Think about it, how many Jewish foster parents do you know? Any?
As Director of Marketing and Communications at Judson Center, a family service agency based in Royal Oak, Erika Jones is working to change what the community knows and understands about foster care and adoption in Michigan. “If there’s one thing I know first-hand, DNA does not make a family,” says Erika. “When it comes to foster care, I truly believe that foster parenting is tikkun olam. I have yet to find a better meaning of repairing our world than offering a loving home to a child in need.”
In Michigan, approximately 3,ooo foster children available for adoption at any given time.
The need is dire. Currently, there are nearly 14,000 children in custody of the State through the Michigan foster care system. Approximately 3,000 foster children are available for adoption at any given time and, of those, nearly 300 youth are waiting for their adoptive family match right now.
Adoption vs. Foster Parenting?
According to Erika, foster care is widely misunderstood and rarely discussed in the Jewish community. “I think it’s important to make the distinction between adoption versus foster care, because there’s a blur between the two. People don’t really understand what foster care is and why we should care. These days, you hear very little about the process of domestic adoption (which is arduous), and even less about adoption within the Jewish community. With all the individual means and community resources here to help, the fact remains that there is no “go-to” Jewish agency in our community to provide answers to questions and to help navigate through the many options to start the complex process of adoption.”
“I could talk about this forever,” said Erika in a recent interview with myJewishDetroit. What follows are highlights of the journey Erika and her husband Rick have taken in navigating their way to adopting their first child and choosing to foster a second child.
Where to start?
Erika: You get married, you want to start a family, but things don’t always go as planned. You hear that all the time with couples going through IVF. Our timeline only begins to tell the story of all the life-changing decisions we’ve made along the way.
In brief: Rick (who converted to Judaism) and I were married in 2006. We love kids, always wanted a family and, as the years passed, we started to look into the options of adoption and foster care. We had no idea where to turn or what to do. We started by talking to friends, cold calling agencies, talking to everyone who would listen. We contacted local Jewish agencies first – but to no avail – and started doing our own homework in what turned out to be a nationwide search. We even gained notice on Facebook and on Mashable.
In 2010, we were on a waiting list for private adoption and, in 2011, we also filed paperwork for foster care. In 2012, through a private, open adoption, we were blessed with our beautiful daughter, Sammie. In 2016, we decided to reopen our foster license with the goal to help a child in need, and in September of that year, our foster son joined us – a fretful 8-month-old. Today, he is a thriving toddler, and I’m gratified to say that he will be reunified with his mom soon. (Side note: foster care is about providing a nurturing home – most often on a temporary basis. If a child is not able to return home to parents or relatives, due to circumstances deemed by the courts, then he or she becomes available for adoption.)
myJewishDetroit: Tell us a little more about the process of open adoption and your family experience.
Erika: Strange as it sounds, it’s like dating. You have to find the right fit and that starts with the agency. Early in the process, we approached one of the biggest faith-based adoption agencies in the State – assuming they would be nondenominational in the same way the Jewish community agencies here serve everyone. Rick made the call, and they talked about the process and going to an orientation, then made the request that we needed a referral from “our pastor.” And to Rick’s credit, he was taken by surprise, and responded, “We’re Jewish, will a rabbi count?” That’s when they put him on hold to “check.” And the administrator came back and told him, “No, we’re sorry, but that won’t work.”
Finding the right match can be a soul-searching roller coaster ride.
Adoption is a wonderful option and for us, it was the right one. It’s also a soul-searching roller coaster ride to find your match. And it’s far from a private matter. I remember spending six stressful months just putting together our family photo book, second guessing what pictures best represented us and our story.
But when you find the right match, you know it. As it turned out, we were fortunate to find Morning Star Adoption Center – a wonderful small agency right here in Southfield. We were matched in July of 2012 with our daughter’s birth mom, who was 27 years old, married with children and three months pregnant.
Nothing is easy about preparing for the birth of a child you are about to adopt from a couple you meet and come to know as friends. We knew enough to keep ourselves in check, that at any minute the birth parents could say “no” and it could be the end of our hopes and dreams.
Our first meeting was at this restaurant in the middle of nowhere. We walked in with our case worker from the agency and the place was empty. And there in the corner was this young couple waiting for our arrival. Our first attempts at conversation were awkward; she didn’t want to look at me and I didn’t know what to do. But a couple of hours later, we were talking, hugging and even crying . . . we realized that the decision this young couple had made was the most unselfish thing for the benefit of the child. They were a family with an unplanned pregnancy with a child they couldn’t afford. They embraced us and we did them. They even signed a waiver where we could call their doctor if ever we had questions, and for six months we were at every OB/GYN appointment. We were in the hospital room when Samantha was born, and my husband was invited to cut her umbilical cord – it was all so surreal and very special.
myJDet: What is your relationship now with your daughter’s birth family?
We have an open adoption. We bonded with them early on and made a promise that we would keep in touch, and we kept that promise. Our daughter’s birth family chose us and we do not take that for granted for one minute. Keeping our promise is the least we can do. We also honored them by giving Samantha her biological half-sister’s name as her middle name.
myJDet: What do you find that adoptive and foster parents have in common?
Empathy, compassion and love. For me, there is no distinction between “biological,” adopted or foster. Being a parent is the ability to nurture, love and provide guidance to help a child grow, be the best person they can be, whether it is for forever or for a moment in time.
myJDet: How and when do you talk to a child about open adoption?
