Adoptive life ‘grand’ for Vancouver couple, granddaughter

National celebration spotlights many forms adoption can take

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

Published:

 

Alora Munday-Davis is one tough 12-year-old. Nobody knows it better than her own grandparents, Penny and Jimmy Davis.

“She abuses us regularly,” laughed Penny.

“Well, you guys are so old,” Alora laughed back.

Alora was legally adopted by Penny and Jimmy this summer, after a rough early ride that ended when her own biological parents — Penny’s son and a high school girlfriend — decided it would be best to give her up. She was just lucky to have loving, willing, extra-experienced grandparents on the scene.

“Adoption comes in many different forms,” Penny said. The reassembled little family was on hand Thursday to prove it at a National Adoption Day celebration at the First United Methodist Church on East 33rd Street. So was a happy mob of approximately 120 other local adoptive families — plus refreshments, balloons and a clown for the kids.

But the gauzy image of sweet young couples inheriting beautiful bouncing newborns doesn’t much represent reality anymore, according to Stephanie Hughes, a state adoption supervisor. Parents who call her are almost always looking for infants or toddlers, she said; meanwhile, the average age of a foster child waiting to be adopted is eight years old nationally, and some wait many more years than that. In fiscal 2010 approximately 28,000 children “aged out” of the foster system — that is, attained legal adulthood and were on their own without ever having found a permanent family.

National Adoption Day, the third Saturday in November, kicked off in 2000 to encourage adoption and appears to be paying off. According to the National Adoption Day Coalition, a total of more than 35,000 adoptions have been finalized by the courts on that day over the past 10 years nationwide (Clark County courts aren’t open on Saturdays). Overall, in fiscal 2011 (ending June 30), 1,676 children were adopted

from foster care through the State of Washington. That’s a slight rise over the previous year.

But the problem of children growing up in foster care — without adoptions — continues to grow. There are nearly half a million foster children in the United States right now and nearly 10,000 in Washington State.

Toughest to place are children who are considered to have special needs — which can mean anything from health problems and disabilities to minority status, “advanced age” (teenagers, for example), or even simply being in a sibling group that ought to stay together.

According to recent Census figures, there are nearly 3,000 “grandfamilies,” like the Davises, in Clark County. That’s nearly 5 percent of all households with children younger than 18.

Surprise arrival

Penny Davis, 56, was raised by her own grandmother and occasionally played with an older girl, 13 years her senior, whom she didn’t realize for years was her own biological mother. She spent her adult lifetime raising three boys as a single mom. After that, she decided to go another few rounds as a foster mother.

“I have had a burning inside of me, ever since, for children to be treated right,” Davis said. “I had runaways, I had all sorts of kids with all sorts of problems. I worked with the system for a lot of years and then I stopped. My own kids were all grown and gone.”

She remarried, to ex-Marine Jimmy Davis, and expected to settle into typically mellow grandparenthood. But a surprise arrived in the form of little Alora, born to a couple of high school juniors who hadn’t thought too hard, Jimmy said, about what happens next.

Alora lived off and on with her young parents — both families were supportive and positive — until age eight, when her fourth-grade teacher sniffed out substance abuse problems at home and intervened. Alora moved into her grandparents’ ranch home near Columbia River High School, and four years later the situation was made legal and permanent.

It took four years, Penny said, because the parents were given “every opportunity for sobriety.”

The state adoption process was impressively tough, even to ex-Marine Jimmy, who’s been to some pretty tough places, including Beirut, Lebanon. “We had people literally crawling all over this house,” he said. “They are very, very thorough.” But not inappropriate, he added. “They were a taskmaster but it’s all to make sure the children are safe. There’s not as much red tape as you think.”

It all concluded with an adoption party at the county courthouse. It’s an open adoption.

“They will always be her mom and dad. She can go dabble with her family and always come back to a safe place,” said Penny.

And Penny and Jimmy “will always be my grandparents,” Alora said. “I have a place to live where they always love me. That’s pretty cool.”

Jimmy is retired; Penny moved from full-time work to a part-time job at WinCo in Hazel Dell in order to be around for Alora.

“We hadn’t planned on this,” said Jimmy. “As grandparents, we already raised another generation.” There’s more responsibility than he expected in his retirement, he said. He used to love riding his motorcycle a lot, and he still gets calls from biker buddies inviting him to roar away with them — and often he can’t. When they express sympathy for his plight, he tries to set them straight.

“She’s the greatest gift we ever got,” he said. “To take care of children, to be part of the solution, not part of the problem?”

“What is disposable income for?” Penny quipped. “Plus, we have a ball.”

For example, Penny and Jimmy attended plenty of Little League games in their time as parents, but never a girls’ volleyball match.

“It was awesome, seeing all those girls screaming and squealing,” said Penny. “We were screaming and cheering, too. We were so extreme, Alora was like, ‘can you please sit down and be quiet?’”

She’s got a sharp edge, no doubt about it — what 12-year-old girl doesn’t? — and it’s on full display during an evening interview in the living room. But so is the love.

Jimmy’s attempts at texting are “totally off,” Alora laughed — and so did he. Jimmy is also the guy you hang out and watch TV with, she added — even middle-school chick fare like “iCarly.” (For that, Jimmy earned the compliment of being “not as old as a dinosaur.” He just kept laughing.

“If you live with your parents, they’re more into younger stuff,” said Alora. “This is more like living at your grandparents’ house.”

Which is perfectly appropriate, Penny said. The house isn’t chock full of electronic diversions and big screens; it’s a little older-fashioned than that. That allows the emphasis to stay on school, Penny said.

“School is more important than it ever was,” she said. Back in the day, she said, her parenting style was looser about studies and tighter about other daily matters; many biological and foster children later, she said, she’s cooler about life’s little hassles but much firmer about succeeding in school.

The girl has experienced some bullying and has some special needs; Penny said there was a “honeymoon period” at first but there’s also been some rage and regression. But Alora — who knows her entire history — said she likes to read, likes history and loves “figuring out what happened.”

“She’s taken some hard knocks but we know she’s got a good head on her shoulders,” said Jimmy. “She’s got a strong sense of self.”

And she’s clearly got some good support. That fourth-grade teacher who intervened has become a close friend, and took Alora to a totally awesome event last year: Justin Bieber’s concert at the Rose Garden. When Alora showed a reporter her bedroom, it was plastered with Justin’s pretty face and hung with Christmas lights — and the floor was suspiciously clean.

Her grandparents made her do it, she said.