A FAMILY MADE WHOLE: Fortville family is embracing the holidays after adoption brought them together

The Stein family: Blake, 13; Shannon; Summer, 9; and Jason. The couple's adoption of the siblings became official in April. (Tom Russo | Daily Reporter)

FORTVILLE — Even though they’ll be quarantined at home this Thanksgiving due to a COVID-19 exposure, one Fortville family is feeling especially thankful this year.

It’s the first time they’re spending the holiday together as an official family.

In April, Jason and Shannon Stein adopted a brother and sister who had spent four years in Indiana’s foster care system.

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Now, 13-year-old Blake and 9-year-old Summer are embracing the holidays with their new parents.

After living under the same roof for the past 18 months, the adoption became official in April in true 2020 fashion — over a Zoom call with a judge, with roughly 100 friends and family members watching the happy occasion online.

“We certainly have a lot to be thankful for this year,” said Shannon, who was certain she wanted to have kids after marrying her husband in 2012.

Today — as the proud parents to Blake and Summer — they’re sharing their story to help promote National Adoption Month this month, which they hope will encourage more families to look into adoption.

The need is significant. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, nearly 424,000 children were in foster care in 2019 in the United States. A total of 46% of those children, or more than 195,000, were in non-relative foster care. Only 4% were in pre-adoptive homes, according to the data.

Indiana ranks near to the top for increasing the number of adoptions from foster care, according to the Indiana Division of Child Services. In fiscal year 2019, more than 2,400 children joined new families. Five years earlier, that figure was 1,038.

Identifying families such as the Steins is one key to helping these at-risk children find stability.

Within a year or two of their marriage, when the Steins learned they couldn’t have biological kids, talk quickly turned to adoption. In the meantime, the couple moved from their native Fort Wayne to West Lafayette to Fishers for various jobs.

In the fall of 2017, the couple applied to become foster parents to see if adoption might be the right fit for them, and they were licensed the following spring.

They soon were fostering a pair of brothers who quickly stole their hearts, but the Steins knew one of their biological parents would likely take the boys eventually. That didn’t make it any easier saying goodbye in August 2018.

“Fostering them was a great experience; we bonded with them quickly. We were heartbroken when they left,” Jason recalled.

Returning home to a quiet, empty house was excruciating, the couple said.

So the Steins forged ahead, certain they were meant to become parents.

In December 2018, they got the call saying they were approved to foster and potentially adopt Blake and Summer, a brother and sister who had been hoping for a new family for four years.

Seeing the couple and their children today, a casual observer would never guess they’d only known each other less than two years now.

On a recent trip to a Fortville park, Summer tugged on her mom’s sleeve, craving attention, preferably with a trip to the nearby ice cream shop. Blake, a typical teen, is a young man of few words, but doesn’t pass up the opportunity to deliver some good-natured ribbing to his dad.

Jason and Shannon remember how anxious they were when a caseworker was on the way to their house to interview them as potential adoptive parents.

“It’s obviously nerve-wracking, because they’re basically assessing to see if you’re the right family for the kids,” Shannon said.

“But it’s also really good because they try to lay it all out on the table, to make you aware of any issues the kids might be having, to make sure you’re up for dealing with any past trauma,” Jason added.

Trauma and emotional baggage are common in foster children, but that doesn’t make them any less worthy of love, the Steins say.

“They probably will have some issues, so they need to know if you’ll be able to handle that and have the support system in place to help you,” Shannon said.

“Plus you need to have straight-up grit,” Jason said.

Taking the advice of adoptive parents they met through online support groups, the Steins strengthened their case with the caseworker by making a photo album showcasing themselves, their extended families and the kind of life their kids could expect. The foster training the couple had done, in addition to the resource books they’d read, also helped.

“They want to see not just if the kids are the right fit for you but if you’re the right fit for them,” Jason said.

In December 2018, after some excruciating waiting, the Steins got the call they’d been dreaming of — giving them the green light to move forward with the pre-adoptive process to eventually adopt Blake and Summer.

They hopped in the car and drove the three hours to Munster, where the kids were staying, to meet them and their foster mom. The group got to know each other a little bit over dinner at Applebee’s.

On New Year’s Eve, the kids spent their first night with the Steins.

“After that we decided to move forward with overnight visits,” Jason recalled. “We’d drive up on a Friday, return them on a Sunday, about every other weekend,” he said.

“It was a way for all of us to get to know each other. We visited them at first, then started doing the overnights to see how they fit into our family,” his wife said.

The kids gradually met their new extended family. On March 1, 2019, Blake and Summer moved into their new home with their soon-to-be adoptive parents, who were living in Fishers at the time.

The next month, the Steins started building a new home in Fortville with the children in mind. “We told them this is the house we’re building for all of us as family,” said Jason, who moved his family into the home that October.

While the required six-month waiting period to officially adopt, after living under one roof, had expired that September, it took several more months to finalize all the required arrangements and paperwork.

The family continued to get to know one another and settle into a groove as the big day gradually drew near.

That day finally arrived this past April.

Rather than go to a courtroom, due to COVID restrictions, the family gathered together in their kitchen for the Zoom call that would change their life.

Jason’s stepmom had made the foursome matching shirts, and Shannon had bought banners, balloons and cake for the special occasion, as did some friends.

While the court’s Zoom call was private, the Steins sent out their own Zoom link so the proceedings could be watched by their extended family and friends. Nearly 100 people from across the country, plus the children’s former caseworker in Canada, tuned in to see the two families officially merge into one.

Jason, who works in information technology, was a nervous wreck, double- and triple-checking the connections beforehand to make sure everything went smoothly.

The happy little family was elated to finally make things official.

Shannon said Blake and Summer make their little family feel complete.

“I love them as much as if they were my biological kids,” she said.

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More than 1,500 Hoosier children are awaiting adoption. Here’s how to become a prospective adoptive parent. Page A4.