By Laurence Kaldor, President of the VCLF
THEY THOUGHT THEY WERE just going to see a baseball game. But when six-year-old Jayden and his newly adoptive mother, Shellie, arrived at the minor-league Kane County Cougars’ ballpark in Geneva, Illinois over Labor Day weekend, they realized something was up.
“Welcome to our family, Jayden! Congratulations!” read the banner on one wall of the luxury box. A loop of photos of Jayden played against another wall. A table in the middle of the room overflowed with presents.
You see, Shellie’s adoption of Jayden (a journey that began years before in Los Angeles) had just been finalized. It was official and family and friends turned out for the big surprise in force. The size of the party spoke to the excitement that had been building since Jayden and Shellie met. More than 50 family members and friends were in attendance. So was Jan Miller, Jayden’s Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA), who flew in from Los Angeles as a surprise guest.
CASA of Los Angeles improves the lives of children in the dependency system by pairing them with trained volunteer advocates. CASA seeks to reduce and reverse the effects of child abuse and neglect. Nowhere in the nation is the problem greater than in Los Angeles County, where 30,000 children who have been abused or neglected are under the jurisdiction of the Dependency Court.
Jayden and Shellie met years before, following Shellie’s inquiry about adoption with an online adoption registry. Then 4-year-old Jayden was living in a group home for medically fragile children. He had a rough start to life, having suffered life-threatening injuries—cervical/spinal-cord damage, compression fractures to two vertebrae, and upper extremity deformity—as a result of extreme physical abuse. When Shellie met him, he was a quadriplegic but was becoming more verbal, could sit with support, and was learning to use his legs.
“I introduced myself as a friend,” Shellie remembers. “I told him I brought a friend with me. It was a teddy bear. We played together for a while and then I left for the day. When I went back the next day, he had that teddy bear with him, and he started talking about how friends can’t leave friends alone. It broke my heart.”
Shellie flew back to Chicago that evening convinced they were a good fit. She eagerly contacted the adoptions worker and stated her desire to adopt him. That weekend, she met Jan, Jayden’s CASA, who had been working with the boy since July of that year.
My role in the beginning was to connect with him, to be a part of his life as much as I could be,” Jan explains. “He had no family in his life, and I would visit him at school and his group home, and attend his doctor’s appointments and physical therapy appointments. I would take pictures and videos of him to share with Shellie, the court, and his social workers.”
Meanwhile, Jan was working with others on the case to get Jayden the equipment he would need for his life outside of the medical home, including a portable gastronomy tube—he wasn’t able to eat on his own at the time—and a gait trainer, to allow him to stand upright and walk within a harness so he could develop strength in his legs.
By June 2013, everything was finally in place for Jayden to live with Shellie. She flew back out to Los Angeles to pick him up, allowing a day for a trip to Disneyland before the flight back. Jayden, however, couldn’t wait to get to Chicago. He desperately wanted to leave his old life behind. For the first few months, life in Chicago was full of ups and downs. Jayden was so insecure that Shellie literally couldn’t leave his side. If she just went to the restroom, she would have to talk to him through the door. Jan continued as his CASA. She visited him in his new home in September of 2013, talked to him by Skype at least once a month, talked to Shellie even more often, and participated in school and therapeutic conferences by speakerphone.
Still, Jayden talked constantly about his adoption. It was clear that he wouldn’t be truly at ease until it was finalized, although he dreaded having to go back to California for the hearing. He refused to answer questions about his life in California and would speak of no one he knew there—except for Jan, whom he began calling Grandma Jan. He got a nice surprise in August, when the judge agreed to conduct the final adoption hearing from Los Angeles via Skype.
“Mom, I’m adopted now, so I don’t have to go back to California,” he said afterward. “We’re a family now. You’re my mom and I’m your son and that’s it. It’s all done.”
“You’re right. It’s all [done],” Shellie told him.
With that, the last of his insecurity about his family melted away. Now Jayden talks instead about school, cars, food (he’s eating on his own), and—his favorite activity—buddy baseball, in which an able-bodied boy hits the ball for him and he runs the bases in his wheelchair. His prognosis is still in many ways uncertain and he often asks whether eventually he will be able to drive a car or walk on his own, but he has a poise about it all, that can only be described as precocious.
“I may not be able to do everything other kids can do,” he says, “but I can do them my way.”
“There are a lot of Jaydens in the San Fernando Valley, too many,” tells Laurence N. Kaldor, president of the VCLF. “Support of the Bar and the VCLF are very concrete ways
an attorney, a judge, or a business person can make a real difference. Whether it’s an individual or a firm
or corporation, your donation to the VCLF will let us help the next Jayden find a new family.”
CASA is supported by the generous contributions of individuals, companies, and organizations. The VCLF is proud to support CASA and amazing people like Jayden, Shellie and Jan Miller.