I Wish I Wasn’t a Legal Orphan

In honor of May being National Foster Care Month, Strengthening Families, Changing Lives is running a special series designed to give a voice to the many different perspectives of foster care and adoption. This series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying experiences.  

I Wish I Wasn’t a Legal Orphan882436_560103340678356_2133140710_o
by Janettee LaValle McCrary

What Is A Legal Orphan?

A few years ago, I realized why I’ve been so uncomfortable all these years with my situation. I had never thought of it in these terms before, but I realized that the term “legal orphan” described me perfectly. I’m no longer my biological parents’ child legally, and once I turned 18, the State of Oklahoma ceased being my “legal parent.”

I found myself wondering if that meant that I would be unable to be considered “family” in the eyes of a hospital should my biological family ever need emergency medical care. Would I even be notified as they are no longer “legally” my family? What if they were dying – would I be able to say my goodbyes? If my mother or sister died, would I be able to make decisions as if I were still legally related?

How Does This Happen?

Of course, this got me to thinking of WHY I’m “legally orphaned.” Although there were a few chances for me to be adopted, it never happened. I still dream of having a family, even though I’ve been married twice and have a child for whom I made the decision to give a better chance at life than he’d have had with me at the time. (A story for another time).

Let me tell you about some of the families that either asked to adopt me, or that I hoped would adopt me and had reasonable expectations they would. These families were the Henry family, the Ray family, and one other family whose name I can’t remember, so we’ll call them “The Unknown Family.”

The Henry Family

At around seven years old, I went to live with the Henry family. This home provided me with several immediate and extended family members who loved me. At the time, they had an infant daughter, and I was, like any other child would be, jealous. I wasn’t always nice to her, although I had times when I liked her, too. The foster mother’s mother and brother were the ones I spent the most time with, as they used to watch me and my foster sister after school or when the family was busy and needed a babysitter. I remember playing card games with my “Uncle Mickey” and helping my make dinner with my “Grandma Gill.” My favorite thing to do was to eat raw potatoes while she was making them for dinner – she would give me a slice to nibble on before dinner, kind of like letting me lick the bowl of batter for sweets. The foster mother had another brother who had a wife and children, and often we would go to their home and have dinner and I’d play with their children. I truly felt like I was part of their family, and they never made me feel like a foster child.

They were a deeply religious family, and we went to a Pentecostal church along with her family and several friends of ours. I always felt awkward but I WANTED to be close to God, to talk in tongues. It was scary and exciting, all at the same time. I also remember that their house was the first time I had close contact with death outside of pets . . . they experienced a stillbirth while I was living there and I remember the funeral.

A few months into the placement, they asked to adopt me. They probably could have except for two issues:

  • My biological mother still had rights – they were not terminated until I was 13. So NO ONE could adopt me until then; after the effects of the trauma of being in care were deep.
  • The foster father was going to seminary school in another state, which meant that, unless the state gave them permission to take me across state lines, it couldn’t happen.

Unfortunately, the decision was made not to allow me out of the state, and I was pretty much immediately moved. But the story didn’t stop there, although I didn’t realize it for many years. Over the years, I received a few letters/cards from them, and they let me know their family had expanded. First with a son, then with two more girls. When I sent them an invitation to my graduation, which included the information that I was joining the Army, I got a surprising letter back. All four of the children sent me a letter begging me not to go to the military and instead just “come home.” I was blown away. All this time, I had been talked about as if I were a daughter who just never came home to visit. I couldn’t believe it. Even though I was never formally adopted, they had acted as though I were their daughter – even going so far as to include their biological children in this. I still have that letter, and when I’m sad it reminds me that someone loves me in a way I don’t think I’ll ever be able to fully appreciate and understand.

Thanks to Facebook, I’m able to keep in touch with three of the children (one isn’t a social media kind of person) as well as the parents and some of the extended family (all but “Grandma Gill” are online). Although we don’t talk every day, I feel their love for me with each and every post. I try to send Mother’s Day and Father’s Day cards each year, and I post about them every year on Facebook as well. Even though we have not seen each other in person since I was a young child (they moved far away and only come back for visits, but I’m hours away from their families and haven’t been able to travel to them when they’re here due to finances), I think we have a closer relationship because of the ability to have close, private conversations with each other. I now call them “Mom” and “Dad” and my siblings “brother” and “sisters” without any awkwardness. They are great Christians, go to missions, love unconditionally, are responsible, fun to be around, and amazing in every way. I have no doubt my life would have been so much better with them.

The Ray Family

Just after leaving the Henry family, which was only a month before my eighth birthday, I went to live with the Ray family. I remember they were the only family I ever got to meet before living with them. We had a meeting a few days before I left the Henry family.

A single-mother home, this new family would include an older brother, an older sister, and a younger sister. The older brother was only temporarily living at home while at college, and the older sister was just about to leave for college. The younger sister was only four years old, and it would be mostly she and I, as well as other foster children.

