Part 1, 2
Chris meets the family for the first time at a restaurant near the treatment center where he's staying. Photo by Ellen Guettler
When Chris finally meets the family, it's at a restaurant near his treatment center - an ice cream and burgers place. Eric and Shannon have taken time off work. They've taken their kids out of school. They get a big table and wait for Chris.
When the family finally spots him walking in the parking lot with Jen Braun, it's as if they've spotted a celebrity. Chris walks through the door grinning. He hugs them all, and then it's sort of awkward for a while. Jen Braun gets them all to list things about themselves so they can get to know each other. Shannon tells Chris the family likes to laugh. Sean tells him they have family night every Friday; they get pizza and a movie. Chris offers that he loves paintball and hates fishing.
Things are going well until Shannon mentions that they don't allow TV on school nights. Chris looks alarmed. But then he says he's not really that interested in TV. And Shannon says they can negotiate.
After they've eaten lunch, Shannon passes a gift bag down the table to Chris.
There's a screaming yellow t-shirt in the bag. And under that, Chris finds a fleece blanket. His mouth opens a little, but he doesn't say anything. He pulls the blanket out and then he touches it to his face. He looks overwhelmed. For a while, he doesn't say anything at all.
The family spends almost two hours together. By the time they say goodbye the restaurant has pretty well emptied out. Out in the parking lot, Chris climbs into Jen's car. He flashes her a grin and gives her a thumbs up. Later, he phones Jen's boss and tells her to give Jen a raise for finding him such a cool family.
What follows is almost like a courtship. Letters and phone calls and lots of text messages. Amanda starts spending nights and weekends with the family. They all visit Chris together. Eric and Shannon put thousands of miles on their car.
Amanda is like a girl in love.
"They're awesome," Amanda gushes. "I say one thing and they start laughing. One time we were making beaded glass necklaces. I said something and we laughed for five minutes straight. After that, when I was at school, Eric texted me. He said, 'I miss my sides and cheeks hurting when you're not around.' I'm like, 'Yeah…' What do you say? I love them. They're pretty cool."
Just before Christmas, just before her 16th birthday, she leaves her school and all her friends. She leaves the foster family she's been with for three years. She and Eric load her things into the van and she moves to their house.
Chris is still living in the residential treatment center two hours away, but he gets to spend quite a lot of time with the family. They visit him every weekend, and then Eric or Shannon visits him midweek.
In April, Chris is finally released from his treatment center. He decrees a pajama day for his first day home. Everyone has to wear pajamas all day and just be home together.
A few weeks later, it's Mother's Day. Amanda writes Shannon a poem - and Chris types it. All the kids get up early and pitch in to make her a bagel and eggs.
At home with his new family, Chris's has adopted a snake and named it Jess. Photo by Ellen Guettler
Chris is in a great mood, making jokes and playing with his new pet snake, Jess. He and Amanda both call Eric and Shannon "mom" and "dad."
"I was telling Mom that - I go, I think over half our family's adopted," Chris says. "She goes, 'Just you and Amanda.' I go, 'Well, Dorey's adopted, Jess is adopted, me and Amanda.' See? We just love to adopt."
Dorey is one of the dogs. There's another dog, Sunny. But Shannon explains that Sonny wasn't adopted. They bought her.
Things seem to be going so well. Then one day they aren't. Shannon and Eric get into a dispute with Chris over a video game. Shannon wants to take the game away from Chris to punish him for some misbehavior. Chris won't give it to her.
"I asked him one more time for it," Shannon says. "And Eric finally got tired of the back and forth so he came in and asked Chris for the game and Chris said no. Eric didn't give him a second's hesitation, he just snatched it right out of his hand."
When Eric walked away, Chris got up and shoved him.
"And then Amanda went to grab Chris and he turned and elbowed her in the neck," Shannon continues. "[Chris's] back was to Eric and Eric grabbed him from the back and Amanda was kind of in the front so there was kind of this threesome that [was] struggling together. And that's when I said that I was going to call the police."
Shannon called the police. And Chris exploded.
"He started throwing things around, breaking things," Amanda recalls. "He broke my stereo in half; he put that hole in the wall right there. Then he took all the pictures of him out of my room - all the picture frames that he was in, he took the pictures out of them. He tried to pack up his things and waited for the cops to come."
Eric and Shannon went to see Chris in court the next day. They hugged him. They told him they loved him. And then the police took him away. He's back in residential treatment now.
Eric and Shannon say they still want to be his parents. They still want to adopt him. But if he comes back to live with them, they need to know this won't happen again. As much as they'll sacrifice their own safety, they won't put their kids in danger.
But they say they don't regret taking Chris in.
"I think our capacity to love has grown immeasurably as a family," Shannon says. "I think the world needs families to step up to the plate and practice what they preach about loving others and having unconditional love."
"And they have given so much into our lives," Eric adds. "The love and the good times and the laughter, I mean they always outweigh what we're going through with this. We have a lot of high hopes for Chris and Amanda."
Eric's voice breaks as he adds, "It's my dream that that will be realized."
Amanda's eyes fill with tears when she sees Eric cry. She says she's still in love with this family. She still wants to be adopted. But the joy is bittersweet. The family will have to get a legal document called a "separation of siblings." That lets them adopt Amanda without Chris. As long as Chris is refusing to join the family, Amanda will have to go ahead without her brother.
Two months later, the paperwork is all finally in order.
It's a spectacular fall day. The family gathers at a small town courthouse. Everyone is there.
Amanda is legally adopted. From left, Korbin, Chris, Sean, Kierstin, Amanda, Judge John McBride, Shannon, Eric, social worker Kelly Schaaf, adoption recruiter Jen Braun. Photo by Stephen Smith
Chris is there too.
He's been talking with the family and he wanted to come to Amanda's adoption. Chris and Amanda wrap their arms around each other and hug for a long time.
In the courtroom, Amanda sits between Eric and Shannon in front of the judge. Chris sits out in the audience, between two social workers. He looks down at his hands in his lap.
The judge asks Eric and Shannon if they're sure. They say they are. He asks Amanda how she feels. She tells him she's happy. She is grinning.
The kids' adoption recruiter, Jen Braun, leans over and whispers something to Chris, and he breaks into a smile, too.
Amanda's still grinning and laughing as the family assembles on the courthouse lawn for pictures. She's clutching a little bunch of flowers someone gave her. Every little thing makes her laugh. Eric and Shannon are grinning, too.
The whole group piles into cars and they all head off for a celebration brunch.
Soon after, the family gets a call from Chris. He's changed his mind.
What Jen Braun said to him in the courtroom was, "That will be you someday." And Chris wants it to be him. He's told the family he wants to be adopted, too, if they still want to have him. And they do still want him. As soon as they can get the paperwork done, they'll make it official. They'll be his family forever, his and Amanda's, no matter what happens.
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