CAMAS — Todd Williams was at the podium, making a top-level pitch to a firm considering his help with a complicated telecommunications system, when he sniffed something stinky.
His infant granddaughter was there beside him in her carrier. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were at stake. So was a miserable child.
Since 2000, November has been National Adoption Month, and Nov. 23 was Adoption Day — occasions that are meant to speed foster children into loving, permanent homes. According to the National Adoption Day Coalition, more than 44,500 adoptions have been finalized by the courts on that day over the past 10 years nationwide. Overall, in fiscal 2013, 1,239 children were adopted in the state of Washington.
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.
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. Kennedy Williams, born prematurely and drug-addicted, could easily have been a tough foster kid to place — if her grandparents hadn't stepped in.
Legal "grandfamilies" such as the Williamses are a growing phenomenon in America. According to recent census figures, there are nearly 3,000 such grandfamilies in Clark County. That's nearly 5 percent of all households with children younger than 18.
— Scott Hewitt
According to Williams, he never stopped talking state-of-the-art telephony while scooping up the child, laying her on his lectern and making the necessary equipment upgrade. He scored the business deal, too.
Talk about gumption. But that's just the sort of skill and fortitude you've developed as an older parent, he said — one who long ago passed all the initial tests that first-timers find so nerve-wracking.
Such seasoning is also what enabled Todd and his wife, Tammi, to survive the pain of a truly broken family and to make a dramatic, life-changing decision that helped things from cracking up even more. When it seemed the only way to prevent their granddaughter from disappearing into the foster system, Todd and Tammi Williams decided — with little warning or hesitation — to adopt her and bring her home.
That wasn't just good news for the little girl. It was also pleasing to the Washington Department of Social and Health Services, which "always wants children … to be placed with a relative" or very close friend as long as that person is safe and appropriate and can pass a "home study and background check," said DSHS adoption specialist Julie Pettit.
Because November is National Adoption Month, Pettit and the Williamses are sharing their story — a story that is becoming more common.
Pettit said relative adoptions are on the rise in our area, with "approximately 50" in the past two years in Clark and Skamania counties. Parental drug and alcohol problems are a typical reason why — but, she pointed out, these are often symptoms of untreated mental health problems.
Todd Williams said his granddaughter, Kennedy, was born one month premature and drug-addicted. She has thrived "amazingly well" since then, but her parents spiraled through crisis after crisis, he said. A huge number of players engaged in a back-and-forth regarding the welfare and placement of the girl — social workers and caseworkers, child advocates and lawyers, judges and both sets of grandparents, in addition to the parents themselves — and eventually Kennedy was temporarily placed with the Williamses in Camas. But an allegation arose that they were trying to "take" the child, Todd said, and so they decided to waive their rights and step away. The other grandparents could have her.
The night before that court date was one of the worst nights of Tammi's life, she said. "I'm stressing that I'm never going to see Kennedy again," she said.
The next morning, however, new information about the other family removed them from consideration, Todd said. He was told by his attorney that there was "nobody left" for Kennedy. That meant she would simply disappear into the foster system — unless the Williamses took her back.
On the spot, Todd knew what he had to do. "She's ours" is what he texted Tammi — and he burst into tears at the recollection during an interview with The Columbian. "I was beyond overwhelmed," he remembered.
He said he felt like he was fleeing with unexpected treasure when he carried the baby out of the courthouse, strapped her back into his car and headed for home.
"She's safe, she's ours — and I'm a friggin' dad again," is what he was thinking.
'We'll figure it out'
Today, Kennedy is an astonishingly articulate and typically robust 3-year-old. Visitors to the Williams home in Camas are greeted by a gregarious, bouncy kid who'll demand your name and teach you all her stuffed animals' names in return. Her speech is surprisingly clear and complex. Her ability to hide under the coffee table is unsurpassed.
"Kennedy is a success story," Todd said. "But I want people to know that there are a ton of kids who don't have a support network like this. They didn't ask to come into this world. They need help."
