Written by Akers Editorial

Adoption and foster care have been a part of society since the beginning. In the long-ago past, families would take care of the orphaned children of relatives or even close friends. Today, foster care and adoption offer other alternatives for abandoned or orphaned children.

Jeff, Marlee, and Jennifer Reese

The joy of adoption

A Eustis couple has experienced the joy of adoption.

Story: James Combs

Jeff and Jennifer Reese vividly remember the moment they first laid eyes on Marlee. As the baby stared at them, wide-eyed and alert, tears of joy flowed down their faces.

For Jennifer, that moment answered a nagging question: Could she love an adopted child as much as a biological child?

“We had an instantaneous bond,” Jennifer says. “Marlee was 2 days old when her birth mom chose us to be her adoptive parents. We received a call from our attorney and two days later drove to Ocala Regional Medical Center to meet her. On the drive there, we both felt love and excitement in our hearts. I was amazed that I could start loving another human being whom I had never seen.”

The journey leading to that moment had been a long one. After five years of unsuccessful pregnancy attempts and repeated visits to fertility specialists, a doctor urged the Eustis couple to consider adoption.

“He asked us whether it is more important to have biological kids or be parents,” Jennifer says. “He said that if we want a 100 percent guarantee of having a child, then we needed to start thinking about adoption.”

The Reeses underwent screening processes for prospective adoptive parents: completing a home study, writing a birth mother letter, filling out paperwork, undergoing a background check, and providing financial documentation. One year later, they brought Marlee home.

With her outgoing personality, Marlee, who turned 2 on Sept. 30, energizes the Reese home. She dances to music, blows kisses to houseguests, and swims until her heart is content.

“She’s a happy baby,” Jeff says. “We’re both introverted, and Marlee is exactly the opposite. She forces us to come out of our shell. We took her on a cruise and she had the waiters and waitresses waiting on her hand and foot.”

Soon, Marlee may have a playmate. The Reeses have begun the process of adopting another child.

“It’s a chance to save a child from going into the foster care system or from a life of drugs and abuse,” Jeff says. “Adoption isn’t an easy process, but it’s also not as hard as some make it out to be. If adoption is truly in your heart, then doors are going to open.”

Ethan Gaulin and Anthony Ciceri

Good grief

A lot of emotions come with giving up a baby for adoption.

Story: James Combs Photo: Nicole Hamel

Birth mothers whose children are adopted are supposed to move on with their lives. But for 32-year-old Rachel Eaves, certain thoughts constantly race through her head.

She’ll never throw extravagant birthday parties for her two sons.

She will miss out on their developmental milestones. She won’t get to hug them on Mother’s Day. Rachel endured morning sickness, hormonal changes, and other discomforts to give birth to Anthony, now 5, and Ethan, 4. Yet, she feels everlasting pain because her boys now call other women “Mommy.”

“It hurts me every single day,” says Rachel, a resident of Tennessee who formerly resided in Citrus County. “I feel horrible that I couldn’t raise my children. I let my babies down.”

Both boys went into state custody after being born because Rachel’s abusive husband posed a threat to their safety. While she was pregnant with Anthony, Rachel filed a restraining order against her husband, who has a criminal record.

“He kicked me in my stomach and could’ve killed Anthony,” she says. “My children were taken because they were no longer in my belly and were subject to being abused by him.”

Anthony, who was born in June 2013, was placed into foster care and ultimately adopted by Sumter County residents Joe and Sabrina Ciceri. After Ethan was born in November 2014, Rachel relinquished parental rights to Michael and Emily Gaulin of Eustis.

For Rachel, the past few years have been a story that’s equal parts pain and joy, weakness and strength, despair and hope. While recognizing that someone else raising her children comes with great personal loss, she knows both boys are receiving a better quality of life than she could have provided.

Fortunately, both set of adoptive parents send her updated photographs of the boys. And there are the occasional phone calls where she gets to hear those cute kid stories. That helps lessen the sadness of missing milestones that normally are shared with one’s children.

“Yep, I birthed Anthony and Ethan and feel bad that I’m not there for them on a daily basis,” Rachel says. “I had to do what was right for them and not be greedy. I thank God that they both live with families who love them and have raised them into handsome boys. It hurts, but I’m happy.”

The Gingrasso family, Kaitlyn, Chris, Micah, Nathan, and Heather, says “I love you” in sign language to foster child “Snowflake.”

