Area caseworker receives award for adoption work

Monday, October 18, 2004

It isn't always the stork who brings children to homes; sometimes it's an angel.

Candy Wilfong, a caseworker with the Missouri Department of Social Services Children's Division, was recently honored in Washington, D.C., as a Congressional Angel in Adoption, one of 175 across the country. Wilfong has been an adoption specialist for five years and has assisted in creating 133 new families in the 32nd Judicial District, made up of Cape Girardeau, Bollinger and Perry counties.

Whenever the children's division learns of a crisis in a family, its first effort is to save the family structure through counseling or other intervention. But sometimes it's necessary for the court to step in and remove the children from a neglectful or abusive situation.

In some instances, Wilfong said, the parents voluntarily give up the children. If the children can't be placed with a relative, then it's up to Wilfong to find what she calls "a forever home" for the children.

Billy and Kathy Wilson of Cape Girardeau provided a "forever home" to two young brothers six years ago. Angelo is now 12, and Dalton is 11. The Wilsons applied to adoption agencies when they found they couldn't have children. They applied at private agencies for a baby, but the waiting list was long and the process expensive.

The Wilsons waited for seven years after applying with the children's division because they wanted an infant.

"We so rarely have children at those ages," Wilfong said.

After waiting and talking it over, the Wilsons decided to adopt an older child.

Wilfong said that some people reject adopting older children because they want to see the "firsts" a baby goes through growing up.

"Some of our kids have never been to a sit-down restaurant, or to a zoo or to Disney World," she said. "They may not be crawling around on the floor, but a family can still have a lot of firsts with them."

Angelo and Dalton provided a major "first" for Kathy Wilson. She said she hadn't had much experience with children, although her husband has a 20-year-old daughter from a previous marriage. Suddenly, she was instant mom to two lively boys, at the time ages 5 and 6.

Wilfong said the agency strives to keep sibling groups together. Kathy Wilson said one of the first things she noticed about her two sons is that Angelo was so protective of his little brother. They were born 11 months apart, but she said that Angelo is almost "like a little man" in the way he cares for Dalton.

"We had to take them aside and say 'it's OK, you're safe now,'" Billy Wilson said. "You can be little kids and let us take care of the big problems."

Wilfong and her staff offer counseling and other services to all the children they place until they're 18 or graduated from high school. Some children have behavior problems, she said, resulting from the situation they came from. Adjustment can be difficult, and if an adoption doesn't work out, then they have to deal with rejection too. When a child is legally free and placed in a home, there is a six-month waiting period before the adoption is finalized. Prior to the adoption, prospective parents take a 27-week foster parent training class and a 12-week adoptive parent class.

"Parenting is hard enough, let alone being a parent to a kid who has been abused or neglected," Wilfong said. "We let them see where the children come from. Sometimes love is not enough."

In the Wilsons' case, love began even before they met the boys. Kathy Wilson said she loved them before she even met them, although she acknowledges "it was easier for us to love them than for them to love us."

She said the agency staff and the boys' foster parents were in a room with the boys when they came to get them. She found the situation scary, she said. She could only imagine how two little boys felt.

"They were these little blond-haired boys, so brave, standing in the middle of the room with all these adults staring at them," she said. "I was wondering what went through their heads."

They took the boys home just a few hours after they met them for the first time. Billy Wilson brought a couple of toy cars with him to give to them.

"He sat on the floor and played with them," Kathy Wilson recalled.

The Wilsons realize they're fortunate that their sons had few adjustment problems, probably because they were so young and the transition wasn't so traumatic. The boys had not come from abuse or neglect, but from unfortunate circumstances the Wilsons would prefer to remain private.

The problems in adjustment were mostly Kathy Wilson's.

"I had to try to find out which school they would go to, where to take them to day care, things most people do normally anyway. I never had to do that and suddenly there it was."

Today the boys are honor roll students at Central Middle School, and both proudly display athletic trophies and medals in wrestling and soccer in their rooms. Angelo is soft-spoken and introspective. He said he thinks about being adopted, but not much. Although he was only 6 when he went to live in his new home, he remembered the date was April 3. His room is painted a deep blue and is lined with shelves of stuffed animals and his athletic awards.

Dalton is more mischievous and gregarious. His room is bright orange, and he proudly says he painted one wall himself. He told his mom when she asked that he doesn't think much about being adopted. Like his brother, he's happy at home.

Other successes

Wilfong has other success stories: a 8-year-old boy who had problems with one potential home but whose adoption in a different home is expected to be finalized by the end of the year. He's thriving, happy and "it will be his best Christmas present ever," she said.

Two sisters, now 11 and 13, were adopted together by an area family, and are active in sports and learning musical instruments. They're off all their medications and have formed an attachment with their adoptive family.

Throughout the adoptive process, Wilfong said, caseworkers stay with the family, gradually pulling back contact until the family forms itself but available if needed. Not all children adjust as well as Angelo and Dalton have.

There always is a need for "forever homes," Wilfong said. Some couples like the Wilsons will take two siblings, but will balk at three or more. The agency tries not to split up family groups, but if they have to they try to make sure they don't lose contact with each other. The older some children get, the harder it is to place them. There is a need especially for black adoptive parents.

To be an adoptive parent, one must be 21 or older, married or single, and pass a background check.

In Washington, D.C., Wilfong and the other adoption angels received a certificate and an angel pin designed by a New Orleans jeweler. She said that the success of the 32nd Judicial District in placing so many children has less to do with her than the entire staff.

"We put forth a lot of effort from the very beginning to the very end," she said. "It's total teamwork."

Wilfong isn't the only one reaping rewards. Kathy Wilson noted that this year her boys are riding a school bus for the first time. She heard from another mom that there was some trouble on the bus; someone was picking on the boys and Angelo -- the protective one -- was trying hard not to fight the other boy who said Angelo's and Dalton's mother was stupid.

"I asked him why would he ever let that bother him," Kathy Wilson said. "He said, 'Because you are our mom and we love you.'"

lredeffer@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 160

ON THE NET

The Department of Social Service Children's Division is connected to a nationwide network who work across the country to place children in "forever homes." Visit the Web site AdoptUSkids.com.

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