RIPLEY, W.Va. (WV News) – There are countless people in Jackson County who have opened their homes and their hearts to welcome children in need of a safe place. It is still the hope of those in the placement field, such as KVC and the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHR) that a family reunification will take place.
Sometimes children are placed with a family that has no blood relationship with them; sometimes placement is with a relative.
When that cannot happen, the next hope is that the adoption will happen. When the host family chooses to do so, there is a special bond.
The Wagoners of Ravenswood and the Barnettes of Evans took different paths to expand their families.
In the case of Toby and Jennifer Wagoner, the number of children who came to them was not what they had expected.
Toby remembers seeing a foster family at his church in Spencer. What was remarkable for him and his wife was the difference they saw happening in the children as they felt more secure and loved.
“It made us think that maybe one day this might be something for us to do,” he said. “When we moved to Ravenswood, our two daughters were getting older and our house was big. So we thought we could get a clean kid.
A particularly important part of the decision-making was getting their daughters’ approval.
“We wouldn’t have continued if they hadn’t agreed,” Toby said.
With everyone on board, the couple signed up for DHHR’s foster care courses.
“I actually started thinking these classes were silly because Jen and I knew how to be parents,” Toby said. “But we soon learned that children face many challenges, including the trauma of being removed from the only family they know. I was also amazed and saddened by the number of grandparents and other family members who were attending classes.”
After training, along with a background and fingerprint check, the Wagoners waited to get a game.
When the call came it was not what they expected.
“Instead of the potty-trained little girl, we were asked to foster a four-year-old toddler,” Toby said. “Ok, we thought maybe we could handle this. Then the social worker said, “and he has a seven-year-old brother who is loving and friendly, neglected but not abused.” But that was not all. She said there was also an eight-week-old baby sister.
Jennifer, from a large family, was willing to take all three as she did not want the children separated. Toby agreed, so three children moved into their house.
“I wouldn’t say it was easy,” Toby said. “These kids, especially John who was much more aware of everything that was going on, had been through some tough times. Helping them adjust wasn’t just about new clothes and toys. We also had no idea how permanent the situation would be, as the courts gave parents the opportunity to take the necessary steps to get their children back.
The kids named their adoptive parents Toby and Jennifer because, as Toby told them, “Moms and dads are forever and now we’re just a fun, safe place for you until we see if your parents do what the judge says.” He said they expected the children to return to their birth parents.
Three years later, parental rights were terminated and the children needed permanent placement.
Jennifer said: “I couldn’t imagine these kids being with anyone else. I’ve had Hannah since she was a baby and loved her so much. The boys and I had to grow up on each other, honestly, but we love each other deeply. If Toby hadn’t agreed to the adoption, he would have had a fight on his hands.
When it comes to the issue of adoption, the Wagoners took a different route.
“We asked all three of them if they wanted to adopt us as parents,” Toby said. “When they said ‘yes’, we told them it was great because we wanted to adopt them as our children. And now we told them they had to call us mom and dad because that’s what we were.
The only issue the couple were concerned about was the cost of adoption. Toby said DHHR does offer assistance in some cases and theirs falls into that category.
As in any family, there have been both successes and joys, as well as obstacles and challenges.
As their eldest son John said, “When I got here, I was absolutely terrified. Not only had I lost my toys and my clothes, but all my family and all my friends. But I couldn’t ask for better parents than my mom and dad. They treated us like their two biological daughters, taught us right from wrong. I have a wonderful life.
This wonderful life includes a job and a fiancé for John, enlisting in the Air Force for Aaron and Hannah still at home preparing for high school.
For Toby and Jennifer, they believe that God gave them these children for a reason.
“It’s not easy. It’s not, but the need is so great,” Jennifer said. “I can’t imagine life without my five kids.”
Although she adopted her two grandchildren in 2020, Sherry Barnette will always be “Grammy” for them.
“When things progressed to the point that I adopted them,” Barnette said, “they had already been living with me for many years.”
