Family. Just as there is no singular definition in the dictionary for “family,” the path to becoming one can seemingly take a million different routes. It is a journey 16-year-old Aaron and his adoptive parents, Ken and Jennifer Walker, are learning to embrace. They are committed to putting in the work, and Methodist Children’s Home is alongside them each step of the way, providing help, security and hope.
The Walkers became licensed for adoption 16 years ago but never took the steps to proceed with having a child placed in their home. It was their now 15-year-old daughter, Zoey, who brought up the topic again.
“In December 2019, Zoey started talking about it and said we should look into adoption again,” said Jennifer, who works as a third-grade teacher. “We said ‘why not?’ and in January 2020 we went to Arrow Child and Family Ministries and started the process.”
The Walkers expressed wanting to adopt a younger boy and immediately started receiving profiles of children to consider. Aaron, 14 at the time, was included with the files. Getting ready for a camping trip in the summer of 2020, Aaron’s profile caught Jennifer’s eye again. Something hit differently this time.
“Just about everything he listed as a hobby or interest were things we enjoyed as well – like camping,” Jennifer said. “I told Zoey and Ken we needed to pay attention to this.”
“We saw Aaron’s picture a couple of times, but had thought we would be going younger,” Ken said. “For some reason, though, his face stuck in our minds. We talked about it all weekend while we were camping. Yes, he was a little older, but it is so hard to think about kids aging out of the system. It’s not about us, it’s about the kiddos. So why not a teenager?”
Aaron was born in the Houston area about the same time the Walkers first became licensed for adoption. His early years were unpredictable and involved stays with various relatives.
“I was young when things were going bad with my family,” Aaron said. “I didn’t really know what was going on. I was separated from my mother when CPS got involved and I went to a children’s home. As I grew up, I came to understand it was for the better.”
Aaron lived at the children’s home for nearly a decade. Family life for him became the group home setting. One day, “they (the Walkers) showed up and kept showing up for six months,” he said, smiling. “That’s when I went home with them and we became a family.” Aaron officially became a Walker on May 7, 2021.
While an idyllic storybook ending would close here, not every path to becoming a family is a smooth one.
“Not coming from a traditional foster care background, Aaron was different,” Ken said. “He wasn’t used to being in a setting where routines and expectations are different from a group home. He went from a neglectful childhood to group care to us. It’s hard for any teenager to adjust to a new school, city and family and it’s amplified because of his circumstances. As hard as we tried to be a family unit, it was a struggle.”
According to Aaron, when communication and navigating family relationships became a struggle, he defaulted to looking for security elsewhere, which resulted in getting in with a “bad crowd.”
“I started to get into trouble and we would argue a lot at home,” he admitted. “I think a lot of it was my different upbringing. We just had trouble communicating.”
The Walkers looked for help and were referred to MCH Family Outreach in Waco, where they met with a case manager and discussed their relational challenges and learned about TBRI (Trust-Based Relational Intervention) techniques. Understanding Aaron’s upbringing, the case manager suggested placing Aaron in the residential program at MCH could be the stabilizing factor he needed at the time.
In deciding to place him into the residential program, the Walkers also found a lifeline in his MCH case manager, Cory Cleveland, and Sara Beth Stoltzfus, director of admissions and family engagement at MCH.
“Family engagement is the shared responsibility where we engage and are actively committed to supporting the entire family and not just providing care to an individual child or client,” said Traci Wagner, vice president for programs. “MCH is flexible and creative in family work and can tailor services to meet families right where they are and assist them in meeting their goals. Our desire is that every individual, couple and family who engages with MCH feels supported and equipped to face life’s challenges.”
Beyond facilitating admissions to residential care, Stoltzfus said a major part of her role is working with families to help them become stronger, more stable and better equipped. With healthy family reunification as a goal, Stoltzfus and her team facilitate Circle of Security classes with parents and caregivers.
“Parenting is not easy and being a teenager right now is not easy,” Stoltzfus said. “A key point we want to communicate through the admissions process and Circle of Security classes is that we value the parents’ role in their child’s life. We are not looking to take over, but to help and share the struggle with them.”
Circle of Security (COS) is a relationship-based early intervention program designed to enhance attachment security between parents and children. The program is based on research revealing that secure children exhibit more self-esteem and empathy while also forming stronger relationships and performing better in school. Through the program, facilitators help caregivers identify children’s needs and determine the best ways to meet them.
Originally implemented in MCH Family Outreach offices, COS is now used in every facet of the MCH continuum of care. COS is designed to help parents and caregivers understand and meet the needs of their children while also recognizing how their own feelings can help or hinder their ability to recognize and react to those needs.
“Circle of Security class is a place for caregivers to come together and reflect on what security looks like for their child and how they can meet their child’s needs,” Stoltzfus explained. “It’s a class on reflecting, as well; caregivers look back at how they were raised and examine how that affects their parenting.”
Stoltzfus said the Walkers are engaged and intent on learning how they can better communicate and grow as a family.
“They have conversations together with the other COS participants and ask questions like ‘What else can we do?’” she said. “They’ve had a lot of ‘aha!’ moments in the class.”
Ken, who works as an instructor at a local community college, said he is learning better communication methods and also how to reinforce acceptance and felt-safety with Aaron.
“We are learning so much in the Circle of Security class,” Ken said. “The most important thing is that it’s not always about a solution, but just time, presence and being a secure base for him. Do we wish we were all together? For sure. This is not what we would have wished for, but we know it’s good.”
While Aaron lives at MCH, the Walkers have flexibility to have family time together. The Walkers pick Aaron up every Sunday and have family dinner together and also watch Aaron play on the MCH Bulldogs six-man football team.
“Since being at MCH, I have seen Aaron’s confidence flourish in the home with staff and his peers and out on the football field,” said Cleveland, Aaron’s MCH case manager. “I’ve also seen his relationship with his parents grow and get stronger in a short time..
“At the last home football game, I watched Ken pull out his phone to get a clip of Aaron playing, and almost on cue Aaron caught a long pass and scored a 70-yard touchdown,” Cleveland added. “The smile on his dad’s face said it all. He didn’t have to tell me he was proud.”
“Being at MCH has helped me grow a lot in self-confidence,” Aaron said. “They’re helping me learn to communicate better with adults and see a different perspective from my own. And they’re helping me stay on the right path. And I know in this process my parents are working to understand me better and what I’ve been through. I know they’re trying to hear and understand me and trying to get better at that, too.”
Ken said their desire is for Aaron to feel safe and comfortable and know that he is not inadequate in any way.
“MCH builds that for all of us,” he said. “MCH allows us to be part of his family and grow together. It’s not just the access we have to Aaron, it’s the care and attention we know he’s receiving here. I’m not sure we would’ve agreed to place him anywhere but MCH. Family reunification is our ultimate ideal, but we know he’s being supported in an incredible way here at MCH. It’s a win-win in every way.”
According to Jennifer, “Circle of Security is the best training we’ve ever had. We are all working on communicating better. We’re being open-handed about the future, watching the progress we are all making.”
“MCH gave a lot of hope back to us because it was looking hopeless,” she added. “Having hope for our family is such a great thing.”