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A foster child, now grown, contemplates the family you leave and the families you find

Richard Oden and his siblings were abandoned in a hotel room in Alabama when he was 6 years old. Over the course of the next six years, he and his little sister would live in 10 different foster homes.

Now 34, the Opelika, Alabama, man has had plenty of time to think about family — the family that fails you and others that save you. Those that forged him include the family that adopted him, the many foster homes that came before that, the military and the family into which he married.

His birth mother was known to police as a prostitute; his father abandoned him along with three siblings. The child welfare system separated the children. His brothers, 8 and 10, were placed in one home, while he and his 3-year-old sister Laura were placed in another. Then, as now, it's hard to find foster homes for multiple siblings — and even harder to find families to adopt them, if the children can’t go back home.

The system can put shelter over a child’s head. Providing stability or permanency is more difficult — something many of America’s estimated 415,000 children in foster care know very well. Case workers try first to put families back together again, and just over half the time they succeed. But the other nearly half of the children will never reunite with their parents. For 25 percent of children in foster care, home life was so egregious the goal is adoption — something that’s easier with younger children than with older ones, according to the federal government’s Child Welfare Information Gateway. When they can’t go back home safely and no one adopts them, many foster kids simply "age out" of care, launching into adulthood without benefit of a family to provide love and support.

Five years ago, 18 adoption and family policy experts — including respected leaders from universities, human service programs, foundations and child-advocacy groups nationwide — met at Harvard to explore barriers to adoption in the foster care system. Their oft-cited 2012 white paper on the nation’s sometimes disjointed child welfare system said that, without question, “adoption is preferable to aging out” of foster care if families cannot be reunited. It makes money sense, too: Every $1 spent on adoptions for foster children yields $3 worth of benefit.

But the panel learned as few as one in 28 families who ask about adopting a child in foster care follows through. The report cited diverse factors, from inadequate support services for adoptive families to overworked case managers, inconsistent rules and more. Even the child can be a barrier. “Do you want to be adopted?” is a tough question for a child amid turmoil, the paper noted. Richard echoes that.

“We foster kids never lose hope that our real parents, no matter how bad the situation is, are going to come back and get us. Adoption had never even crossed my mind," he said.

He’d been told his parents’ rights were terminated, but didn’t know what it meant. He and Laura were on the extreme end of instability. They’d had one four-year foster placement that ended when the couple transferred out of state for work and could not take the children with them. Aside from that, they moved nine times in less than two years. “We moved all the time and that came with some baggage,” he said.

Richard didn't know that a real home and healthy family were in his future. Or that when he grew up he'd want to pay it forward.

Earlier this year, Richard and his wife Brittany Oden did just that. In January, they adopted three foster children: siblings Gabbi, Kentrell and Elijah, ages 4-7, who they are raising alongside their daughter Annabelle, almost 2. She was born while Oden served overseas in Afghanistan. They plan to give the children the kind of stable home life that nearly eluded Richard.

Proud veteran and dad

Richard will tell you his childhood was a training ground for his callings as an adult, and he's written a book about his unique family life. He is father, son, husband, brother, UPS driver and soldier. Oden serves with the Alabama Air National Guard’s 187th Fighter Wing and wrote much of his story during and about his deployment in Afghanistan. The book, “My Full Life Circle Squared,” a play on words about how life sometimes repeats, purposefully, will be released by Christian Faith Publishing on Veterans Day. He points out that the military holiday is in November, which is also National Adoption Month.

He plans to donate some of the proceeds to military, adoption and foster care charities. Mostly, he hopes his story will help others. It was his love of writing that saved him as a child.

In his long-term foster home, he attended church where a slightly older boy named Wes became his best friend. They were close as brothers, which made it harder when his foster parents moved and Richard and his sister were sent to a different town for foster care. He poured his misery into long, sad letters to his buddy Wes, who would cry as he read the letters, then show them to his parents, Gerry and Debbie Oden.

The Odens were successful — and busy with their own brood. He was an engineer, while she taught school. They had four kids, including Wes and a pair of twin girls who were the same age as Richard. Still, though the couple didn't discuss it much at first, Richard's letters gnawed at them.

