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  • Kelly Luttinen

Growing Together as a Family: Adopting through the Foster Care System

Updated: May 23, 2019

The Duhaime family poses for their 2018 Christmas card photo. In front are Mari and Scott. In back, from left to right, are Michael (13), Catherine (22), Sarah (19), and Malone (15).

According to statistics from the National Council for Adoption (NCA), the number of children nationally in the foster care system is on the rise. In fiscal year 2016, close to 440,000 children were in the system. In a January 2018 report, the NCA wrote:

“Many states are struggling to keep up with the recent influx of children into the state system, issuing pleas for more foster families and a bigger budget to help with the larger caseloads.”

The report also stated good news. In 2016, over 3,600 more children were adopted out of foster care than the previous year. Generous families who foster and adopt are obviously a major part of the solution – families like the Duhaimes of Massachusetts.

Husband and father, Scott Duhaime, doesn’t think his family is doing anything special. “It is just what we do,” he said. Since the early 2000s, the Duhaimes welcomed three foster children into their family.

“Our story is very complicated,” he said. “We have 4 living children, and one deceased,” he said. “Our two daughters, Catherine and Sarah, are our natural children, currently ages 23 and 19.”

Their three sons are adopted. The first, Brendan, passed away in 2011 after a 19-month battle with brain cancer. The second, Malone, is 16 years old, and a third, Michael, is now 13, for whom they are currently undergoing the adoption process.

The first adoption opportunity was presented to the Duhaime’s via circumstance.

“Actually Brendan was my great nephew, on my wife’s side,” said Duhaime.

Brendan’s birth mother, Duhaime’s niece, had become pregnant at age 15. Struggling with drug abuse and homelessness, her family had come to the attention of the state authorities. Further circumstances led to the removal of the infant from his young mother to place him into foster care. When the Duhaimes learned of the situation, they stepped in to offer to take the baby.

What followed was a whirlwind of court appearances and legal battles. They became well acquainted with the Massachusetts government body called the Department of Children and Families, which Duhaime said is “chartered with making sure children are safe, and if they are not, coming up with a plan.”

“We were indoctrinated into the whole process, thrown into it,” he said. “It was a very visceral experience -- seeing anger, and children taken from parents, and one side feeling strongly they were doing the right thing,” he said. “Let’s make this clear. No mother wants her child taken away from her.”

With two young daughters, age 4 and 8 at the time, Duhaime and his wife, Mari, had to undergo a process including a home study and background checks, after which they were allowed to take Brendan into their home.

One thing they learned immediately was the goal of foster care is not adoption, but first, the eventual reunification of children with their parents. “They never want to take a child away and not give the parents a chance to improve their situation,” said Duhaime.

Their niece and her boyfriend had to undergo about 15 months of review by the state before they could get Brendan back. However, the young couple was not able to meet their plan requirements. “They could never do what to you and I would be very basic, easy things, like get a place to live, get a job, or show up at the required location every month and pass a drug test,” said Duhaime. “So the department changed the goal to adoption.”

“We had to go through the whole process of negotiating the termination of parental rights,” he said. “And, of course, this was my niece.” After a period of time Duhaime described as “emotional”, their niece finally agreed adoption was in the best interest of the child.

Brendan officially became theirs after having lived in their home for 18 months. Duhaime was between jobs and Mari was working at the time, so the child care fell to him. “I was basically a stay-at-home dad,” he said. The situation was challenging at first, but he soon grew very close to his new son.

“He was extremely bright,” Duhaime remembers. “Probably the brightest kid I’ve ever met. He was reading by the time he was 4.”

Duhaime noticed a change in Brendan before his wife did. “Mari was traveling heavily at the time. She couldn’t see it. I remember the day I looked at him while he was eating at the table and said, ‘There is something wrong with your eye. Can you see me? Are you Ok?’ Then he got wobbly on his feet. For three weeks, I was trying to say there was something wrong.”

They would eventually take Brendan to the emergency room. “Within three hours they diagnosed it,” he said. Brendan was suffering from a form of pediatric brain cancer for which there is no cure. The doctors gave the child three-to-six months to live. He was just six years old.

A photo of the Duhaimes on the last vacation they took with Brendan (in front) in 2011.

“He was a perfectly happy, typical, boisterous, obnoxious, smart six-year-old,” said Brendan’s father. “Playing soccer, having a blast with tons of friends. He fought it for 19 months. Two rounds of laser treatment and chemo therapy every day.”

Brendan died on June 18, 2011. Not long afterward, Duhaime surprisingly broached the subject of adopting again with his family.

“We had talked about adopting before Brendan got sick. I won’t say life goes on, but we had some amazing moments as a family. It was a horrible thing, but it brought us closer together.”

Right after Brendan’s death, Duhaime asked for some time off work. By then, he had started working for General Electric. The family would choose to take a vacation out west. He, his wife and daughters, age 14 and 11, “basically wandered the desert” for two weeks, with no itinerary. “We visited the Grand Canyon; Sedona, Arizona; Lake Havasu; and the Mohave Desert.”

