They are your classic stair-step kids. Three brothers. Preschoolers linked by first names and last, and a whole lot more.
Jimitrius, the oldest, is the philosopher and peacemaker of the group.
Jimarkus, a year younger, is a wall-to-wall competitor, racing all the time, to the bath, the closet, the school bus, you name it.
Jimariyo, a year younger, has a confident swagger, thinks he’s cute. Easily bored, he loves taking things apart to see how they work.
Together they have the adrenaline of an army. On this day in early 2011, they march, flop, run and bounce through a meandering house in a Southwest Atlanta neighborhood.
Pam and Michael Majette, the adults on hand, are new to having kids around. They don’t quite know what to do with them. Despite their life experiences, they’re at a loss.
A former engineer, Pam has framed citations hanging throughout the house lauding her decades of community service. For 20 years, she volunteered as a probation officer in Cobb County. She raises money to fight sex trafficking. She’s seen some rough stuff.
Michael has been a MARTA bus operator for 20 years. He’s active in the transit union. A former truck driver, he’s been through every state in the Lower 48, and around the block more than a few times.
But nothing has prepared them for this. They can’t seem to calm these kids down. Pam attributes the boys’ wildness to nervous energy, suddenly having all the space of a 4,300-square-foot house as their playground.
Michael’s take? They are off the chain.
It’s not until that night, when they go upstairs for a welcoming prayer in the boys’ bedroom, that the bantam bombardment subsides. Sitting on the bed, the Majettes, a pair of late-in-life apprentice parents, do their best to establish trust. Praying helps.
Says Michael: “They didn’t come with no instructions.”
Parenthood not to be
There is no logical way they should be together. The only child of a Baptist minister and a beautician, Michael was born in Ahoskie and raised in nearby Rich Square on the Inner Banks of northeast North Carolina. When Michael was 7, his dad died of kidney failure at age 34. Michael’s mom raised him alone in a mobile home. He attended college at North Carolina A&T, but left early to earn money hauling furniture around the country.
Pam is a native Atlantan, a “Grady baby” with two brothers and two sisters reared in the neighborhood where she still lives. She got her volunteer gene from her mom and her work ethic from her dad, who toiled mainly for the National Library Bindery Co. but also ran a yard business and moving service.
She went from Southwest Atlanta High School to the University of Tennessee on scholarship, worked as a systems equipment engineer for AT&T/Lucent Technologies in Atlanta, and got her master’s degree from Brenau University in Gainesville. The six-figure salary followed.
The couple met through friends over the telephone. It was love at first phone call. They dated over the phone, too, their conversations sometimes lasting through the night. After more than four months, with Michael constantly on the road ferrying couches and cabinets, they still had not met in person. No pictures, nothing.
“We felt like we knew each other. We just didn’t know what the other one looked like,” Pam says. “We started off as friends. That has been our saving grace through this whole thing.”
They finally met in person when Michael was invited to a ceremony where Pam received a humanitarian award from the Georgia Secretary of State. They were married 18 months later in 1991.
The newlyweds had a plan. After four years, they would start a family. But plans have a way of changing, a stubborn theme for the Majettes.
After two miscarriages, it seemed parenthood wasn’t in the cards.
One day you look up and you’re in your mid-50s. Life is full.
If you’re Michael, you play ALTA tennis. You golf and shoot hoops in work leagues. You ride your Harley-Davidson motorcycle, fraternize as a 33rd degree Mason, referee high school football and basketball games, play pool in the basement playroom where the Lakers banner hangs. Everybody knows you by your nickname: “Magic.”
If you’re Pam, volunteer work is your oxygen, whether it’s the environment, the fight against sex trafficking, political fundraisers, a businesswomen’s organization or Camp Village, a nonprofit for children. You belong to the Order of the Eastern Star. You clean houses as a sideline business, mostly on weekends. You like the work, and the extra money is nice, especially when you’re laid off from your corporate job in 2009 after 25 years.
Together you call yourselves “community people.” You emcee at friends’ weddings and events. You host parties at your house with the lion-statue motif, mirrored powder room, three bars (they came with the house), three pianos and indoor barbecue pit. You bought the place low at auction, managing to keep your previous home around the corner as a rental property.
