In honor of National Adoption Awareness Month, we get to know local families who've opened their hearts and homes and adopted through the foster care system – and help you learn how to become an adoptive parent, too.
id you know that at any given time, about 3,000 Michigan foster children are available for adoption? This means that parental rights have been terminated and these children are without a real home – waiting, hoping for a forever family. In honor of National Adoption Awareness Month, BLAC spoke with two couples that have invited the most vulnerable among us to be a part of their families. We also called on Spaulding for Children, a nonprofit child welfare agency based in Southfield, for its advice for anyone considering adoption.
Sonja Halton and Nathaniel Dibbles of Detroit, and their brood of seven:
Sonja Halton is standing in her Detroit kitchen stirring a big pot of Cream of Wheat while her eldest daughter, Je'Suis, butters toast. One by one, the younger kids come down for breakfast, some in footie pajamas, some with bare feet. Eventually, the kitchen nook is loud and bustling.
They're a typical family on a Sunday morning, except that, aside from Je'Suis, Halton hasn't given birth to any of these hungry munchkins. But still, she's Mama.
Collectively, she has seven children – three biological, four adopted – and she and fiancé Nathaniel Dibbles are in the process of adopting a fifth, 6-year-old Donald, who they're currently fostering along with Steven and Alexis, both 3.
Halton's two oldest kids, Rommall and Je'Suis, were grown and her third, Kharri, was in high school when they discovered Rommall had a son. When she found out about her grandson, he was already a year old and had been taken from his mother and placed in the foster care system. Halton had to get him out, but there was a problem. Rommall wasn't on the birth certificate, so they had no familial rights. Her only option was to apply for a foster care license, so that's what she did. The process took three-and-a-half months.
"In the process of getting my foster care license, my grandson was beaten very severely by a foster parent," Halton says, but she got him – and his mother's other children. They were eventually returned to their mother, but that experience set in motion eight years that would bring over a dozen additions to the family, some permanent, some just passing through.
Three of the earliest were biological siblings William and Diamond, and Diamond's friend Brittany. Halton says the girls suffer from debilitating mental illness, and since they've reached adulthood, she's lost contact. She calls that situation her family's only sad story. William, now 19, is enrolled in Job Corps and thriving.
"I speak often about William and Willie" – that's William's friend, whom they fostered for a period – "and the tremendous turnaround that I see in these young men, in the type of men that they have become," Halton says. "I know we saved their lives and somebody else's, because they were angry. It's no telling what they would've done."
Michael is nearly 9 years old and came into their home as a rambunctious 4-year-old. They took the cue and enrolled him in dance classes; now Michael is competing with kids twice his age. You may have caught him in Wayne State University's production of A Christmas Carol. "He's glued to Papa," Halton says as Michael snuggles up to Dibbles as if he were a life-sized teddy bear. Halton also served as guardian for her niece, Shanell, after her mother (Halton's sister) died of a brain tumor in 2010.
Both Dibbles and Halton grew up in big families full of love and that operated under the it-takes-a-village philosophy. "I had people to go to. I had people that might see me going the wrong way," Halton says. "I try and share my childhood with them and try to create some of the same experiences that I had."
Of course, it's sometimes really hard – like when the kids ask near-impossible questions about their biological families. "A lot of them want to keep reliving the past," Dibbles says. "I tell them, 'I can't promise you that I can change the past, because nobody has that ability, but I guarantee you that the future will be better.'" He adds, "It's a rocky road getting to the end, but when they get to the point where they really see that what you're trying to tell them works – a lot of them sadly never see it – but with the ones that do, it's fulfilling."
Halton says, "Every child that's coming through foster care is dealing with loss. A lot of people have to realize that. I don't care what a parent does to a child, they love their parents."
If you're thinking about fostering or adopting, she suggests that you "come in saying 'I'm a friend, and I'm here for you.' You have to build that relationship with that child. Just because you open up your door for a child doesn't make that child a part of that family," she says.
"The poorest person, if they have a lot of love and a lot of time just to sit down and talk and really be into that child, that's what makes a difference in these kids' lives."
Jason and Chapri Paulateer of Bloomfield Hills, and their ten little piggies:
This is literally like operating a small business," Jason Paulateer says. Jason's wife Chapri has stepped away for a moment. The two smallest girls, Marlee and Maya, ages 2 and 3 respectively, were watching Moana on the iPad, but the battery has died. Chapri will get called away several more times, but that's to be expected. She's managing a family of a dozen, after all – and to think, she never thought she'd have kids.
To be fair, Chapri of Bloomfield Hills didn't plan on giving birth, but she always figured she'd adopt – still, probably not seven times. But here she and Jason are, seven adopted and three biological children later.
