‘Maybe there is hope’
Brandon had been through this before. Too many times.
He’d been in more foster homes than he could remember, having been in and out of the child welfare system since he was 3. He’d been close to adoption before. In the end, it never worked out. The people who said they wanted to be his parents always changed their minds.
This time felt different, though. Brandon felt something he hadn’t always felt before.
This time, Brandon felt hope.
He wasn’t the only one. Luanne and Michael Blackburn, newly approved to become adoptive parents, were also hopeful.
The three of them started their journey to becoming a family one day in late 2019, one that would lead to the happiest of days in September just a year later – adoption day.
It was a day Brandon had started to think might never happen.
“When I would get someone who would try to adopt me, they would just not want me anymore for some reason,” Brandon said. “When I went and met them (Luanne and Michael), it was just like that same feeling that they're probably not going to want me, or they're just going to throw me out for no apparent reason.
“But when I was talking to them, … I was like, well, maybe there is hope. Cause we have a lot in common, and we grew a really good bond.”
Opening their hearts
Brandon’s circumstances today are wildly different from his past.
At 3 years old, he entered the foster care system, the start of a pattern that would shape his formative years.
“It was just in and out, in and out,” he said. He moved from foster house to foster house, returning to his mother for brief periods in between.
What he came home to was never ideal.
When he was with his mom, they sometimes lived in hotels – the kind that let you pay by the week and weren’t always the cleanest, he said. Foster care was better, but he often had to share his room and his belongings. He didn’t have his own personal space, something he deeply wanted.
The moves also meant switching schools, sometimes three or four times a year. It was a long, arduous childhood for Brandon, who was just looking to find a stable place he could call home.
He didn’t know he was about to find it right before Christmas 2019, 12 years after first entering the system and at 15 years old. He had been on the adoption list that time for less than a week when a new family, the Blackburns, showed interest.
The Blackburns had just received their approval to adopt. They looked through adoption books a few times and spotted a curly headed blonde boy named Brandon.
Michael and Luanne have three grown children, now in their 30s and 40s. Their house had been mostly empty for more than seven years.
They have so much, and they knew kids like Brandon have so little.
“When I was 30, 35 years old, I was working for a career and trying to get a house paid for, get stuff and make a life. Well, I have it now. It's time to share it,” Michael said. “(Looking through the books) I just could not believe what some of these kids have been through. We have to help somebody.”
They wanted one child, and they settled on offering their hearts and homes to a teen, maybe in the 16- to 18-year-old range. They knew it could be difficult to find parents for children who have already been through so much trauma. Babies are easily placed, but it takes a special person to open their home to someone approaching adulthood. And the book was full of children in need.
“I was inspired by this quote from Mother Teresa, who said, ‘If you can't feed the hundred, then just feed the one,’ Luanne said. “That always was in the back of my mind. Well, OK, maybe we could just help one.”
When they came across Brandon’s profile, the Blackburns decided they were interested even though he was a little younger than they originally intended. They were told they might be a good fit, having raised three teenagers of their own.
Michael had his heart set on adopting a boy – “I know I couldn’t relate to a teenage girl at all,” he joked. He looked at Brandon and thought about his own son, Josh, the different lives they’d had.
“Brandon in two years would just be out (of the system). I would never stand for that for my son,” Michael said. “I'm not going to let Brandon, two years from now, just, you know, walk out the front door and say ‘Good luck.’ He’s going to be a part of our family forever.”
The Blackburns were due to leave on a vacation the following week, so they asked to meet Brandon as soon as possible. A get-together was set up within a day.
They remember Brandon walking in, wearing earbuds, and they worried at first. Would he be a shy teenager who didn’t talk much? The three, along with Brandon’s caseworker, went to a Mexican restaurant, Brandon’s favorite.
Their worries were quickly put to rest. As it turned out, Brandon had plenty to say.
He told them his favorite color is midnight blue – not just blue, midnight blue, he insisted – and he loves fishing, which led the Blackburns to tell him about their boat.
“I really like this,” Brandon recalls thinking. “I kind of had my head up, like maybe this will work out, maybe like for once, something happy in my life would work out.”
They talked. They shared. They learned.