Wanted: Big hearts

The region needs more parents to open their homes to foster children.

Story: Chris Gerbasi

When Heather Gingrasso and her family moved several years ago to Florida, she had a simple reason to become a foster parent.

“I just said if I had a heart big enough to love them and a home big enough to house them that I wanted more kids in my home,” she says.

Central Florida’s foster care system could use more parents with that attitude. Though the number of licensed foster homes is rising, more kids require placement in those homes.

Foster care is intended to provide temporary shelter for children removed from the custody of their parents. Kids Central Inc. trains foster parents and places children in homes in conjunction with the state Department of Children and Families. Kids Central serves the Fifth Judicial Circuit of Lake, Sumter, Marion, Citrus, and Hernando counties.

As of August, the circuit had 301 licensed foster homes, a big jump from the 185 operating in July 2015, according to DCF statistics. The homes are serving 587 children, an increase of 112 in two years. But hundreds more have not been placed, Kids Central reports.

Since Heather and her husband, Chris, became licensed foster parents in 2014, they’ve hosted seven foster kids in their Clermont home.

The latest is a 4-year-old girl, nicknamed “Snowflake,” whose actual name is being withheld for privacy concerns. Their household also includes biological daughter Kaitlyn, 17, and adopted sons Nathan, 11, and Micah, 5.

“When you adopt, they’re yours and you raise them, you claim them, they’re forever yours,” Heather says. “With fostering, you love them and provide for their needs, but typically, the No. 1 goal is to reunify [the child] with the biological mom, dad, or family member.”

To qualify as a foster parent, applicants must complete training and pass background checks and home inspections, the DCF website states. The state pays foster parents $17 per day, per child, Heather says. Foster children qualify for Medicaid, which provides 100 percent of health, dental, and vision care.

Heather says she and Chris wanted to “rescue” kids who had survived neglect and abuse. But they, too, have been rewarded by seeing children’s transformations. Snowflake, for example, needed speech therapy and couldn’t count, identify colors, or sing her “ABCs.”

“Now she’s thriving. She’s just grown so much,” Heather says. “It’s amazing how much these kids grow when they’re in a healthy home and environment.”

Additional foster homes are always needed because some foster parents are overburdened, and more homes make it easier to find ideal matches, she says.

While many children stay in foster homes only temporarily, foster care can extend beyond age 18 if children meet certain requirements, such as attending school or getting a job, or they have a disability.

One pitfall for older children is adoption dissolution, when an adoptive family places the child back into foster care.

That’s where Forward Paths Foundation comes in. The Leesburg organization assists teenagers and adults ages 16-24 who are homeless and/or aging out of foster care, many of whom are the product of failed adoptions.

“They come to us and whatever bond they had with their adoptive parents has been broken,” Executive Director Denise Burry says.

She tells the story of one girl who was adopted around age 11 but at age 16, her adoptive father died. Her adoptive mother then became dependent on her late husband’s family, and their relationship collapsed and the girl became homeless.

“That’s the loss of two families,” Denise says. “That’s a lot of loss in a young life.”

In addition, foster care has become “too permanent,” she says.

“The kids I work with, some have had nine or 10 placements,” Denise says. “You move a kid more than three times, they are not engaging with their teachers, they’re not making friends, they’re not attaching to the caregivers, and who of us could do that?” Denise estimates that more than half of children aging out of foster care will be homeless within two years. The foundation doesn’t attempt to place youths with families, but it does provide housing to about 20 young people, primarily in Leesburg, and has plans for a community of “tiny homes” in Eustis. The foundation also provides supplies, and helps with school enrollment and financial aid paperwork, working with about 50 youths on a regular basis.

Affordable housing is vital because the youths can’t find stability without a home. Denise believes “it takes a village”—more organizations, more funding and resources, and more support from schools and employers are needed to accommodate young people who are striving to better themselves.

Another priority is simply raising awareness about the need for more foster parents to take in children of all ages and backgrounds.

“I think we’re starting to recognize that being a family doesn’t always have to look the same,” Denise says.

Adoption then & now

From stigma to acceptance, adoption has a long and varied history.

Story: Leigh Neely

Before the 19th century, adoptions were conducted in secret. In 1851, the first laws were passed to “ensure adoption decrees were fit and proper,” according to americanadoptions.com.