In a sense, you’re in no-kids nirvana. If you’re not already living on Easy Street, you don’t need GPS to find it. But instead of downshifting to your retirement years, you’re suddenly lurched into unfamiliar territory. And here come the inhabitants. Three of them. Yelling at the top of their lungs.
Period of adjustment
Friends had suggested the Majettes become foster parents before, but Michael was apprehensive.
“I was slow with that. I said, ‘Man, I don’t want to be no foster parent: Raise a child, they leave you and I’m hurt and mad and all this kind of stuff.’ But I thought about it and prayed about it. And I told Pam, well OK, let’s go see what it’s about.”
What it was about, they had not a clue.
They started out by filling in for full-time foster parents on weekends and vacations; as “respite” parents, they were fully approved foster parents who filled in temporarily for others.
That’s how they first met the boys, pulling occasional weekend duty. Soon after, the full-time fosters had their own conflict, a family crisis. Could the Majettes take over?
The kids arrived in a hurry: 3, 4 and 5 years old. And they immediately turned the Majettes’ lives upside down with their manic rough-housing.
Later that first night, Pam checked on the boys in their bedroom expecting to find them asleep.
What she saw stopped her cold. To her horror, she discovered them engaged in activities inappropriate to boys their age.
“I’m like, ‘What’s going on!’” Pam recalled. “I asked the case worker if there had been abuse and she denied it. And then I called the previous foster parent and she told me the story.”
Pam was devastated. She had dealt with her share of seamy situations during her probation-officer days. She had reached the point where she didn’t want to deal with abused clients anymore. It was too emotional for her. Too upsetting.
It was also too late.
Despite the red flags of questionable behavior, the couple were smitten with the boys. They loved them, and the boys loved them back.
It was on the boys’ third night as full-time fosters when the Majettes knew they were on to something. Like many family memories, this one formed in the kitchen. Michael and Pam were cleaning up, trying to figure out what to do next with the kids. That’s when Jimitrius, who goes by JT, appears and asks a question. “My brothers and I would like to know if we can call you ‘Mommy’ and ‘Daddy.’”
It was a special moment for the couple. A scary one, too, Michael added, “because we didn’t know what the future would hold.”
As the new foster family bonded, the dark days of the boys’ early lives manifested itself in shocking ways: pimp-world cursing, acting-out. Night terrors and sleepwalking were a constant, almost every night for a year.
As Pam tells it — the way she was told — the brothers had been abused by a family friend. In 2010, when they were 2, 3 and 4, the boys were taken into state custody. The brothers were on their second set of foster parents when the Majettes met them a year later.
Beyond the special challenges the children brought to their family, Michael and Pam struggled to reconcile their different parenting styles.
Pam claimed she and Michael never had an argument until the boys arrived. She’s the disciplinarian, particularly when it comes to their diet and restricting sugar, for obvious, bouncing-off-the-wall reasons.
Michael grew up an only child and tends to want to be the kids’ friend. So one afternoon when a sick-in-bed Pam came downstairs to find Dad and boys feasting on Hostess Cupcakes, it didn’t go well.
Pam took classes to learn relaxation techniques to help the boys sleep. Anything to calm them down.
There were times, Michael said, when he wanted to “put them in a FedEx box and send them back.”
Instead of sleeping in one room, the boys were separated, the blessing of a four-bedroom house. Alarms were installed by each door to alert Pam and Michael of a sleepwalker or unscheduled playtime.
So what really happened to the boys?
“You name it. From A to Z, that’s what happened,” Michael said. “Mentally and physically abused, the whole works. They were left to raise themselves. They’re like grown men to be so young. So when I say, ‘Anything from A to Z,’ what goes through your mind? What you just thought happened? Yes, it did.”
When they became full-time foster parents, Pam and Michael insisted on proper therapy for the boys. All three were soon diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome. Jimitrius was found to have sickle-cell anemia.
After a year, things settled down. The nightmares subsided. The boys were happy at their elementary school. Full-time foster parenthood may have appeared out of nowhere for the Majettes, but it began to feel good. They could handle it.
Then the system threw another curveball. The birth mother’s parental rights had been terminated in 2013 and her appeal denied. But now the state said the boys may have to be split up to facilitate their move out of state care.
