Parenting hurting children was even more exhausting than the Johnsons had imagined.
First, there were the challenging behaviors — lengthy, violent fits full of screaming and spitting by the three siblings, ages 1, 2 and 5. Add to that several weekly appointments for physical, speech, occupational and play therapy as well as doctor and dental visits.
"The kids were sick all the time because they hadn't had any nutrition," says Jessamy Johnson, who with her husband, Jeff, adopted Elijah, Anthony and Tashyla through the foster care system. "Parenting is hard enough without the heartache of parenting kids you don't know, who are broken by circumstances you can't understand."
According to adoption experts, many children awaiting adoption today are older, have special needs or are part of a sibling group. In addition, they often struggle with multiple traumas, developmental delays and behaviors that may overwhelm their new family.
Thankfully for the Johnsons, family, friends and a team of volunteers from their Colorado church wrapped around them with ongoing support.
"We had a date night pretty much every week for years because of their commitment," Jessamy says. "And that saved our marriage and made this possible."
While finalizing an adoption is something to celebrate, it's often just the beginning of a child's journey to healing. By supporting adoptive parents on that journey, those not called to adopt can "visit orphans … in their affliction" (James 1:27) while also being blessed with unexpected joys and faith-building experiences.
"Just to see the kids blossom is beautiful," says Danielle Wortley, a fellow church member who gave Jessamy much-needed breaks by providing child care. Serving the Johnsons gave Danielle joy and humbled her. "It made me not so complaining on my tough days," she says.
Adoptive parents suggest some guidelines for those willing to lend a hand:
Adam and Janai Kane of Albuquerque, New Mexico, were adopting two boys when Janai unexpectedly became pregnant. Ten days before Janai gave birth, they learned that the boys had a newborn sibling. That child, Micah, had been exposed to methamphetamines and had special needs.
"I don't think we could have taken on Micah and made it through without the support of our community," Adam says.
One family cared for Micah for a month. Gifts of meals, clothing, cribs, child care and laundry service have all been vital to the health of their home.
"We've known people who've gone through this with fewer major transitions than we've had, and they've had a lot harder time," Adam says. "I attribute that to the fact that either they didn't have a church community that came around them, or they weren't as open to the help. It takes both sides."
When Stephanie Banik cared for the Kanes' children, it challenged and encouraged her faith, she says. "I saw them [the Kanes] be obedient to God's call no matter what — the joys, the ups and downs, the hardships — and trusting Him and learning what it really means to let the Holy Spirit love through you."
Little things often triggered 2-year-old Anthony Johnson's memories of abuse, resulting in screaming fits, says his mom, Jessamy. At those times, Anthony needed to feel safe, but onlookers might have assumed he needed discipline.
"Children who have trauma histories require different parenting strategies," explains attachment therapist Debi Grebenik. "The goal is healing versus compliance."
Most people don't know this, so it's easy for them to judge adoptive parents, says Shelly Radic, president of Project 1:27 (named after James 1:27), a Christian adoption ministry that requires prospective parents to recruit a support team. What's helpful to these parents, she says, are friends who will support them with an attitude of humility, without critical comments or disapproving glances.
Once parents are able to build a trusting relationship with their child, Shelly adds, many of the child's negative behaviors will subside.
But building that relationship takes time. That's why it's important to listen to parents' requests. If they ask others to refrain from hugging their child, for example, there's a good reason.
Bonding occurs naturally as a mother spends much of her time caring for her infant, but some children haven't experienced a healthy first attachment. They need to develop that bond with their new parents; too much affection from others can confuse them.
"It would have been nice for other couples to say, ‘How can we help you bond with your child?' " says Laura Johansen of Luck, Wisconsin. "Many well-intentioned people would hug and kiss our son, Mike, and it really damaged his bonding to me. I ended up having to stay home most of the time."
One of the best ways to support adoptive families is to listen to what they're saying, stresses Jake Warren, an adoptive dad in Denver.
As adoptive parents learn to love their children in ways that will help them heal, spiritual opposition is sure to come, says Shelly. "The Enemy uses any hard issues to try to stifle the light. That's when you need your faith community to fight that battle with you."
Members of Adam and Janai Kane's church took up that challenge by asking the couple for weekly prayer requests.
Prayer can also guide would-be supporters. "Every time I've asked God what my role is, someone calls," says Stephanie, who helped the Kanes. "He'll open the door."
Chuck and Lynn Schoephoerster and several others wrapped around a Woodland Park, Colorado, family that adopted five siblings. Lynn became the mom's sounding board and helped drive the children to appointments.
The Schoephoersters, parents of teens at the time, also hosted a party for the family's 8-year-old daughter. "It was so fun to see because she'd never had a birthday celebration," Lynn says. "The smile on her face was priceless."
For Chuck, seeing his teens serve others was another priceless moment that day: "It's been one of the greatest blessings of my life to see my teens rise to the occasion," he says. "And all we had to do was open the gate to our backyard."
Three years have passed since Jeff and Jessamy Johnson met their first three children. Today, those once-neglected kids are "different people," Jessamy says. "Anthony is the most compassionate kid. If someone is sick, he'll give them his blankie."
The healing they've seen in the children, Jessamy says, is "a total testimony to God's grace, the power of family and people committed to help."
This article appeared in the February/March 2015 issue of
Thriving Family magazine. Copyright © 2015 Focus on the Family. ThrivingFamily.com
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