By Steve Brawner
© 2014 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.
As of Dec. 22, there were 621 children across Arkansas whose parents’ rights have been terminated and who have no “forever family” with whom to share this Christmas. Unlike last year, Robert, 17, is not one of them.
Instead, Robert is celebrating the holiday for the first time with Todd and Gwynn Harris, now known to him as Dad and Mom. All three names have been changed for this column.
Robert’s biological parents’ rights were terminated in 2011, when he was 13. During the next three years, he lived in four group homes. He was loved and he made friends, but it was a rootless existence, and the holidays could be a depressing time. Because he had siblings and because he was older, it was unlikely anyone ever would adopt him. Kids like him usually age out of the system.
Meanwhile, Todd, now 32, and Gwynn, now 31, were coming to the conclusion that they were supposed to start a family. Married eight years, they both had good jobs and had built a good life together. They could go out to dinner whenever they wanted. They made memories that they commemorated with Christmas ornaments.
They were capable of having children but decided God had other plans. They became involved in two organizations, The CALL (thecallinarkansas.org) and Project Zero (www.theprojectzero.org), that work with churches to find homes for children in the system. The CALL, as it has done for more than 1,000 families since its founding in 2007, organized training sessions to prepare them to be adoptive parents. Thanks to Project Zero’s Arkansas Heart Gallery, which displays photos of children needing homes, they saw Robert’s picture and began wondering if he was the one they should adopt.
They stopped wondering after they helped organize a Christmas party at Robert’s group home. They tried to talk to him, but, unaware they were considering adopting him, he quickly wandered away. Boys being boys, he was chasing after an ex-girlfriend. But something clicked.
“I came home from that night and told Todd that I would be heartbroken if he didn’t come home to live with us, that he was our son,” Gwynn said.
Things happened quickly from there. Last New Year’s Day, Todd and Gwynn placed their request to be matched with Robert. On Feb. 7, Robert came home to visit. Actually, they picked him up at the group home, but a snowstorm made driving so hazardous that they ended up sleeping at their church.
“Welcome to the family. This is the good, the bad and the ugly,” Gwynn told him.
It’s been going well. He’s a pleasant kid. Within about a week he felt comfortable calling them Mom and Dad. The extended family members have made him feel welcome, he said.
Of course, there have been challenges. Todd and Gwynn learned that Robert is dyslexic – which he didn’t even know – and has significant reading problems. Robert had to adjust to a new home with new expectations. Todd and Gwynn went from being childless to being parents of a teenager. Robert’s sisters have been adopted, but he doesn’t know where his brothers are, and it concerns him.
For 16 years, Todd, Gwynn and Robert missed out on each other, but they’re not worried about that. Parenting is a long-term project no matter what age you start. This is a family now.
“What we’ve told Robert is that adulthood is when you have the skills that you need to be able to be a principled man that lives well and can do all the things that an adult needs to do,” Todd said. “It doesn’t necessarily associate directly with a number. And so we tell him all the time that he stays here … as long as he needs to figure things out and to kind of assemble the tools that he needs for life.”
It’s been a great first Christmas together. They’ve driven around looking at lights and talked a lot about the holiday’s true meaning. Four new Christmas tree ornaments mark Robert’s place in the family. Three stockings hang in their home instead of two.
And will the pitter-patter of more teenage feet be heard in the Harris household?
“If God tells us to do it, we’re always open to more,” Todd said. “But right now we’re just kind of plugging along and working with Robert on raising him. And (we) kind of expect, if it happens again, for it to be just a sudden and abrupt thing where we hear about it and we take off again.”