“They broke our hearts,” said Debbie Oden by phone recently. She's not sure who first broached the subject, but “we individually felt like we wanted to commit to Richard and Laura."

They had never considered adoption and didn’t even know where to begin. They started making phone calls in which they were reminded repeatedly and with varying degrees of kindness that their scattershot approach was not how the child welfare system works. For the most part, no one seemed too interested in helping them. But before Richard and his sister had been moved out of town, a caseworker had asked him if there was anyone in Huntsville with whom he'd like to stay in touch. The fact that Richard said "the Odens" later smoothed the path a bit once the Odens found someone willing to help them pursue the adoption.

It was a journey of paperwork and classwork; they had to be approved for foster care and adoption. After a while, they were allowed visits with the two children, meeting the foster mom who was caring for them midway so they could spend a few hours with Richard and Laura. Day visits grew into weekends, then an entire week here and there. Eventually, the children moved in with them over a spring break. Thirteen months later — they can all rattle off the exact date — Richard and his little sister became Odens. He was almost 13; she was nearly 10.

It was not a family Gerry or Debbie Oden had planned on, but she has no trouble explaining why it happened.

“Our prayer was to commit to them so that one day they could make their own commitments,” said Debbie Oden, who noted that the children had known mostly broken promises and turmoil. “So they could commit to go to college, commit to a spouse and then commit and have the responsibility of children and keeping a job, those kinds of things.”

Changing course

The adoption meant Richard and Laura bucked steep odds. The Harvard report said nearly 30,000 youths age out of foster care each year. And for every child adopted in 2010, two who were cleared to be adopted remained in foster care. It is not, the panel said, that families don’t want them; there are simply too many barriers to adoption — so 100,000 or more adoptable children wait in foster care.

The report called for, among other things, a more uniform set of foster-child-friendly policies across state boundaries so that families in one state can adopt a child in foster care in another state. It asked for more support services for families after they adopt. It said bluntly that Congress should eliminate long-term foster care as the placement plan for any foster child, because those children age out of foster care “into living situations, but have no family. 'No family' should never be the plan for a child.”

The social workers didn’t predict very happy endings for Richard and Laura because of the chaos they'd endured, Debbie Oden said. “That was a huge goal of ours. They’d had plenty of temporary homes. What they needed most in their lives was a permanent home, with a permanent family.”

Years later, when their son Richard and his wife Brittany offered that same gift to Elijah, Gabbi and Kentrell, Debbie and Gerry Oden cried. “We’re really proud of them for that,” she said.

A family affair

Richard's wife has been his sweetheart since middle school. When he proposed after she graduated from high school, her dad, who had been Richard’s fifth-grade Sunday School teacher, told her to give Richard back the ring and go to college for a couple of years. If they could survive a long-term separation, maybe they had a chance. They did — and the time apart would prove to be a valuable experience later, when he deployed.

When you ask Richard what his book is about, he talks, of course, about his unusual upbringing in foster care. But it's also about a definition of family that goes much further than that, exploring not just relationships, but also challenges and sacrifice.

He said military families make extraordinary sacrifices when one parent deploys and the other keeps things on track at home. They were already fostering the three kids when they learned Brittany was pregnant. By the time he left for Afghanistan, it was clear he'd still be there when Annabelle was born — an event he watched over FaceTime. Brittany had her hands full.

They’ve been married now for 13 years. She’s since completed her college degree. Besides his jobs, they manage a few rental properties they own. And though they adopted three siblings, they remain foster parents, too, to an infant who needed special care. If things don’t work out with the baby boy's family, they will try to adopt him, too.

They ignored early advice not to get attached to Gabbi and Kentrell and later, their brother Elijah, who’d been placed at first in a different home. “I said if I don’t get attached, I’m not the foster parent you need,” Richard said.

When people hear the Odens’ story, the response is, “I could never do that.” Richard Oden laughs out loud in response. “God has a great sense of humor. Here’s what we couldn’t do: We couldn’t have three foster kids and then get pregnant and know I’d be deployed and overseas when she had the baby. But we did it and we did it with God. Don’t limit God’s power in your life.”

Or your ability to save someone else's, he adds.

Email: lois@deseretnews.com, Twitter: Loisco