That’s when the Majettes considered something they never considered before: Adoption.
Doubts and delays
Dozens of cars line the street off Cascade Road on a cold, rainy night in December 2013. A visitor stands on the columned porch of a three-story brick Colonial, banging on the door as loud as he can. That’s what the handwritten note above the doorbell instructs: “Please knock hard!!!” It feels like a brash thing to do, considering this is a Christmas party.
The scene inside is a joyfully coordinated one, the women all dressed holiday style, most of them members of the local chapter of the National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women’s Club. (Pam is president.) Some wear red dresses, some red blouses, some red jackets. The men mostly wear business suits, except for one who stands out — the host. Our emcee.
Michael Majette coasts through the room, past the sunken bar with the Michelob tap, wearing a tan guayabera and matching slacks. When he’s not navigating the mingling crowd, he’s busy fine-tuning a massive, multi-shelved, sonic city of a sound system and the videos playing on an 84-inch TV screen.
Suddenly, one of the year’s biggest hits begins to blare. Most of the women dust off their decorum and rise up, as if on cue, to line dance to “Blurred Lines”:
Go ahead, get at me
Everybody get up
Michael nods with approval as the festivities crystallize in this Fezziwig-meets-Pharrell moment.
With perhaps 50 people celebrating, it’s a small holiday affair by Majette standards, but a whole new world for the three pajama-clad boys on the stairs peeking down at the excitement.
By March 2014, the boys have been with the Majettes for three years. Things are moving gradually toward adoption. Until they stop.
Pam has a disturbing late-night encounter with one of the boys that shakes her world. It puts the brakes on everything.
She’s stunned and flooded with doubts and fears. Adoption? Not so fast.
She enters therapy, too.
Other concerns give the Majettes pause. With adoption comes the loss of state support — $14 a day for each child. Help with future therapist bills is in question, too.
“There are times,” Michael says, “when you feel you don’t even know these kids, but then they keep pulling you in. It’s exciting and exhausting, wondering which way it’s going to go. Your mind and heart are with the kids, but everything has to fall in place.”
More questions, more doubts.
Then Michael’s old resolve appears and he sounds like any proud Dad talking about his kids — Jimariyo’s golf swing, Jimarkus’ love for running, Jimitrius’ skill for drawing. The boys have rounded into regular family members. They’ve glued the extended clan even tighter.
Pam and Michael deal with the highs and lows as best they can. “You try to show them a home of love and what that’s like,” Michael says.
A moment later, he turns reflective. “We didn’t know it at the time, but you could say it’s why we got this big house, with all this space. We had no idea of someday having three boys. If someone had told us 10 years ago that this would happen, there’s no way we would have believed them.”
One thing’s for sure: If and when the boys’ adoption is final, their names will change. Yes, they will become Majettes. But their first names will change as well.
JT wants to be named after his new dad. Michael smiles about that request. He turns quiet and repeats a favorite phrase: “I believe people are placed in your life for a reason and a season.”
A gift from God
Still, the surprises keep coming.
As Pam continues to work through her issues over the boys’ inappropriate behavior, she presses DFCS for more information about the boys’ past. She eventually tracks down the boys’ first caseworker who tells her that their abuser was an adolescent relative.
A DFCS foster care director would not comment on the Majettes’ case, but she says the agency is plagued by heavy turnover in caseworkers — 25 percent to 30 percent leave each year. It contributes to information falling between the cracks and to kids sometimes staying in the system longer.
As summer 2014 rolls around, DFCS is eager to complete the adoption process by its annual “Adoption Day” event in November.
Pam still wrestles with her uncertainty, relying on faith to get her through.
The Majettes belong to West End Seventh-Day Adventist —the church where Pam grew up. During therapy, she prays regularly with her counselor, “a Christian woman.”
A breakthrough comes one day when the counselor shares a passage from Ephesians. The King James version reads: For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.
“The counselor,” Pam said, “brought to my attention that the thing that happened is not about (the boy). It’s spiritual warfare. The devil is here to kill, steal and destroy. I really feel that the family unit is so important that he’s trying to destroy us. Why else would that happen at that point, when everything was going so well?”
