Oftentimes, foster and adoptive families are matched with children so perfectly, that the parents tell us that their family formation was nothing short of miraculous. In the case of the family of Dawn Bridges, Leigh Anne Jones and their son Daniel, there was a healthy mixture of timing, opportunity, and collaborative efforts that helped produce this phenomenal family. In this week’s installment of the Huffington Post Queer Voices RaiseAChild “Let Love Define Family®” series, contributing writer Beth Hallstrom and RaiseAChild Founder and CEO, Rich Valenza, team up to tell their story.
Summer months are usually a slow time in the recruitment of prospective foster and adoptive parents. However, RaiseAChild understands that for those that have finished the parent training and certification processes, the wait to be matched with a foster child can seem like an eternity.
Two summers ago, RaiseAChild and the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) partnered with an idea to host the first Parent Matching Event and invited a few foster family agency partners to participate. Each agency was asked to submit one or two sets of ready and waiting parents who would complete a detailed form about the type of family they hoped to build through fostering and adoption.
It was a small and intimate event hosted after work on a warm evening in RaiseAChild’s Hollywood office. There was a nervous energy among the prospective parents that was palpable as they entered the conference room. About eight sets of prospective parents from partner foster family agencies arrived and were treated to a light dinner. Then, with all of the completed family forms laid out on a table in front of him, the DCFS representative began a thoughtful presentation of foster children who were available for adoption and selected especially with each of these prospective parents in mind.
Claremont, California residents Dawn Bridges and Leigh Anne Jones were among those prospective parents in the room. According to their family form, the women met in Connecticut in 2002 while working together on an architecture project. Soon after, they registered their civil union in Vermont and were married in 2008 when they moved to California.
“You can say we met at work,” said Leigh Anne. “We were living in two different states; Leigh Anne in Connecticut and Dawn in New Hampshire and working for different architectural firms. Our firms were working together on a project and that was the beginning of our story.”
“We visited California and Palm Springs a couple times on vacation and enjoyed the people and definitely the weather. Originally, we were going to move there when we retired, but we decided to go in 2007 while we were still working so we could build a circle of friends and become established there,” Leigh Anne explained.
Dawn remained in New Hampshire in case the move west wasn’t the right decision, all the time trying to get pregnant with no success.
Leigh Anne continued, “Dawn had much more desire to have children than I did. I never wanted to bear a child and I was certainly not interested in adopting a baby. But when we came to California, we met friends who went through the foster-adoption certification process and had a little girl.
“This friend shared with us her story and the website for Extraordinary Families that identified the huge need for foster and adoptive homes for LGBTQ kids in the system. My reaction was, ‘I didn’t know we could do that! Where do we sign up?’”
Dawn recalled, “I wanted a child. We were running out of patience and money, but I was still longing to build a family. Our new friends in California told us about the process to foster and adopt. I had already come to the conclusion that we would be childless. But then I thought about an older child exploring their sexuality and what that meant ― I knew the journey we were all on had brought us all to this point.”
By July 2014, Dawn and Leigh Anne were certified as an Extraordinary Families foster family and, in August, were invited to that fateful event at the RaiseAChild office.
According to Sarah Boone, CEO of Extraordinary Families, “DCFS held an adoption recruitment event at the RaiseAChild office, focused on teenagers and sibling groups. I invited Dawn and Leigh Anne to attend this event because of their desire to be matched with an older youth. What impressed me during their home study with us, was Dawn and Leigh Anne’s high level of introspection and ability to assess their own capabilities and strengths as prospective parents for an older child. We shared their information with DCFS and RaiseAChild for the matching event.”
Dawn and Leigh Anne knew they’d make great moms for a child with a sense of humor. Also according to their family form, the prospective moms hoped for a “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or unsure” youth “looking for a place to call home, with two supportive, compassionate, and loving parents.”
Their form continued, “We promise to believe in you, be proud of you when you try, when you fall short, and when you reach the summit of your dreams.”
Dawn added, “RaiseAChild had shared some characteristics we were looking for in a child with DCFS and DCFS brought information on a few kids to this small group to help us find a match for our families.
“For us, Leigh Anne and I were thrilled that Daniel was in there in the presentation that evening. We had heard his name and had seen him on ‘Wednesday’s Child,’ (a segment on a local TV station profiling children in foster care) and we knew he was our son.”