The story of Huck and Harlow is one that happens far too often in West Virginia. Their father abandoned them. Their mother, Barnette’s youngest daughter, was a drug addict.
“She moved in with me and my son, Drew, when the kids were three,” Barnette said.
There were a lot of ups and downs during that time, but the constant in their lives was their Grammys.
Eventually, when the twins were between seven and eight years old, their mother left.
“Honestly, I thought she would come back,” Barnette said. “She went to a friend’s house and then things got even worse. But she checked on the kids from time to time.
Barnette’s daughter, Adena Barnette, said that although her sister cut a lot of ties with the choices she made, “she loves her children.”
The children had many questions. Huck, who was less open with his feelings, had nightmares and asked if his mother was coming back or if she was still alive. Harlow, who shared more easily, worried about his mom.
“It was very difficult times,” Barnette said.
But the stability her mother was able to give the kids made all the difference, Adena said.
“There was discipline, routines with the bath and school, all the things that made them feel safe,” she said.
Both mother and daughter give “Uncle Drew” a lot of credit.
“My brother filled the father role in their lives,” Adena said. “He is wonderful with them. He picks them up from school, makes sure the homework is done. It’s just priceless.
While not wanting to take custody of the children from their mother, Barnette said the problem she was facing was related to medical and school issues.
“I was unable to access medical care for them because I was not their legal guardian,” Barnette said. “I couldn’t sign, I couldn’t do anything.”
When Adena told her mother that the children needed a lawyer, she realized she needed a lawyer to carry on.
“So we went to see someone who had been an adoptive parent himself,” Barnette said. “She told me I was the third grandparent she had seen that week and it was only Wednesday.”
Just like the Wagoners, Barnette had to take foster care classes through DHHR.
“It took weeks and I had to do the background check, the fingerprints, the house inspection,” Barnette said. “And while I was still in the caretaker role, it was weird having to ask if I could get them out of state. They asked me if I wanted to foster or adopt. He didn’t there was no question in my mind.
When the family sat down Huck and Harlow to talk about the adoption, there were some tough questions to answer.
“When I asked if they knew what adoption was, Harlow said ‘it’s when you take kids and make them yours,'” Barnette said. “I told them I would still be Grammy’d, but someone had to take care of them, and mom was sick and couldn’t do that.”
Huck’s questions were more pointed.
Barnette said he wanted to know where he would be staying and how long. When Barnette explained that they would be with her until she was 18, Harlow said, “But what happens after that?”
With the assurance that they would be in this house as long as they wanted, Barnette said they agreed to be in a safe place. Another reassuring thing.
“We asked if they wanted to change their last name,” Barnette said. “They said no because they were afraid no one would know them. We honored their decision.
Along with their Aunt Adena, Uncle Drew and Grammy, the twins will soon have an official Uncle Dave.
Adena will marry Dave Miller in a few weeks. But there will be no adjustment for Huck and Harlow.
“The first time she met Dave, Harlow ran over and hugged him,” Adena said with a smile. “She knew before me that he was going to be an integral part of our lives.”
Miller said Huck was a little harder to get to know.
“He’s such a funny kid and he has a natural curiosity that makes him want to figure it all out,” he said. “I asked him once where he wanted to go on vacation, waiting for Disney or somewhere like that. He said Dubai. He’s pretty amazing.
With stability in their lives, Huck and Harlow have blossomed, Adena said.
“Harlow is so in love, and she speaks to everyone,” she said. “She’s frugal, funny, loves music and crafts.”
Huck loves building things, math and is very social. He recently won his school’s math field day competition.
“We encourage them to be themselves,” Adena said. “We are a unique family, very open and discussing everything.”
Although Barnette knows she has done well with her grandchildren, she says they have given her so much more.
“I lost my parents last year,” she said. “These children healed my heart.”
As for her youngest daughter, Barnette said she has been making progress and has been potty trained for some time. The children have a relationship with her.
“She’s still their mother,” she said. “But their home will always be with me.”