Much like the show "24", this was the pace and stress we were experiencing. It is still hard for me to even digest, but it happened and it is part of our story.
We have had high highs with this adoption and low lows. We have seen a child change physically, emotionally, spiritually, and mentally with just some love, a home, a family, and the right resources. It is almost a disturbing science experiment where a child became something he wasn't because of his environment. Everyone has told me to watch the movie, "Nell", but I haven't been able to bring myself to do that. I now firmly believe we are products of our environments and what our exposure is and how God miraculously made our bodies and minds to be resilient and the miracle of healing.
I will write more about our journey as I still process it and the challenges we have had, but we finally finalized. And that in itself proved to be a miracle. You knowing that is the outcome will make it easier than what we went through not knowing that.
Zach was supposed to be an open and shut case. No parental rights. Orphan. Wednesdays Child. His life was broadcasted online and then on the news. Legally free. Unwanted. At 7 years old, no family out of jail or mentally well to care for him.
Department of Family and Children Services (DFCS) and Lutheran Services, who we used as a liaison, were the state involvement with our adoption. We matched with Zach after submitting our home study one year ago. We then began visitation at his orphanage, weekend visits, and then moved him in 9 months ago today. After placement, you have to wait 6 months until finalization for the state to make sure its a good fit for both the child and family. Even after him having no hoops to jump through, we still did not get our finalization date until August 13. This was a huge milestone for us. We have had many many challenges, our primary challenge being his education, but finalizing was going to alleviate a lot of stress. Monthly visits and un-expected visits from DFCS in addition to the same from Lutheran Services, paperwork, permissions, travel letters if we took him out of state, red tape, ect. It is just hard to be in that phase. We were so excited to finalize. To be finished.
I went nuts. I ordered adoption announcements. We planned a huge Habachi dinner. We did a countdown with the kids. We made a big slide show of all our pictures over the past year with Zach. We explained court to them and the judge as they would be up in the front with him. We talked about Zach's past more with David and Mackenzie. We explained to them Zach's name would be forever changed to Willis and we would be given a new birth certificate with mommy and daddys names on it. (That still blows my mind by the way). He is literally given a new life in legal standing. His past records are sealed and not on the record.
I was standing in Publix 48 hours before our court hearing and had just finished ordering Zach's adoption cake. The baker was teary as she was getting my info and asked, "Has it been hard to adopt?" In that moment, I wanted to burst into tears and fall in the floor and tell her about it all. Tell her about his disabilities, his challenges, our inadequacies, how great our God is, the angels who have helped us help him, the really bad people we have encountered with him, how school is not made for foster children with disabilities, how some days I think I have ruined our life, and how then other days I feel like the luckiest person in the world. I wanted to tell her all of that. But, I did not. I said, "It has. But, he is worth it." I left her to make his cake and my phone rang.
Probably the worst phone call an adopting mother can get. It was our adoption attorney.
"Mrs Willis?" in a panicky tone. Yes, I responded.
"Mrs. Willis, I am not sure how to tell you this, but we are having a problem with Zach's paperwork. The law clerk at court has reviewed Zach's papers and it seems there was never a search done to see who Zach's father is. That has to legally be done before adoption can happen. He could have a registered father somewhere."
I got hot. I got really hot. I sat in the middle of Publix on the floor. I asked her what I needed to do.
"Nothing, you can't do anything. We have to get the state to run a "Putative Father Search" and if it comes up clear, you can finalize."
Among the 1 million questions I had, I couldn't speak. The lump was so big in my throat that I literally felt like I couldn't breathe. I couldn't bring myself to ask what would happen if they did find his father.
I don't remember much after that. I did not cancel my cake order and Im not even sure I bought my cart full of groceries. I just remember going home. I am now seeing that my past loss and my own past trauma compounds when I am hit with more trauma. The sense of loss is so deep and so intense that it magnifies the feeling and makes hope evaporate sometimes.
I called Tim and we learned the following:
If you are a man and have unprotected sex with a woman, you can go register yourself on the Putative Father Registry in your state. That way, if the woman becomes pregnant in the windows of time you were together, you will be contacted. (I was shocked to learn that this process actually exists and also find it a little disturbing as well. Its like a legal "I hooked up with someone page" and here is all the children I might have out there.) As it is not my place to judge, I will move on from that.
When a child is taken out of the home by DFCS or Child Protective Services, a re-unification plan is set up for the child to re-enter the family if it is appropriate. Obviously, for Zach, his family was incarcerated and the biological mother did not know who his father could be. Zach was placed into a state run orphanage and his parental rights were terminated a long time ago. At that time, a Putative Father Search should have been conducted before he was able to be adopted and put on orphan status.
