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 Orphan
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.