAN: It’s so short-term.
MATTY: It’s so short-term. We didn’t know that she was so hostile during the visits. At first you think he’s a baby chilling out.
JILLIAN: At first it’s just more about getting the logistics down. There’s a lot of importance to getting him there on time. All we are is a foster parent. All we are is a home for this child who’s in limbo. It’s our duty to get him there on time. It’s hard enough to get out the door with an infant to begin with, but we had to make sure that he was fed for the longer car trip, diaper changed, totally clean. Because, that was an issue -- if she saw that he was dirty, if he spit-up in the car, I would have to change him before we went in.
MATTY: And he was a spitter-upper.
JILLIAN: He was a spitter. At first we just thought, this is a real pain. Just logistically. Then as he got older, just a couple weeks, and we could see a difference in him.
MATTY: Like if he had three days without it, he’d be calm.
JILLIAN: And more willing to be passed around.
MATTY: But if he had a visit, he would be cranky afterwards. Not wanting to be away from us at all.
JILLIAN: Not at all. Not even to be down in a bouncer or anything. Just wanted to be held.
MATTY: Still now. He could probably be held all the time.
JILLIAN: And there started to be cracks in the system at that point. We saw … she would sometimes start not showing up. So it would be this whole rigmarole to get there. So you’d go in and, I think it was 15 minutes, that she would not show up and he would come back out and we would go home. Then a couple times, the visit had to be ended. I’d just get back from work and I’d get a call from the social worker saying the visit had to be ended because the birth mom was acting so inappropriately.
KRISTIN: Like how?
MATTY: Usually yelling at the social workers.
JILLIAN: She was yelling at the social workers because she was mad at the situation and she should have her child.
MATTY: Or it could have been about anything.
JILLIAN: She didn’t want any parenting advice. So if the social worker was trying to help her with feeding or anything it would set her off. She knows what she’s doing, she knows how to care for this child. A couple times the police had to be called, because she would not hand him over. She would be screaming, he would be screaming, and she’s just holding him, refusing to give him up and so they would have to wait for the police to come as he’s screaming in her arms. He’d just kind of whimper on the way home.
KRISTIN: And then what would it be like to then have him -- what would he be like at home after something like that?
JILLIAN: Just very clingy. Very clingy. Just --
MATTY: The first part was over his one to three months, so as you know children grow so fast. So for the first couple of weeks you think, ‘well he’s a baby, he might cry.’ As he’s starting their personality and what they want, then you start noticing he’s really clingy, he doesn’t want to go to his aunties and uncles anywhere near as much. Just putting him down in his crib he would act as if he didn’t want to be put down or away from us.
JILLIAN: Even napping, we’dput him down, and no, no, no. He’d scream upright, and you’d have to hold him while he napped. For a long time.
MATTY: It wasn’t just that he’d want to be laying on you, he’d be grabbing us.
JILLIAN: Grabbing with his tiny little fists.
MATTY: Grabbing your hand, or your hair.
JILLIAN: Just like, “Don’t let me go.”
KRISTIN: Because of Anna’s volatility, the state social worker had the visits moved to a different CPS office, in West Seattle. That office was staffed with a full-time security guard, who could intervene if Anna became agitated. The office was an even longer drive for the Mitchells, and baby Jack.
It took four months of these visits until CPS figured out that the drug test they’d been giving to Anna didn’t include PCP, her drug of choice. PCP is known to cause euphoria and calmness, but also, combativeness, disorientation, and irrational behavior. CPS tested her for the drug, which came back positive. The visits stopped, and Anna disappeared. A month later, the state started gathering materials and files to terminate Anna’s parental rights.
In Washington state, the court can petition to have the parental rights terminated if the child has been in foster care for at least 12 of the last 19 months. Those don’t have to be consecutive months either. This covers cases where a child returns home to his birth parents and then is removed a second time. In other words, a failed reunification.
The petition to terminate can be filed sooner, if it’s in the child’s best interest. And also, if at least one of the following criteria are met:
The child is determined by the court to be an abandoned child;
The child has been in foster care for at least six months;
Aggravated circumstances have been found by the court. Some examples of aggravated circumstances include a parent being convicted of sexually or physically abusing the child.
Every state office runs things slightly differently and every judge or court also has different ways of moving cases forward. While the policy and law is consistent, the ways that the state implements and interprets policy may vary from county-to-county or even office-to-office.
In the Mitchell’s case, the court required that Anna submit to a series of psychological evaluations to determine if she was able to parent. And they wouldn’t administer the test until she’d been off drugs for 90 days, so that the test was an accurate representation.
In August 2012, four months after she dropped out of sight, Anna popped up in rehab. The state stopped its efforts to terminate. Anna was, in their view, trying to get her act together. There was still a chance she could parent her child. So the visits started up again. The courts rarely take away visit rights unless there is a significant danger to the child, or there is a no-contact order.
