The road to a family Thanksgiving has been a long one for 16-year-old Kelly Boketo-Maehl of Overland Park.
By BEN PALOSAARI
Special to The Star
Shuffled among relatives, foster care and an adoptive family that didnt work out, the warmth of family holidays came from what she saw on TV.
But thanks to a mass adoption as part of National Adoption Day events last week this year will be different.
I love family events. Before, I always wanted to have pictures on my wall of family and family get-togethers. Because I didnt have that. We didnt have family get-togethers, and (now) I do. And its great, its like an actual family. You watch TV, and they have those Christmas family movies, and thats how it feels, Kelly said.
Kellys adoption was one of 50 adoptions finalized at courthouses throughout Kansas on or around Nov. 23, National Adoption Day. In Johnson County on Saturday, 13 foster children were adopted. The day before in Wyandotte County, 12 kids got their forever families.
National Adoption Day has been held annually since 2000 on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, a date chosen for its seasonal significance.
Everyone strives to be connected to family, said Chad Anderson, president of KVC Behavioral HealthCare, the nonprofit agency that handles adoptions in eastern Kansas for the state.
Every child needs somewhere to come home for Thanksgiving, Anderson said. Every child needs somewhere to go.
Children in foster care long for the traditions that happen around the holidays that most people take for granted, said Phyllis Gilmore, secretary of the Kansas Department for Children and Families.
What do we do on a holiday like Thanksgiving? We go home to our parents to eat turkey, we take our children to go see grandma and grandpa brag on them, Gilmore said Saturday as 13 adoptions were finalized at the Johnson County Courthouse.
Kellys adoption to Ingrid Maehl of Overland Park was first on the docket in Wyandotte County District Judge Daniel Cahills courtroom Friday.
Smiling throughout the day, Cahill had kind words for each family that came through his courtroom and threw his arms around children, parents and caseworkers for photos after he finalized each adoption.
During Kellys adoption, Cahill set the days emotional tone. As a judge, his actions legalize families that those before him have created, he told them.
What created the forever family is you guys: every day, waking up in the morning and doing what families do, and being the last ones that you see each night, Cahill said with emotion. The care and the love that you give each other this paper doesnt create families thats what creates families. What we get to do here today is to announce to the world what you guys have already done: Youve created a forever family.
Indeed, Kelly and Ingrid Maehl began forming their family long before the judge ever met them.
Their story began when Kelly was 11 and went to Ingrids home for a weekend stay for whats called respite, a brief stay meant to give foster parents a short break.
Maehl knew Kelly was the child for her that very first day she showed up on her doorstep, Maehl said.
The two had an immediate bond.
We just clicked, she said.
Kelly was Maehls first respite child, and later she became Maehls first foster child. After staying with Maehl for a couple of months, Kelly was returned to her biological parents. Then, she moved from one relatives home to another, before finally being adopted by another family.
But throughout this whole period, we tried to stay in contact. I might get a call once a year, or get a Facebook message from her, Maehl said.
Without going into sensitive details, Maehl said the adoptive family wasnt a good fit for Kelly. The two kept in occasional contact, and in August 2012, Kelly sent Ingrid a Facebook message telling her that she had been, to use the adoption industry word for separated, disrupted from her adoptive parents. Kelly was back in foster care.
Maehl got in touch with Kellys new foster mom and began trying to get Kelly placed in her home. In March, they started the adoption process. On Friday, their nearly six-year journey ended with a five-minute finalization procedure.
Mom and daughter both said having a piece a paper legally forming their family was reassuring. But it doesnt change how their relationship feels. Youve got the relief that its actually done. It took forever, Kelly said. Everything is still the same. But its final. Its done.
The finalization means that Kelly will always be able to ride on her mothers two horses. She will always have a living room where she can watch cable TV teen staples Teen Wolf and Pretty Little Liars.