I grew to love this family, and they were the family I spent the most time with while in care. I lived there for several years, and had a very close relationship to them, as well as other family members. We had grandparents who lived in Arkansas and we used to visit quite often. I remember how much I loved visiting them. When I was about 10, things changed. My grandfather was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and had to come and live with us after he got lost on the mountain they lived on. The loving and fun grandfather I had always known was gone. In his place was a foul-mouthed, angry, hateful man who scared me. One day he called me a slut and struck me. I was only 11. I decided I’d had enough and I called DHS and told them about it. They took me away immediately.

I did visit on occasion, and knew I was welcome at holidays. When my caseworker told me at age 16 that she’d run out of placements for me, on a busy holiday weekend with her looking for a place to take me, I called the Ray family and asked if they could take me. They said yes. They had added a toddler to the family, and I loved her with all my might. Like my other younger sister (the biological sister of the toddler), she was adopted. So I still had hope that maybe they would adopt me, too. By this time, though, I was hard to handle. I didn’t follow rules, talked back – I was angry and hateful and determined to hurt people before they hurt me. I disobeyed while I was grounded, by going out with a friend for a joyride and driving their car with my younger sister and her friend in it (without a license). When I got home, my social worker was on her way to get me.

The Ray family did not just give up on me, but things had definitely changed. Although I knew they loved me, I always knew something was missing from our relationship. I called my foster mom “Mom” and her mother was “Grandma” and my siblings were just that. I never qualified with “foster” – THEY were my family. THEY were the ones who’d been there for me. They came to my graduation. They took me out to dinner to celebrate both my graduation and my marriage. They wrote to me while I was in BASIC. Even when I was pregnant with my son and estranged from my first husband, my mother and grandmother were there for me, supporting me, keeping me healthy, making sure I didn’t screw up my life or his. They have been there for me every time I needed help or advice or guidance. I’ve had my sisters come stay with me for visits. I’m always welcome in their home and I visit whenever I can. In fact, I just visited on my thirtieth birthday, and it was wonderful, as always.

The Unknown Family

I’m not sure how old I was; somewhere between 11-14 based on the fact that I remember watching the show Lois & Clark: The Adventures of Superman, which ran during those years, or the name of the foster family, but I ended up in a foster home that was specifically “trying me out” for adoption. I don’t remember much about them – just that there was a boy around my age who I spent some time with (and didn’t like). Turns out that he was that family’s nephew and, since we didn’t get along, I was sent back. I am actually pretty glad that I wasn’t adopted to this family, although I don’t remember anything bad happening – it just seems that if they’d cared about me, they would have dealt with the fact that the “cousin” and I weren’t best friends.

An Orphan is Still an Orphan as an Adult

Many people, when hearing my story, assume that my life magically got better at 18; that, since I’m not a drug addict, or in prison, or homeless, there are no scars and nothing to be sad about. And though I’m grateful that’s not the case, mostly because I’ve worked HARD to ensure I didn’t end up that way, the fact remains that I’m still a “legal orphan.” I’ve always hoped the Ray family would adopt me, but never could bring myself to ask them to, or ask them why they didn’t. I’m afraid of the answer. The wonderful way the Henry family showed they loved me was amazing, but didn’t magically make me have legal parents.

I never thought about adoption after 18, other than to wonder why no one wanted to adopt me. Until I saw a post online about adult adoption. It gave me hope that it could still happen, although I’m not sure how it works if the “child” is married. But again – I’m still scared to ask. I don’t know how to approach the subject. And even though I still love both families (as well as a few other foster families I’ve been in contact with over the years), the family relationship I’ve always had with the Ray family isn’t as close as it used to be, and so I’m not sure what kind of relationship I’d be cementing. I don’t see my nieces and nephews, rarely see my siblings (even online). The only one I’m really in a close relationship with anymore is my mother – who I rarely talk to since she’s not online. The Henry family is very far away, so it would be difficult to have a real familial relationship with them. I find my head shutting down the idea my heart is determined to make happen, with all the reasons it won’t work.

But the long and short of it is . . . I still want a family to call my own. So if you are a foster family now – or if you have been a foster family in the past – remember that there are a lot of kids who need you and who feel scared and heartbroken just like me.

And, if you’re one of the families I’ve been close to all these years – I’ll never ask you – so if you would love to have me as a permanent part of your family, would you please let me know? Because I’m still that scared kid afraid to let anyone see how scared I am and that I need them.