We made the personal choice of an open adoption, because we want Samantha to always know where she came from and never wonder “what if” or whether the grass was greener on the other side.
And as questions come up, it’s a delicate balance between the need to know and what your child is capable of understanding. Sammie is five now and naturally curious. A couple of months ago, she asked, “Mom, was I in your belly?” I was at the kitchen sink, and I turned around, “No sweetie, you were in someone else’s belly for mommy and daddy.” And she said, “Oh, right! You’re just being funny.” And I realized right there, that we reached the point where Rick and I both need to be together for the conversation.
As adoptive parents, you don’t want the news to come as a shock to your child. It’s important to have a conversation early on. The conversation has to go as naturally as possible in simple statements of the facts. And it’s important to normalize that conversation and to repeat the story over and over. This is our family story, this is who we are.
myJDet: What’s the first thing you would tell parents wanting or waiting to adopt a child?
Have faith. It’s so cliché, but it’s true: The matches do happen, and they happen with the right fit. Before Rick and I became parents, we talked about closed adoption, semi-open and open adoption. The truth is you don’t know what you don’t know. We made the personal choice of an open adoption, because we want Samantha to always know where she came from. For her to know her story.
I also tell parents to be patient and have respect for the other side. The process of adopting a child takes time and it’s hard on you, but it’s also very hard on the family letting go. No one plans to become pregnant with the goal of placing the child up for adoption. It’s a hard choice to make and many times the person who must make that choice will have to go up against members of the family who disagree.
(Rick enters the conversation here): I would add that it’s important that you and your spouse are both on the same page before you commit to adoption. Make sure that you understand what the other wants and the outcome. Be forthright. The process is such a huge sacrifice and emotional effort, you have to be stable, and you have to be a team.
myJDet: Let’s talk about foster care and the distinction between adoption.
People need to understand foster care is meant to place kids in a nurturing environment – as interim care until such time that the biological family can welcome their child back into their home.
Michigan is a “reunification state” — meaning that parents are given an opportunity to improve their circumstances. We know to call Child Protective Services (CPS) to report anything if there’s fear for a child’s well-being. When CPS finds neglect or abuse, children are often removed to ensure their safety. We also find that most parents who lose custody of their kids are good people who have made poor choices; it could be that there’s no heat in the home and the mom needs resources to pay the bill – or there’s a single mom with six kids who needs support and doesn’t know where to turn.
To become a foster parent, you go through many hours of training—and trauma training. You can’t be shy or private, because they want to look at your bills, they need to look at your home. For every rule, there’s a reason, because somewhere, somehow, the system failed a child.
Adoption is intrusive when you do your home study; foster care is much more so. They really need to know that you are in it for the right reasons, and that you are able to provide.
Our foster son just turned two and has been with us for more than a year and a half. I’ll never forget the knock on the door, the day our foster child came into our care. There were two CPS workers bringing us this skinny, malnourished, 8-month-old. It was heartbreaking. As a foster parent, you know nothing about the immediate situation. You are signed up to step in at a moment’s notice to provide care and comfort to a child who has just been taken from his or her home.
And how do you explain to your three-year-old that you suddenly have a new, traumatized baby in the house? You never think a baby at that age would really be traumatized – but every child who is removed from the only normal home they know is terrified. For weeks on end– no exaggeration – he cried 24/7 unless I held him. He was afraid of men. If I tried to pry him off of my shoulder, he’d dig into me. Rick would wrap him into the body baby carrier to calm him and finally bond with him. And we found a really nice day care with a Jewish grandma in Oak Park to fatten him up.
The difference we made with this child in 19 months is night and day – and that’s what unconditional love does. It’s life-saving. I know his parents love him; we see them three times a week for visitations, and they have meetings with child welfare professionals and attend programs to help them succeed in getting their child back. Our foster child’s mom has my number with the invitation to call anytime, because Rick and I want her to succeed as a parent. Her success will help her son’s success and future.
And my daughter? We have been very open with her from the get-go that we were helping her foster brother until his mommy and daddy “are ready.” We’d take her to his visitation drop-off and pick-up, so she could meet his parents and understand that we were not his “forever” mom and dad. We’d go to foster parent events with Child Safe Michigan – a Judson Center affiliate – so she can meet others in the community who help kids the way we do.
Call it besheret – it was meant to be.
myJDet: What brought you to Judson Center?
Some would say it was meant to be. I graduated from Western Michigan with a degree in Political Science, moved to DC, then to New York, and came back to Michigan – ready to “change the world” in non-profit fundraising. I’ve been a development officer for 20 years. Until four years ago, I was very content with a job in fundraising at the Detroit Zoo when I received a call from a colleague who learned of a job that would be ‘perfect for me’ at Judson Center. I said no right away. We just wanted to live our lives as a happy family with no more changes, distractions now that we had our daughter. Well, the conversations went on for weeks until I finally agreed to meet. At the meeting, I realized that Judson Center’s mission is really my mission — to help families and children in need. Their story is my story. I’ve been with Judson Center now for four years and, yes, this job is meant for me.
I would also encourage anyone who is interested in learning more about becoming a foster parent or even adoption, just to reach out. I am always open to talk to with others when it comes to changing a child’s life and repairing the world. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org