Preserving Adoptions: One Family at a Time
Eye on LSSI, Winter 2009 ( Download PDF of entire publication)
Twila and David Mustain of Galesburg didn’t expect to fill their two-bedroom bungalow-style house with five adopted children.
“We wanted to adopt because we were unable to [have] children of our own, but I never dreamed of having this many kids,” Twila says with an easy laugh. “I sometimes question my sanity in having adopted five kids, but I wouldn’t give any of them up. Even in the worst of times.”
Adoption was not in the plans at all for Sandy and Mike Tomich of Canton. The couple had four biological children between them from previous marriages and only planned to do foster care. Those plans changed, however, when three siblings were placed in their home.
“I kept telling my kids not to get overly attached to them because we were told they were going home. Well, they never did, and now we’re happy they’re part of our family,” Sandy said.
Finding a lifeline
While the Mustains and the Tomiches both know the joy of having a house full of children, they also know the unique and sometimes overwhelming struggles adoptive families face, especially when the children have been in the foster care system.
“My oldest son has a very violent nature at times. Our second youngest can be very aggressive when he’s frustrated or angry. Our youngest daughter has reactive attachment disorder (RAD), so you can imagine the disquiet that can cause,” Twila says of her children, who now range in age from 12 to 18. (Note: RAD, which arises from a failure to form normal attachments to primary caregivers in early childhood, is characterized by markedly disturbed and developmentally inappropriate ways of relating socially in most contexts.)
“All of our kids have mental health issues, ranging from depression, bipolar, mood disorders to attention deficit disorder,” she adds.
The three Tomich children —William, 8; Rebecca, 10; and James, 12 — have all been diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome.
Both families have found a lifeline, however, in the Adoption Preservation program offered by Lutheran Social Services of Illinois (LSSI).
“Without the program, I think it’s very possible we could have blown adoptions because of some of the aggression that was shown,” Twila Mustain says quietly. “Not that we would ever want to do that. We love our kids dearly. But I think we would have had a much more difficult time.”
Sandy Tomich can’t even imagine where her family would be without the program. “It does help,” she says firmly. “They come to the house and work with the kids. They talk to us to see how we’re doing. They help us go to bat at the schools to get our kids what they need there. It’s an everyday fight.”
Sharon Koonce, a mental health advocate who’s been with the Adoption Preservation program almost since it began 16 years ago, knows firsthand the struggles adoptive families face. She adopted four children herself through LSSI in the 1980s.
“It’s such a happy time when a child is adopted that sometimes people forget that there are a lot of after-adoption issues we need to work with,” Koonce says. “There are still a lot of people out there who think, ‘Oh, I’ll just take them home and love them and things will be fine.’ That’s not the way it works.”
The Mustains found LSSI’s Adoption Preservation program through a speaker at an adoptive parents support group meeting. While the program is designed to last one to two years, they’ve been in it for six years because of a lack of other services in their city.
All of the Mustain children — Isaiah, 12; Jaron, 13; Jesse, 16; Elizabeth, 17; and Jessica, 18 — have received counseling at one time or another through the program. Twila says their counselor, Mike Schleich, has found creative ways to reach the children.
“Mike would take Jesse to a store where they had video games and let him play while he stood next to him, and Jesse would talk while he played that game,” Twila says, amazed. “I never would have thought of that.”
In general, Twila says, Schleich is able to calm the kids down when they are angry, while still helping them take responsibility for their actions. She and David have also attended support group meetings through the program.
“It has helped that I could always call Mike or someone from the program any time day or night to help me calm down and to be able to deal with whatever crisis was going on at the time,” Twila says.
With all of their children improving in school and looking ahead to the future, the Mustains are in the process of leaving the Adoption Preservation program, but Schleich has told them the door is always open.
They know they’re not alone
The Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) first referred Mike and Sandy Tomich to the Adoption Preservation program shortly after adopting their children seven years ago.
“James, who was five at the time, started showing some aggression,” Sandy recalls. “They had told him all along that he was going home, and he didn’t understand why he wasn’t. What 5-year-old understands that?”
Sandy said the family has entered and left the program several times as their children have faced various issues over the years. “They have a lot of questions about why they were adopted. It helps that they have someone they can talk to about the various reasons,” she notes.
In addition to individual and family counseling, the program has helped the Tomiches with getting the children tested for fetal alcohol syndrome and with trying to make the schools understand what that means.
“Their best interest is out there for the kids,” Sandy says of the program’s counselors. “That’s a big help right there: just knowing that we’re not alone and we have someone on our side.”
Adoption Preservation counselor Jodi DeVore, who currently has nine other families on her caseload, says every family is different, although she does see similar issues among them.
“The issues I see most in my caseload are fetal alcohol, reactive attachment disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder,” she says. “But I have to develop a different way to work with each family, because not everything works with everybody.”
Both Schleich and DeVore agree that the survival of many of these families would be in peril without the Adoption Preservation program.
“I think it would be really unfortunate if the program didn’t exist, because a lot of these families would be forced to seek help in the private sector, and many of the families we work with couldn’t afford it,” DeVore says.
Schleich adds, “Without the program and having someone who could help them work through their various issues, there would be multiple families that I think would have dissolved. There are a lot of success stories where the kids are thriving.”
Like any parents, that is what the Mustains are hoping for and working toward.
“We’ve made progress,” Twila says. “It’s sometimes very slow and sometimes years in coming. But I have very high hopes that one day my children will all be at whatever level of success they can attain. And I definitely credit some of that to the Adoption Preservation services.”
For information on LSSI’s Adoption Preservation program, call 888/671-0300.