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11 thoughts on “I Wish I Wasn’t a Legal Orphan

  1. Janettee, First of all just let me say:
    Thank you for having the courage to write such a post. I honestly cried through it, because I come from a family who did foster care for most of my life, who adopted two of my precious sisters from foster care, who has sisters who are not adopted that were in our home for a period of time (and are no different than my adopted sisters), and who has continued that tradition with adoption in our own immediate family.
    My heart breaks for you. It sounds to me like the family who first took you in, who you are in contact with and reach out to you, really really love you. They would have adopted you without the interfering of the state in your situation. That they still interact with you, reach out to you, and communicate with you shows how much they care about you.
    You may be afraid to reach out, and I completely understand that. However, they have proved themselves faithful, loving and constant for a very long time, and I think they are just waiting for you to make the move.
    Also, I wanted you to know that I am so proud of you for making a decision to give your son a better life if you could not care for him as you wanted to. I have two precious three year olds watching me type right now, who would not be here if it were not for the love and self-lessness of their birth mom, who came from a similar situation as you in many ways. We tried to embrace her too, but she also was unable to trust and attach to us as we wanted her to. We pray for her every day.
    I will pray for you too. And trust that the future you have ahead of you is more beautiful than the past, filled with the love of a forever family.
    Blessings to you
    ~Heather ❤

    • Janette, life is like opening a present, you will never know see the gift if you don’t take the initiative in letting them see how much you love them by taking the first step. Just let go and let God; trust in the lord with all of your heart and lean not on your own understanding. May God Almight/Jesus Christ give you, your heart desires. Pastor Yvonne –

  2. Heather,

    Hello! Thank you for your response. I was really scared to put this out there and your response helps ease that fear a little.

    I’m sorry to hear that my story made you cry 😦 About your situation – you might share this with those unadopted sisters and use this as a discussion tool… Maybe they’re feeling the same way I am. Do you think your family would be willing and able to adopt them too?

    Yes the Henry family has been amazing. Of course the physical distance makes it really hard to be close 😦 Maybe as I get further along in my journey I can share this with them, but I’m just not there yet.

    Thank you for your kind words regarding my son. It is still painful but I try to focus on the fact that he’s happy and healthy and loved. I do sometimes get photos and videos and stories about him, and the hope that one day he’ll want to meet me and (hopefully) have a relationship with me. Unfortunately, it was not an open adoption, but luckily there is a family friend that shares things with me after visits with him.

    Thank you so much for your offer of prayer, that means the most to me. God has always been here for me and will be here for me forever, no matter what happens with my earthly relationships.

    God Bless You!

    Your Sister In Christ,
    Janettee

  3. I think that it’s great that you have shared your story online and with others. Although I can not relate with being a foster child I was legally adopted by my dad when I was 5 after my bio dads rights were termed. Also my husband has 3 younger siblings that were adopted and put through the “system” fortunately the younger two do not recall or remember anything but the same can not be said for the oldest. I admire my mother in law for all she’s done f

    • Awe didn’t let me finish!! Anyway I admire her for all she’s done for them and continues to do. Me and my hubby have briefly chatted about fostering when our kids get a little older. Also always remember that even when our earthly father fails us our Heavenly Father is always there for us and has adopted us as his children. We are heirs of God!!

  4. I wish you weren’t a legal orphan either. I pray God helps you find your family or fills in the crater in your heart with meaningful relationships with “mothers/fathers and siblings” that come into your life and love you.

  5. Pingback: From the Outside Looking In—National Foster Care Month | The Welcoming House Blog

  6. No! Oh please don’t get yourself adopted as an adult. You are not a legal orphan! Consider yourself blessed to have been cared for and loved by these families that still to this day refer to you as a member and they did it unselfishly loving you as you with your own name not needing to change your identity and make you “one of them” in order for you to be worth loving and including. Those are people who reach out to a family in crisis and are not doing it to build themselves a family they were doing it because you were a little girl and clearly your own family was in crisis and needed help caring for you. What does your birth certificate say? Does it name your Mother possibly even your father? Even if you have anger and resentment towards them and the rest of your own family, they are your family it is your truth and you did not have to trade your whole soul and identity to be worthy of being cared for. You still have legal rights within your family yes you do. The fact that your parents parental rights were terminated while you were a minor does not mean YOU lost your rights to legal kinship in your family. You would still have inheritance (not that anyone ever cares about it but it is a technicality worth noting) You’d still have the right to all legal benefits arising from kinship with the exception of being under their control and authority when you were under age because, for whatever reason your mother’s rights were terminated. And I’m really sorry that your parents were unable to care for you because of course you deserved that they are the only ones that owe it to to take care of you, its nice that others will do it for them but it is them that owe it to you. The laws are very unfair. As long as they remain unfair you left the system with what I think of is the gold standard of care giving which is being willing to love a child as if they were your own without ever making them forsake their own family for you. You did not have to earn your keep by altering your identity so they could have a child. You have the emotional bond you call them Mom and Siblings they think of you as one of them. You could extend a gesture of hyphenating your name willingly to show how important they are to you. Your heritage your history is yours good or bad it belongs to you and your baby and your future grandchildren. Don’t allow your whole family to be erased from history because your parents did not do what they were supposed to do. And because I am a sap and eternally hopeful I wish for your own family and you to find peace because parenthood does not stop after a child turns 18 there are many years left in life for people to say sorry to their kids or show them they matter in whatever way they’re capable. If that is not possible I wish you continued joy and peace with your adopted family – without needing the legal adoption. It’s a great way to clear your credit record at this point but that is about itl

    I enjoyed your post very much. Thanks for linking me to it. I’ll look for more of what you write.

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