The spiritual connection is underscored a little later during a post-dinner cleanup when Jimitrius turns to Pam and says, “Mommy, my brothers and I are angels. We’re a gift from God to you and Daddy to raise us.”
Family made whole
Three boys tumble out of a black SUV one damp morning last month, raring to go in their dark blue and gray suits, even though they are at juvenile court, not some amusement park. They are now 6, 7 and 8.
Inside the lobby, they meet about 20 friends and family members waiting to file through metal detectors and bag check. The kids are amped up, scurrying around, waiting for the elevator. Patience is not their virtue this morning.
Michael corrals them with a few clipped commands and lines them up against the wall drill sergeant-like to perform some last-minute necktie maintenance. A few serious reminders are issued, as well. These are met by three sets of wide, blinking eyes.
On the fourth floor, a smiling, silver-haired man in a long black robe holds the door open for the entourage, many dressed in their Sunday finest. He could easily be a country minister welcoming folks to church. In this case, he’s the judge overseeing the Majettes’ request to adopt the boys.
It’s the Monday after Christmas and Juvenile Court Judge Bradley J. Boyd is about to begin the final hearing in the Majettes’ petition.
A clerk swears in Pam and Michael and goes through a formal litany of questions.
You’re both residents of Georgia?
You didn’t bring these boys from another state to adopt?
You’re both over 25 years of age?
At this, Michael can’t resist a little joke: “Well, since I’m under oath, I cannot lie, yes, I’m that old.”
The judge looks up from the bench: “You think you’re old now ... .”
Knowing smiles and laughter all around. Everyone’s in a good mood.
With a swipe of a pen, the judge approves the adoption.
“It’s the best thing that could happen to them,” Judge Boyd tells the Majettes. “The boys have come a long way. What you’re doing for the whole community is just wonderful. Were it not for folks like you to step up, we would be looking at a much different kind of future for them.”
The state of Georgia, with about 9,500 kids in its care, now has three fewer wards.
Pam reads out the boys’ new names. Their matching initials — MVM — stand for something more, she says. Most Valuable Men.
She asks the gathered friends and family to introduce themselves. There’s a “grandmother.” A “sister.” A “Godmom.” The boys’ therapist. “Godbrother” comes the description from a young man in military fatigues. He was also adopted, at the age of 2. He’s just completed basic training in the U.S. Army.
The boys are preoccupied with a basket of stuffed animals and toys the judge has given them. Asked how he feels, the oldest breaks into his “happy dance.” The youngest brother mimics him.
Leaving the courtroom, Michael searches for some kind of summation. “Now it’s in the books. I forget the Biblical term, but now it is written.”
And so the Majettes’ grand detour in life — an excursion full of unexpected turns in the road, one with no plan, no timetable and no familiar landmarks — has come to an end. Even as it’s just begun.
HOW WE GOT THE STORY
As moderator of the Atlanta Forward Transportation opinion page, editor Tom Sabulis met Michael Majette while reporting on MARTA bus operators. While interviewing Michael at his home in fall 2013, Sabulis learned about Michael and Pam’s experience as foster parents and met the three boys who would become their adopted sons. For more than a year he followed the ups and downs of their adoption process. Aside from making multiple visits to the Majette home, including a memorable Christmas party, and trips to court, Sabulis has ridden the #13 bus route with Michael more times than he can remember. Some information has been withheld to protect the boys’ privacy, but it doesn’t detract from this revealing story about compassion, perseverance and love.
Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor
About the reporter
Tom Sabulis, an opinion page editor, celebrated his 24th year at the AJC this week. A native of New York and a graduate of Northeastern University, he worked as an arts and features editor at the AJC for more than 15 years before moving to the Atlanta Forward opinion section. He and his wife, Jill, have two grown children. They live in Atlanta.
About the photographer
Bob Andres joined the AJC in 1998. Born in San Francisco, he has held photography and photo editing positions in California, Florida and Georgia. A journalism graduate of San Francisco State University, Andres has also worked as the AJC’s metro photo editor, sports photo editor and has taught photojournalism at UGA and Cal State Hayward.
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Next week: A love story, a tragic accident and the birth of a band on the rise.