While they were visiting Death Valley, of all places, he asked them again. “I said, ‘How would you guys feel about adopting again?’ And they were all in.”

This time they wanted an older child. “A baby wouldn’t have worked. We wanted somebody that wasn’t far behind our youngest.”

After contacting the state and an adoption agency called Children’s Friend, they discovered it would not be as simple as it had been with Brendan, which was a kinship adoption.

“At the time I was a father of three kids,” said Duhaime. “I know how to be a parent. But we had to take an 8-week parental training course, complete a home study and go through a background check again. Then they said we were cleared.”

Duhaime was doing the traveling for work this time, so his wife and daughters did the legwork. They attended an agency-sponsored party where they could meet children ready for adoption. “My younger daughter Sarah started playing with a boy (Malone) who was nine,” Duhaime said. “He ended up moving in on April 21, 2012, and he has been with us ever since.” They officially adopted him in September of 2013.

Duhaime said friends and the local community remembered all the family had gone through with Brendan, and immediately embraced their newest son. “The first weekend he was here, he was already invited to a birthday party.”

Duhaime admits the past six years have not been without struggles, adding Malone has developed into a typical “charismatic”, “moody” teenager, and an incredible athlete.

“He is the reigning state championship for eighth grade last year on the 100 meter hurdles,” said Duhaime proudly. “And he set four school records. Plus he is an outstanding football player.”

Recently, Duhaime had THE discussion once again with his family, including Malone. “I asked them, ‘Do we want to go do this again?’ They all agreed. Malone said he would love to have a younger brother. So, silly us, we contacted Children’s Friend again.”

“We went to a teenage party at a ninja gym. Malone was jumping all over the place and attracting all kinds of kids. He was climbing walls and jumping hurdles. (He should be a ninja.) And he came over with a group of about seven boys and said, ‘Me and these guys all bonded. Can we adopt them?”

But another boy, age 12, had also been following the group who Malone had not noticed. But he caught the attention of his mother-to-be. “He was so much more dressed up then the others,” said Duhaime. “Mari thought he really wanted to be adopted.”

They later determined, of all the children at the party, this boy was the best match for their family. “The social worker really sold us on the fact that he was ready.”

So they took in their third foster child in January 2018. Duhaime admits their current situation has been their most challenging yet, not because of the process, but regarding relationship-building.

“This one has been the hardest of all,” he lamented. “He has definitely been testing the bounds of our patience. It’s challenging every day. We are actually undergoing attachment counseling.”

“The difference between all the rest of my children and this child is I’ve never put him to bed, or read to him at night like I did with all my other children. He was already too old for that. So where do you build the bond?”

Duhaime has done his best. “If I see him shooting hoops, I join him. I even coached his basketball team.”

He points out Michael’s background was filled with trauma and abuse.

“He has been in the system since he was basically born,” he said. “For the last nine years, he has been in 12 foster homes. He was placed in one pre-adoptive family, and they backed out at the last second.”

“He struggles with how to create relationships with permanency, because he has never had it. He has a long way to go.”

Duhaime tells the story that all adoptive parents treasure -- first being called Mom or Dad. “Brendan didn’t know us as anything else, and Malone called us Mom and Dad right away. But Michael has never once called me Dad, except when they made him at counseling last week. He said Dad for the first time. And I cried. He hasn’t called me that since.”

Duhaime remembers the words of caution given them when they first started the adoption process. “They told us, ‘Don’t expect these children to be grateful because they got taken away from their parents.”

He admits their newest has done a better job bonding with his siblings.

“My oldest daughter Catherine is still living with us,” he said. “They have a very nice bond. She comes home and hugs him, and watches TV with him. The brothers share a love of basketball, and they play video games together, except when I take the controllers and hide them because I am irritated with the both of them.”

Despite all the problems, Duhaime is proud of all his children. “They have all persevered through some very difficult circumstances that most families probably have never experienced. My boys are still a work in progress, and my daughters are amazing people.”

For anyone considering adoption through foster care, Duhaime said, “If you think it’s easy, it’s not easy. It takes a lot of patience. I would say, be prepared to show more patience than you ever have in your entire life. And you have to be willing to work with a lot of people.”

He suggests prospective adoptive parents “focus on the big things, and let the little things go.” He adds, “There are a lot of kids out there, and even though they may not seem thankful, they do want to be part of a family.”

So will the Duhaime family do it again? “After this last one, we may be done,” he said. “We will see.”

Update: Since this article was published, the Duhaime family was able to officially adopt Michael. "He legally is Michael Savage Duhaime," said his father, who added Michael came up with the idea for his family to wear matching sweatshirts with their last name on the back to the court hearing. Michael and his mom co-designed the front, which says "FAMILY IS MORE THAN BLOOD."

In support of the value of adoption, the Duhaime family wears their new sweatshirts to court.

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