ENID, Okla. — On any given day in America there are more than 400,000 children in foster care and more than 100,000 available and waiting for adoptive families, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Despite these statistics less than five percent of American families adopt, leaving a shortage of options for children in state custody who can’t go back to their birth families.
There remain more than 600 children in Oklahoma who cannot return to their birth families, and who are eligible and waiting for adoption.
Even fewer families take on adoption and fostering at the level of Bob and Gayla.
The couple have five biological children of their own, ranging in age from 30 to 14. And, thanks to adoptions through the Oklahoma Department of Human Services (DHS), they have grown their family with three siblings, ages 5, 3 and 2.
‘We weren’t done yet’
Taking in three young children after raising five into their teens and adulthood would be overwhelming for many families.
Bob and Gayla said bringing new children into their home was a calling based in their faith.
“It didn’t feel like it was a lot to take on,” Bob said. “We weren’t done yet. God put it on our hearts that we weren’t done yet. We have big hearts and a big home.”
Bob and Gayla started their path to adoption like many families — as foster parents.
Bob said it’s a common misconception that being certified to foster or adopt is a long, burdensome process.
“I think people think it’s hard to do or hard to get into the system, but it’s really not,” Bob said. “It’s lengthy, but it’s one of those things you want to be thorough, and we were well-prepared for that in the DHS class we went through. For us, we’d always want it to go faster, but we understood why it was so thorough.”
Gayla said it took about three months for the family to go through the training, background checks and certification. And, she said, they never intended to adopt when they started out fostering.
“Adoption wasn’t why we got into fostering,” Gayla said. “We just knew there was a need, and we allowed God to fill our home.”
Since Bob and Gayla started fostering seven years ago, they estimate they’ve had more than 30 children temporarily call their house a home.
Some of the children have stayed as briefly as one night. Others have stayed as long as six months, fully integrating into the family before moving on, either back to their biological family, to adoption or another foster family.
No matter how long the children have stayed, Gayla said they all have claimed a permanent place in her and Bob’s hearts.
“The love is pretty immediate,” she said, “even with the ones you don’t keep very long.”
‘It’s never easy’
Bob said that impermanent nature of fostering is a common deterrent to families, who fear they will grow a connection with the children and then “have to give them up.”
“People say ‘I could never do that, because I could never give them back,’” Bob said. “It’s never easy, but we kind of knew the rules of engagement when we began this.”
He said foster families are given the opportunity to make a lasting impact on children in tough situations, simply by loving them and letting them live a normal, healthy family life — even if only for a short time.
“You give them love, kindness and tenderness while you can,” Bob said. “You just give them love and happiness so they can experience that while they’re with you, before they move on.”
Two years after they started fostering they were introduced to Kennedy, now 5 years old. She came to their home as an infant foster child.
When it was determined Kennedy could not return to her birth family, DHS approached Bob and Gayla with an opportunity that has changed their lives.
“They asked us if we were interested in adopting her, and it was ‘Absolutely yes,’” Gayla said. “There was no doubt in our mind.”
Nineteen months later, Kennedy’s sister Castun also was placed as an infant in foster care with Bob and Gayla, and 11 months after that the girls were joined by their brother Kannon — also placed as an infant.
Eventually the two younger children became available for adoption and permanently joined their older sister in Bob and Gayla’s family.
Gayla said the move from fostering to adoption did not require much additional paperwork with DHS.
“Once we had done all the plan for fostering, there really wasn’t much more,” Gayla said.
As for the decision to adopt the three children, Gayla said that was easy.
“Loving the children — that’s what did it,” she said.
‘The rewards of it all are so much more’
While the decision was easy for Bob and Gayla, they said families do need to approach adoption with a commitment to the children and their care.
“You have to open up your heart completely when you do this,” Gayla said. “They’re broken, they’re in need and we have to be vulnerable and open ourselves up.”
It’s a process that has to involve everyone in the family, Bob added.
“It has to be a family decision,” Bob said. “The truth of it is, there’s going to be disruption, so you have to have buy-in from your entire family.”
Bob said their entire family has been involved, and it has grown considerably as a result.
Grandchildren now are playmates with their adopted aunts and uncle. Gayla, who teaches pre-kindergarten, has the unique experience of having her granddaughter and adopted daughter in the same class.
A family gathering at their house now draws 18 to 20 people, depending on how many foster children are in the home at the time.
Gayla said having all of the children, grandchildren, foster and adopted children home at the same time is her greatest reward.
“Nothing makes me happier than seeing all the cars in the driveway,” she said.
Bob said taking care of all the kids requires work and attention, but he and Gayla get back more than they’ve given the children.
“The rewards of it all are so much more than the time and effort you put into it,” he said.
He urged families considering adoption to contact DHS, to learn about the process and open their homes and hearts to children awaiting adoption or foster care.
“There’s such a need,” Bob said. “There are not enough families with a desire for the kids that are out there, unfortunately.”
“It just breaks your heart,” Gayla added, “that there are so many kids who don’t get to celebrate Christmas and have summer breaks as part of a family.”
She said adoptive families, like all families, will face challenges. But, she said, there’s always support to get through those challenges.
“It’s not all easy,” she said, “but when God calls you to do something like this, and you jump in, he equips you with what you need.”