KRISTIN: The visits start up again, and you’re going up to Everett.
JILLIAN: So that was in August. That’s when she meets us. Because of the setup of that residential rehab facility, there wasn’t an inconspicuous way for me to be dropping him off. I would be handing him to her directly. That was horrible. He’d be screaming. At this point --
MATTY: He’s aware enough.
JILLIAN: He’s eight months old. He would be screaming bloody murder. Grabbing at my clothes. She’s yelling at me to hand him over. She’s yelling at the social worker, ‘You see what she’s doing?’ I’d just be sitting in the car, waiting. It was just too far for me to go anywhere between. That’s when we really pushed with the state social worker to diminish the visits. It was too much for him.
KRISTIN: Your pediatrician weighed in, correct?
JILLIAN: Yes, we got a letter from her that three hours is so long for an infant and that they needed to be shorter and less frequent. At that point, we got them down to three days a week for two hours. Which was a win, but it was still more than he wanted. But those lasted for only about five or six weeks. And then –
MATTY: It was on the drive up there.
JILLIAN: You were driving him there, and I had gotten the call that she had left rehab and there wouldn’t be a visit that day. They didn’t know where she was. We thought that was it. We were like, ‘oh my gosh.’
MATTY: We made it, we’re done.
JILLIAN: I’ll never forget, you sent me a selfie of you and Jack on the swing out back under the tree, with these happy smiles when you got home, like we’re done. Home free.
KRISTIN: The Mitchells say that Jack was much calmer and happier once the visits stopped. Logistically, he wasn’t being hauled around as much, and so he could get on a regular eating and sleeping schedule. And it was nice to have their family on their terms.
Then came February 2013. By then, Matty and Jillian had been fostering Jack for 14 months, and six months had passed since Anna had left rehab. The Mitchells were in line for a court date when they got the call: Anna was back in rehab, and she wanted the visits to start up again.
JILLIAN: So we delayed and delayed as much as we can. I think we got two weeks out of it. Again, it was me physically handing him to her. It was awful.
MATTY: You could hear him crying from outside.
JILLIAN: Because he’s almost a year and a half at that point. He has separation anxiety already.
KRISTIN: Was he verbal at this point? Could he speak?
JILLIAN: Yeah. He’d say, ‘no, no, no’ getting in the car.
MATTY: The first several times he was going there, he was like, ‘Oh, what’s happening?’ But then he would recognize her. You would be calling me saying he was saying, “no, no, no.”
JILLIAN: I’d just say, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry.’ She would just be like, ‘What are you saying sorry for? I’m his mom.’ Not registering that he is bawling. There was no comforting to him. There was no caring about his feelings on her end. It was really hard. I’d just be sitting in the parking lot and I could hear his crying through the building. The whole time. It was awful. It was just … powerless.
MATTY: A couple of those got canceled as well, right?
JILLIAN: Yes, because he was so distraught and he would be crying until he vomited and they would stop then.
KRISTIN: While the visits continued, the court date to terminate was delayed, because Anna’s attorney was overwhelmed, and didn’t have time to work on her case. By that time, Anna had been off drugs for the required 90 days, and so could finally do her psychological evaluations. The Mitchells didn’t see the results of the evaluation, but they did see the court’s recommendation: that Anna was unfit to be a parent.
Still, until Anna’s parental rights were permanently revoked, she was entitled to visits. The court date to terminate moved two more times. The Mitchells were frustrated, and dismayed to learn that despite the court’s recommendation that Anna was unfit, she still might get custody of Jack. The state’s attorney wasn’t sure that the case against her was strong enough. There was talk about another court delay.
But then, December 2013, almost two years since Jack had been placed in their care, the Mitchells got another call. Anna had dropped out of rehab, and had signed an open adoption agreement on her way out of town.
JILLIAN: And it just felt like silence, all of a sudden, in the world. And it was like … is this how it ends?
KRISTIN: With a whimper and not a bang?
JILLIAN: Yes! Exactly, and here we are. I guess we’re done.
KRISTIN: The agreement entitled Anna to three visits a year, and periodic updates about Jack, with photos. The Mitchells also added a paragraph stating that if they went over a year without hearing from her, the agreement was null and void. Same if Anna showed up at a visit under the influence. A week after signing, Anna filed an appeal, which added months to the process. But on May 27, 2013, the Mitchells finalized Jack’s adoption.
Today, Jack is in the first grade. That’s him, in the background, playing with my son, Peter.
KRISTIN: How do you think that those visits impacted him?
JILLIAN: As a parent you’re always trying to analyze things. You never know … if it’s just the way he was wired to begin with or if it was because of what he went through or because of the parenting we did, you never know. But he definitely is very shy, he does not like any new people, he does not like any new places.
