State steps in to halt big family's international adoptions
As the parents of 14 children, including six adopted from Africa, Carolyn and Kiel Twietmeyer, of Joliet, Ill., believe they are doing God's work.
Two of the six children they adopted from Ethiopia suffer from HIV. Bringing them to the US where they could get the medical attention they needed was a matter of life or death. "The worst part of HIV is the stigma," Carolyn said. "In the US, it's considered a chronic and manageable disease."
But the Twietmeyers and other like-minded large families in Illinois face an obstacle to their mission of adopting from countries where the orphan crisis is especially dire. In order to adopt children from countries such as Uganda, India and the Philippines, parents must be licensed by the state as foster care families. That's a problem for the Twietmeyers and other families who far exceed the standard licensing limit.
It's also a problem for Jojo, Carolyn Twietmeyer's nickname for Jonathan, a 3-year-old child with Down syndrome and HIV, who lives in a Ugandan orphanage. Twietmeyer dreams of the day she can bring him home and call him her son.
But social workers at the Twietmeyers' adoption agency say they have been told the family won't be licensed for more children, a necessary step to adopt from Uganda where adoptions are not finalized until after children reach the US.
The conflict pits the families' desire to live out their religious mission of caring for orphans against the state's mission to protect children.
Kendall Marlowe, a spokesman for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), said enough adoption agencies have abused their authority that it would be irresponsible to allow private adoption agencies to operate without public oversight. Five other states - Alabama, Colorado, Mississippi, North Carolina and South Carolina - have similar guidelines, Marlowe said.
To the Twietmeyers, this amounts to religious discrimination.
"I feel like it's all an act of God when we finish these adoptions because everything is a roadblock that we're constantly trying to scale," Carolyn Twietmeyer said. "This is no easy process. We shouldn't have to go through what we need to go through to be a family. To climb the mountain of DCFS on top of church barriers and financial barriers is really unacceptable."
Regardless of the challenges she and her husband face, Carolyn Twietmeyer hopes the tale of raising her biological children (Matthew, 22; Kylie, 19; Brendan, 17: and Ethan, 14; Gracie, 11; Hank, 9; and Danny, 7) and welcoming her adopted children (Andarge, 19; Sarah, 17; Rachel, 16; Selah, 14; Samuel, 10; Seth 5; and Sofia, 9 months) will inspire others to follow their own call to adopt.
For the Twietmeyers, raising 14 children hasn't been as difficult as adopting seven of them. To cover the cost adoptions and to make room for the brood, they took out a second mortgage on their 3,160-square-foot home and added extra bedrooms. Donors also pitched in to help. Matthew no longer lives at home, and Brendan lives with his father from Carolyn's first marriage.
The walls of their Joliet, Ill., home, now primary colors, change regularly, a nod to Kiel Twietmeyer's job as a decorator and painter. They stretch every dollar of his $64,000 salary to buy the 60 pounds of carrots and other groceries they go through every week.
Because she home-schools, Carolyn starts her days before dawn to make breakfast and prepare lesson plans. When Kiel comes home from work in the afternoon, he brings her a giant cup of coffee to keep her going until nightfall.
Five years ago, adopting a child with HIV seemed like a hopeless endeavor, even as orphanages in countries ravaged by HIV/AIDS overflowed with an entire generation of children who have lost their parents to the disease, she said. Some of those children also carry the virus, transmitted during pregnancy, birth or breast-feeding.
Access to anti-retroviral drugs is limited in Africa. Those medications, easily available in the US, can enable an HIV-positive child to live a normal life span.
The Twietmeyers successfully helped push to ease the restrictions on HIV immigrations, which often could take up to 10 months to complete. Those restrictions stood between prospective American parents and orphans facing imminent death.
"The more we're able to get the word out about the most vulnerable children, the ones who have no chance of surviving, we're seeing an increase in those kinds of adoptions here," said Carolyn Twietmeyer, who since has founded Project Hopeful, a nonprofit dedicated to adopt and support children with HIV.
But now the Twietmeyers and other large families must also get around limitations set by the state, she said.
