Living as a missionary kid in Haiti for over five years is life-changing. But welcoming three more siblings within eight months while living there takes change to a new level!
Then again, it wasn’t a total surprise to HSLDA Staff Attorney Tj Schmidt when his family first discussed adoption, beginning with his brother, Jeremy.
Children in Need
The opportunity presented itself soon after Tj’s family started overseeing an orphanage for another missionary family, who were on sabbatical for several months. Children arrived at the orphanage for varied—and sometimes unknown—reasons. Some were left parentless by natural disasters; others were given up by parents who could not afford to care for them.
Life in Haiti
When Jeremy arrived at the orphanage, he had several medical issues including malnutrition and a lactose intolerance. Unsure of his actual birth date, they estimated he was about nine months old. The orphanage of about sixty kids, most ranging from ages 7–18, wasn’t equipped to care for a small child with extensive medical needs.
Tj’s parents considered Jeremy’s situation carefully. They had been praying about adoption for several years, but were still uncertain about what would be best for the child.
If they adopted, would they be able to provide a good future for the baby? Could the 12-year gap between him and their youngest biological child cause challenges? Would he grow up to feel out of place as a black child in an all-white family?
After more prayer and discussion, which included input from their six kids ages 12 to 22 (Tj being the oldest), they joyfully welcomed Jeremy into their family.
Several months later, little Joshua came into their lives. He was left at the orphanage with a short note of explanation when he was only two months old. He, too, joined the growing family.
Joshua Paul, 4 months old.
Not long after, the Schmidts heard news of a little girl at an orphanage in the south of Haiti. Her mother had died, and her father could no longer care for his kids. At just 14 months old, JoHannah could feed herself, but had not learned to walk.
On the four-hour drive back from the orphanage, she quickly bonded with Tj and his mom.
Welcome to the Family
“We [kids] fought and argued as anyone does, but we were a close-knit family growing up,” Tj shares. And they loved their new siblings.
Jeremy and Tj, 1998
Tj remembers his parents taking every effort to welcome the Haitian children into the busy rhythm of homeschooling and family life.
Each child in the family had a “special day” during the week—Tj’s day was Monday, another sibling had Tuesday, and so on. During your “special day,” you had the privilege of answering the phone, picking up the mail, praying at meals, enjoying that last piece of candy, and being the first to decide if you wanted to accompany parents on errands. In addition, you could ask for one-on-one time to talk with parents after dinner.
The adopted children joined this routine. Since Tj was older, he didn’t mind sharing his day.
Another tradition his parents started was “I Gotcha Day,” on which they celebrated the day the family was blessed by the adoption of a new child.
Typical street, house, and scenery in Haiti.
“When adopting, it’s important to remember that this child has spent time away from you. They have things in their past that you don’t know about, and they may not come with institutional family knowledge,” Tj says. That can require some flexibility and adaptability.
He remembers that JoHannah, for reasons unknown to them, was initially terrified of men and would sometimes scream around their father for the first few months or so. Gaining her trust took time.
Another challenge the Schmidts saw at the orphanage was when families adopted a child older than their oldest biological child. If a negative hierarchy developed, it caused friction between the biological and adopted siblings.
Unfortunately, the biggest challenge for Tj’s family turned out to be how others perceived them when they returned to the States. A few discouraging situations arose when the adopted kids were not treated the same as their siblings. Some observers even openly disapproved of the racial diversity, causing Tj’s family to look for groups and individuals that welcomed and accepted their whole family. Thankfully, this discrimination was a rare occurrence.
It gave Tj a new cultural awareness and sensitivity that he might not have noticed before.
Schmidt family, 1999.
“It’s natural for every adopted child to wonder at some point what happened to them—even if they love their family,” says Tj. Kids often want to know, “What was I like as a baby?” “What happened when I was born?” In a similar way, adopted children want to know where they came from, what happened, and who they are.
These questions can surface at any time, even after children become adults. In one example Tj heard of, an adopted child who didn’t start feeling anxious to know about his past until his mid-20s. Parents should expect this natural process rather than feel hurt or rejected by it.
Tj’s parents prepared by finding out as much information as they could—limited as it was—about the children’s families when they adopted them, so they would have something to share when the time came.
Another constant question at the heart of an adopted child is, “Am I really accepted and loved?” If they are not confident in the answer, it can cause them to act out.
“If you decide to adopt, go all in. This child is yours forever,” Tj advises.
“Since you don’t know their whole background, they may test your resolve or love in unforeseen ways, but when you adopt, it’s forever. In my opinion, there’s irreparable harm when it’s not.”
Having spent time at the orphanage, they witnessed some tragic examples of families who did not commit. One family adopted several biological siblings, two of which were older than the family’s oldest biological child. The parents gave more authority to their biological child over all of the children, even over those who were older. This which caused considerable feelings of rejection and frustration with at least one of the adopted children. When the child acted out in the States, the parents retaliated by sending the child back to Haiti leaving them unprotected, fearful, and hopeless.
“Be mentally prepared for when the rubber meets the road, and it’s harder than you thought. Adopt and adjust to the challenges.” Remember when they act out that it can be a cry for love: “Do you love me? Am I accepted?” Always keep that in mind as you communicate and adjust your parenting styles to their needs.
Some of Tj’s kids spending time with their uncle.
Although most of Tj’s family now lives several states away in Florida, he keeps in touch as much as he can by phone or attending holiday reunions.
Joshua (left), Jeremy (right).
Recently, his youngest sister was even able to fly up and see Tj and wife—who now have seven kids of their own.
“They love when their Aunt JoHannah comes for a visit!” Tj shares, smiling.
Across countries and state lines, they know that family is forever.
The whole family, November 24, 2019!
Photo credit: All photos courtesy of Schmidt family.