As Nikko busily worked in his play kitchen putting pieces of toast into the toy toaster, his future siblings Austin and Molly observed, often teasing him and playfully rolling him around on the floor. Nikko's future father, Kevin Crosby, helped him "cook," while his mother-to-be Leslie looked on.
Nikko, a foster care child, is in the process of being adopted by Kevin and Leslie Crosby.
There are an average of 150 foster adoptions throughout San Joaquin County each year, according to Akkia Pride-Polk, interim child welfare division chief. Last month, there were 226 children in the adoption program. For the last five years, the number of adoptions throughout the county has been stable. Although there have been no recent increases in adoptions, more Lodi couples with biological children have chosen foster adoption as a way to grow their families.
Challenges such as adopting a child of a different race can make foster adoption a difficult process. But families such as the Crosbys, who are part of this trend, say the benefits of sharing a loving family with others outweigh those challenges.
The quest for a larger family
Lusandra Vincent, an adoption social worker in Lodi, has three biological children as well as three adopted children. She was in her 20s when she began her family and was 41 when her family was complete. Although her expertise is more through international adoptions, she has seen more people in their 40s and 50s who choose adoption as a way to grow their families.
Her experience was a trade-off. She found she had more energy for the first set of children but had more insight for the last pair, she said.
For Sherry and Tim Page, of Lodi, their journey through the foster adoption process began after Sherry had a difficult pregnancy with her daughter, Hazel, now 6.
The couple, both age 42, has two other biological children, Abby, 14, and Jodi, 13. Tim Page works from home as a district manager for a manufacturing company. Sherry Page is a stay-at-home mom who says she has a lot of energy.
The couple, who are members of First Baptist Church of Lodi, had a desire to grow their family and said they felt a calling toward adoption.
"I've always wanted a big family," said Sherry Page. "The magic number was six."
The two began searching for ways to adopt and decided on the foster care route. They were placed with nine-month-old Timothy, and after two years and two months, Timothy, now age 3, became a part of the family. About eight months after Timothy's adoption was complete, the two began talking about adopting again.
"It wasn't long, but it felt like a lifetime for me," said Sherry Page. Since Timothy had been with them for over two years, it felt like he was theirs already, she explained. Since then, a pair of toddler-age siblings have been placed with the couple.
There are a variety of reasons couples may want to adopt, said Pride-Polk. Some are unable to have biological children due to physical reasons. Others have biological children but also want to open their home to a child in need.
That was the goal of the Crosbys, who have two children of their own, Austin, 12, and Molly, 8. The couple decided to foster, but were not planning to pursue a permanent adoption. As foster parents, the couple figured children would only be placed with them for a few weeks to a few months at a time.
With very little notice, they were placed with Nikko. Upon each visit from the social worker, the Crosbys were asked if they wanted to adopt Nikko. The two continuously said no. Their intention was to keep Nikko on a short-term basis.
It all changed when the court set up a plan for the birth parents to be reunited with Nikko. The original two to six month placement extended into nine. After a work injury kept Kevin Crosby at home during the summer months, he spent a lot of time bonding with Nikko. The two took walks together and went to the park just about every day. Over time, he fell in love with the little boy.
It was after Leslie Crosby called him at work one day and asked him again how he felt about adopting Nikko that he told her they needed to talk.
"I was more open to adoption than Kevin was, but when he said we needed to talk, that was the confirmation," said Leslie Crosby. "It was a big step."
"It felt like the right thing to do. There was no moment of clarity. We just started thinking about it," added Kevin Crosby.
Getting to 'gotcha day'
So in July 2011, the Crosbys started the adoption process through the County Human Services Agency.
They attended an orientation and then had to fill out a packet of papers. They then had to attend 30 hours of classes, have background checks conducted, do a home safety check and get letters of recommendation.
Sept. 19 is what the Crosbys call "gotcha day." That is the day the adoption process will be complete. Nikko will be set up with his new last name and he will have an adoption certificate, which is similar to a birth certificate.
Matching a child with a family could take anywhere from a day to a year. The family must then foster the child for at least six months. The time depends on whether all rights of the birth parents have been terminated, said Mary Molini, co-executive director of Share Homes Family Services. The Lodi nonprofit agency, established in 1987, assists couples through the adoption and foster care processes, and provides counseling and parenting classes.