And it means the pair can finally travel with ease, like a normal family. In foster care, they always had to get special permission, Maehl said. Now, if we want to go to the Lake of the Ozarks, were just going to get in the car and go, Maehl said.
And theyve already set their sights on a first big trip to Europe to introduce Kelly to Maehls extended family.
For Kelly, the adoption means she will never go back into foster care. But even before it, Kelly knew her new mom would always be there for her. She told her so, and Kelly knew she would be true to her.
But, Ive been in foster care so much, Kelly said. I dont like foster care. It sucks. I want to forget about all that. I want to move on and forget about it.
Even if the adoption hadnt been completed before Kelly aged out of the foster care system at 18, they would have still stuck together, Maehl said. I told her she can stay as long as she wants, Maehl said.
In Kansas, 505 children are in need of an adoptive family and have no family network to depend on. Many are older, not the babies adoptive families often seek.
They dont have an uncle or an aunt or a grandparent saying, I want to adopt you, said Anderson at KVC. There are 6,000 Kansas children being cared for outside of their homes, and 35 percent of them are being cared for by extended family. Nationwide, Anderson said, there are 115,000 children that are legally available for adoption.
These National Adoption Day events, officials say, are crucial for educating people about the importance of adults opening their homes to kids who need families.
People often assume there is a particular reason that kids have grown up in the foster care system and not been adopted yet, Anderson said. But thats usually not true. One of the first premises that we believe in is that every child is adoptable. It used to be thought that older teens were just not adoptable, he said. There was a time when people would say, Oh, wow, 17 is just too old to be adopted. And thats just not the way we believe.
And, he points out, with children staying in their families homes longer and longer, parents of older children might not be cutting short the amount of time they spend raising their kids by all that much.
The average age of a child moving out of home today is 26 years old. We now know that our kids stay with us for a long time, he said. That just means that the child thats 17 years old or 16 years old, theyve got 10 years before they reach 26. So those are 10 very formidable years where we need to be molding and shaping them.
Finding homes for older children is a constant struggle.
Every single child, whether theyre 7 months old or 17 years old, wants a forever family, Anderson said.
Take 12-year-old Baxter Spielman, who had been in foster care since he was 3 and split from his four siblings.
A cheerful boy with a gold stud in each ear, he was adopted Friday at the Wyandotte County adoption day event by Tiffany Spielman, who is raising him with her partner, Rebecca Burns, in Lawrence. Joy and happiness, he summed up his feelings.
Im free, Baxter celebrated. I dont have to be in a family that I dont like. Now I have people that care about me.
When the women decided to adopt, they were initially looking for a younger child. We had planned on getting a little one, to be honest, Tiffany Spielman said. But after reading about Baxters history of bouncing through foster care and being split from his siblings, they fell for the kid.
It just feels good that hes going to be part of our lives forever, Tiffany Spielman said.
Burns agreed. Hes a keeper, she said.
The newest member of their family also chimed in about his parents feelings. They feel great! he said, beaming from their attention.
KVC case manager Sherie Marchant, who helped unite Baxter with Spielman and Burns, had a look of relief on her face in the courthouse. Its a victory to find a home for Baxter after he spent most of his life in foster care.
To find a good family for him really means a lot, she said.
Older kids might have a reputation as being a challenge to adopt, but thats not usually the case. When we get our newborn babies, theyre no problem at all to get placement in foster homes, Marchant said. But we have lots of really great kids that are just a little bit older.
And, she said, older children are a good match for somebody that has experience with children and has experience parenting their own children.
For Marchant, the adoption event helps soothe a tough job.
A lot of days, its not happy. We see a lot. You can imagine, when youre dealing with abuse and neglect of children. Some of the abuse is so horrific, she said. Its our job, just like its a nurses job to go to the hospital every day or a doctors job Its what we chose to do.
But, she said, sitting near Baxter and his new moms, days like National Adoption Day can really help recharge people who work to match parents and children.
That helps even it out, Marchant said. These help us keep doing what we need to do, days like these. We need to able to keep doing this kind of work.
