In America, nearly 443,000 children are in the foster care system. Those who reunite with their parents or family members make up about half. Luckily, a quarter more are adopted by foster parents. But an increase in recent years of children eligible for foster care is overwhelming the system, meaning many children don’t even get to see foster homes.
This is a story about two children who found an adoptive home. It’s about the joys of fostering kids and the bravery of the children who go into new homes scared and sometimes starving. It’s also about the joy foster kids find when a family adopts them. Foster mom Sara Cozad shares her heartwarming and inspiring tale about how she rescued two children.
In order to adopt a foster child, you must first foster the child. Although there are eligibility requirements, people will not be turned away in most cases for marital status, age, income, or sexual orientation. What agencies are looking for are potential foster homes with stable, mature, dependable and flexible adults.
Sara Cozad and her husband fulfilled the requirements. On this day, they were sitting in court with their two potential adoptive sons. With up and down hopes through the years, Sara dreamed they could stay together as a family. The couple was waiting to get official news that they would be parents of the two boys they had loved as foster sons, and Sara was thrilled to finally - hopefully - become a mom.
An Emotional Day
Sara, the two boys, and her husband, Stuart Shank, sat in the front bench of the courthouse facing the judge. The wait was almost over. The four of them sat attentive, awaiting the judge’s final decision.
Breaking the reverent silence, the oldest boy, Dayshawn, stood up straight and tall. Heads turned abruptly, and he surprised everyone in the room with his interruption. He had some things to say about the Cozad family. His observations left Sara and Stuart in tears.
The Longest Day
Sitting in that courtroom, time seemed to come to a stop for Sara. It felt as if years were dragging out, waiting for the judge’s decision. In reality, it had been years. “I think the hardest part about adopting our boys was the flip-flop of emotions we went through throughout their very long case,” Sara reflected.
“This process went on for years. I’ve always been a pretty Type-A person, and this process really made me realize that I needed to just sit back and enjoy every single moment with our boys, because I truly had no control over what the future held.”At the time, she was 26. It was a longtime dream to be a foster mom. She wanted to be a foster mom ever since she became an adult.
Seven Years Later
It had been seven years since she first revealed to Stuart the dream she had. On their first date, not even fifteen minutes into it, Stuart questioned her about what she wanted to do with her life. She was just 19 years old when he asked what her dream career was, where she wanted to travel, and if she wanted kids. Those were some big questions for a first date.
She said she didn’t really know what she wanted to do, but she did say she knew one thing for sure, “If I was going to have children in my life, it would be because I was fostering them.” Two weeks after their honeymoon, they began foster parent training. Seven years later, they waited in a courtroom to become parents of two boys.
On the Road to Becoming Foster Parents
That momentous first date led to marriage. Sara tells it like this: “We got married a few years later and went on our honeymoon. Two weeks after we came home, we decided we were going to start our foster parent training.” She adds, “We were in agreement that we would just do short term emergency care/respite to start. We were planning on fostering babies and toddlers.”
If it seems like a lot for a new couple to take on, it is! Sara says she felt proud of Stuart’s commitment to her dream. “I was impressed with how [Stuart] rolled with it.” The loving couple was embarking on a challenging but rewarding journey. From the start, “I never felt compelled to have biological children, and it just made sense if kids in our community need a place to stay and we have a house, that is what we would do,” Sara told 'Good Morning America'.
Guided by Love
From their very first date, Sara and Stuart formed a bond around the idea of adopting children. Not only is it rare for couples to begin their lives like this, but it shows that the two were meant for each other.
They tumbled into love and married in 2014. The deep love they shared right from the start grew into a special bond that was ideal for foster parenting. What those children need most is love, and this couple had more than enough.
Fostering Babies and Toddlers
The couple agreed to foster young children. As newlyweds, taking care of babies feels like a natural step to parenting. You have to start somewhere!
Sara was only 23 when they began their lives as foster parents. She always dreamed of adopting a baby. She and her husband jumped in feet first. “We bought cribs and car seats and I went a little overboard shopping for baby clothes,” Sara confessed.
