Amy and Mark Pemberton have always had a heart for fostering. But for many years in their marriage and parenting journey, the timing just wasn’t right.
“We had always wanted to foster, but we never had the room,” said Amy, who has two biological daughters. “We barely had room for the two girls we had.”
In 2006, the couple bought a house on 17 acres of land and their eldest daughter was off to college. It was time. By October of that year, they had undergone the required application, background check, home study and training and had signed a contract with the Oklahoma Department of Human Services to be foster parents. Within 24 hours, Amy got a phone call about a potential placement. In fact, there were three placements.
“We just want one; we’re so new to this,” Amy said of her reaction to the call. “I asked which child needed the placement the worst, and they told me the baby because babies don’t do well in shelters.”
Within a few hours, the baby boy was brought to the Pemberton’s home. It was his eighth placement in his short 20 months of life.
“He was in terrible shape,” Amy said of the tiny boy whose only possession was the 3-month-size onesie he had on. “His tummy was distended. He didn't talk, walk or eat solid food.”
Still, Amy felt an unexpected instant connection with her first foster child.
“The moment I laid eyes on him I knew he was supposed to be mine,” she said.
Now a loving 11-year-old boy whose proud mom calls him a whiz at math, Duncan’s life with the Pembertons began tumultuously. Because he wasn’t used to being held and had spent most of his young life in a playpen, he had an especially hard time attaching to his foster parents.
“He would cry and have fits of rage for hours,” Amy said. “Your instinct is to grab him up and love him, but that wasn’t his thing.”
Far different from the parenting methods they’d used with their biological girls, Amy and Mark resorted to placing Duncan in a soft bean bag chair when his rage grew out of control, both keeping him from hurting himself and offering him the only comfort he knew how to accept. After five months of this repeated behavior, a flip switched.
“He was having a meltdown, I put him in the chair,” Amy said. “But then he walked to me and held his hands out to be picked up. Since that moment, he’s never had another fit of rage. He had figured out he was okay here.”
Shortly after Duncan’s major breakthrough with his foster parents, Amy got a call that the Oklahoma Department of Human Services (OKDHS) was going to move him to another home. Duncan’s case plan had changed from reunification with his biological family to becoming legally free and available for adoption. Because the Pembertons were strictly certified as foster parents, OKDHS wanted to move Duncan to a potential forever home. The Pembertons had begun their fostering journey with no intention of adopting, but Duncan changed their hearts.
“We knew he wouldn’t survive another move,” Amy said.
Duncan’s fate was sealed as Amy and Mark began the process of becoming his adoptive parents.
Last year saw more than 2,100 adoptions finalized through OKDHS in Oklahoma. As of April 1, there were nearly 2,000 children in trial adoption, in various stages of the adoption process or available for adoption. More than 400 of those children do not yet have an adoptive home identified. Carlene Harpe, region 3 adoption field manager for OKDHS, is responsible for supervising staff as they prepare children to move into permanent placements through adoption.
“The most challenging part of my job is the recruitment of adoptive and foster families that can meet the needs of the children in DHS care,” said Harpe.
Like the Pembertons, Harpe said it’s very common for foster parents to decide they want to also be adoptive parents once a child becomes legally free. Ninety percent of the children who are placed for adoption are placed with foster families, which can be traditional, kinship or relative foster care.
“The agency converts the home to be an adoptive resource, and the adoption specialist works with the family to finalize the adoption,” Harpe said. “In Oklahoma, we have only one study for both foster care and adoption, so families only go through the process one time.”
An addendum must be made to the original home study, and the foster care and adoption departments work together to make sure all paperwork is completed and current. While it sounds simple enough, Amy quickly determined that she had to be the primary advocate to keep the case moving. She never assumed the various departments were updating or speaking with each other, and instead took matters into her own hands to ensure everyone was apprised of the latest details and had what they needed to proceed.
“It’s such an overworked system, and communication can break down relatively easily,” said Amy of DHS. “You follow up everything with emails.”
Amy never missed a court hearing, and when confusion in the courtroom overran one such
appearance, she requested a guardian ad litem to guarantee an informed legal mind was working directly for them.
“It was an extra set of eyes on the case,” said Amy.
Duncan’s adoption became more complicated for reasons outside of the Pemberton’s or DHS’s control. To the surprise of the Pembertons and the judge, at a court appearance during their son’s case, they discovered Duncan’s biological mother was pregnant.
“We said we might as well add two children to our family,” Amy said.
Duncan’s adoption was extended as the couple waited for their new son to be born. The baby’s birth wasn’t quite what the Pembertons expected either.
“The birth parents ran with him for several weeks,” Amy said. “He was found in a homeless shelter in Detroit. He had a rough start, too.”
The same day Amy dropped her younger biological daughter at the airport for college visits, she waited expectantly for the plane that brought her son to her. Matthew was four weeks old.
A subsequent court visit on behalf of both boys found their biological mother pregnant again. A baby girl would be born just one year and 20 days after Matthew.
