Robyn and Courtney Hopkins live by the mantra “be the change,” both in their journey as foster parents and as they blaze a trail for gay couples in Oklahoma. Motivated by their faith and a memorable sermon on the topic, Robyn and Courtney aspire to let their actions, rather than words, do the talking.
“Sometimes we have to be silent and show we’re just like any other family,” Robyn said.
They are the first gay couple to work with their foster and adoption agency of choice, Lilyfield, which they chose because of its alignment with their Christian values. Lilyfield’s current board of directors doesn’t allow gay couples to adopt through its private adoption services, though the Hopkins could potentially adopt through the Oklahoma Department of Human Services.
In May 2018, Gov. Mary Fallin signed a bill allowing private adoption agencies to opt not to place children in homes that would violate the agency’s written religious or moral convocations or policies. While the law does not ban same-sex adoption or foster care, critics argue it allows private agencies to discriminate against LGBTQ couples. The Hopkins, moms to two young sons and also the first gay family at their children’s Christian school, remain hopeful as they see their everyday actions and faith changing others’ minds about what they thought they believed.
“If we speak too loud or say too much it can be used against us,” Courtney said. “Whatever is supposed to be, will be. We hope we can change someone’s view, or change someone.”
While varied opinions about their family are a reality the Hopkins live with, they don’t let it squelch their desire to provide a loving home for children who need one. Robyn, an attorney, vividly remembers her firsthand look at foster care while working at the district attorney’s office, next door to DHS. At the time, shelters were still an option for foster children, but only for ages 5 and older. Robyn remembers younger children waiting for placement, needing to feel safe in someone’s arms.
“When they’d have babies, we’d all be holding them all day, taking them to court with us,” said Robyn. “I held a little girl and knew I wanted to foster and be a mom someday.”
Though the couple has always known they wanted to foster, they had been waiting for the right time. Before making the decision to foster, they each had a son with the help of an anonymous sperm donor.
“I thought let’s wait until our kids are older and understand that these kids might need more attention,” said Courtney. “But then we also thought ‘we’re not getting any younger!’”
The Hopkins family accepted their first foster placement in March of this year, two weeks after their certification was complete. After fostering a set of brothers for three weeks, they now have three foster children, plus their two sons, all age 3 and under. The exhausting physical demands of parenting are an everyday challenge. Robyn and Courtney worry about balancing attention between all their children, ensuring their boys are getting as much attention as they were before the family fostered. They worry about the emotional and developmental toll neglect takes on foster children.
While many assume most children in the foster care system were removed from their homes because of abuse, more often than not, neglect is the culprit. In Oklahoma during fiscal year 2017, the Department of Human Service’s Child Welfare Services reports neglect accounted for 87.61 percent of the 30,698 substantiated abuse and neglect cases in the state. The same report lists various categories of neglect, including exposure to domestic violence, failure to protect, inadequate shelter, lack of supervision, failure to provide adequate nutrition and failure to obtain medical attention.
In their foster parent training through Lilyfield, the Hopkins learned how trauma affects a child’s brain. As a nurse, Courtney was familiar with the ramifications, but seeing the effects of trauma displayed in their own home in such young children has been eye-opening.
“When a child is deprived of food at a young age, their body is wired to horde and gorge food,” said Courtney.
In their experience as foster parents, the Hopkins have witnessed neglect manifest in developmental delays, eating habits, like drinking an entire cupful of water in one gulp or eating until throwing up, fear of being left alone in the car and awe at the couples’ tears when it was time to say goodbye. Their foster children have come to their home with nothing of their own, or just an extra set of pajamas. These everyday heartbreaks are assuaged slightly by watching their foster children grow and flourish.
“It’s amazing how fast they can learn,” Robyn said. “They are now meeting milestones, and they are going to be very smart.”
Though it’s hard for Robyn and Courtney to understand the neglect that prompted their foster children coming to their home, they have realized in their training and through their professions that some parents just can’t meet their children’s needs, oftentimes because of the cyclical nature of poverty, lack of resources or because they were in foster care themselves, without positive role models to teach them how to parent. Courtney’s reaction is bittersweet when her foster children refer to her as “Mama.”
“I just think, does that hurt their Mom’s heart?” wonders Courtney. “We have them at such a rewarding age, but I always think about their parents, that they are missing all of this.”
The Hopkins believe bridging with biological families and being active in the court process are imperative. While helping their foster children work through their trauma and feel safe and loved are their top priorities, they also hope to have opportunities to become mentors and resources for biological families.
In their professions, as moms and as a gay couple, Robyn and Courtney have learned how to advocate for themselves and the people they love. Communication with their agency, with DHS, with biological families and each other has been key to their journey as foster parents. Always in a state of learning themselves, they are also open about lessons learned with other foster families. Their journey has allowed them to hone in on the children and situations they are best suited for, and their greatest advice for potential foster parents is to know themselves and not to be afraid to voice those specifications.
“You have to know your limits as far as ages [to foster] and what you can handle as far as their history,” said Courtney.
For the Hopkins, that means they have realized their oldest son should remain the oldest child in the home. They’ve declined a few calls for placement because they know where their gifts and limitations lie.
As the Hopkins family hopes to inspire change, they are changing, too, learning to let others in. Both very independent from a young age, Robyn going to college at 16 and Courtney on her own since 18, the two realized they needed a support system to be a successful foster family. When it was just Robyn and Courtney, or even just them and their two sons, they didn’t feel a need to ask others for help. But they have realized the beauty in reaching out.
“People want in out of the kindness of their hearts,” said Robyn, recalling their recent trip to Disneyworld as a shining example. “I had a conference at Disney and I didn’t think we could go. Who would we leave our foster kids with for three days?”
Friends from church, also a foster family, eagerly stepped in, adding the Hopkins’ foster children to their two foster kids and biological daughter so the Hopkins could experience the once-in-a-lifetime trip with their sons. Another church member mobilized volunteers to provide meals for the foster family providing respite care.
“It does take a village, and you have to be willing to utilize it,” said Robyn.
Generously sponsored by Kimray, this is part one of a series that will provide stories of OKC foster families. Find more information about the foster care system and how to become a foster parent at www.metrofamilymagazine.com/foster.