|Jackson Zoccola works on a new drawing in the bedroom of the Mt. Juliet home where he lives with his parents, David and Cathy Zoccola, who get a peek at the drawing. Jackson was removed from his biological family at age 5 and spent the next few years in Tennessee’s foster care system before being adopted by the Zoccolas last year, with the help of Catholic Charities. Over 400 children in state custody are currently waiting to find their “forever families.” Photo by Theresa Laurence
Jackson Zoccola, a toothpick of a 10-year-old boy, loves to draw and play baseball. He lives with his adopted parents in a nice, safe Mt. Juliet subdivision. He attends fourth grade just down the road and makes good grades. He’s polite and friendly with visitors, eager to share details about his life, which did not begin in a nice, safe subdivision surrounded by a loving family.
Jackson spent his earliest years raised in a highly dysfunctional home 50 miles away, living with by his biological parents, the middle of five children. By the time he was in first grade, he and his siblings were removed from the home and sent to live with a foster family. Asked about his life before the Zoccolas, he tries to find the words to describe it. “It was very, very horrible,” he finally says quietly. “I was treated very wrongly.”
Before he was adopted by David and Cathy Zoccola one year ago, Jackson was one of about 400 children in Tennessee’s foster care system waiting to find a forever family. Many of these children, like Jackson, have experienced the trauma of abuse and neglect and have been rootless for years, removed from their biological families and bouncing between foster families or group homes, lacking a stable, healthy and loving family.
‘A selfless thing’
David, a retired Metro police officer who now works in the Metro District Attorney General’s office, and Kathy, who worked in the DA’s office as a victim’s advocate before she retired, knew from their own career experience how many children were in need. “I always wanted to round them up and bring them home,” she said.
“We’ve seen a lot of consequences of kids who don’t have a family and it weighed so heavy on our hearts,” David said. But the couple, who have two grown daughters and four grandchildren, were reluctant to step into the role of foster or adoptive parent.
Then, in 2007 they were awarded emergency temporary custody of a young boy who was living in a bad environment. They were hoping to adopt him as their own, but he was sent back to live with his biological mother. It broke their hearts when the child left, but it gave them the push they needed think seriously about adopting.
For so many years “we stepped into people’s tragedies and stepped out,” David said. But after that experience, “we knew we could take a stranger into our home and love him.”
So the Zoccolas decided to adopt a child from the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services. They filled out a form on the website www.parentachild.org in 2010 and were contacted by Denise Cottrell, adoption recruiter for the FOCUS program at Catholic Charities.
FOCUS, which stands for Finding Our Children Unconditional Support, is a statewide program designed to increase adoption of older children from the state’s foster care system. “I walk them through the process that can be scary and intimidating.” Cottrell said. Sometimes, like with the Zoccolas, it may take years to connect adoptive parents with the right child.
Parents need to understand that they are making a lifelong commitment “and they’re not going to turn away when the child’s true behavior comes out. And they need to be OK if they don’t hear the words ‘I love you,’ on a regular basis from their child,” Cottrell said. “It’s a selfless thing,” she added. “You are doing this for the child, to help heal them.”
Cottrell thoroughly warned the Zoccolas about all the potential issues with adopting children from state custody, but so far they have had very few problems. After his second visit with the Zoccolas, Jackson told his foster family how much fun he had with them. “I want to be in that family,” he told them.
“He was so quick to attach with our whole family,” said Cathy, who shares a birthday with Jackson. He loves throwing the baseball with his father David and even sits in his lap sometimes. At the final adoption hearing, Jackson opted to change his name and chose David as his new middle name. “All the stuff we worried about, the non-attachment, not fitting in … it’s scary it’s been so easy,” David said.
The Zoccolas still peruse the DCS website from time to time, looking at photos and profiles of children available for adoption. Jackson encourages them to find him a brother “so if I get in trouble I can blame it on them,” he says with a sly smile.
Adoption ‘just the beginning’
Once children in state custody hit the teen years, it becomes even more difficult to place them with a family. Adoption counselors find it best to be upfront and honest about all the potential challenges that adopting an older child might bring, but assure there is much joy to be found as well.
“I want to dispel the myth that that all these children are out breaking windows and hurting people,” said Julie Flannery, FOCUS program director of Harmony Family Services, a Catholic Charities partner agency.
Flannery, who has spent her career working with children in foster care, and has adopted seven children from the system, says that these children “have big hearts,” but have been hurt in the past and need the right support system in place to help them thrive. “That’s the key,” she said.
Flannery, who recently adopted a 17-year-old, has great compassion for those on the brink of adulthood, who may soon age out of the system and be left with few safety nets in place. “Some older kids need even more hand holding because they missed out on a lot,” she said.
It’s important to take the long view when considering adopting an older child, Flannery said: envision them graduating from college, getting married, having children of their own, being there for all those milestones. “You still need a family whether you’re 40 or 4,” she said. The adoption “is just a beginning.”
Leroy Reed, father, grandfather, and foster father many times over, recently adopted a teenage boy and couldn’t be happier. His newly adopted son, 15, loves basketball, is doing well in school and fit right in with his family. “He even looks like my grandson,” said Reed, who knows Flannery through his long-time commitment to fostering children. “It’s like he’s really part of our family.”
Foster children were always part of Reed’s household when his two biological sons were growing up. “We never used the word ‘foster’ in our home. They were brothers and that’s how we looked at it and we kept moving,” said Reed, who guesses he has fostered over 200 children during the last 20 years.
It was one of his biological sons who encouraged him to go through with the recent adoption. “He said, ‘Pops, don’t let him go.’” So he didn’t.
Now, Reed is considering adopting again. He said he would be open to adopting siblings or a child with Down syndrome. “I’ll take my chances. I’ve never turned them down,” he said, noting that he has always accepted whatever child was referred to him through Omni Visions, a local agency supporting children in foster care.
‘Have faith and do it’
Tennessee needs more Leroy Reeds, Julie Flannerys, Cathy and David Zoccolas if all the children in need are to find their forever families. There are hundreds of older children still waiting to be adopted, some of them just a few years away from aging out of the system, where they will face notoriously tough challenges. Recent studies have shown that less than half of those aging out are able to find steady employment, and almost 25 percent experience homelessness after exiting foster care. They are also much more likely than their peers to be arrested and convicted of a crime, or to have an unplanned pregnancy.
Today, “Tennessee is doing more than a lot of states” to ensure that children in state custody do not fall off the proverbial cliff when they turn 18, said Flannery. “Some children have been in custody so long they really want out,” refusing further case management, she said. But for those who do want additional guidance, more services are now available until they turn 21. The state can help former foster children pay for school and housing and stay connected with a mentor.
Cottrell assures potential adoptive parents that they will not be alone on the journey, no matter what age child they are seeking to adopt. Catholic Charities offers pre- and post-adoption training that equips families with the tools to successfully integrate an adopted child into their home. This includes addressing effective communication and discipline techniques, bridging cultural differences, and the impact of trauma on children.
Cottrell also conducts home studies of adoptive families, helps build a team of support around the child, and facilitates initial meetings between parent and child, “We ask a ton of questions,” she said, in order to find the best fit. “She couldn’t have been more honest,” David said of Cottrell. “She was a blessing to work with.”
Even if it takes years to find the right child to adopt, the Zoccolas advise prospective parents to persevere. “Just have faith and do it,” said David.
For more information on adopting an older child from state custody, visit www.parentachild.org, or contact Denise Cottrell at Catholic Charities at (615) 352-3087, ext. 236.