It was really a casting call disguised as a picnic, but after five years as an orphan and many more as a foster child, it was time to make a more aggressive attempt at getting adopted—at least that is what my social worker told me. The picnic brought together families looking to adopt a child with kids hoping to be adopted. Even if I was at my 12-year-old, bad haircut, ill-behaved best, I was not going to go home with a new family, but I might get a call back and the chance to prove myself to a family who was not as distracted by the cute babies and toddlers similarly vying for the part and prize of son or daughter.
My years from age 8 to 13 had been fallow ground for finding an adoptive family. There had been tryouts with the older couple who, after a few visits were finally able to get pregnant and so immediately lost interest in me. There was the younger couple who, I found out later after the visits suddenly stopped, were beginning the process of separating soon after we began seeing each other (seriously, they thought a kid with borderline attachment disorder was going to save their marriage?), then there was a year-long tryout with a doctor and his wife, at the end of which I did not get the part. So, that picnic in the fall of my 13th year was my last chance at a permanent home—or so I thought.
While the circumstances that lead to children being put up for adoption are varied, a common thread is that a child’s biological parent, or parents, are not ready, willing, or able to care for their children. Sometimes the parents are too young to support a child emotionally or financially; sometimes, as in my life, the ravages of drugs and alcohol, and their consequences — domestic violence and neglect — compel the state to step in long after a child’s birth. Undeniably, none of these children are to be blamed or shamed for their status or station in life. Unquestionably, all of these children want and deserve an anchor to windward — a loving family that will last a lifetime. But also something beyond a lifetime: a place in the family tree in the decades and centuries to come that will simply preserve the memory of their existence.
Today, according to the Washington State Department of Social and Health Service, 170 children remain available for adoption in Snohomish County. Almost 1,600 children are up for adoption statewide. These children need families.
Friday, Nov. 16, is National Adoption Day. On that day in Snohomish County, thanks to judges, lawyers for children and families, social workers, the Clerk’s office, volunteer guardian ad litems, community partners, and most of all, loving families, there will be approximately 20 fewer orphans at the end of the day than when it started. There will be much to celebrate as families don their Sunday best to honor both their loved ones and the principle that there are many ways to make a family. While the instant reaction to all of this family-making is to exclaim “those lucky children!” the joy will also be reciprocal, because those families are also the lucky ones.
I know this to be true because my picnic casting call led to my adoption at age 14 by a single man from Woodinville. For the first time in years I had a place to call home, but more importantly, I had a person to call “father” and I was again “son.” While it was just the two of us, we were a family. As a teenager, the consistency and permanency provided by my new family gave birth to my emotional, social, and academic thriving. Unfortunately, that ended when my adopted father committed suicide just before my high school graduation. Again I was an orphan.
In the fog of that loss I again faced a life without a family and no place to call home. Twice made an orphan, first by my mother’s choice and then by my adopted father’s death, I resigned myself to an unfinished life. I also became acutely aware that I faced what had terrified me as a child: a life as an adult without a family. There would be no place to return to at winter break, no family with which to celebrate the holidays, no place to stay during the summertime. What family would I have to offer my future wife?
This is the reality for children in our community who do not get adopted and age out of the foster care system. That was my reality in summer of 1991.
While the state would no longer be responsible for me, friends and former teachers stepped in the breech, including the Jenkinses, a family I had met d uring my senior year in high school. After the initial wave of grief and panic washed over me, the Jenkinses offered me a place to stay and a place to celebrate. My relationship with the Jenkinses blossomed over dinners by the fire, boating trips, and vacations abroad while I was a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer. At 23, I was legally adopted into their family. As I often say, “you’re never too old to have a happy childhood.” Now, at 40, that phrase still rings true.
The natural instinct to produce biological offspring is undeniable. Families sometimes spend tens of thousands of dollars to subject themselves to incredibly invasive procedures in an effort to produce a biological child. Other families travel thousands of miles to adopt children from other countries. Such decisions are not to be criticized or maligned and are undoubtedly considered and valid choices, but in the context of the reality that in our community many children of all ages remain alone, waiting to join a family, it raises the question: what shall we do to find our own orphaned children forever homes? There are many ways to make a family. Parents unable to have their own biological children could at the very least, consider adopting a child from our community. And those families who are looking to add a second or third child? How about adopting a child from our community?
Every child, bent or broken by a world beyond their control deserves a family.
I spend most of my professional life around the Snohomish County courthouse. For most people who walk its corridors, it is not a happy place. Daily, I rub shoulders with divorcing spouses whose rancor is palpable, civil litigants engaged in a fight for one advantage or another, criminal defendants facing a loss of liberty, and crime victims’ who have lost their dignity at the hands of their perpetrators. These are win-lose proceedings. Adoptions are the exception.
This coming Friday, on National Adoption Day, everybody wins. And since 2006, when we began, more than 150 children and families have won on this day of celebration. Friday, the courthouse will be filled with the joy and promise of lives renewed. A child will go home with a family. There will be a newly minted son or daughter. Friday is a celebration of sacrifice, love, family, and a system that actually works for children in need. We will celebrate the wisdom of the choice of every family who chose adoption in our community over other options.
While I was made an orphan twice and felt the sting of each loss, adoption saved me. I am a stronger and more confident person because of it. And my happy childhood continues still.
Adam Cornell is a Snohomish County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney and lives with his wife of 10 years in Edmonds. He serves on the board of trustees of the Seattle Repertory Theatre and the advisory board of the Center for Children and Youth Justice.