Dear Wendy
Dear Wendy

“My In-Laws Are Suddenly Adopting a 15-Year-Old Boy From Church!”

Last week my in-laws, whom my husband and I are both close to, called us with the news that they’re “adopting a 15-year-old.” This was beyond unexpected; they’ve never mentioned adopting a child, much a less a teenager. My husband pressed them for more details and discovered that the teenager “Jack” goes to their church and, after a weeknight service, asked to come live with them as his mother is dying from cancer and is currently in hospice. These are the facts as relayed by my mother-in-law:
– Jack’s father is not in the picture; no one has provided details of the father re. providing any support towards Jack.
– Jack’s grandparents cannot take him in.
– They don’t know Jack very well, besides through church interactions.
– Jack’s mother is in hospice and doesn’t have much time.
– They don’t know if there’s a will or power of attorney.
– They don’t know if there’s any other family involved.

My in-laws are loving, kind people who are well-known in their small hometown. They’re a part of a very large out-of-state business, which puts them in a top bracket of earners in a state and town whose populations hover near the poverty line. They have the money to take care of Jack, but they must travel several weeks a month out of state and out of country for business. Everyone in their town knows that they travel consistently and have offered to take Jack in while they’re on the road.

I haven’t brought up my concerns with my husband nor voiced them to my in-laws, but I am more than a little worried that this is suddenly coming out of the blue and worried because:

– They don’t know Jack besides from church, and there’s no close kinship with his family.
– There’s no background on his family and who would have legal guardianship over him.
– Jack is already living with my in-laws.
– There’s been no talk of lawyers or paperwork or, when Jack’s mother dies, what’s going to happen.
– Although this teen is going to be traumatized when his mother does die, there’s been no mention of scheduling therapy for him while, instead, passing him between different families while the in-laws are traveling will probably make his situation even worse.
– Everything just seems off: I know this will reflect badly on me, but my gut is telling me that Jack asked my in-laws to adopt him because he knows they’re fairly wealthy and never home. They’ve already planned out vacations with him and have bought him game stations and other toys to keep him occupied.

I want to be supportive, my husband wants to be supportive, and we’ve already made plans for spring break for everyone including Jack to come visit as we live several states away. But, something is nagging at me. My primary question are: What do my in-laws need to do or look for to take Jack in? What can we do to be supportive? Is there any way to get over my gut feeling, and do I even have the right to assume that something is fishy? Everything is just so sudden. — Feeling Skeptical

I reached out to our resident family attorney, Guy Friday, about your questions, and this is what he had to say:

I want to begin by validating your concerns, because I can tell immediately from reading this letter that you love your in-laws and are torn between being proud of their compassion and willingness to help and scared that their compassion is blinding them to ulterior motives by Jack, and you feel guilty about that. It’s OK to feel concern about the well-being of people you love, especially with how sudden this is. My overarching advice to you, which I’ll elaborate on as we go, is that, absent evidence of his suddenly sliding into their will or draining their accounts, you should withhold negative judgment of any kind at least until everyone visits for spring break (which, to be fair, is only six to eight weeks from now, so it’s not like it’s a long time.)

First, I can tell you that what’s going on here is significantly more prevalent than most people realize, especially in poorer communities. For as much as people somewhat satirize the Andy Griffith/Mayberry small-town environment, there are large swaths of the country in which people take in their neighbors going through hard times without a second thought because that’s just what you’re supposed to do. I don’t mean to make a racial point, but you see this a lot in high school and college sports with young black teens with struggling or absent parents being taken in by coaches or community members, and many times no formal guardianship or adoption process ever really takes place until years later, if at all, because no one thinks to get the courts involved when there aren’t any issues. This concept is even more prevalent in communities connected by a religious centerpiece, particularly churches, because most Judeo-Christian sects that I know of preach something similar to Matthew Chapters 5-7 (i.e., “the Sermon on the Mount”) in which they are taught to do good deeds for the sake of the good you do for others rather than for any recognition. So the offer of a home for him — and others’ offers to watch him while they’re gone — doesn’t seem inherently implausible or even dangerous to him in my opinion. And taking him in immediately instead of waiting for his mother to pass makes a lot of sense as well because to have to sit and wait for the inevitable in hospice (assuming they’d even let him stay with her)…I mean, that’s a horror no kid should have to deal with.

But let’s turn to Jack for a moment, and let’s assume he isn’t a grifter and that everything you’ve heard about him thus far is 100% true. You are concerned that Jack chose your in-laws primarily because they are wealthy, and I’m inclined to agree with you. Where we differ is the implied end of that sentence; you would end it with “…and so he can live with luxury”, whereas I would end it with “…because he thinks they’re the least likely to have their lives disrupted by the extra expense.” You mention that the community is at poverty-level, and your in-laws are well known as loving, caring, compassionate people. This is a 15-year-old we’re talking about, not an adult, and a 15-year-old whose father is gone, whose mother is dying (and who has probably had to be the caregiver and mature faster than he should have), whose grandparents can’t care for him, and who, quite frankly, probably is just trying to figure out how to survive. I can’t imagine the level of courage he had to work up in a small town where everyone knows everyone else to effectively come to ANYONE hat in hand to ask for this big a favor. So if you were in his shoes, would you feel less guilty about asking the family of four who is struggling to make ends meet or the older charitable couple with no children at home who have a successful and profitable company?