MATTY: We have seen him grow in the last year or so. Just with maturity and stuff like that. Because that was after the May 27, so like a year or so, two years after, that … if this was the room we were walking into he might just grab to our leg and be like, ‘We’re not going in.’
JILLIAN: He’d start acting out or something. He did not want to go into closed spaces, you’re totally right.
MATTY: Especially with strangers. With us, he’d be like, ‘Oh cool, what are we doing?’ But for a while there it was just, ‘No.’ Then he was going to a Montessori.
JILLIAN: Preschool was a struggle, even though it was a year and then two years post, it was a struggle for him to be dropped off. That transition of me leaving.
KRISTIN: Describe the struggle.
JILLIAN: Well, it was a flashback for both of us, I feel. Because the drop off is in the parking lot. It seems like such an innocent thing to so many other families to have this teacher come out and to take your child from the car and into the school, but it was just so similar to those visits. I think for both of us. He’d just be clinging, not wanting to go, and then sometimes screaming, going in with his teacher. I’d drive away, and sometimes he’d calm down, sometimes I’d have to go pick him up early because he couldn’t calm down.
MATTY: He’d just sit by the window, looking out.
JILLIAN: Just crying by the window, waiting.
MATTY: He got a friend there -- this is when we say, was it our parenting? I kind of feel like … he needs to push through and then he’ll get to that happy point. But I didn’t think that school, a brilliant school, lovely people there, just wasn’t right for him. So I think that if we had put him in one that was more based around playing or activity, like running or doing stuff like that, that played into his real strengths, then he would have been easier.
JILLIAN: Yeah, you never know what to parent through and what to put the kid gloves on for.
MATTY: I feel like we’re getting better at that, reading him. Where for a while we were like, why? We’re both very outgoing people so we’re like, of course, just walk into that room.
JILLIAN: We were tired of also having the effects of the whole process. We just wanted to be done with it. We just wanted to move past this, let’s not feel this trauma anymore. There’s no way to ignore, so we’ve gotten better at dealing with it, and he’s gotten better, so much better.
KRISTIN: What do you attribute that to? Did you seek out additional counseling?
JILLIAN: No, it’s just been time.
MATTY: We read books.
MATTY: Podcasts and stuff like that.
JILLIAN: Yeah, it’s just been time, and honestly just listening to him.
MATTY: I think also, us figuring out how to be … he’s not doing this out of anger toward us. Even if he’s saying the most horrendous thing, it’s not because he truly understands what that means or that he truly means that. So he’s trying to tell us something, but that’s not it. If we stay calm or don’t get offended by it, that it would disappear in two minutes rather than two hours of a tantrum because we were all frustrated.
JILLIAN: He has a harder time being away, which means, I go to play dates. And drop offs for the first few times take a while, take patience. Usually a couple trips to the bathroom. They just are what they are, and he is who he is. We just roll with it more now.
MATTY: It’s getting way better.
JILLIAN: Yeah it’s gotten way better because of that.
KRISTIN: At six, Jack is shy. And, Jillian says he’s more prone to anger and frustration than many of his peers. But they also say that he’s a happy, playful little boy. He’s tricky, and loves to hide, and loves to tell jokes. He’s partial to potty humor, like every other 6-year-old boy I know. And Jack’s also a big brother, to three-year-old Mary.
The first six months of having a new baby around were a little rough. Jack’s attachment to his parents, and to Jillian in particular, were a test for him.
MATTY: I could only entertain him so much until he needed that mama fix.
JILLIAN: So he had a hard time for the first --
MATTY: It’s not like he had a hard time towards her though,
JILLIAN: He’s always loved her to pieces.
KRISTIN: What was that like for you to see?
JILLIAN: Heart exploding. The best times.
MATTY: Even now, we text each other and Jillian would send me a picture and they’re just cuddling together on the couch. We’ll just be like, we’ve done something right, yes!
JILLIAN: They sleep in the same room.
MATTY: Because they choose to.
JILLIAN: They want to be together. They seek comfort from each other.
MATTY: They still butt heads sometimes.
JILLIAN: Obviously, we have that all the time. Sharing toys.
MATTY: She keeps up. We call her The Beast.
JILLIAN: She keeps up.
MATTY: She thinks that she’s six.
JILLIAN: Yeah. He would be upset about the attention she would take. Not at her, but getting used to not being the only child. And he had so much of our attention, because he required it for so long. And we wanted to give it to him, because we thought he deserved it and needed it and our family was happier when he had it.
KRISTIN: What has he taught you about being a parent? About being a couple?
MATTY: Patience, for sure.
JILLIAN: So much patience. And … he is so joyful. He is so joyful. He sees the world that way. If you want to be serious or talk about things that aren’t fun. He’s like no thanks, I’m just living life, I’m just going to have fun. I think that’s been fun to see. It reminds me to do that more.