Pettit said "grandfamilies" often have to deal with serious behavior problems that are borne of parental abuse and neglect. That places grandparents "in a parenting role that they may never have experienced with their own children." Grandparents may also be tasked with taking their new child many therapy and medical appointments — all while dealing with life's normal and not-so-normal household challenges.
Luckily, Todd said, Kennedy's health appears to be nothing short of superb.
Todd is 56 years old, and Tammi is 54. If all goes according to schedule, they'll be in their early 70s when Kennedy graduates from high school and their mid-70s when she graduates from college, Todd said.
"We were looking forward to being empty-nesters," said Tammi. "Somebody laid an egg in our nest."
The couple used to have a written retirement plan, Todd said. When the adoption was finalized, they ceremonially fed it to their paper shredder.
"Life has changed. We'll figure it out," they vowed.
Todd Williams said he emerged from the adoption process with great respect for most front-line social workers who do the personal work — and a healthy contempt for the system overall. Administrators seem removed from the real concerns of the people they are serving, he said, and the checks and hurdles built into the overcomplicated process are beyond reasonable — they really defy common sense, he said.
Sometimes too much is left to the judgment of people who can cut corners and bend rules, he said. Other times, following strict procedures feels like tail-chasing with no end in sight. And certain bureaucrats and legal officials in Clark County are renowned for a nastiness he experienced firsthand, he said.
Pettit acknowledged: "The foster care and court system are very difficult to navigate and the processes and time frames become very frustrating. There are many things that are out of the social worker's control but it often feels … that the social worker has the power."
Unlike licensed foster parents, Pettit said, relatives and "grandfamilies" who adopt generally are making the best of a situation they didn't ask or prepare for. They're motivated by love and loyalty but that doesn't mean they've been trained the way a foster parent has, she said. "They often … will need much more support," she said.
Kennedy's adoption is open, and her parents and paternal grandparents are still on the scene and do come to visit, Tammi said. That can present some serious challenges, she said.
"I try to be very friendly," Tammi said. "But there are not going to be any solo visits."
Setting such boundaries "can cause a break in relationships with extended family," said Pettit. "It is an extremely difficult position to be in."
She pointed out that grandfamilies are frequently crestfallen by what seems like their own child-rearing failure. "There is often a lot of guilt that possibly they … had done something wrong in the upbringing of their child that caused the abuse or neglect," she said.
Williams acknowledged that alcoholism has cast a long, dark shadow over the histories of all the families involved, and that he warned his own children about their genetic predisposition. He said he drinks little and his wife not at all.
Due to her paternal heritage, Kennedy is a small fraction Cherokee — and Todd Williams has made sure to get her certified as a tribal member. The Cherokee nation, based in Oklahoma, was another player in the twisty drama of Kennedy's fate. Tammi said the tribe has been "wonderful to work with."
For a while the family was attending regular meetings of the Native American Youth and Family Center (www.nayapdx.org) in Portland, but lately life has just gotten too busy, Tammi said.
Todd, who's only halfway joking when calling himself "anal retentive," is a business consultant, speaker and author who specializes in organizational leadership and rescuing troubled projects. It certainly seems that he's applied that theme to the life of his family.
The twin results are delight and exhaustion. "When you're 56 years old and you're crawling around on the floor and you haven't done that in 20 years," he said, it is an unexpected joy -- and you require some serious nap time. They aren't at the same age and stage as Kennedy's playmates' parents, which makes for some social awkwardness. On the other hand, they have the stability, the experience and the savings that young parents don't have.
"No constraints are there," Todd said. "Being older, so many things are so much easier."
Plus, they've been helped along by a state reimbursement of their nearly $2,000 in adoption fees. They receive a health stipend of $300 per month based on Kennedy's "risk factors" as a baby who was born drug-addicted, Todd said.
"Kennedy's physician wrote a letter saying that she was doing superb but because she was drug affected at birth, we don't know whether there will be later effects. Right now there appears to be absolutely no problem," Todd said.
He said he has a favorite early memory of Kennedy at home. She woke up one night screaming for Mommy. Todd realized he wasn't even sure who she meant.
He went to her, scooped her up, and cooed: "Did you have a bad dream?"