By Katie Roberts
Kendra, 15, of Bowling Green, Kentucky dialed 911 on New Year’s Eve of 2014. She said her parents were drinking more than usual and a fight arose between her mother and father. That night, Kendra and her younger sister, Caitlin, 10, were taken out of their home and placed in the foster system.
Kendra said when her father drank he was loving and affectionate at first, but then would become be angry and abusive. Her mother would become verbally abusive when she drank; Kendra remembers being told she was an “accident” and “trash.” Caitlin said she used to be scared when her parents fought, but the more it happened the more she became used to it.
As the oldest sister, Kendra was forced to take responsibility at a young age. She would babysit or do yard work for families in their trailer park to at least have food on the table. Kendra would help with Caitlin’s homework because their parents would always say “later” but never would help.
“I would help her with her schoolwork, make sure she got on the bus, and I took care of her when she was sick,” Kendra said. “When she was younger, there was a time when she actually called me ‘mom’ and it broke my heart.”
Based on data from childtrends.org, in 2012, 397,000 children were in foster care, a 30 percent decline from the 1999 peak of 567,000. In 2014, the number had increased to 415,000. Kentucky has over 8,000 children in foster care and the number has been steadily increasing.
“I would say in the past 10 years, it has steadily grown. But even in the last five years, the number of children in foster care has jumped significantly. Five years ago, we were in the 6,000 range and now we are in the 8,000 range,” Uspiritus Home Resource Coordinator Sarah Major said.
A part of Major’s job is to try to make the number of children in foster care a tangible thing for people to understand.
“The number of children in foster care is the same as fall 2015 enrollment at Western Kentucky University or would fill the Hot Rod baseball stadium 1.5 times,” Major said.
“It’s a big number, I think it’s easy to hear 8,880, but it’s not really easy to think about tangibly what is that. These are people, they are not a number,” Major said.
House bills have been passed in the hope to make the lives of foster children easier in the state. Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin signed two bills: House Bill 180, which will allow children to temporarily placed with non-relative adults, and House Bill 192, which allows foster children to get their permits and driver’s licenses without the signature of a birth parent.
“If you are to be a foster child anywhere in America, you’re going to wish you were a foster child in Kentucky,” Gov. Bevin said in his State of the Commonwealth Address. He spoke to the number of children currently in foster care, “there’s some number at which there’s always gonna be, but it needs to be a whole lot lower than that.”
Two years ago, Kendra and Caitlin were placed in Ben and Kayla Thompson’s care. The Thompsons received a call from Uspiritus, an adoption agency in Bowling Green, and asked if they were able to take the girls as a permanent placement.
“They try to give you a little of their background, but in our case, that information wasn’t really available. We were their first placement and all we got was their names, their ages, and their grades and where they went to school,” Kayla said. “It was literally, ‘come get them.’”
Ben and Kayla had decided beforehand that if they were willing to open their home temporarily for foster children it needed to be a permanent option if the children wanted.
“I think you kind of hold back in terms of these are my forever kids until you get to that point of they are going to be your forever kids,” Kayla said. “But there’s always that possibly that they could be going home and that doesn’t mean that you’re not going to still care about them or you’re not still going to think about them.”
When the girls first arrived, their goal was to return to parent, but after nine months the Thompsons petitioned the court to change their goal to adoption. Kendra and Caitlin’s birth parents’ parental rights were terminated in March.
“The system is set up to blanket every case no matter what. The parents have every opportunity to get their kids back and the court’s just waiting for them to prove that they can do it or prove that they can’t do it,” Ben said. “Which is why it takes so long, so in our case, it should have been really quick just because of the amount of effort the parents had, but it wasn’t.”
Kendra said she dreaded going to visitations with her birth mother. But then her birth mother stopped coming to visitations, Kendra said she didn’t care, but it broke her little sister’s heart.
“I was kind of excited to get back to my mom and dad because I thought that they would get their stuff together,” Caitlin said. “They don’t show up to court anymore, and we don’t know where they are.”
When Kendra was younger, she worried she would never have a family to be there for her. Then, when she was put into foster care, Kendra thought no one would want to adopt her.
“I knew my sister might get adopted, but I was like I’m not getting adopted because no one wants an older kid,” Kendra said. “But when I figured out they wanted to adopt both of us, I was happy and I was calm.”
New grandparents, uncles, family friends and Uspiritus workers arrived at the Warren County Justice Center to witness Kendra and Caitlin’s adoption hearing Friday morning, May 5.
The judge, David A. Lanphear said it’s not often we see such joy in the courtroom.
“This is not a hospital delivery room but when people are at the hospital they celebrate when a child is born. So today you have the liberty to do that here in this courtroom because that is what the legal effect of what we are doing today has,” Lanphear said.
Both Kendra and Caitlin asked to legally change their last name to Thompson. The judge explained to Kendra and Caitlin they would be treated as if they were children born of the Thompsons by the state.
“They are your children by choice and not chance. You have taken them into your home and loved them and so to me this is a precious moment,” Lanphear said. “And the judgment of adoption shall be entered.”
After the adoption was finalized, tears were shed, presents were exchanged, and photos were taken to capture the moment.
“I’ve always felt like we were family, but with the adoption finalized it’s just indescribable,” Kendra said. “It’s the best thing that has ever happened or will happen to me.”