With grief and joy, grandparents become parents on annual Adoption Day

JACKSON, MI – Madison Modlin loved her son, but heroin had taken hold of her.

She acknowledged the struggles she faced, the stability she could not provide, and wanted the boy only in the care of the people who raised her – her parents Jeff and Julie Modlin.

Six months after she died, at 21 of a heroin overdose on May 14, her mother and father legally adopted 2-year-old Kaycen, with them since he was born in 2015.

“We are really happy that he’s with us,” Jeff Modlin of Parma said Friday, Nov. 18.

It was Adoption Day, an annual celebration of boys and girls, often foster children, finding permanent homes with willing and welcoming families. The atmosphere was festive and light. Jackson County Circuit Judge Richard LaFlamme signed the adoption certificate and allowed Kaycen to bang the gavel.

Kaycen was wearing a red flannel shirt – just like Jeff Modlin, a corrections officer in cowboy boots – and a clown painted a fire-breathing dragon down the side of Kaycen’s face.

But it was somber too, because Kaycen will not know his mother, once an ‘A’ student and a track athlete at Western High School. Beautiful and smart, she had so much potential. She could have been a doctor or a lawyer. She instead fell in with her son’s father, who also struggles with drug use and lost his parental rights.

“That drug is stronger than love,” said Julie Modlin, a postal worker providing another example of the devastation brought on by Jackson’s deadly heroin epidemic.

It can affect anyone of any background with far-reaching effects.

“I don’t know how you can shield your kids from it,” Jeff said.

There is often some sadness in adoptions. Foster children endure hardships, abuse and neglect before they join permanent homes. Some never find a lasting place and the day is meant to encourage parents to open their houses and their hearts, as did Rachel Lanham, a school teacher and Chris Lanham, a pastor.

They adopted their third and fourth foster children, brothers Dakota, 7, and Paul, 8, whose entire first and second grade class at Trinity Lutheran School attended the hearing. The couple, birth parents to four, now have eight sons and daughters.

“It’s crazy at our house, but we love it,” Rachel Lanham said.

This year’s Adoption Day, however, was especially emotional for the Modlins and another family who had lost one child and gained another.

Anne and David Knickerbocker’s son Christopher died Nov. 9, 2013 on a U.S. Army base in Alaska. A specialist in an airborne cavalry unit who had served in Afghanistan, he shot himself, leaving behind his then infant son, Benjamin.

Friday marked the end of a protracted battle waged in Alaska, Texas and Michigan to obtain and keep custody of 4-year-old “Benny,” whose mother was living on the base with Christopher.

Anne and David, who live in Parma, were driven by their concern and love for their grandson. Anne has a file as wide as she can stretch her arms of paperwork and documentation. “And it ends with this,” she said, waving the adoption certificate.

Accompanying the couple were their other sons, Patrick, 27, and Will, 23, and several supportive family members and friends.

“You are a far better woman than I am to take on a 4-year-old at 59 years old,” Jan Wilcox told Anne. Wilcox’s son was a close to Christopher. The two women helped each other as Anne handled her grief and Wilcox battled cancer.

Never has Anne wavered, Wilcox said. When someone speaks of Anne with astonishment, Anne says Benny is her blood. He is her family. “And you help when things are dire,” Wilcox said.

Benny is so loved, another friend, Becky Raut, told LaFlamme. “He’s been in her heart since day one and he will continue to be in all our hearts.”

To specially commemorate Benny’s adoption, Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Stephen Markman, whose son went to Hillsdale College with Patrick, came to the hearing. He also aided the family through the process.

And now, the Knickerbockers have Benny with all the present joy and without the former fear of losing him. Friday, he stuck out his tongue and flashed a toothy smile for the many cameras.

He is happy, especially with Thomas the Tank Engine. “Usually building train sets that quickly get dismantled,” Patrick said of the time he spends with his now brother.

The Modlins too have help from their older children. They have a daughter, Riley, 17, and a 26-year-old son Pierce, who has two children of his own.

It seems clear Jeff and Julie adore Kaycen, popping balloon animals at the post-adoption reception.

He is healthy and smart. He helps his dad tend to the horses on their property and enjoys “Toy Story.” He acts and looks like his mother, whose pictures the familiy displays.

At some point, Jeff and Julie will have to explain to him, and it will be likely be difficult, and complicated.

Learning of Kaycen’s impending birth was scary and terrifying. Keeping him away from their daughter while she tried and failed to beat heroin was hard.

This is all bittersweet. There is some regret. “We were too trusting,” Jeff said.

In their 40s, with adult or nearly adult children, they are now starting at the beginning. The aim is clear – and, at its core, simple.

They want to be Kaycen’s mom and dad, just like Madison would have liked them to be.

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