The adoptions took months longer than planned, so when all was said and done, Courtney Ledet gathered the myriad unused forms with which she had documented the minutiae of her foster children’s lives — paper cuts and Christmas presents and visitors and road trips — and threw them away.
“It’s meticulous,” she said. “Every time you give a child a Tylenol, or you put Neosporin on a paper cut, you have to notate it. Every time you put hydrogen peroxide on a skinned knee, you have to notate it. It’s crazy. Things that you would think, ‘This is normal. This is everyday life.’ You have to write it down.”
The paperwork was one metric by which the Ledets could measure their waiting. As the pandemic stretched an already arduous process, fostering to adopt, for months, visitations with their two children’s biological mom was another.
The Ledets live in Fort Worth. The visitations took place in Mineral Wells. Car rides were somber: Joseph, the youngest, would cry for the designated hour each week.
“I just had to keep telling myself at the time, you know, reunification is the goal,” Ledet said. “It’s always the goal. We want it to be the goal. But I had to keep in the back of my mind, ‘When does it stop being the goal?’”
For the Ledets, the answer came June 23 when, in a surprisingly intimate gathering of friends, family and advocates in Zoom court, Joseph and his sister Emmaleigh became — officially, finally — part of the family.
Regardless of type, adoptions already take time. For families like the Ledets, the pandemic extended the process for months. Consequently, adoptions through local agencies decreased in 2020, as did statewide adoptions through the foster system.
As with most immense changes, however, there were silver linings — both for families and the agencies that help make them.
How adoptions work in Texas
People can adopt children privately, internationally or, like the Ledets, through the foster care system. Each process can take years and requires multiple checkpoints for a prospective family: orientations, trainings and applications; home studies and background checks; a matching process and placement; post-placement supervision and, finally, adoption.
In a typical year, the journey from orientation to adoption can take a year to a year-and-a-half, according to Jennifer Lanter, vice president of communications for the Gladney Center for Adoption in Fort Worth. Gladney helps people adopt children through all three avenues, as well as pregnant women who want to make adoption plans.
After the pandemic began, the process stretched to about two years.
“No matter what program you’re in at Gladney, the processes have been disrupted and are taking much longer than they were before COVID,” she said.
When the pandemic began, Gladney moved orientations and trainings — anything that could be held virtually — online. International travel shut down. Local restrictions yanked case workers from hospital bedsides. Placements, where a family receives a child, moved outside. One happened in a hospital parking lot, Lanter remembers.
At ACH Child and Family Services, which helps people foster to adopt, the training couldn’t go fully online, said Stella Maggs, the agency’s director of foster care and adoption. Instead of delivering CPR and first aid instruction to a large group of potential foster families, the agency taught families one by one. The shift took time and money.
For adoptions through Gladney, the home study, where an agency assesses the safety of a potential home, was the “one thing that couldn’t go virtual,” Lanter said.
“It’s a really important part of the process,” she said. “That’s where a licensed caseworker goes into the home and assesses the family to see if they’re fit to parent a child and make sure they’re both committed to the adoption process, and to make sure the home is a safe environment for the child.”
For three months, home studies through Gladney stopped. Then, they opened back up gradually, Lanter said. That meant families waiting to adopt — or children waiting to be adopted — were stuck.
The number of adoptions through both Gladney and ACH Child and Family Services dropped in 2020.
‘Literally our dream children’
When Joseph and his sister, Emmaleigh, arrived at the Ledet house in September 2019, he could say only three words: Mama, purple and no. He was afraid of bathrooms and Ledet. “I was a trigger for him,” she said.
She tended their relationship. She enrolled herself and Joseph in an American Sign Language course so they could communicate in a language just their own. She cranked music during her three biological children’s wakeup routines to temper his fear of baths and showers.
“It took a family of seven brushing our teeth in the morning with music playing in the bathroom, so that he would just step foot in the doorway and be like, ‘Oh, this is OK, this is safe. This is fun in here. It’s OK to come in here. I’m not going to get locked in here.’”
Ledet knew what it looked like to advocate for children. She and her husband, Mark, have an older son with a developmental disability. “That’s my comfort zone: advocating for children who aren’t getting what they need, either from the schools or from doctors,” she said. “And so I feel comfortable being that voice for them.”
Their decision to foster came in a dream. In 2017, after a painful season of infertility, miscarriage and in vitro fertilization, their third child and “rainbow baby,” Emmett, was born.
Within three months, Mark woke from a dream in which he’d seen two children: a boy whose name started with a J, and a girl whose name started with an E.
Months passed. He couldn’t shake the dream.
They decided to get licensed as foster parents and agreed to take siblings. As an identical twin, Ledet couldn’t imagine separating children from each other.
In September 2019, they were told a brother and sister needed a foster family. The answer was easy. “They were literally our dream children,” Mark Ledet said.
‘You can’t let them linger forever in foster care’
For adoptions through the foster care system, there is no typical case, Maggs, with ACH Child and Family Services, said.