The First Foster Baby
Foster parenting was becoming a reality for the loving pair. As soon as the couple was licensed for fostering, they were called to take in a baby for a week. They loved it! Everything went really well, and they were glad to be called again to foster a sweet 3-year-old for the weekend.
In the beginning, they fostered many young children. The couple brought them into their home and loved them like their own. In all, they fostered 17 children on the road to their dream of adopting two. They did care for babies, but overall, Sara said, “We’ve had older kids placed with us, and I’m so glad.”
A Weekend with 3-year-old Michael
Their second-ever fostering request was to care for a toddler named Michael for one weekend. He was scheduled to spend just two days with them, but plans changed. Little Michael ended up staying with Sara and Stuart for a whole week.
They bonded with the child right away, but at the end of the week, they had to let him go back. The couple was prepared for this exact situation by training to be foster parents, and they were prepared in their hearts. Besides, the sad reality is, there are always more children in need of care. The couple was ready and willing to help.
An Unforeseen Change of Plans
Sara and Stuart were thrilled to get an extra week with Michael. They had a wonderful time together and found themselves bonding with the little guy. Soon, they would find themselves with him full-time.
On the adoption stories blog “Love What Matters,” Sara talks about how they were asked to watch Michael for a weekend. “We said yes,” she continues, “That weekend turned into a week. And that week into months. And those months into years.”
A Surprise Visitation
The truth is, Sara and Stuart did not realize they would be caring for Michael full-time. The foster agency requested their home for him, and the loving couple was happy to spend more time with the adorable child.
The next thing they knew, the agency requested a visit from another child. Imagine their surprise to learn that Michael’s big brother was coming to their home! Dayshawn was on his way to see his little brother. The four of them would be together as a family for the first time.
A Heartwarming Hug
When Michael spotted Dayshawn, he ran straight across the playground and jumped into his brother’s arms. Dayshawn lifted him up, embraced him, and hugged his baby brother for several minutes, with Michael returning the embrace. Sara and Stuart looked on with tears trickling down their faces.
The brothers were beside themselves with joy. The loving couple watched in amazement. It turned their hearts. They decided then and there these boys should not be separated again, ever.
Meeting Dayshawn was life changing. The couple came to the realization that in order to keep these boys together, they would have to adopt them both. But Dayshawn was 10 years old. Sara had never planned to adopt an older child.
She was just 23 herself, that would make her only 13 years older than her oldest son, if the adoption went through. She wasn’t confident about being a mother to an older child. She was finding herself going against the parameters she and Stuart had previously agreed to.
Rolling with the Changes
As the couple’s plans for fostering only young children were going out the window, they wondered what it would be like caring for a preteen. The teen years could be a challenge they were not ready to handle. What were they getting themselves into?
Yet, as they got to know Dayshawn, their fears seemed to subside. The loving and charismatic boy was winning their hearts. “We fell in love with Dayshawn the second he opened his mouth,” Sara told 'Good Morning America'.
Facing Up to the Challenge
Sara had not planned on adopting older children. She lacked experience and know-how with older kids. Yet, she started fostering babies without experience too. And she knew in her heart, she could not let the brothers be torn apart again. This was the driving force in the couple’s decision.
On the other hand, adopting two children would make it difficult to continue fostering. Sara and Stuart’s commitment to fostering children meant that they would be taking care of as many kids as they could. With two of their own, it would make that goal more challenging.
Changing Lives, One Child at a Time
Fostering children has filled Sara and Stuart’s lives with purpose and meaning. But it’s not easy, not by a long shot! “I love this life,” Sara wrote, “It’s crazy and hard and heartbreaking and life-giving and absolutely wonderful.”
Included in their commitment is a promise to reunite children with parents whenever possible. It can be very emotional after becoming attached to the children, but it’s also beyond rewarding to accomplish that goal for the family. Sara wrote, “I love being able to support families and cry happy (& sad!) tears when a mother gets her child back.”
Reuniting Michael and Dayshawn
Keeping the boys together was becoming a priority for Sara. Either she and Stuart would have to adopt them, or they would have to be reunited with their parents. “The best part about fostering is seeing parents work tremendously hard to get their children back,” Sara wrote. But they did not know how the decision to keep the boys together would pan out for their family. Would they be adoptive parents? Or would the boys get to go home? She said she still felt hesitant about adopting an older child, but the feelings were fading away.