DFCS obviously dropped a huge ball, but it also falls among several other people not catching that in his file before 48 hours before his adoption hearing.
We were mad. We were very sad. We went from planning our forever family party to wrapping our heads around if a father came up on the registry then we would move into a "Contested Adoption" and begin court for that. If the father had his act together, then a re-unification plan would be set up. I wanted to throw up thinking about moving Zach back out. Obviously, this was the worst case scenario for us, but then I had a wave of guilt if there was some amazing dad out there looking for his son.
I quickly learned this is typically VERY unlikely. Unfortunately, children like Zach with a family that has a bad history and the fact he has some special needs, meant that people weren't lining up for him. Either way, we had to wait. We had to get the State Vital Records office to run the search and give it to our attorney. No one would call me or talk to me. They would only deal with the attorney.
24 hours passed. Nothing. We were told the State Vital Records system was down. There was a lady that could run the search manually, but of course she was on vacation that week. Nothing was happening.
That night, I soberly started making cancellations. I did not have any time line of when the search could be done and I was being told our adoption hearing was off the calendar and would be rescheduled later and when they could get the search done and if it came up clear. I told Tim to call our family and cancel our dinner party for the following night and to call Publix and cancel the damn cake. Our adoption announcements had the next day's date on them and I was about 5 minutes away from throwing them in the trash or setting them on fire and my phone rang. A sweet friend named Meaghan called and said she was taking me out on our adoption night with some girlfriends and we were going to celebrate anyway and Zachs search was going to come up clear. She told me to not touch the announcements because we would figure it out. My mom called and said she would make new labels to go over them. I was emotionally exhausted and too irrational to think about it.
I went to bed. The next morning, I really did wake up feeling God's mercies are new. I sat in my floor and cried as I thought back about how we met Zach, the Sunday church when service I realized what his name meant because of another sweet soul named Bethany, that Zachariah means,"The Lord has Remembered." I just kept saying that over and over. Lord, you have remembered this boy. Today is supposed to be his adoption day. I know you haven't forgotten him. Please help us.
I sent out a massive email. I CC'ed everyone on a DFCS and state level I could about the fact we were supposed to finalize in a few hours and it was all because of a $10 search. I needed to know as soon as possible if there was a father and for someone to do the search. Here is my letter:
I write to you as a mother this morning and plead for someone to help Zach's finalization today.
I am shocked and saddened that during Zachs termination hearing years ago, a putative father search was never conducted. I am also shocked and saddened that this was not caught until hours before our court hearing that is today at 1:30 in Cobb with Judge Bodiford.
I am not quite sure how such a precious boy has fallen through so many cracks, but that has been his whole life until now. He is 7 and spent 4 of those years in a state run group home. I have no idea how he could be advertised as a "legally free" child and broadcasted on Wednesdays child and then also registered on a state level as legally free, but it seems to me that is putting this child at risk.
We are devastated. Today has been a finish line for our family. For Zach. We had family and friends in town for his court hearing, people rearranging their schedules and requesting off work. A dinner party scheduled for tonight and a cake ordered. I had 150 Adoption announcements printed, sealed, and ready to mail with his adoption day on it that are now close to being of no use. More than all of that, I have tried to explain to Zach and my other 2 children why we aren't celebrating anymore. As you can imagine, this is very confusing for them.
I am heartbroken. I have been told this search can be performed at Vital Records in Atlanta and costs $10, but I myself cannot request it. It takes all of minutes and if no one comes up on the search, we can finalize.
Can't any of you possibly do anything to help us today? Can't someone get on the phone with Vital Records and have them call Cobb law clerk?
It seems this child should no longer suffer from the mistakes of others.
Please let me know as soon as you can as we are all still on standby for our hearing.....
I can't say this is how I saw this going down, but much like giving birth, it was intense, not how you saw it quite happening, but in the end..... the glorious part of it actually happening was able to cover all the pain to get to that point. I really felt joy, gratitude, humility, advocacy, and justice happen. It turned out to be a beautiful day and with everyone in absolute awe and happy tears of the process.
It's over buddy, we made it. You are quite a little package that we struggle to handle, but we brokenly every day wake up and ask God to equip us to give you the life he intended for you to have. We are turning corners, paving a way, and giving you opportunities that previously did not exist because we serve a big God who uses very small and un-capable people.
We love you, Zach. You are a Willis now. You have been made legally our son and you are now not only part of our family, but a community who is praying for your complete healing and doing everything possible to give that to you.
Trials and tribulations are opportunities and launching points of growth. I see how Paul says it can be joy. We experienced joy on August 13, 2014.
Zachariah Daniel Willis