With children running through the hallways at the Saturday event at the Johnson County Courthouse, Gilmore said she hoped people mulling whether they should consider adopting would hear about the National Adoption Day events and take the next step. She said there is a misconception that adoption is a lengthy and laborious process, and National Adoption Day events help demonstrate that.
People are very willing to and very open to sharing their hearts and their home to children, she said. We just need to get the word out that it is not complicated, it is not difficult and you dont have to be wealthy, you dont have to be super-smart. We just need good loving homes for children.
Anderson said he hoped the events would show that the process isnt usually an arduous slog through endless paperwork.
The average adoption takes six to eight months, he said.
And, he said, many people are on the fence about becoming adoptive or foster parents because they arent sure if they can handle the responsibilities of child care. He suggested people take KVCs PS-MAPP (Partnering for Safety and Model Approach to Partnerships in Parenting) classes. People always say they want a manual for parenting, he said. Really, it is a manual for parenting our kids.
There were plenty of happy adoption stories of younger children, too, at the National Adoption Day events. One was 2-year-old Cody Lisk, who joined the dozen other children Friday on the steps of the Wyandotte County Courthouse to release white balloons into the sky before Codys grandparents Michael and Melissa Lisk officially adopted him.
Another toddler heading home with a new adoptive mom was 1-year-old Marshayla, who was adopted by her aunt Maresha Clark of Atlanta. Clark said she never intended on having on having children, but she adopted four when her brother and sister both were unable to care for their children.
The plan was to travel the world until I was about 50. But things change, she said with a laugh as Marshayla explored a courthouse corridor. So, I ended up adopting four. Marshayla will have a couple of familiar faces waiting for her at her new house, as well. I actually have her two older brothers as well, so we just decided to make it one big happy family, Clark said.
Monday evening, there was one more family finalized in time for Thanksgiving.
In Johnson County District Court, Judge Kathleen Sloan approved the adoption of 11-year-old Katie Wilmington by Jim and Cheryl Wilmington.
The couple runs an in-home daycare and first met Katie 21/2 years ago, when she was in foster care and started attending the daycare. Katie instantly felt like part of the family, as she got along with the daycare children as well as Cheryl and Jims own two kids who still lived at home. (The couple have two other grown children as well.)
But in August 2012, Katie was moved to a new foster home in a different neighborhood and had to stop going to the Wilmingtons daycare.
I was in tears, Cheryl said of Katies last day at her daycare. I said I would adopt her in a minute.
But the couple didnt feel they had enough room in their home for a third child. Katie still came to visit every month or so.
Six months later, Katie was going to be moved to another foster home. Karen Green, Katies court-appointed special advocate (a volunteer independent of KVC who looks out for a childs best interests), remembered that Cheryl had expressed interest in adopting Katie. Green called to see if the family could reconsider adopting Katie.
By this time, one of the couples children had moved out to get married. After unanimous agreement from their four biological kids, the family agreed to have Katie move into the home in February of this year.
Cheryl pointed out that the total time Katie has been in their home is almost exactly nine months.
I said to her, Your four other siblings were early. Youre nine months and three days. Youre late!
After a dozen family members filled the courtroom and Sloan finalized the adoption, Katie was elated. Its just like, yeah! she said, clutching a stuffed owl Sloan gave her. And, of course, theres the big family dinner on Thursday, when she will meet one set of her grandparents for the first time. Its awesome because we get to go to Hays and be with my oldest sister, she said of Rebecca Dahlberg, the couples oldest daughter.
Kelly Boketo-Maehl gets to spend Thanksgiving with her new extended family, too.
Kelly likes big family gatherings, so were going to my parents house in Leawood, where 11 family members will be together, her new mom said.
Maehls sister will do most of the cooking, but Kelly wants to learn to cook. So shell be in the kitchen with Aunt Birgit, in charge of the mashed potatoes.
Shell be right where shes always wanted to be: surrounded by family.