People who want to foster must first be trained and licensed, a process that takes 90 days and requires in-person training like CPR and first-aid. Once a foster parent receives a child, the court has one year to make a “permanency plan,” she said.
In the meantime, a revolving cast of foster care workers moves in and out of the foster home to assess each child’s welfare.
If a lawsuit is involved, a court-appointed special advocate, or CASA, also follows the child or children to make sure they’re actually safe and that they feel safe while the court processes their case, according to Don Binnicker, the CEO of CASA of Tarrant County.
“So you’ve got a whole bunch of attorneys and really nobody that’s there listening to the kiddos,” he said. “So CASAs get appointed as what the judges consider an extra set of eyes and ears.”
Meanwhile, a foster family can’t adopt until the biological parents lose or relinquish their rights to their children. The parents have at least six months after they lose their children to create a safe environment for their return, Binnicker said. That could look like parenting courses, substance abuse counseling or a domestic violence program — some of which can be difficult if not impossible to complete online.
Simultaneously, the court system developed a bottleneck.
“All of a sudden, you’re having Zoom hearings, instead of face-to-face hearings, so the dockets kind of backed up,” he said. “And it means kids were staying in care longer for that process to happen.”
“The dockets kind of backed up. And it means kids were staying in care longer for that process to happen.”– Don Binnicker, CEO of CASA of Tarrant County
The court told the Ledets their children’s biological mom couldn’t complete her requirements because of the pandemic. They extended her rights for three months. Then, they extended them another three months.
Those extensions left Emmaleigh, Joseph’s older sister, in limbo. She would ask Ledet if she would be able to take dance lessons with Ledet’s biological daughter, Elizabeth, next season. Ledet refused to give Emmaleigh false hope. She told her the truth: She didn’t know.
Instead, Ledet worked to assuage Joseph’s fears and increase his language. She ferried Emmaleigh to dance and school and told her it was OK to be sad. For a long time, Emmaleigh had hidden her emotions behind a mask of happiness.
After a year, the Ledets were legally allowed to intervene, or file a lawsuit on behalf of the children they’d fallen in love with months ago.
They intervened in October 2020, eight months before what would become their adoption day.
They weren’t fighting to keep Joseph and Emmaleigh, Ledet said, though they wanted them. They were fighting for “a voice at the table,” she said. “To make sure the kids were heard.”
“Children belong to the parents and the parents’ family,” Binnicker, with CASA of Tarrant County, said. “And that is the best option. When that can’t be done safely, we realize there’s a point that you have to make a decision. You can’t let them linger forever in foster care.”
‘You are a Ledet’
The final court date took place in the Ledets’ living room and over Zoom. It was quiet — Elizabeth Ledet’s favorite day amid this “whole, entire, long process.”
“It was vulnerable. We were all vulnerable,” Elizabeth, who’s 13, said. “We were all genuinely happy.”
On screen, they were surrounded by a gallery of friends and family across the U.S., people who wouldn’t have been present if the adoption happened in person.
The pandemic brought gifts like this one to agencies across the county. At CASA of Tarrant County, volunteers could check in with foster children via Zoom every week, rather than in person once a month, Binnicker said. Some gave guitar and cooking lessons; others read the children books — all over Zoom.
“It was vulnerable. We were all vulnerable. We were all genuinely happy.”– Elizabeth Ledet, 13
At the Gladney Center for Adoption, more education materials and resources are available to people online now than before the pandemic, Lanter said. Also, the pandemic normalized different ways for pregnant moms seeking adoption plans to communicate with the adoption center: FaceTime, direct messaging, chats.
ACH Child and Family Services plans to maintain a hybrid training model for potential foster parents — to harness “the tools that we were given during the pandemic to help us stay more connected to families and to our children,” Maggs said.
When all is said and done, the foster and adoption systems brim with “great people,” Binnicker said. And they’ve learned to be “really creative” during the pandemic because they know that, when children come into the system, they’re traumatized. The goal is to get them out.
“Every time you move them, they’re traumatized again. So let’s reduce those things,” he said. “And try to make their life stable.”
For Emmaleigh, that stability came when her name changed. “She just looked at me, and we both just took a big breath and just a big sigh of relief,” Ledet said. “And she says, ‘finally,’ and I said, ‘yeah.’”
It’s been just over three months since she and her brother became officially, finally part of the family. If you visit the Ledet house in northwest Fort Worth, Joseph — whose adopted name is Tanner — will tell you about Spiderman. He turns 7 on Thursday.
Emmaleigh will give you a hug and tell you about pandas. She has worried, once or twice, about her place in the family. Her sister is quick to set her straight.
“You could be (something else) by blood, I don’t really care,” Elizabeth remembers telling her. “No matter how many people tell you that, you are a Ledet because you have the love of a Ledet, you have the support from a Ledet. You are a Ledet.”
Alexis Allison is the health reporter at the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from Texas Health Resources. Contact her by email or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.