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Couple builds family through foster care, adoption

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Amber and Steve Dunn adopted Mae, center, in February 2017. Mae was 12 when she came to live with them through foster care.

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By Kim Grizzard
The Daily Reflector

Sunday, June 17, 2018

FARMVILLE — Steve and Amber Dunn did not have a chance to hear their daughter’s first words. They never got to sit next to her crib at night and watch her sleep.

Mae was practically a teenager before they ever even heard her voice, a middle-schooler before she spent a single night under their roof.

But as the days and weeks passed, a bond began to form between the three of them. And over the years, the relationship that they fostered forged them into the family they had always wanted.

Steve and Amber had been married seven years when they decided it was time to begin a family. But rather than signing up for a childbirth education course, the two made the decision to register for foster parenting classes.

“We had spent our whole married life figuring out what’s our family going to look like,” Steve said. “Amber and I had been thinking for several years that we wanted to build our family through fostering and possibly adopting. (Fostering) was a starting point, not a detour.”

Amber had known since childhood that she had wanted to adopt. Growing up in Chapel Hill, she saw her mother volunteer at a group home. Sometimes, children from the home would come to spend a weekend with her family.

“From the time I was very young I just knew that there were kids who needed a safe place to live and someone to love them,” Amber said. “So I told Steve right from the beginning before we got married that we were going to be adopting kids. … I call it our Plan A, not our Plan B.”

For many families, a difficult journey through infertility helps to pave the road to adoption. The Dunns had a different path.

“For us that was never a consideration. For us, building our family is a way of expressing God’s love,” said Steve, pastor of Farmville United Methodist Church.

“Ultimately what it comes down to is that we felt called as people of faith and people who know how much God has done for us, how much we’ve been given,” he said. “We wanted to do the best we can to share that love ... so for us foster care was a way to do that.”

On their application to Methodist Home for Children, the Dunns did not specify whether they were willing to foster a son or daughter. They simply indicated a preference for a child age 5 to 12.

Mae, the first child placed in their home, was at the top end of that range, certainly old enough to have memories of life with her biological mother and siblings. She had been in foster care for about a year and a half.

“It’s a different ballgame adopting a middle school-age child than a baby,” Steve said. “One of the things is the child gets to have say in ‘Do I want you to be my parents?’ That’s really important. ... We had the opportunity to adopt her and she chose to adopt us.”

Of the estimated 110,000 children nationwide in foster care waiting to be adopted, more than 25 percent are between ages 12 and 17. But each year, almost 30,000 of those waiting to be adopted turn 18 and leave the foster care system without families.

Lashaunda Lucas, foster care supervisor for Methodist Home for Children, said it can sometimes be difficult to find foster-home placements for older children. Teens also are less likely to be adopted than younger children.

Many prospective families question whether or not teens have established habits that will make it difficult for them to assimilate into a new family. Some worry that they will have difficulty bonding with older children.

Mae takes issue with those ideas.

“Just because you didn’t have them as a newborn doesn’t mean that you couldn’t see them grow through their spirit and through their emotions, see them adapt to everything and see what they like, see what they enjoy,” she said. “It’s the middle ages that you actually see the person that you love the most turn and do something great.”

The Dunns have seen many changes as Mae has adapted to her new home life.

“Our family is much different than any experience she’d ever had before,” Amber said. “We’re pretty structured people, not necessarily what she was used to. I think maybe if she had been even a few years older she would have been less receptive to that.”

Once Mae moved in, the Dunns worked to make up for lost time. They took trips together to zoos and aquariums (all three are animal lovers). They made a big deal out of special occasions.

“You just try to figure out what they like and what their interests are,” Amber said. “She let it be known early on that birthdays are extremely important to her.

“Just by listening to her we knew what was important to her. She would quiz us daily. What is my birthday? What’s my favorite color?” she said, laughing.

“I think in terms of bonding, a certain amount of that happens when you just let your guard down and take the time to play games and be goofy together and have fun together,” Steve said. “For anybody who’s concerned ‘I didn’t give birth to this child, how am I ever going to bond?’ there will be those moments that feel like that level of intimacy.”

Some opportunities for bonding were unexpected, like the time that Mae had to undergo an emergency appendectomy. The Dunns spent three nights at the hospital with their daughter, not wanting to leave her side.

“Those moments happen,” Steve said. “They come up no matter what age a child or a person comes into your life. If you’re willing to invest yourself in them then the bonding happens.”

In the three years since Mae became part of the family, she has celebrated several milestones with the Dunns. Two years ago, the family moved from Raleigh to Farmville, where Mae attends Farmville Central High School. There are other rites of passage still to come: learning to drive, prom and high school graduation.

Last month, Steve and Mae enjoyed a father-daughter dance at a fundraiser for Methodist Home for Children, where Steve spoke to encourage other families to consider foster care and adoption. It is not the first time he has been called on to speak on behalf of the nonprofit organization.

Lucas said the Dunns are a model family for foster care and adoption.

“(They) give us a good picture of what it can look like,” she said. “They give us an opportunity to just get a glimpse of foster care and how it works and how it can lead to permanency for families. They also give us an opportunity to see what it looks like after adoption and how families meld together.”

Since finalizing Mae’s adoption in February 2017, the Dunns have continued to foster other children. Just last week, they said goodbye to a 16-year-old girl who was reunited with her biological family after living with the Dunns for six months.

“We intend to be in this (fostering) for the long haul and make this a lifelong decision,” Steve said. “Sometimes it’s hard and perseverance is tested, and I can say that for all three of us.

“But I think it’s so much more than a duty … it’s also a gift,” he said. “The extra layers of difficulty with foster care, adoption, it can be tough, but it is a good and beautiful thing.”

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