She grew up as an only child and used to beg her mother to gift her with a sibling, either by birth or adoption. That didn't happen, but Chapri held onto the idea through adulthood that she'd adopt herself one day.
Adoption was a newer concept for Jason, but all it took was a bit of education and laying out how it all worked to convince him.
"The extent of my knowledge of the foster care system was that kids were in foster care and they stayed there forever," he says. But actually, the goal of foster care is to eventually find children a forever home. "I started thinking about my childhood and like, OK, I wonder what would've happened to me if my mom and my dad had not been there. And that was just a little too much for me."
All of the adopted Paulateer children are biological siblings. The family's been in the local news before, but if you're unfamiliar, it's worth Googling them. Their story will make you believe in fate and fairy dust.
"The way it came together, that's not humanly possible. I feel like God allowed all these things to happen that I didn't realize at the time, but it was leading to this," Chapri says.
They've got Micha, 19; Michaila, 18; and Michaya, 12 – they're the oldest girls and the couple's biologicals. Adding to the beautiful muddle is Malik, 15; Monte, 14; Malachai and Mekhi, both 13; and Mahoghany, 11. And we can't forget about our Disney princesses.
Some of the children have manageable mental health issues. Signs of ADHD and autism are present. But, as Chapri says after making sure the children are safely out of earshot, because they were exposed to alcohol in utero, the professionals are reluctant to officially diagnose. The couple is passionate about removing the stigma associated with mental illness, but also about prenatal health. They say their kids are just like anyone else's.
"Kids are just a bundle of energy. I don't feel like they're any different," Jason says. "The question is, how do you manage the chaos of just having so many? I never thought I could be a teacher, but having had this experience, I think I could teach elementary school now." Chapri jokingly chimes in: "I can't."
Jason and Chapri say more than anything, it's managing the logistics that takes the most care. Someone's got a practice here or a game there. "It was easier when they were younger because I could corral them. Now it's like herding cats," Chapri says. They lean on what they call "the power of the network" – a huge support system of family, friends and neighbors. Next to the drained iPad is a multi-row, multi-column collection of shoeboxes that a friend just dropped off, just because.
"Early on we utilized support groups, because we didn't know what we didn't know," Jason says. They found them to be a wealth of knowledge and resources.
Chapri had been a stay-at-home mom, but she recently accepted a full-time position at Wellspring Lutheran Services. They're ready for the added challenge. Jason is the vice president and market manager at PNC Bank. "Whenever I come home from work, it's like a party in my honor," he says. "It's like, OK, this is why I'm doing this. This makes it all worthwhile." If you're thinking about adopting, Jason says, "Come into it with an open mind and an open heart."
On how the kids have made them better, Chapri says, "I feel like we entered into this thinking we had so much to offer and that we were going to be the blessing to them. I truly believe the reverse has happened."
"Our kids do come with a history of trauma, but they want to heal within the context of a relationship with a family," says Cristina Peixoto, CEO and president of Spaulding for Children, a child welfare organization in Southfield. Here, she offers her top tips for those considering adoption. Learn more at spaulding.org.
1. Foster first. "The majority of our children have some educational or emotional needs, and obviously we want the caregiver to be the advocate for the child," Peixoto says. Those who have fostered tend to be better able to navigate the system and better prepared to handle these unique needs – and are usually more successful.
2. Be open-minded. "A lot of families come to us and say, 'I want to adopt a 2-year-old without behavioral problems.'" Those expectations aren't always realistic when adopting from the foster care system. Often, children available for adoption through foster care are older and/or have behavioral, emotional or developmental issues.
3. Prepare your home. "If you have white couches and white carpet, you may want to rethink that when you become a foster or adoptive parent," she says. Minimize your aggravations by preparing your home to receive children. You may need to reconfigure sleeping arrangements and the like, and expect to be subject to home inspections before children are placed with you.
4. Find a way to incorporate the biological families. This can include simple gestures like supervised lunches with the birth parents or an exchange of letters or cards. "If the child has a more objective understanding about their birth families, then they won't develop that fantasy," which could lead to questions and difficulty establishing authority.
5. Embrace conflicting emotions. "You may love your partner dearly," Peixoto says, "but some days more than others." Raising an adopted child is no different. They will challenge and frustrate you. You won't be overcome with intense feelings of love every minute of every day, and that's fine. "That's life. It's challenging and rewarding."
6. Join support groups. "Adoptive parents can sometimes feel a little bit isolated, and it's important that they have a support network where they can vent about their frustrations." It's crucial that parents and families find a space to connect, free from judgment, with those who can relate to their adoption journey.
7. Apply for subsidies. "Families that adopt are usually eligible for an adoption subsidy." You can apply for this prior to adoption, and it helps with the cost of basic needs like room and board, food, transportation or mental health services.