Before foster children are placed with families, a 15- to 20-page assessment of the family is completed. The assessment, which aids the agency in finding the right match, includes a look at the family's background, employment, and marital history.
Since the process is conducted through the county, the cost is minimal, usually ranging around $500, Molini said. The money covers the assessment as well as training in CPR and first aid for the prospective parents. Once the adoption is complete, the fees are refunded by the state.
The county's first goal with foster children is to reunite them with their birth parents, said Pride-Polk.
Because of this, Timothy's adoption almost didn't happen for the Pages.
After he was placed in their care, the judge decided Timothy was to be reunited with his mother. The Pages were disheartened because they had done all the work for his adoption. But on the other hand, they felt the investment they had put in him to make sure he would be OK was worth it.
"We had grieved, but were ready to give him back to his mother," said Sherry Page.
A few days later, after a complication with the birth mother, the courts decided to let the Pages keep Timothy. Children such as Timothy are considered high-risk, meaning they are more likely to be returned to the birth parents. Depending on how high-risk the family is willing to go, there is always the danger the child could go back to their birth families, said Molini. Families do have the choice to decide how much of a risk they are willing to take.
"When training families, we look at what type of risk they are willing to take. If they are willing to take a high-risk, we are there to support them through the process," she said.
Difficulties in the adoption process aren't the only challenges families sometimes face. In the beginning, the biggest concern for the Crosbys was Nikko's race and how their family would be accepted, said Leslie Crosby. Knowing Lodi isn't well-known for its diversity, the couple didn't want harm to come to Nikko for growing up in the area.
"White families adopting a black baby are not always well-received, and that's a concern for him later in life," she said.
Their love for Nikko began to change their hearts. Their initial thought of what makes a family began to change and they started to identify themselves as a mixed-race family.
The two had explained to their other children early on about different cultural backgrounds, and felt they could use this experience as a learning tool for them. They also knew they would have the support of friends and extended family to lean on.
The Crosbys were amazed how many offers of help in caring for Nikko they received from family members.
As for the future, Leslie Crosby worries whether Nikko will question his adoption and why he didn't go back to his birth family.
It is important to be open with adoptive children, Vincent believes. It's up to adoptive parents to initiate conversations about the birth family, she said.
"Children who come into families by adoption think about their birth parents a lot," she said. "Let them know you are open and that it's not taboo."
Through the adoption, the Crosbys have seen their other two children grow by stepping out of their comfort zone to help, said Leslie. The two children fight over who gets to be the first one to take Nikko out of the crib or sit beside him at the table.
Tim Page said the adoption process has enabled their family to reach out and help others.
"From a religious standpoint, God has adopted all of us. It's a very good example to the other children that you can do that," he said.
It has made his family closer, he added. They often take camping trips together or spend an evening watching movies. He regularly takes the children on bike rides over to the school yard near their house. His oldest daughters enjoy playing Barbies with the younger girls, or Hot Wheels and monster trucks with Timothy.
From the county's prospective, foster adoption is beneficial because it takes the child out of the foster care system if the reunification process with the birth parents doesn't work out. The longer a child is in foster care increases the number of foster children, said Pride-Polk. If the child is unable to be reunified with the birth parents, the county's goal is a permanent adoption. Vincent agrees that adoption through fostering is beneficial.
"All children thrive best when they are in a good family. Rather than keep them in foster care, the long-term goal is to place them with adoptive families," she said.
Leslie Crosby feels there is a misconception in society that a family can't love an adopted child as much as their own. She knows from her own experience that isn't true.
Because Nikko's background was unknown at the time of placement, the family pediatrician had ordered some blood tests to detect any possible diseases. As Leslie Crosby held Nikko while his blood was drawn, the compassion she felt as he sobbed in her arms was just like he was her own child, she said.
"My love for Austin is the same as for Molly, and it is the same for Nikko. Love just grows," she said.
After taking a family portrait recently, the Crosby family stood in their family room.
Leslie Crosby held Nikko and gently said, "Go see daddy." Nikko jumped over to his father. She then said, "Jump over to Sissy," while Austin teasingly called him a silly goose.
Although they once thought they were done growing their family, they feel Nikko has completed it.
"Nikko changed our hearts. It was he who completely filled this spot in our family that we didn't know was empty," she said.