And this brings me to my next point: There’s a perception of fostered/adopted kids that they’re going to be like starving people at an all-you-can-eat-buffet, devouring as much as they can and FAR more than they need. And I don’t mean that as a criticism of you; I absolutely thought the same thing at the start of my career taking these kinds of cases, because how can you be surprised at kids going a little overboard when they go from having nothing to having everything? But in the almost eight years I’ve been doing this, I’ve discovered that while it may START like that for the first week or month while they test boundaries and see if the kindness has some ulterior motives, the reality is that the one thing most of these kids want more than anything else is stability. All they know is having their world turned upside down, and so when they realize that they can make mistakes or fail at things and, you know, still have a home to come home to at the end of the day, they are generally willing to follow the rules of the home to keep that home there for them. You mentioned that your in-laws bought Jack a bunch of game systems and whatnot, but do you know whether they offered to do this or he asked for it? Because based on how you described your in-laws, I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if they offered and he accepted (because what 15-year-old WOULDN’T want a brand new game system?)

I didn’t notice any comments about how they raised your husband, which I assume means you don’t object to their parenting style or moral viewpoints. I don’t know if they’ve discussed with you what ground rules they’ve set for Jack and you didn’t mention it, but one would assume they went into this eyes wide open and plan to treat him as if he were one of their children, with the same rewards and obligations they would have had with your husband. I’d assume he’d be responsible for some chores, doing his homework, and being a good kid in general, and I’d assume Jack is more than happy to accept this in return for that stability and certainty. And I think there’s good evidence that your in-laws aren’t being naive: They’re aware of the probate and guardianship concerns that might need to be addressed, and, if they’re successful business people, one would think they’ve probably already contacted a lawyer to run through some of these scenarios. And while I appreciate your concern about the trauma Jack will face at his mother’s passing, the fact that they haven’t discussed therapy with him doesn’t mean they haven’t considered it; it may mean that they’re waiting to see what method of grieving Jack follows. For some, therapy is a great resource; for others, prayer and faith bring peace; still others just need to be surrounded by loving people who will listen when it’s needed.

Bottom line: Just as it’s a lot for you and your husband to process and have answers for, so too is it likely a lot to process for your in-laws. But if I were in their shoes, I could absolutely see myself taking Jack in to make sure that, short-term, he’s taken care of while they help him work the long-term issues out. If he only stays for a few months and then ends up living with family members, then your parents did a good deed. If he ends up staying longer and is formally adopted, then it means he’s found a new family that hasn’t turned its back on him like his old family might have. But in six to eight weeks, you’re going to be meeting him, and I’d suggest going in without preconceived notions and getting to know him as a person. You seem like the kind of person who WANTS to give this kid the benefit of the doubt; let yourself do that. If you still have concerns about him after the trip, you’ll at least be able to more concretely discuss them with your in-laws. But you may come away from it the same way your in-laws seem to: being drawn to a good kid in a rotten situation who just wants to be part of a family. And if that happens, that’s amazing, because then you’ve gained more people whose friendship you can enjoy, and Lord knows we could all use plenty of those kinds of people these days!

I wish you the best of luck. Feel free to reach out to me further (here, or ask Wendy for my e-mail directly) if you have more questions.

-Guy Friday

Thank you for the thoughtful, compassionate advice, Guy Friday!!

***************

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If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, you can send me your letters at [email protected].

20 comments… add one
  • avatar

    artsygirl January 30, 2017, 10:30 am

    LW – It sounds like your in-laws are wonderful people. I think GuyFriday makes some amazing points especially in letting the family have sometime to work this out. I would also point out that it sounds like this is an informal thing rather than an actual adoption, your in-laws are providing a soft landing for a boy that is in a unfathomable situation. It sounds like no one else in the community would be able to help this boy in the same capacity as your in-laws and undoubtedly it would be even more traumatic for him to have to leave the community after the death of his mother since no close relative can care for him. The fact that your in-laws are still working demanding job which requires travel suggests that they are not suffering from dementia or poor physical health which might allow someone to take advantage of them.

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      RedRoverRedRover January 30, 2017, 12:05 pm

      Not to mention that he’s so old. Like, if he was 8 or something, he could go live with relatives in another community and basically build a childhood there. Not so at 15. He’s in highschool, he’s got his childhood friends, he’s got his whole life there. Which is already going to be upended in a few years as he leaves highschool and decides what to do with his life. It would be even harder being somewhere else for those few years, before such a big life change. On top of the life change of losing his mother, of course. And this way he’s presumably still near his grandparents so he has that continuity as well.

      Plus, with him being so old it’s really only a few years that the LW’s parents will have him anyway. He’ll be growing up and finding his own place in the world soon enough. It’s not like this is a decades-long commitment like it would be for a small child. Although of course I assume they’ll still care for him as an adult, but it’s not the same.

