INSPIRE ATLANTA: An Adoption Story

Tom and Debbie Crittenden didn’t start the fostering and adoption process expecting to raise two teenagers, but that changed when they met Lexy and Mark, whom they later adopted. They’re shown at their home in Smyrna in January. Teens and siblings in foster care are the hardest to find permanent homes for, and the longer children are in foster care, the harder it is to get adopted. HYOSUB SHIN / HYOSUB.SHIN@AJC.COM
Tom and Debbie Crittenden didn’t start the fostering and adoption process expecting to raise two teenagers, but that changed when they met Lexy and Mark, whom they later adopted. They’re shown at their home in Smyrna in January. Teens and siblings in foster care are the hardest to find permanent homes for, and the longer children are in foster care, the harder it is to get adopted. HYOSUB SHIN / HYOSUB.SHIN@AJC.COM

Couple, teen siblings take a chance and become a family

Tom and Debbie Crittenden of Smyrna always knew they wanted children, and about four years ago, they started the process to foster and adopt a child, maybe a sibling group.

The couple decided since they were already in their 40s, they should adopt — not a baby — but young children.

They reached out to Bethany Christian Services, which provides adoption and foster care services, and started the home assessment process, and set a wide range of ages for children — anywhere from 4 to 14.

Meanwhile, Lexy and Mark, both teenagers, were running out of time to be adopted. There was also another issue. They were older — 14 and 16.

But Lauren Mehalso, foster care adoption specialist with Bethany Christian Services, not only saw enough time, but potential for a strong match, and for four lives to become a family.

So Mehalso asked the Crittendens: “We have a sibling group a little outside of your age range. Would you consider?”

The Crittendens said yes.

Tom Crittenden and his son, Mark, set up a table before they play a game of Rummikub at their home in Smyrna on a day in January. HYOSUB SHIN / HYOSUB.SHIN@AJC.COM
Tom Crittenden and his son, Mark, set up a table before they play a game of Rummikub at their home in Smyrna on a day in January. HYOSUB SHIN / HYOSUB.SHIN@AJC.COM

Trying to form a bond

Tom and Debbie Crittenden are easygoing, have a keen sense of humor. They both attended Auburn but met years later through a mutual friend. Atlanta Braves fans, they loved to travel.

Tom Crittenden, who went on to get a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from Georgia Tech, works at a lab in aerospace development there. Debbie is a local actress.

They married in 2005 and tried for years to start a family. They went to fertility specialists, and after multiple miscarriages, the couple started the adoption process. They also took adoption classes through Bethany Christian Services.

The Crittendens met Mark and Lexy in January 2017 at a bowling alley. Nervously waiting for Mark, 16, and Lexy, 14, the Crittendens decided to play air hockey until they arrived.

They made small talk, and got to know each other. Mark’s favorite food is tacos, Lexy’s No. 1 is hamburgers. But they both said pizza was their second-favorite food. Mark is a die-hard wrestling fan. Lexy played tennis and loved to paint.

Mark’s dry wit and Lexy’s social personality seemed compatible with the Crittendens.

“They were the first kids we met and the only kids we met in our journey,” said Tom Crittenden. “We talked about a lot of things, but it didn’t feel forced and I was kind of expecting it might be with teenagers. We walked out of the meeting knowing there was a lot more of getting to know each other to be done, but we felt good about the match.”

But they were still just getting to know each other. They decided to visit each other on the weekends.

The Crittendens were ready to take a leap of faith and move forward. They agreed it made sense for Mark and Lexy to finish the school year and move into the Crittendens’ house over the summer.

But then Mark and Lexy got cold feet — especially Mark.

Both had been living in group homes, attending different schools in North Georgia. A few years earlier, another family expressed interest in adopting Mark and Lexy, but it fell through. It was crushing. They didn’t want to get their hopes up again.

And they were now also only a few years away from graduating from school, and young adulthood.

"I don't even know why we are doing this," Mark said at one of the get-togethers.

Lexy, meanwhile, was warmer to the idea. She wanted to move into the city. She wanted to live in a house, have her own room, and above everything, she wanted two adults invested in her life.

“I told him don’t ruin this for me,” said Lexy.

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Working through doubts

Mehalso knew the window for adoption was closing. And she also knew the stakes were high.

There are about 13,000 children in foster care in Georgia, according to the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS).

Every year, about 700 kids age out of the foster care system in Georgia.