Today, adoptions are as normal as live births. However, many people still believe that most babies are given up by pregnant, unmarried teenagers. But the typical profile of a birth mother now is a pregnant 20-something with at least one child, socialworktoday.com says. There is also a rise in adoptions of older children from foster care.

To discuss adoptions then, I’d like to tell you my story. My birth mother and my adoptive mother were childhood friends. They were in school together, played together, and after my birth mother’s mother died when she was young, my birth mother spent lots of time at my adoptive mother’s home.

My birth mother was 17 when she was sent to live with an aunt in Arkansas because of her rebellious nature. That may not have been the best plan since she quickly married a soldier who was stationed where she lived and nine months later, I was born in November 1951. Apparently, the marriage was volatile from the beginning, and my birth mother was back in her hometown shortly after my first birthday.

Still a bit wild and rebellious, she had a tendency to drop me off with friends and leave me for two to three weeks. When she finally left me with my adoptive mother and father, they created a babysitting arrangement with my birth mother sending money every month to help. I was 22 months old, terrified of men, and scared of my shadow. It took a lot of patience before I began to feel secure. Long story short, I stayed with them, though I constantly had a fear that when my birth mother came to visit every other year, I would have to leave.

When I was 8 years old, my birth father discovered I had not been living with my birth mother. He was a career military man and had been sending child support regularly since their divorce, though I had received none of it. He discovered I was happy where I was and asked my parents—by then I thought of them that way—if they wanted to adopt. We were thrilled. My birth father got my birth mother to sign the papers by using his leverage of suing her for desertion, and my adoption was finalized when I was in fifth grade.

There’s much more to the story, but that explains how I was adopted by people who loved and cared for me for many years knowing they could lose me at any time.

Let me add that my adoption was a stigma. Kids at school teased me frequently about being adopted, saying, “Your mother didn’t want you.” This went on until one day I turned to a heckler and said, “Your mother had to take what she got. My mother picked me.” I’m very proud of that memory.

History says there was a time when only white, healthy children were considered suitable for adoption. “Special-needs children” included those with disabilities as well as those of other ethnic groups. Eventually, the foster care system changed and the world of adoptions did, too, and those restrictions were lifted.

International adoptions were almost unheard of before World War II. However, many American soldiers fathered children abandoned by their mothers, and some families felt it was their Christian duty to adopt them. It wasn’t until 1993 that an international agreement was reached to protect children crossing national borders.

Technology and the internet also have had an effect on adoption, giving people easier access to the process, according to “Adoption Trends Today” on socialworktoday.com. Electronic media has changed the face of adoption and foster care. Adoption now is very different. Kelly Little, though she is single, decided to become a foster parent. It was important to her because she is adopted herself. A health-care worker in Sumter County, she says she received a phone call almost as soon as she got her license to become a foster parent. She chose to foster three siblings who were 6, 5, and 2 years old. After a year of fostering the children, they became available for adoption, and Kelly discussed it with them.

“There were times when they voiced a fear that they were giving up on their mommy, but they said, ‘She’s sick and in a bad place,’” Kelly says. “I still send photos and stories about things the kids do. Neither of them is in a place to be a parent.”

There was one big negotiation Kelly and the children had to work out: what Kelly would be called. Arianna, now 9, Gabriel, 7, and Zoey, 4, had always called their foster mother Kelly. However, the children’s grandmother insisted they needed to call Kelly “Mommy” now.

“We negotiated that, and now they still call their [birth] mother ‘Mommy,’ and they call me ‘Mom,’” Kelly says. “She has a new baby and is working hard to make things work.”

Kelly thinks about when the children will want to get to know their birth parents.

“I know I always had a curiosity about my biological mom, but I never wanted to betray my mother,” Kelly says. “If they do want to do that, I want them to do it under my supervision and not behind my back.”

The adoption experience was a positive one for Kelly.

“Adopting as a single parent was easier than I thought it would be,” she says. “The kids were accustomed to a single mom, so they bonded with me very quickly.” Adopting out of foster care means the state provides services for the children that include a monthly allowance, four years of tuition at a state college, and health care until they’re 18. Check out kidscentralinc.org/foster-care-adoption/ for more information.

Arianna, Gabriel, and Zoey are happy to be with Kelly and know she’s their “Mom” forever. They’re very close as siblings and seldom want to be separated.

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