Owen is 4 and you don’t have to ask twice for a tour of his room.
"Watch!" he shouts, sailing off his bunk-bed ladder, then bouncing off the lower mattress. His sheets are printed with dinosaurs. "Rawr!" His favorite is the T. rex, of course. "RAWR!"
Next door, 6-year-old Hunter runs an invitation-only operation.
“Get. Out. You can’t come in!” he says, evicting his little brother before a review of his soccer trophies and stuffed animals.
Across the hall is Jackson, 10. His spacious room has a terrific golf-course view, and stacks of his favorite books and sports gear make for a cheerful tableau. Before showing off his football jersey and a drawing he’s proud of, though, he emphasizes the basics.
“We all have our own rooms,” he says. “I sleep right there. My bathroom’s right there. My shoes are right here. Those are my clothes.”
It sounds like a simple list. It’s not.
“When I was in foster care, I had to sleep in a bunk bed,” Jackson says. “I wasn’t used to sleeping by myself. I had to get used to it.”
Ask what his favorite thing is and he doesn’t mention the view or any of his stuff.
“Having new parents,” he answers. “Getting to see my brothers.”
Sunday is the first Father’s Day the boys will spend as an official family unit with their forever parents, Matthew Simon and Keith Schumann, both 49.
“We always knew we wanted a family. We weren’t sure how that was going to look,” Simon said. “Raising a family doesn’t have to look one way.”
A search begins
Simon, originally from Ohio, and Schumann, a native Texan, met in 1995 and became a couple over the next year or so. They exchanged vows in Highlands, North Carolina, in 2014 and now live in Atlanta. They were focused on their careers in fashion and marketing at first, then embraced the idea of parenthood.
“We were having dinner at Atlas one night. Life was really great. I said the one thing I felt was missing was we didn’t have kids,” Simon said. “Keith had just gotten back from a work trip where he had spent time with people who had adopted. He said, ‘Let’s just start exploring it.’”
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What followed was a blizzard of paperwork and sometimes daunting bureaucracy. The Division of Family and Children Services' site (itsmyturnnow.dhs.ga.gov) details the checklist most adoptions involve, including information and training sessions, home visits and detailed background checks. One stop along the way is the Adoption Preparation Program, offered through county DFCS locations or private agencies DFCS contracts with. It involves 23 classroom hours of training on topics such as communication and dealing with behavioral, emotional, identity and cultural issues.
As of February, there were more than 13,000 children in foster care in Georgia, according to DFCS. Not all children in foster care are immediately available for adoption, and more than 500 children age out of the state’s foster care system every year. Adoptions through the state typically take longer than private adoptions, as they involve children who have been taken into protective care. They are available for adoption only after parental rights have been terminated, following proper court proceedings.
“By Thanksgiving 2015, we had submitted our entire file to the state,” Simon said. “We had our home study in April 2016.”
That summer brought an irritating phone call. Their file had somehow been shredded and they’d need to start over.
“They approved us in the fall of 2016, and we started going to adoption parties,” Simon said. “If you watched ‘Instant Family,’ they do a funny scene on adoption parties. They’re not funny and they’re not parties.”
The 2018 movie, which filmed in Atlanta, stars Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne as a couple who adopts three siblings. The heartwarming comedy based on the experiences of writer, director and adoptive dad Sean Anders was spot-on in its portrayal of the process, Simon said. Octavia Spencer and Tig Notaro play social workers who celebrate when things work out, but who also have to deliver bad news to some hopeful parents, and guard everyone against expectations of a quick and easy ending.
The adoption party scene, filmed at Piedmont Park, accurately captures how prospective parents can swarm around adorable toddlers while teens who have spent years in foster care watch, Simon said.
“It’s just heartbreaking,” he said. He and Schumann, who were always interested in a sibling group, were excited to meet a brother and sister at one such party. The night before, their caseworker called to tell them the children had been adopted by their foster parents. They went anyway, and met with a caseworker who had a different file for them to consider.
Three boys needed a home. The youngest had first been taken into protective care at just 2 months old. The middle child had weighed 7 pounds, less than his birth weight, at age 5 months. The oldest had become a father figure at 8, changing his brothers’ diapers and feeding them whatever he could scrounge. Were they ready to take this on?
Simon and Schumann met Owen, Hunter and Jackson on Dec. 1, 2017.
“I was surprised,” Jackson recalled. “I was going to have a new family.”
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Brothers’ unbreakable bond
Catherine Stratmann was one of the most constant figures in the boys’ young lives. A longtime court-appointed special advocate and guardian ad litem (the term can vary by jurisdiction), she said their case was one of the hardest she’s worked.