The Blackburns told Brandon about their family. Brandon would, if all went well, be joining a big family. He needed to know he wouldn’t be the focus, but “grafted in,” as Luanne put it.
Brandon quickly got to experience that firsthand. Luanne’s big extended family came to visit for the holidays, an experience Michael admitted might have been overwhelming for Brandon.
But those moments were so important to Michael and Luanne, who wanted to show Brandon what Christmas could be like with a big, happy family.
They wanted to show Brandon so many joys they’d experienced as a family. Traveling was at the top of the list, with Brandon meeting their loved ones along the way.
The most memorable trip for Brandon was their vacation to Florida, where Brandon went deep-sea fishing and snorkeling and fulfilled a dream so many kids take for granted – to see the beach.
He’ll never forget feeling the sand between his toes – or that first accidental taste of sea water.
“I had told them that my dream vacation was just to be at a beach,” he said. “And when we went to Florida and actually went to a beach, I was really surprised that I was actually there. That was probably my biggest moment of like, ‘Wow, this is actually happening.’”
Brandon had lived with the Blackburns for about eight months.
It was time to make it official. It was time for adoption day.
At that point, it was mostly a formality to everyone involved. That didn’t make the day any less special, though. Far from it.
“To me, I thought about it, it's kind of like a second birthday (for Brandon), and then it was ‘This is really happening,’” Michael said. “…This is it. Once we get here, we can't change our minds. We're not backing out anyway, but it just sort of made it real.”
That was true for Brandon, especially. After years of waiting, that moment – his moment – had finally arrived.
His past still haunted him, though. A tiny bit of fear lingered.
“Like a week before (the adoption) is when it really hit me,” he said. “Are they actually gonna throw me out before it?”
The pressure of standing in that courtroom was overwhelming at first, he remembers. He answered the easy questions – his name, his birthday – and then, the judge posed the most important query of them all: Did he want to be adopted by the Blackburns?
It was a resounding yes.
It was a special day. The family made a poster mimicking a birth announcement proclaiming, “It’s a boy!” with Brandon’s height and weight.
They had a party afterward, a dinner with family. Some DCS employees who had been around Brandon for almost a decade joined in on the festivities. They, too, had planned a celebration, which featured a fire truck and some special visitors, including a former teacher of Brandon’s who took the day off to be there for his big moment, along with his past and current caseworkers.
“They really made him feel very special, brought gifts and had cake right there at the DCS office,” Luanne said. “It made us all feel very special.”
Now that the adoption has been finalized, Brandon’s fears have finally faded. Now, he said, he knows he won’t be thrown out again. He knows his family loves him.
It’s been a transition for everyone. Brandon still doesn’t always refer to Michael and Luanne as Mom and Dad, although he’s getting more comfortable with the idea and will openly refer to them that way when talking to others.
“I feel really good about them. I really like them a lot,” Brandon said. “We have a really strong bond together, and I think that's important in a relationship.”
Each of Brandon’s new parents is finding special ways to spend time with him. For Luanne, it’s through her helping him with school work and through a newfound interest for Brandon, antiquing.
Not surprisingly, Michael and Brandon have bonded over fishing – Michael fished a lot when he was younger – and Brandon has tried to teach Michael how to play some racing video games.
Brandon has the advantage when it comes to video games, but that’s not all. Who is the better fisherman of the two? “Obviously me,” Brandon said, without argument from his new dad.
Now that he is finally home, Brandon, now 16, doesn’t plan on leaving any time soon. He wants to save up money to be able to get his own place, and he doesn’t want to go the apartment route. Brandon hopes to save up enough money to buy a small house. He plans to stay at home until he’s about 21, something he figured his new parents wouldn’t love hearing.
Quite the contrary, actually.
“I’m OK with that,” Luanne said with a smile.
“It’s fine with us,” Michael added.
However long he stays at home, Brandon has something he hasn’t had in so long – his own room and his own space. And a mom and dad he can count on.
He has finally found his home. He has finally found his family.
He finally has reason for hope, thanks to Michael and Luanne and everyone who helped make his adoption possible.
“We can take somebody who obviously life hasn’t been fair to, and try to show him that things can work out for you,” Michael said. “You can have hope. You can have dreams.”