Getting to know Dayshawn, Sara found he defied every stereotype about foster teens. She said he’s the most empathetic and compassionate person she knows with a personality that lights up every heart. He’s a social butterfly who welcomes each foster child who comes to the family.
Loving Dayshawn and Michael
The love the two brothers shared convinced the couple to keep them together. But it was also Dayshawn’s ways that motivated them. One time when a new foster child came into their home, Sara overheard Dayshawn. He whispered into the new boy’s ear, “I know this is scary. When I went to my first home I was scared too. But we are safe, and we will feed you, and we won’t hurt you at all. I’ll be your buddy.”
He melted their hearts on a daily basis. Not making the decision to adopt was becoming unimaginable. Sara felt too much love for those boys to make any other decision.
Their First Year as a Family
It was after the four of them had spent a year together as a family that Stuart and Sara got the ball rolling toward legal adoption. This meant they would have to deal with the courts and wait for a judge to decide if they could adopt Michael and Dayshawn.
If they didn’t follow the procedures for adoption, they found out, they could lose the boys, and they would likely be separated again. They could not let that happen. The couple carefully followed every step of the process.
As they engaged with the adoption process, they soon found that patience is their number one ally in dealing with waiting for an outcome. It took much longer than Sara had bargained for. It took six months just to get the wheels in motion. It went on for years, not months. They were waiting to know if they would have an official family, and the boys were also waiting excitedly to know that they had a permanent home.
The anxious wait was a roller coaster of emotions. They didn’t know what was going to happen. “We would want to support the goal of reunification, and we would mentally prepare ourselves for that and then all of a sudden, the case plan would be switched to adoption. And then 6 months later, back to reunification. This process went on for years.” Sara said the process taught her the value of patience. “Being a foster parent has given me the gift of patience.”
Preparing for the Long Haul
All they could do was wait patiently. Dayshawn was now a teenager, and Michael was growing tall. It would have been less complicated to adopt only one child, but that was not their fate.
As they waited, they found a silver lining. The four of them were becoming a family unit. As time went on, it only served to draw them closer together, and the boys were happy as could be living together as a family team. Things were going well, even as they were forced to wait.
A Happy Family
Living as a family was wonderful for the boys, but it also taught Sara something. It taught her what it feels like to have her own family and the special love that is shared. “These kids are awesome and it’s a privilege to get to spend my days with them,” Sara said.
When people tell her that the kids are lucky to have them as parents, she calls it laughable, it’s the opposite, “We feel so truly, and deeply blessed to have met every kid who has come through our door.” The experience of adopting has brought the family closer together. It has made them feel like a real family.
The Wait is Over!
Years of anxiety over the adoption process were finally melting away. The stress of waiting, at last, had a deadline. On August 13, 2018, the family would have their day in court. At that court date, the family would at long last receive the news. Finally, they would know for sure if the boys had a real home with real parents.
A permanent place meant the boys would not be separated, and it meant that they would share the last name of their parents. It was going to be a great, beautiful change.
An Emotional Day in Court
With so much anticipation for this day, it’s no surprise that the couple was filled with emotion. The long wait yielded this final day, and they both fought off tears of joy and relief.
On top of that, an unexpected event prompted Sara to break into sobs, right in the middle of the courtroom. There was no way to prepare for this! But in the end, coming from Dayshawn, it was just as she expected.
In the midst of the adoption hearing, Dayshawn had something to say. Everyone heard his response.
The judge was asking, “You think they all agree that this adoption ought to go forward?” At this vital moment, when Sara and Stuart were waiting eagerly to hear the announcement, something else happened instead.
Prompted by the Judge
Sitting anxiously, waiting for the finalization on the long-awaited adoption process, a voice from the court seating area spoke up. It was Dayshawn!
The judge asked if all agree that the adoption goes forward, and Dayshawn responded, “Yeah, they all love us.” People were shocked! His answer made them smile, laugh, and even tear up. But he was not finished.
Dayshawn’s reply to the judge caused many people to laugh, however, he also touched as many hearts with a few more words.