“They came from a background of drug use,” she said. They spent time in and out of foster care, and sometimes had to be separated. As hard as that was to witness, their volatile home situation in their small North Georgia town was even worse, she said. They were taken back into protective care the final time after the school Jackson attended then noticed a disturbing string of absences. He had been skipping class to take care of his baby brothers, Stratmann said.
“I was so glad when they were taken back into custody,” she said. “I thought, even if they were in a good foster home for the rest of their life, they’d be better off.”
Stratmann was there the day the boys’ birth mother signed away her parental rights.
“She finally realized she couldn’t take care of them,” she said. The woman’s current whereabouts are unknown.
James Henderson was the DFCS social services specialist assigned to the case.
“When I first met the boys, they were all skittish. They had bounced from foster home to foster home,” Henderson said. “That broke my heart.”
It’s hard to overstate the progress he sees in the children, and he’s promised to visit the family soon.
“Matthew and Keith were absolutely amazing to work with,” he said. “They were a true blessing when they came into these boys’ lives. From the day I met them, it was, ‘We’re giving our all for these boys.’ They’re two of the best fathers I’ve ever seen.”
Tara Howe was Jackson’s final foster mom. The mother of two already had four foster children at the time, and could not take in all three siblings.
“He never talked to me about going home,” she said. “It was always about being with his brothers.”
Their bond was clear when she would have Owen and Hunter over to visit.
“They flock to Jackson,” she said. “They would be sitting on the couch watching TV, and they would just be all up on him.”
She rejoiced when she learned all three boys would be placed in the same home.
“I saw them a month or two after they left my house. They were just different kids,” Howe said. “Their minds were at ease.”
Not that it was easy. Far from it.
The boys were placed with Simon and Schumann toward the end of December 2017. The new foster dads planned on a low-key holiday, but good luck keeping overjoyed friends and relatives from heaping gifts and affection on three angels who arrived just in time for Christmas.
“They were inundated with toys,” Simon said. “It just became this overwhelming moment.”
Things settled down some by the time school started again in January, and for a while, they enjoyed the happy “honeymoon period” so expertly portrayed in “Instant Family.” In life as on the screen, it didn’t last.
“As they get more comfortable and more bonded, they start pushing harder. They don’t believe it’s real,” Schumann said. “We had six months of trashed rooms, spitting. It’s hellacious. They’re going to push you as hard as they can to see if it’s going to stick. You know what they’re doing intellectually. Emotionally, it’s like, what have we done?”
Therapy, routine and love calmed the waters at last. The adoptions were finalized in October 2018. These days, evenings during the school year revolve around soccer, basketball or flag football practice or martial arts lessons. And they are loud.
“I’m going to crash into you!” Owen warned as his scooter zipped toward his parents during one recent outing. He hopped off and hoisted his wheels for all to admire. “I’m strong!”
Hunter came off the field and immediately tore into a frozen pop with a grape Fanta on the side. There’s a snack bar near the field where the kids play sports, and during the recent practice, all three pleaded for a couple of bucks so they could grab a treat. They each wanted to go individually.
“In the beginning, it would be like they were eating like they’d never eat again,” Simon said. “There was a lot of ‘mine, mine.’”
Their dads make sure each child gets one-on-one attention, and even discipline underscores the notion of stability and security.
“We talk a lot about, ‘We do this as a family: In our family, we don’t hit, we don’t use bad language,’” Simon said.
The summer calendar includes camp and travel.
“The concept of a vacation was new to them,” Schumann said. “There was some trepidation.”
Every other time the boys had packed up, he explained, it meant another temporary home.
“When we went on vacation for the first time, they were so excited to be home,” he said. “They’d never had that experience of coming back.”
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Settling into a new life
Close to dinnertime the other night, Owen places votives on the table while Hunter fiddles with his taekwondo belt. Jackson, still in his protective role, swoops in to help. Other times, he eases back into being a kid, and is quick to climb into a parent’s lap when everyone sits down to watch television.
“Sometimes Daddy K puts music on so we can dance,” Jackson says.
That’s what the kids call their parents, Daddy K and Daddy M. They came up with it early on, and it stuck. The transition to life with two fathers was an easy one.
“They wanted two things,” Schumann said. “They wanted to be together and they wanted a dog.”
All three boys immediately took to their new four-legged family members, Oliver and Sophie, and to their new parents.
“For Owen, it’s important to him that people know he has two dads,” Simon said, recalling a trip to the Dollywood theme park in Tennessee. “They were on this little ducky ride and the operator said, ‘OK, everybody wave to your mommies and daddies.’ Owen said, ‘I have two dads!’”
With life on a more even keel these days, Simon and Schumann hope to become advocates for others considering adoption, and want the process to become more streamlined.
“It’s not a fairy tale, but it’s been amazing,” Schumann said. “The right thing happened. These are our kids.”
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