“I said, ‘of course we’ll take the baby,’” Amy said. “And then I cried for two weeks. I couldn’t fathom having two babies so close together.”
Despite their shock and uncertainty, the Pembertons set up their nursery for two babies and bought a double stroller. Daughter Aidan’s birth was attended by a sheriff so the birth parents wouldn’t try to escape a second time. Aidan was born on the youngest Pemberton daughter’s birthday and joined her new family at one day old.
“It’s funny how naturally it comes back to you,” Amy said of parenting a second time around. “When I was younger the things I thought were so important or such a big deal, now I know those things aren’t a big deal at all.”
Two years after the Pembertons began the process of adopting Duncan, they officially adopted all three siblings in February 2009. After several years of paperwork, court proceedings, intense emotions and worry, Amy described the actual adoption as anticlimactic.
“It’s done in a matter of minutes,” Amy said. “But with the signed adoption decree, I felt instant relief. It was finally, really done.”
Amy described her family’s overall experience with OKDHS as lucky, in particular that all three children had the same social worker throughout their journey.
“On more than one occasion she considered changing positions but she wanted to wait until they were finalized,” Amy said of the worker. “She was so invested in what was best for them.”
Now 11, 9 and 8 years old, Duncan, Matthew and Aidan are happy kids who attend a Catholic school where many of their friends are also adopted, which has been an incredibly supportive environment for their family. A school psychologist by trade, Amy was keenly aware of the support her kids would need as they got older.
Duncan suffered much trauma early in his life, and Amy recalled he almost missed the language learning window. He’s undergone occupational, physical and speech therapy and Amy credits his speech therapist with helping Duncan find his voice. While his early trauma means he often learns differently from other kids, Duncan is very successful in school.
“He is the hardest working and most loving boy,” Amy said.
All her children deal with the trauma they experienced differently, and Amy describes it as a constant in their lives. As they reach various developmental stages, she anticipates readdressing their fears and questions.
“The scary things that happened to [Duncan] aren’t really solid memories,” Amy said of her child who spent the most time in state custody. “He remembers being hungry.”
Matthew asks the most questions about their birth mother, sometimes declaring that he misses her.
“He’s asked me ‘couldn’t you have helped her, too?’” said Amy. “We explain that we did try to help. One day they will get to know the whole story, when they’re old enough.”
Aidan is the most matter-of-fact about being adopted. She and Amy often talk about how she grew in a different mom’s tummy.
Above all, the Pembertons foster an openness with their adopted children about where they came from and how they came to be a part of their family. Their focus on honesty and not overreacting to their kids’ questions or how they process trauma has kept them all grounded.
Observing their past
From the beginning of their fostering journey, Amy has kept a spiral notebook detailing all contact her kids have had with their biological mother so one day they can see the effort that was made on both sides. Throughout the foster and adoption processes, Amy developed a bond with the biological mom as she learned her story and provided her kids the safety and stability she couldn’t.
“She grew up in foster care,” Amy said. “She wanted to do better, she just didn’t know how.”
Like many parents whose children end up in foster care, this biological mother had no family, no other relationships to rely upon and no examples of good parenting to emulate. Coupled with drug usage, a lack of resources and no social support, Amy says she never stood a fighting chance.
“There’s always been a part of me that wants to ‘mama’ her, too,” she said.
After the kids were adopted, Amy was intentional about keeping both biological parents apprised of their lives. They scheduled visitations and she emailed photos. About six months later, the biological father said the communication was too painful for him and he didn’t want to continue.
While the first few visits with the biological mother went well, eventually her drug usage appeared again. The Pembertons drew a line in the sand: If she’s not healthy, she can’t have contact with the kids. Amy has always been straightforward with her kids about their biological mom’s past, framing it in a way their young minds can understand.
“They know she had a hard time making healthy choices for her and for them,” Amy said.
Amy knows one day her kids will likely want to see their biological mom and possibly develop new relationships. She worries that it will hurt them to see her and that they might feel guilty they got a chance she didn’t. But she would support them.
“The bottom line is we wouldn’t have them without her,” said Amy. “You can’t love them without loving her at some level.”
Amy and Mark’s lives look nothing like they might have planned. But they wouldn’t have it any other way. Their grandchildren and adopted children are all close in age. Amy calls them the best of friends.
“My granddaughter loves to call my son ‘Uncle Matthew,’” laughs Amy. “He’s only five months older than she is.”
In a family so full of joy, it can be easy for outsiders to overlook the work that is still necessary to help the Pemberton kids deal with their past trauma. As Amy continues to advocate for her kids at school and in the community and as she mentors other foster and adoptive parents, she has developed a mantra that she’s found makes a tremendous difference: Don’t treat them like they’re broken, or you’ll break them.
While the work is ongoing and challenges arise, the Pembertons have never had any doubt they made the right decision in adopting the three kids who have blessed their family beyond measure.
“When the moment was there, I knew I was called to do it,” said Amy.