Picking your parents: Adult adoption on the rise
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'No matter how old you are ... you never lose the desire for a family'
By Bill Briggs
June 8, 2011 / MSNBC
Sandra Titus mists up with a mere glance at her adopted daughter’s baby photos.
After the adoption went through last November, Sandra and her husband, Ross, reveled in their new family’s first Christmas together. One of their first gifts to their daughter Jillian: a sterling silver baby cup engraved with her new initials.
“To me, the cup means: ‘We’ll always make sure you’re taken care of,’ and no one can touch the fact that we’re family, that it’s unbreakable, irreversible. It’s priceless,” Jillian says.
Impressive words from the “baby” of the family. But then, Jillian Titus is 29, and an executive at Nintendo in Redmond, Wash. Her new parents — Sandra, 49, and Ross, 46 — also work at the video game company. The trio met at the office in 2008 and, initially, bonded over their Boston terriers. They later asked a judge to approve their homemade family for two reasons: love and money.
Adult adoptions appear to be rising in America, according to Chuck Johnson, president and CEO of the National Council For Adoption. The advocacy group is the only organization that tallies the number domestic adoptions taking place in the U.S., said Johnson, though it does not specifically track adult adoptions. Statistics are difficult to compile, experts say, because many states still mandate that adoption court records are sealed and confidential.
“But anecdotally, it does seem to be occurring more frequently,” Johnson said. The most common scenario he sees: former foster children — now adults — who are being adopted by their long-time foster parents. In rare cases, adoption experts say, adults who have lost or are estranged from their biological parents befriend older people who begin to feel like mothers and fathers — and they ultimately seek to legalize that emotional attachment.
“No matter how old you are,” Johnson said, “you never lose the desire for a family.”
“Why would someone want to do this as an adult? Many reasons. First, wanting to remove the stigma of not having a family, of not having a feeling of permanence,” she said. “You can imagine what it’s like for someone who has no sense of belonging.”
In addition to grown foster children yearning to legalize an emotional link long felt with their foster parents — or grown stepchildren with their stepparents — same-sex couples who can’t legally marry are also using adult adoptions to ensure that when one partner dies, his or her split of family money goes to the other partner. Also, in rare instances, orphaned adults who are physically or mentally incapacitated are adopted by caretakers who then become authorized to make medical or financial decisions.
But in an age when the explosive question: “What defines a family?” can divide even, well, families, the most unique adoptions are those that legally unite adults who have never shared a home, much less the pages of a family photo album.
People like Sandra, Ross and Jillian Titus.
Each of Jillian’s biological parents — who divorced shortly after her birth in Cheyenne, Wyo. — are alive, although Jillian is estranged from her “ex-mom” and “ex-dad,” as she calls them.
Until she grew close to Sandra and Ross Titus, Jillian rarely told anyone about the dark corners of her upbringing. They include, she said, a father who once fired a gun at her while he was drunk and a mother who routinely abused cocaine and who chased so many men around the country that Jillian attended 13 different schools.
When Jillian was 16, police raided her Seattle home and arrested her mom for drug possession. With her mom in prison, Jillian slept on friends’ couches and floors as she finished high school. At 17, she enlisted in the U.S. Army, spending eight years in the reserves to help pay for her college education.
'Why don't you just hurry up and adopt me?'
Three years ago, Jillian took a job as a buyer at Nintendo. She worked with Ross, who schedules packaging and shipping. And she spent employee-orientation time with Sandra, a human resources manager. Ross and Sandra have no biological kids, only grown stepchildren from previous marriages. A fast friendship soon developed.
“From day one, I was so drawn to Jillian. I noticed her laugh. I thought, ‘Look at that cute little monkey,’” Sandra said. “Not having any kids, it didn’t occur to me that it might be maternal stuff I was feeling.”
Courtesy of the Titus family
Each new man in Jillian’s life had to pass muster during evenings spent at Ross and Sandra’s home in Redmond. In jest, Jillian later began calling the older woman, “Mama.” As their mutual trust and affinity deepened, Jillian once quipped: “Oh, why don’t you just hurry up and adopt me!”
That got Sandra thinking — she Googled “adult adoptions” and learned they are legal in Washington.
Most states allow adult adoptions, according to the National Council For Adoption, though several restrict the process. In Alabama, only totally and permanently disabled adults can be adopted; in Illinois, adults may be adopted if they have resided in the petitioner’s home for two consecutive years in a parent-child relationship, according to Adopting.org.
“Did you know,” Sandra asked Ross last year, “you can adopt a grownup?”
“Jillian?” he responded.
“That’s what I’m thinking.”
“Well, I’d be up for that,” he said.
Last summer, Sandra gingerly suggested the adoption to Jillian, opening with “At the risk of scaring you to death, we’re not joking. We want to adopt you.”