Happy endings are possible, even in 2020

By Tom Reardon, December 2020 issue

Dawn Wallschlaeger and Stacy Mitchell Wallschlaeger adopted Skyler in August of 2019 and their story is possibly the happiest, most empowering story you will read in all of 2020.

What does it take to adopt or foster a child? If this is a question you have ever asked yourself or talked about with your partner, the following paragraphs are for you. If you grew up in the system, a number more than a name and maybe (no, probably) never found the right place for you, this story is also for you. For me, it is just a privilege to get to be the guy asking questions and getting answers.

Dawn Wallschlaeger and Stacy Mitchell Wallschlaeger are two of the coolest people you could ever meet. Sure, they love the Denver Broncos, but even if you’re a Raiders (what town do they represent again, now, oh yeah, Las Vegas) or a Kansas City Chiefs fan, you still couldn’t walk away from meeting these two without feeling good about yourself and the world, for that matter. They are both social workers whose efforts are entwined with finding the best possible life for the children in Phoenix who need it the most, foster kids.

They are also the adoptive parents of Skyler Mitchell Wallschlaeger, 17, who they were lucky enough to meet in late 2018 and officially add to their family several months later.

Stacy and Dawn, who have been together for ten years, have three other children, all sons. Two are older (Zander, 35, and Taylor, 20) than Sklyer, and one is younger (Jordan, 16). They were licensed to provide foster care in Arizona previous to meeting Skyler, although at the time of meeting them, were not really looking to add to their family. Stacy had taken a tough fall in the months prior to hearing about Skyler and the couple had also had a difficult experience with a previous foster child, so they were taking a break from the idea of adding to their family when fellow social workers started telling them about “this kid.”

What follows is some of the conversation we shared over Zoom on a Monday night in November. Stacy, Dawn, and Skyler were generous with their time and their story with the hope that it may help other children find forever families of their own. Here’s what they had to say:

Back row: Taylor and Jordan. Front row: Dawn, Skyler, and Stacy

So, tell me how you came to meet Skyler.

Stacy: So, we, we are members of a couple of different foster parents’ groups on Facebook. One in particular for LGBT parents, and the special recruiter that was working with Skyler had put them on Facebook. At the time, we really weren’t looking and were a little gun shy about it. Then we saw Skyler’s story from the special recruiter and talked about it. I don’t look at Facebook very often, so for us to see it at the time, it just seemed right. That was November 2018. We first met Sklyer right before Christmas, 2018.

Is it challenging for you both to be on both sides of the system? What is that experience like?

Dawn: Stacy and I both work in their field. We’re both social workers in child welfare, a lot of people who have been licensed for a while work in the fields of social work here in Arizona for 25 and 35 years. Sometimes that’s a benefit, and sometimes it’s not such a great thing.

Skyler came into our lives actually in a couple of different ways. Stacy was looking at Facebook, and I was kind of perusing through that and we have a mutual friend, a special recruiter for Arizona Children’s Association, Jen Workman, who was looking for a same-sex couple, specifically, to advocate for Skyler; and we were also approached by Ricky Denwood, who is now at DCS, who privately reached out and said, “This is really gonna be a great match for you. You guys really need to look at this.”

I was still recovering so we kind of put it off a little bit and Skyler just kept coming up. It was just kind of meant to be. Stacy and I really feel strongly about things happening for a reason and it was very persistent for us. Skylar was just very persistent about that so there’s a lot of things that kind of came to fruition.

Stacy: First I will tell you that “Skyler” is not Skyler’s birth name. It is Skyler’s chosen name. Skyler uses they/them pronouns. The part of the story I think that resonated for us … When we got licensed (for foster care), we decided that we wanted to do a couple of things. We wanted to focus on teenagers and kids that were in group homes because what we know from working in the business is that kids languish in group homes and they get to the point they don’t want families or families are looking for younger kids, all that kind of stuff. We were like, if we’re really going to do this, then we want to go where we are really needed, and we know the need is for kids in group homes.

And we also know that the need is there for LGBTQ homes and that’s something that we can provide that other families can’t provide. That understanding, that acceptance, that ability to walk this path. Gender identity was part of Skyler’s story and they were a teenager in group homes. At that point, they had been in the system for six years.

