November is the time when we celebrate families, mostly through the joys and light-heartedness of the holiday season. However, this month takes on a special meaning for parents and children who redefine what it means to be family.
We spoke with two families who shared their foster-to-adoption stories. Despite all the challenges of the past year and half, and even before the pandemic, these families fought a different battle — to help their adopted children thrive, making this and every month a time to celebrate being home.
Cody and Jessica Swiger
Cody and Jessica Swiger always knew they would foster and adopt someday. It was just a matter of when.
Jessica Swiger, who was adopted at a few months old and has a great relationship with her parents, says it was her heart and passion and desire to foster and adopt, as she wanted to provide a safe place for foster children.
For Cody Swiger, it felt ingrained to help. During his childhood, he experienced his family’s open door policy for people who needed a place to stay.
After two children and a bigger house, the couple decided it was time to start their fostering journey and get licensed through Summit County Children’s Services.
There is a need, and with the pandemic, the numbers of children who need homes is increasing.
Ann Ream, department director of community relations and foster care for Summit County Children Services, says there are currently 800 children in custody in Summit County.
Jessica and Cody advise prospective foster parents to go to an informational session to see what it’s all about and start having conversations.
In 2019, they received a call about two teenage sisters who needed placement and then were later contacted about their little sister.
The couple didn’t mind teenagers, and Jessica Swiger says they knew it was a harder-to-place age group, especially sibling groups.
“We have a special place in our hearts for teenagers.”
It’s not without its challenges, and Jessica Swiger described it as chaotic and a lot of adjustment.
“Lots of communication and working with them through that trauma,” she says, about helping the girls adjust to their new home.
“[We had to] build a relationship with them and that trust,” Cody Swiger adds. “We are setting them up for success.”
Jessica Swiger says while it can be a learning curve, you are deeply changing their whole lives by making sure they are doing activities such as school, etc. Just attending to those basics is putting them in an environment where they can thrive.
The family of seven says they have a lot of community support, including from their church, support groups and family members.
The girls were adopted in 2021.
We were happy they were staying forever, but also felt grief for a family being broken, Jessica Swiger says.
“Every child deserves to have a home where they are loved, know where the next meal is coming from, and feel safe,” she says. “We want the teenagers to have their teenage years. It’s a privilege and honor to love them. To see them thriving, talking about college, it’s worth all the hardship in the beginning.”
Leslie and Donald Miller
Foster parents Leslie and Donald Miller received a call in 2018 about a 9-month-old child who needed placement.
“She was beautiful,” Leslie Miller says of Maliyah, who came to their home in April 2018. This wasn’t the first time for the couple, who had been welcoming foster children in their lives for the past four years.
She says the road to adoption varies — and it’s not a quick process.
“You have countless monthly visits by social workers, go to classes, someone comes to your home, does a physical and social evaluation,” she says. “We had to fill out financial paperwork to prove we were financially capable of taking foster children, we had to have our home inspected by the fire marshal. It’s a very long and tedious process. You have to be dedicated to it.”
“When you bring a child into your home, you are not caring just for basic needs, but you are providing love and support,” she adds about fostering. “You love them as long as you have them.”
For the Millers, Maliyah was their seventh placement and Michael, her cousin, was their eighth from Cuyahoga County Division of Children and Family Services.
“We had only really ever wanted one child, but since we had an extra bedroom and it was Maliyah’s aunt’s child, they asked if we would be interested in fostering Michael,” Leslie Miller says. “We tried to keep the family together. Family is very important, we always wanted our children to know where they came from and to know family members.”
She advises people to be their own advocates, because these are children who need things, whether medical or financial. Whether you need answers to questions, or to attend a court date, you need to be on top of it.
Leslie Miller says Maliyah and Michael are only one year and six days apart, so with their ages so similar, they are best buddies. However, it’s not always easy.
“One child is ending a [developmental] stage, and the other is beginning,” she says.
Like most other families, Leslie Miller, a respiratory therapist and her husband, Donald, a U.S. Navy veteran who served in the First Gulf War, had their share of difficulties during the pandemic. They experienced job loss and daycare closures, as well as the stress of waiting to adopt Maliyah and Michael as courts closed and dates were rescheduled.
“We got through it with just a lot of patience and tolerance,” Leslie Miller says.
Donald Miller advises to connect with other foster and adoptive families for support. “Some of our best friends were foster parents.”
Maliyah and Michael were adopted in 2020 and 2021, respectively, by the Millers. Leslie says the couple was “over the moon.”
“We love giving them something they wouldn’t have had,” Donald says. “We are big believers, it’s God’s will that we have these kids.”
The family has moved into a new home in Parma and adopted a family dog.
“It’s an incredibly joyful experience,” Leslie Miller says. “Once we started this process, I wasn’t sure we would end up with one child, let alone two.”