A small trend, but a very big family

Adoption of siblings, while still difficult, gains momentum

At church, the Hughes family fills the front two pews. At breakfast, the kids put away three boxes of cereal and two gallons of milk. Some days, Shirley Hughes goes to the supermarket twice, saying, "The kids eat it all on the way home."

But through it all, their home is surprisingly quiet for the number of children inside: 10. Frank. Teresa. Asucena. Steven. Agustino. Juan. Enrique. Maria. Veronica. Doni.

While Shirley and Van Hughes have been their foster parents for years, yesterday they made it official. Experts say it may be the largest adoption of siblings in United States history.

As unusual as this desert union may seem today, child advocates hope it's the future of adoption in America. Experts have long touted the benefits of keeping brothers and sisters together, and momentum for doing just that appears to be growing. But as more efforts are made every day, many barriers still exist.

"We certainly do try to keep siblings together, but it is so difficult," says Page Jolly of the Florida Department of Children and Families.

There simply are not enough adoptive homes, let alone people willing to take more than one child. Add to that, caseworkers are under increasing pressure to get kids into permanent homes with President Clinton's 1997 mandate that states double the number of adoptions of foster children by the year 2002.

Nothing requires the nation's child-welfare officials to place siblings together, and few can pass up a good adoptive home for one child on the off chance that they might find another that would take that child and siblings.

In some cases, one sibling may have emotional, behavioral, or physical problems that make him hard to place, while the other sibling is healthy and easily adoptable.

"When you're talking about foster children, they're often coming in with some sort of problem," says Kathyrn Pidgeon, a Phoenix attorney and chairwoman of the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys. "It may just be overwhelming for one family to take all of them."

She recently finalized the adoption of five siblings by a single mother, but is also handling the adoption of three brothers by three different families.

"We're still seeing a lot of children separated," says Ms. Pidgeon, particularly when the children are half brothers or half sisters. "There seems to be less concern about keeping them together even though they may have grown up together."

In Arizona, about 120 children are available for adoption, and 88 of those are part of sibling groups, such a significant number that it seems almost impossible all will be kept together.

The 10 new Hughes children are the exception.

"An adoption that size is definitely rare," says Josh Kroll of the Minnesota-based North American Council on Adoptable Children. He recalls an adoption of nine siblings in North Carolina, but that was some time ago.

STILL, keeping the siblings together was not an easy task. They originally were taken in by child-welfare officials, thrust into different foster homes and shelters, and kept apart for years.

It was the last day in April 1995 when police found them, along with seven of their cousins, hungry and fending for themselves in a trash-strewn house in downtown Phoenix. Their mothers had been gone for days.

The oldest boy, Frank, was 14 at the time and stole food for the children. Teresa, then just 13, was the closest thing they had to a mother.

At about the same time police discovered the siblings, Van and Shirley Hughes decided to take in foster children. Their own two sons, now adults with children of their own, had moved out.

"It was too quiet," Van says.

So in June of that year, three-year-old Maria arrived. She said little more than "yes" or "no" for the first six months. A month after Maria arrived, case workers asked the Hugheses to take Enrique and Juan, who were 5 and 6. Then came three-year-old Veronica and two-year-old Doni, the youngest of the clan.

Two years ago, with the five youngest children already with the Hugheses, caseworkers asked them to take the older five as well. Van and Shirley balked. They were in their 50s and figured they should be planning their retirement, not another family.

But if they hadn't taken the remaining five, Shirley says, the kids would have been sent to different adoptive homes out of state.

"We couldn't let them be split up," says Shirley, who wears an "I love Mom" gold charm around her neck, a birthday present from the children.

So in 1997, the remaining five children moved in. Van and Shirley told the kids that they could call them by their names or "Mom" and "Dad." All chose to call them Mom and Dad.

Today, Veronica has a loose tooth. Her brother, Doni, follows Shirley everywhere, even camping outside the bathroom door while she's inside. Even though he has trouble hearing, he can hear Shirley pick up the keys to their 15-passenger van no matter where he is in the house.

"Where you goin'?" he asks.

"I'm going crazy," Shirley says.

"Can I go?" he asks.

"You're driving me there," she tells him.

The children set the rules of the house. Bed at 8:30 p.m. for the little kids, 10 p.m. for the teens. Curfew. Chores. Homework before television.

This is no place for a dictatorship, Van says. Problems get hammered out at family meetings, which anyone can call.

"There is nothing we cannot sit down and talk about," Shirley says. "There are no mistakes that cannot be rectified, nothing that cannot be forgiven."

And when Shirley and Van don't have a solution to a problem, they turn to the big Bible that rests on a shelf near the front door.

"In this home, God is the foundation," Shirley says, "and every child is a building block."

At night, after the kitchen and the kids are clean, and prayers have been said, the house is quiet. Van, retired from the Navy, works nights as a security guard at Phoenix City Hall. He comes home at midnight.

Married for 32 years, Van puts his arm around his wife, as he does every night, kisses her and says, "These are happy times, Shir, you know that?"

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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