While the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services has to approve a home study for every international adoption, the state also must issue a foster care license to parents adopting from certain countries such as Uganda and the Philippines where adoptions can't be finalized outside the US.
Families who apply can be licensed for up to eight children, more with a waiver. Children with special needs count twice, reducing the total number of children that families can have in their home. The Twietmeyers exceed the limit - and then some.
"They're not going to license a family that large," said Heather Breems, international supervisor for AdoptionLink, the Chicago-area agency that conducts home studies for the Twietmeyers. The agency has no blanket policy regarding how many children a household can have at one time because every family is unique, she said.
Breems said the state policy prevents foster families from taking on additional children to earn more stipends. But that concern doesn't apply to international adoptions, which can cost families thousands of dollars, she said.
"Most all of the families we work with are families who aren't rich," Twietmeyer said. "They're just doing what they believe they're supposed to be doing, and we're watching God make it possible."
As the Twietmeyers' children took turns one recent afternoon cradling their youngest sibling - Sofia, who has Down syndrome and who came to the family through a domestic adoption - they showered her with kisses. The couple pointed out that a large family is ideal for a child with special needs because there is no shortage of affection and helping hands.
But child welfare experts often see a fine line between a large family and a group home and worry that parents can rely too much on older siblings to serve as housekeepers, cooks and caregivers.
Breems has never received a formal denial from DCFS, but licensing representatives have cautioned her that large families need not apply. She can't in good conscience conduct and charge a family for a home study if she has been forewarned it will be for naught, Breems said.
Marlowe defends the state's screening process for adoptions. In 2011 alone, at least 10 Illinois families voluntarily relinquished their parental rights to children they had adopted from abroad. Three more were placed in DCFS custody because of substantiated allegations of abuse or neglect. One child died under suspicious circumstances in the parents' home, he said. It's unclear if those cases involved large families.
"Someone has to be the gatekeeper," Marlowe said. "There are many children in foreign countries who are in harm's way. But our job is to make sure they don't encounter more harm and rejection if they are adopted into a family in Illinois."
Based on research, the number of children in the home is not necessarily a deal breaker, Marlowe said, but it is a legitimate area of inquiry.
"There is no hard and fast numerical limit on the number of children in the home," he said. "When we are in this oversight role, we have a legitimate need to make sure that a family, however well intentioned, is not taking on more than they can handle."
The Twietmeyers have grown accustomed to the skepticism about their determination to adopt HIV orphans and make sure they aren't separated from their siblings. Though they believe their mission is spelled out in 64 verses of the Bible that implore Christians to care for orphans, they received little encouragement from their evangelical church, the couple said.
Early on, church members cautioned Carolyn Twietmeyer that she was not Jesus and did not have to take on the challenge of saving people. The pastor thought the couple had lost their minds, she said. When they brought their first three adopted children from Ethiopia to the US, they were cautioned by church leaders not to reveal who HIV positive.
"The most common heartbreak to families is they're not receiving any help or consideration from our churches," Carolyn Twietmeyer said. "It's totally contradictory to the Word."
That lack of support led the Twietmeyers and an elder from their former church to start a congregation of their own. Grace Covenant Christian Center in Mokena has since become a place where other families who share the same frustration have come to pursue the same calling.
"From a biblical foundation we're all adopted through Christ into the kingdom of God, so adoption is obviously a central theme for God and therefore for us as Christians," said the Rev. Bob Woods, a founder of Grace Covenant. "We need to take on that same mentality . . . because it was near and dear to God's heart."
Thanks to advocates like the Twietmeyers, evangelical churches have started to come around, said Jodi Jackson Tucker, director of Orphan Sunday for the Washington, D.C.-based Christian Alliance for Orphans. Adoption ministries have sprouted at churches across Chicago and the suburbs, including the historic Moody Church, which started a century ago as a ministry for street children.
"Carolyn's life is a living testimony to the example of following God and walking in faith, despite what the world may tell you is the smart or wise thing to do," Jackson Tucker said. "Her example has just resonated with so many people. So many people have said if she can do it, it's something I can do. She is like most of us are - just an average person that was obedient."