Home not just for the holidays

Published 6:00 am Tuesday, December 26, 2023

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By Sarah Ladd

Kentucky Lantern

In Spring 2022, Brydie Harris and husband Xian Brooks got an email that would change their lives.

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A newborn Kentucky girl, flown to Tennessee for medical care, needed a foster family soon.

“Xian started to read the email to me and was like, ‘would you want this newborn–’  and I was like ‘yes,’” Harris recalled. “He was like, ‘Do you want me to finish reading the email?’ and I was like, ‘No. Say yes.’”

The rest of the email Brooks and Harris received would reveal that the baby had 15 centimeters of small intestine as part of a condition called short bowel syndrome. This is much shorter than the healthy length of 10-20 feet. That means the little girl, who shall remain anonymous since her adoption is pending, must use a central catheter line to get most of her nutrition.

This line is both a “blessing and a curse” because it’s her main source of nutrition, Harris said. But it also means any sneeze, bacteria and the smallest of fevers can send the child, now 2, into the hospital for weeks.

While waiting to see if their family was a match for the little girl, the Louisville couple went to meet another child at St. Joseph Children’s Home.

As they pulled into the parking lot to meet the boy, DJ, who would soon become their son, they got the call: their family was chosen to care for the baby girl, who they are now in the process of adopting.

“Essentially, both of our kids came into our lives at the exact same moment, which is really wild,” Harris said.

This holiday season, the Kentucky Lantern spoke to parents who have fostered, adopted and loved children with challenges, including age and medical complications, that often make finding a family for them difficult. Despite the challenges, they said, the relationships are worth it.

Both of Harris’ and Brooks’ children were in a demographic that would be considered hard to place, they said. DJ, now 15, was 13 when he joined the family. Their foster daughter’s medical challenges made her potentially harder to place as well.

This couldn’t stop Harris and Brooks from falling for their children. Both grew up with parents who opened their hearts and homes to children in need. Harris’ parents fostered youth, including teenagers who “kind of felt like nobody wanted them.”

“We both kind of just grew up with that mentality that you help kids and teens in need and not because they’re in need but just because that’s what you should do is have an open family and an open heart to people who need that,” Harris said.

There were more than 8,000 Kentucky children in Out Of Home Care (OOHC) with active placements in November, according to state data.

The largest share of those children were placed in foster care homes. Half of children entering the public foster care system are between the ages of 6 and 18. 

More children were in Kentucky foster care from 2020-2022 than 2015-2017, the Lantern previously reported. And, fewer children left foster care and were reunited with biological families.

‘We would do anything.’

Harris and Brooks started fostering, first through the state and then privately, in 2019 and have fostered a total of five children. They “always knew we would do anything,” said Harris, including caring for babies who were exposed to substances in the womb.

They know fostering or adopting teenagers or sick children frightens some people, they said. But, they want people to realize teenagers are children who need love, just like any other child.

“For either of us, when you meet kids who are older or in sibling groups or are medically fragile, or all of these things that usually kind of scare people away, once you actually meet them, it’s just like, these are just children, you know?” Harris said.

“Emotionally, I feel like my children are my biological children,” Harris said. “I feel like I give spiritual birth to them. I prayed for their existence for a long time. The way they came into our family was really kind of magical.”

Harris added: “It’s very hard with (their toddler) being sick, but it’s not hard because she’s a foster child. It’s hard because she’s our daughter and we love her and it’s difficult to see her unhappy.”

‘They gave us so much.’

In Northern Kentucky, Christina and husband Justin Kleem stopped taking on new fosters this summer after fostering eight kids over the past six years, since 2017.

The two felt motivated to start fostering by their Christian faith, Christina said.

“It wasn’t like, ‘oh, we think that we’re gonna save a kid’ type of thing,” she said. “We knew pretty early on that we wanted to work with children that didn’t have another party to stand for them and also to try to join with birth parents to kind of be their support.”

Justin adopted her two children and they had three biological children together. Eventually, they would adopt two girls out of foster care.

“Our family just grew” through the whole process, Christina said.

“I can’t imagine our life without what our teens gave us,” she said. “It’s very easy to just live your life day to day and not realize what people around you are going through. I can see that every one of my other kids that are still living in our home – they live differently because of us fostering.”

Originally, the couple worked with young children, then started taking teenagers in.

Christina understands why some people shy away from fostering and adopting teenagers, she said. Many of them may have spent a significant amount of their formative years in the system, missing key development. Learning to adjust is a learning curve, she said, but worth it.

“It’s kind of like the person that goes to prison and they don’t know what to do outside of it,” she explained.

There are challenges — the older a child is, the more likely they are to bring with them trauma, baggage and, in some cases, behavioral issues, Christina admitted.

But still: “I would do it 100 times again,” she said. And: “I would not do it differently.”

Home for Christmas

Christina and Justin’s family is much bigger than the seven children they have, she said. Even their fosters who moved on to other situations — back to their biological parents, residential care or aged out of the system — remain part of their family.

She feels like all her kids – the ones she and Justin adopted and the ones they fostered — “gave us so much more” than they provided. In addition to getting their kids, they also gained branches of biological families as well. One child’s biological mother calls Christina a sister.

Both Harris and Brooks and the Kleems said their families are now complete, though Harris said they’ll “never say never” to that changing.

Their daughter is wrapping up her most recent hospital stay after getting a fever and needing to receive antibiotics via an IV. While there, the family kicked off Christmas celebrations, complete with a tree, lights and the toddler learning to say “Ho Ho Ho!”

The family will head home just in time for the holiday.

And one of Kleem’s former foster daughters, Angie, is coming home for Christmas.