“We were looking at other kids but we said, ‘whoa ― how many times do we have to see this kid to know he’s the right one?’” Dawn added.
At the age of 16, Daniel was living in a group home in the next town over from Dawn and Leigh Anne’s home in Claremont. Because he is shy and well-behaved, he was sometimes overlooked or forgotten because he didn’t require much oversight or discipline.
“I could see their faces light up when Daniel’s photo and file was presented,” said Marianne Guilfoyle, Division Director of Permanency Programs at Five Acres. “Although he was in a different group home, our agency had been providing supportive services to Daniel and I knew what a great kid he was.”
When Daniel met his prospective Moms, he was very shy. Dawn remembered that first meeting. “It was awkward and he was overwhelmed, but we talked and went for a walk to see the garden he was working on. Later, Leigh Anne and I both asked ourselves if we made the right impression and gave him enough info that he would see us again because we had already made our decision.”
One week later, Daniel agreed to see Dawn and Leigh Anne again and they gradually began to spend more time together. Within a month, he had some overnight stays on weekends, then the new family began what Dawn called, “the whirlwind trip that lasted three months.”
Daniel accompanied them on their annual vacation to Hawaii, spent Thanksgiving in with them in Tennessee and Christmas at their home.
In the midst of all the traveling, Daniel moved in to Dawn and Leigh Anne’s home, a month later he turned 17 and they began the process to finalize his adoption. They also discovered something new about Daniel ― he was smitten with travel and can imagine galloping the globe, possibly for work and definitely with his travel-loving Moms.
One of the best trips Daniel took, according to Dawn, was to an LGBT Leadership Camp sponsored by Five Acres.
Dawn explained, “It was a really good experience for him, although a little overwhelming being around a lot of gay, trans and questioning kids. That was his first trip to camp. It’s hard to believe a kid who’s 16 or 17 has so many firsts, but he just never had the opportunity to do anything. Firsts are magical for kids and Daniel’s firsts are magical for us, too,”
Another first for Daniel was realizing that there are adults in his life who want to care for him and love him.
“We need to remember he spent 16 years not living with us. That’s a lot of time and there may be a lot of things he may or he may not want to share with us. The parents’ relationship must be sound to make adopting older kids work. You all need to be prepared to deal with huge emotional baggage,” she noted.
Just as Daniel and his moms are really getting to know one another, he will soon be college-bound. Last summer, the family took a two-week college tour, mainly to East Coast schools, although Dawn and Leigh Anne hoped Daniel will choose a school near home.
His interests range from science and chemistry to pastry chef to hospitality management. He also is considering a semester abroad, according to Leigh Anne.
“We work closely with his school to make sure he has, academically, what he needs to go to college,” Dawn said.
Added Sarah Boone, “Dawn and Leigh Anne have helped cultivate his culinary interests, his desire to attend college and have proven to be empathetic role models in his sexual identity development.”
“The match between Dawn and Leigh Ann and Daniel is as extraordinary as they are. Unfortunately, too few families are willing to foster or adopt teenagers. This is a great example of how foster family agencies and group homes can work together to facilitate adoption for teenagers in foster care. DCFS, RaiseAChild, Extraordinary Families and Five Acres all recognize the need to find families for teens like Daniel and are committed to addressing the chronic shortage of foster and adoptive families.”
“Come this fall, we will lose our baby to college,” said Dawn. “And we missed him so much when he went away for one week to camp! We love him and are so proud of him and how far he’s come.
“He really wanted to attend school in the East, but we didn’t think he knew what that experience would look like. Just when he gets his family, he goes off to college, but he knows that whatever he chooses, he has Moms who love and support him,” Leigh Anne and Dawn said. “We tell him that, for us, no matter what, our family is for keeps.”
Have you thought about building a family through fostering or adoption? RaiseAChild is the nationwide leader in the recruitment and support of LGBT and all prospective parents interested in building families through fostering and adoption to meet the needs of the 415,000 children in the foster care system of the United States. RaiseAChild recruits, educates and nurtures supportive relationships equally with all prospective foster and adoptive parents while partnering with agencies to improve the process of advancing foster children to safe, loving and permanent homes. Take the Next Step to Parenthood at www.RaiseAChild.US or call us at (323) 417-1440.