Oh wow.

Stacy: The parent’s rights had severed when they were ten.

Dawn: Many, many, many different placements. So, there was a lot of upheaval and a lot of moving and not and a lot of true stability from our perspective. I think that’s the other piece, right, when you have kiddos that have been in group homes, their sense of stability is instability, and that had become pretty, pretty prevalent.

Stacy: Skyler really wanted a family.

Dawn: Skyler really wanted a family and wanted a family within the LGBTQ realm. Wanting two moms, in particular, and really have the ideal family. That spoke to us. On our first visit, they were at a group home, and Stacy and I broke down and we took them to Starbucks and for two hours, that kid did not stop talking. They were super happy, very open, and it was just kind of there. We just sat there and thought, “Well, all right. There we are. This was meant to be.” I think the next weekend they visited with us again.

Stacy: They visited with us on Christmas day and they were placed with us on January 4 (2019).

Isn’t it typically about a three-month waiting period before children move in?

Stacy: There’s reasons for that, there’s absolutely reasons for that. I think it has to do with our experience of being in the field and our sense that this was the right thing that Skyler was a match, and we were a match for Skyler. For us it was really about that we went into it to foster and we’ll adopt if it is right and the kid wants that. Now we know Skyler wanted to be a family. The decision to adopt does take a long time but we also know there are reasons for that time.

Does the system realize how tough it is for the LGBTQ+ kids within it?

Stacy: I think the system doesn’t always realize how tough it is for all the kids in it.

Right, not to downplay the toughness there is for all kids in the system, but there are not a lot of options for children who are LGBTQ+, correct?

Dawn: I think that is a very valid point. The LGBTQ kiddos don’t have as much advocacy, I think. That’s the case in general, let alone, kids that are in the DCS system and living in group homes. If they identify on their journeys a certain way there can be a lack of understanding of their challenge.

We can say that from our perspective because there are agencies out there that will license families that are LGBTQ-identified, and then there’s the next step of actually supporting those families and understanding their needs as advocates.

I think you can multiply that by 10 for the kiddos that are raised within this system that identify as LGBTQ because there’s a perspective where, “Oh, you don’t really know yet,” or “Oh, you know, but you don’t know where you fit in” or “It is a phase.” There’s so many discounting or saying “It’s just your trauma” that occurs, but I do believe that is absolutely valid that there are not enough resources.

So, what steps do you think people, or the system, can take to be better advocates for LGBTQ+ youth?

Stacy: You know just talk to other foster parents. You know, probably the number one question we get on Facebook, every day practically, is like, “My wife and I are wanting to become foster parents, which agency should we go to?” Gay and straight both are asking that question because everyone is trying to look for an agency that is going to be a fit for them.

Dawn: That’s the other piece, when you are networking, when you’re getting to know people, you’re reaching out, ask the questions about what are the steps that you take that are above and beyond? Do you have a special advocacy group for LGBT families? Who can you connect me with, are there other LGBTQ families that you’ve been licensed with, or that our licensed with you because it is really important to talk to other people about their experience?

That’s great advice. We should probably get Skyler’s opinion on all this. Skyler, do you remember what your first thought or feeling was when you met your moms?

Skyler: My gut feeling was (pauses) … my gut feeling was, “They are safe.” That was my reaction. I was really excited. As soon as I met them, they let me talk and talk and talk.

I heard. If you were going to give advice to someone in a similar situation as you, what would it be?

Skyler: Be who you are because it is not going to cost you anything. A lot of our mindsets, when we get out of group homes, is that everyone is just always taking from us. So, if we just be ourselves and just show them who we are, it’s not going to cost us anything. They’re not taking from us. We are giving to them and they are giving back.

That’s really beautiful. If you could do anything differently or if there was a big learning experience from your first few months together, what would that be?

Skyler: I’ve had a couple of experiences where I just wish I would have been more honest with them. They already knew everything but there are a couple of instances where I wish I would have just told them what was on my mind.

What’s the best part of your family?

Skyler: Throughout the years they have started putting up pictures of us and pictures of me that they received and it’s like slowly putting me into the family, officially, and that was really nice.

Please click here to meet 30 Arizona children looking for a forever home.

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