Life becomes a daunting challenge for them. Only 3% to 6% of foster care students in Georgia — which falls within the national average — earn a bachelor’s degree, according to the University of Georgia’s J.W. Fanning Institute. It is estimated 1 in 5 children who age out of foster care immediately become homeless.

Every child in foster care has a different story to tell, but they often face tremendous obstacles.

“Imagine being a ward of the state and feeling like no one is here for me,” said Mehalso. “I’ve worked with several families who adopted teens, and I think the joy of working with teens is this sense of — these people are here for me.”

The Crittendens had a heart-to-heart with Mark and Lexy.

“I said we need to do a big talk. We certainly weren’t going to force it,” said Tom Crittenden.

Mark and Lexy weren’t expecting to be adopted. And there were so many unknowns. The group home, for all its shortcomings, was familiar. Mark and Lexy, who first entered foster care several years earlier because of parental drug abuse, were also concerned about keeping ties to biological family connections.

Tom and Debbie assured Mark and Lexy they could continue seeing a grandfather and other biological family members. They all agreed to be open and work through their emotions.

Mark and Lexy moved into the Crittendens’ five-bedroom home in June 2017. Tom, Debbie, Mark and Lexy participated in a 16-week-long counseling program with Bethany Christian Services to help newly formed family get to know each other better and to help them bond. The adoption was finalized in November 2017.

Tom and Debbie Crittenden are shown with their children, Lexy and Mark, whom they adopted in late 2017, on a 2019 fall break cruise. CONTRIBUTED
Tom and Debbie Crittenden are shown with their children, Lexy and Mark, whom they adopted in late 2017, on a 2019 fall break cruise. CONTRIBUTED

And Lexy and Mark made the most of their last few years of high school. Lexy joined the golf team. She took on several AP and college dual enrollment classes and was a math tutor. She got a job at Chick-fil-A.

Mark, who has always been more reserved, more serious, took an improv class and played basketball.

The family grew closer.

“We have tried not to force the relationship in any way and let it develop the way it’s going to develop,” said Tom Crittenden.

Debbie Crittenden and her daughter, Lexy, are shown on a 2018 spring break trip to the Grand Canyon. CONTRIBUTED
Debbie Crittenden and her daughter, Lexy, are shown on a 2018 spring break trip to the Grand Canyon. CONTRIBUTED

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Looking ahead

On an early January afternoon, Mark and Lexy, Tom and Debbie play a game of Rummikub. It is before the COVID-19 pandemic, and they chat about school activities, college applications.

One concern the Crittendens had was being financially ready for children so close to college years. They were pleased to learn Mark and Lexy only needed to use their own financial information, which would make them eligible for many grants and aid. Because foster youths are considered “independent students,” they don’t have to report any financial information about biological parents, foster parents or guardians.

Tom and Debbie Crittenden talk at home with their children, Lexy and Mark (right), whom they adopted in November 2017. Lexy and Mark are graduating from high school this year and making plans for the next step in their education. HYOSUB SHIN / HYOSUB.SHIN@AJC.COM
Tom and Debbie Crittenden talk at home with their children, Lexy and Mark (right), whom they adopted in November 2017. Lexy and Mark are graduating from high school this year and making plans for the next step in their education. HYOSUB SHIN / HYOSUB.SHIN@AJC.COM

On the January afternoon, when asked about her life with Tom and Debbie, Lexy comments: “Everyone needs love in their life.”

“I don’t know — do I need love in my life?” quips Mark. He continues to make similar remarks questioning whether he needs love and support.

And then, several minutes later, Mark says he knows he can be pessimistic but “I didn’t let it take over my life.”

Debbie and Tom smile.

Mark then looks to Tom and Debbie and says, “They are a bright spot in my life.”

Even though they are about two years apart, Mark and Lexy are both graduating seniors. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced school to go online and many rituals, including prom, to be canceled. The four recently celebrated Lexy’s 18th birthday by staying in a house in Myrtle Beach. They sheltered in place but wanted to celebrate with a change of scenery.

Tom and Debbie Crittenden and their children, Mark and Lexy, are shown on a 2018 spring break trip to the Grand Canyon. CONTRIBUTED
Tom and Debbie Crittenden and their children, Mark and Lexy, are shown on a 2018 spring break trip to the Grand Canyon. CONTRIBUTED

They returned, and now look to the future. Lexy plans to attend Georgia Southern University and wants to become a nurse. Mark will take classes at a community college and expressed an interest in teaching.

One thing won’t change for Lexy and Mark — their home.

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