He piped up once more, and said, “We love them. Our whole family is the best thing we ever had. I’m glad to have these people in my life. I’m glad to be their son. They’re the best thing I ever had.” He told the judge the precise reason he wanted to be adopted, and there was hardly a dry eye.
Sara burst into tears. Her newly adopted son articulated exactly why he and his brother should be adopted, and he said it right in front of the judge. It made her think about all they had given the boys thus far, and why they loved them so much. She had given them the best thing they ever had in their young lives.
The expression of gratitude touched Stuart too. As foster parents, they felt redeemed, blessed, and confident in their new role as official parents. They celebrated the day with a ride home in a chauffeured limo.
A New Day
The long wait for adoption meant the boys would not be separated. Sara and Stuart felt relieved they had achieved that goal. Their efforts were paying off tenfold.
Dayshawn’s concluding remarks in the courtroom would have sealed the deal for the couple, if they hadn’t already. At the end of his speech, he said, “If I could wish for anything in the world, I would wish I could just love these people for the rest of my life.” Aww!
A swell of emotion came over the courtroom after Dayshawn’s speech. Family and friends present cheered the happy ending to Sara and Stuart’s adoption saga. Emotions ran high, and the Shank family was ready to celebrate.
The celebration included donuts and a party, and of course the limo ride. The Shanks hosted the party at their house following the hearing.
One of the first things the family celebrated was the boys’ new last name. With a sign, the boys commemorated the event. “I’ve shared their hearts and home for 947 days. But as of today, August 13, 2018, I share their last name.” The Shank family now included two adorable sons. Everyone agreed that Dayshawn and Michael Shank had a nice ring to it.
Dayshawn went a step further and chose a new middle name for himself. “He defies every stereotype of a teenage boy,” Sara said, so, when he chose the middle name “Star,” she felt it fit him perfectly.
Chosen. Loved. Adopted.
Though Sara and Stuart are strong advocates for reunification, their case landed in adoption. Sara said reunification was not possible in this situation. It turned out for the best. The boys were both so happy to be with the Shanks, and the Shanks were elated to call them their sons. They are thrilled about the boys’ future and being there for them.
Sara said that there is less than a 3% chance that teens who leave foster care at age 18 will earn a college degree. With her guidance, these boys have a good chance. Already, Dayshawn says he wants to be a basketball player, a doctor, or a social worker when he gets older.
Continuing Their Mission
The Shanks may have attained the family of their dreams, but they are not going to let go of their other dream—to foster children. Their first foster child they took in as a new family was a 14-year-old boy who was a victim of sex-trafficking.
Her goal is reunification, in most cases. She says her thinking has changed from simply fostering kids to saying, “I’m doing my part to foster love and connection between this child and their parents.” She feels like she is the parent’s cheerleader to reunite with his or her child. Benefits include less stress for the child, better relationships within the family, and a closer connection with the birth parents.
The Shank’s Commitment to Foster Care
The couple remains strong advocates for foster care. In fact, they are dedicating their assistance to helping children who are most in need. Sara wrote, “At this point, my husband and I only foster sex-trafficked teens and LGBTQ+ youth.”
Extra training was required, but they felt it was important as these two segments are the most neglected within the foster system. On the “Love What Matters” blog, Sara wrote, “It’s heartbreaking that these demographics of teens sit in social workers’ offices or shelters for weeks (or even months) on end since so few homes are open to them.”
Happily, Ever After
Sara and Stuart love what they are doing in their lives, and they want to keep on giving. They would like to open up their house as a specialized home for LGBTQ+ youth, teen moms, or sex-trafficked teens, wherever there is the most need. Sara implores others to be aware of the great need for foster homes. “There are thousands, upon thousands, of incredible kids out there needing someone just like you."
From her experience, she says, "These kids don’t need perfect, they need someone to show up each day, provide stability and just try their best. We have messed up many times. We’ve said the wrong thing, or let our emotions show when we needed to be strong, but guess what? Our kids understand. They know we’re human and that our family is a team. Everyone in our home has lots of practice apologizing. We’re just trying to get through all this together.” Today Sara is qualified as a trainer for foster parents.