Location: Conway, Arkansas
Brian Stewart jokes that he and his wife, Tiffny, have an arranged marriage. They both grew up in rural Arkansas and met in the fourth grade. When they were in fifth grade, Tiffny’s mother pointed Brian out to Tiffny and told her, “That boy is nice. You should like him.” Tiffny obliged. Brian and Tiffny began dating at age fifteen and have never looked back. They dated all through high school and college, even though they attended different schools. They got married in 1993, before their junior year of college and just celebrated their twenty-sixth anniversary.
They both wanted kids but they waited eleven years before having their first child. Their jobs kept them on the go, both on a daily basis and with relocations, and they did not feel financially ready to start a family. “We were just enjoying being married,” Brian says. It is ironic, given how young they were when they got married, that they got a late start with having kids. Their daughter Sydney was born in 2004 and their son Zachary was born in 2006. In 2009, Brian and Tiffny began thinking about having a third child, but Brian’s job was downsized and they put their plans on hold. By the time he found a new job six months later, they decided they were good with their two children. “We were in a nice groove,” Brian says.
That changed when a conversation at their church made them rethink how they could best live the teachings of the Bible. “We talked about taking care of widows and orphans,” Brian says, “but we wondered what we were actually doing on that front.” Tiffny, who had initially opposed adoption when Brian had first brought it up, started to see it as something she and Brian could do to do their part in helping those less fortunate. They began researching foster care and adoption and learned that there would be no more children in foster care if every church in the United States adopted one child. They also learned that Arkansas had a lot of kids in foster care. “We knew that biblically, this is what we were supposed to be doing,” Brian says.
“We felt financially blessed,” Brian says. “So we really thought about how could have the most impact.” They learned that newborns are the most likely to be adopted, but older children, especially those with disabilities and siblings who should not be separated, are the hardest to place in foster care and adoption. Brian and Tiffny decided that they would take on whatever was needed, with no restrictions other than that they wanted the children to be younger than their own (who were 7 and 9 at the time) and their two-story house ruled out some disabilities that required bedrooms on the first floor.
They began the extensive training that is required of all prospective foster parents and filled out forms indicating their parameters for whom they would be willing to take into their home and family. “We were pretty much open to anything as long as our home could accommodate it,” Brian says. They would occasionally get a call from a case worker and they would talk over each possibility, which felt bizarre but necessary. On one occasion they were told there were threebrothers needing a home who were all right around age seven, the same age as their son Zachary. “We turned that down,” Brian says, “because that would have meant having four boys all right around seven years old under one roof.” Another time they turned down siblings who were older than their children because they did not want to disrupt the birth order that had already been established. There was going to be enough upheaval and disruption as it was.
On a Thursday in September 2014 they got a call about a brother and sister who were on the foster to adopt track. Amelia was three years old and her parental rights had been terminated. The parental rights for her half-brother, Jude, a one-year old, had not yet been terminated. The situation was also complicated because the foster family who had been caring for them wanted to adopt them but the adoption had fallen through at the last minute due to a complication with the foster mother’s health. The Stewarts were told they had until Monday to make a decision. They were also told that the process to adopt the children, already agonizingly slow and complicated, was hindered by the additional legal issues of possibly last-minute appeals by extended family members to adopt the children.
Brian and Tiffny spent the weekend talking it through and praying about it. The caseworker explained that Amelia had already been in eight different homes in her short lifetime. She had begun developing behavior problems and the case worker feared that she was on her way to developing reactive attachment disorder without immediate interventions. “The case worker told us that honestly, she just thought she needed good boundaries and someone to love on her,” Brian says.
On Monday, Brian and Tiffny called to say they would do it. On Tuesday, they drove an hour and a half, signed severalpieces of paper, and were given the children to take home, along with some car seats and bags of toys and clothes. Even though they had been through a screening and training process prior to receiving the placement call, the minimal protocol still struck Brian as surreal. “Two human lives were exchanged with a few signed sheets of paper,” he says.
The adjustment was difficult on everyone. They took a lifestyle and a family unit that was running really smoothly and, as Brian says, “threw a big wrench in it.” On the first morning, Sydney and Zachary woke up to find Amelia and Jude sitting on their stools at the kitchen counter. “I ran right out and bought four new matching stools,” Brian says. Not all of the fixes were that easy. Amelia was prone to severe temper tantrums and both children had a hard time adapting to new boundaries and attention levels. Even without the behavioral problems, adding two toddlers to the family made for a lot of difficult adjustments. “The first year was brutal,” Brian says. “Our peaceful and easy path was massively disrupted.”
He and Tiffny had talked to Sydney and Zachary about the transition and the adoption in general. “We were really open and honest with our kids,” Brian says. “We told them it was okay if they didn’t always like it and that it was hard on us too.” Brian is convinced that was the key to their successful melding into the family unit they have today. “We gave everyone permission – including ourselves – to not be okay with it.” They always talked through whatever was going on that was challenging or frustrating, and Tiffny did a lot of research and reading to find expert guidance and advice on coping mechanisms.
One year from the time the children entered the Stewart home, the adoption was finalized. No one ever thinks about the fact that Amelia and Jude are adopted. They are all one family unit, and Brian says he and Tiffny and the older kids sometimes wonder what they did before Amelia and Jude joined the family.
Brian shares their experience with others whenever anyone asks how many children he has or comments on how the older kids look like him and the younger kids look like Tiffny, and then he shares that they are actually adopted. And almost everyone with whom he shares his fostering and adoption story responds that they, too, have thought about fostering or adoption. Brian says that if it has ever crossed your mind, go for it. “You don’t have to go all in,” he says. “There are any number of ways you can help.” Some states need respite fosters, who can help out existing foster families on a short-term basis to give them a break. Others have stores where you can donate goods for foster families to use (since often foster kids arrive with very few possessions) or accept other kinds of donations. The point is to get off the sidelines and do something because the need is definitely there. Even though there were moments when Brian and Tiffny wondered what on earth they had done and why they had taken this on (“I tell people if you don’t know Christ,” Brian says, “you will after you do this!”) they are so glad they heeded the calling. And I suspect Amelia and Jude are pretty darn glad about that too.