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      • avatar

        artsygirl January 30, 2017, 12:18 pm

        Good point on the age, the boy would be in high school (likely sophomore year) at that age so it is possible that he needs a place to stay for two years while he finishes up before either going on to college or finding a job. I also thought that though this might seem sudden to the LW and her husband, it is possible that the in-laws have been talking about it for a long time and just did not share it with their family until they were sure that it was going to happen.

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  • avatar

    BecBoo84 January 30, 2017, 11:10 am

    Awesome answer, Guy Friday!!!

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  • juliecatharine

    Juliecatharine January 30, 2017, 11:36 am

    Really thoughtful answer GuyFriday!

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  • avatar

    ktfran January 30, 2017, 11:46 am

    I love this advice Guy Friday. It’s so very thoughtful.

    About a year and a half ago, this couple I know (we’re now mostly FB friends as we don’t live near or work together anymore) adopted a 14 year old despite already having their own young son. I’m fairly certain it was something similar where they met through church. He clicked with their family and their son and so they first became his foster parents and finally adopted him. They were featured on the news and every time I read updates, my heart swells. It’s so heartwarming.

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  • avatar

    Taylor January 30, 2017, 11:58 am

    Compassionate responses like these make me happy. Hope things go well for all involved.

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  • bittergaymark

    Bittergaymark January 30, 2017, 12:14 pm

    Guy has really good advice.
    .
    Remember, this REALLY isn’t your decision or your call. I’d go in hoping for the best…

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  • avatar

    Essie January 30, 2017, 1:21 pm

    Great response, Guy Friday, and I’ll just add that this isn’t as unusual as you might think. Some friends of mine did just this for a teen in their neighborhood whose mother more or less abandoned him with a year left before he was to start college. They had the space and the financial resources to take him in, but more importantly, they’re devoutly religious and members of a denomination that believes that you show your love of Christ by helping those in need in your community. Some of their friends were kind of surprised and taken aback by this, as it also seemed sudden, but they’d known this kid for awhile and had been privately discussing helping him out.

    In the end though, if you knew this couple, it made perfect sense. It was very “them” to do something like this.

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  • avatar

    Mara January 30, 2017, 1:41 pm

    Valid legal concerns for LW. As a Pediatric Nurse, I would also like to recommend that your in-laws reach out to someone to get legal Gaurdianship (much faster than adoption) of the teen so they can authorize medical care for him in an emergency. Also, to find out what state/federal benefits the teen can receive and make sure he can still receive without interruption of benefits. And I would second what Guy Friday wrote in his advice. Most teenagers in that situation have good intentions and just trying to survive. Just be there to support your in-laws and the *possible* new member of the family!

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    • avatar

      Anon from LA February 1, 2017, 12:30 pm

      “I would also like to recommend that your in-laws reach out to someone to get legal Gaurdianship (much faster than adoption) of the teen so they can authorize medical care for him in an emergency. ”

      Excellent point. LW can suggest that her inlaws talk to an attorney that practices family law about this. While the attorney is looking into the legal guardianship, he discover that there is a will or if Jack’s mother has already designated someone else for legal guardianship.

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  • avatar

    LisforLeslie January 30, 2017, 1:58 pm

    It really doesn’t sound like it’s something fishy. It’s highly likely that the mother has been ill for some time and when the diagnoses became terminal, she reached out to the pastor of your in-laws church.

    I would advise that your in-laws meet with someone who specializes in family law to follow all proper channels. The last thing you’d want is for the kid to happily live with your folks for 2 years then be contacted by far flung family seeking guardianship. Although unlikely, as Guy mentions – making sure the situation is stable is key.

    Please reach out now and make Jack feel welcome to the family. Even before the trip. It’s like getting a new step brother and this kid has been through the ringer. Have your husband give him 5 pieces of advice to deal with his parents (e.g. If she says “I’m going to sit and read before dinner that means ‘Be quiet and let me have some quiet time.’ She will happily talk to you again during dinner.” and “If Dad says something like “Wow the trash is really full!” that means “take out the trash please”

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  • avatar

    Letter Writer January 30, 2017, 3:00 pm

    Thank you, everyone and especially Guy and Wendy. Unfortunately, today, Jack’s mother has passed away. I’m in talks with my mother-in-law to determine if I should come up and mind the farm while they handle everything. Through a little bit of facebook sleuthing, I’ve realized, except for Jack’s sister, his entire extended family are located several states away and he is on his own now in this state. This information puts everything in a more logical perspective than it had been in my mind.

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    • avatar

      artsygirl January 30, 2017, 4:00 pm

      Poor kid – he must feel completely unmoored.

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    • Guy Friday

      Guy Friday January 30, 2017, 5:23 pm

      You’re welcome, and I’m sorry it took me so long to reply! Please express my condolences to Jack for the loss of his mother; no child should have to bury a parent. I am glad, however, that some sleuthing put some of the “Why my in-laws?” concerns in a greater context. I can’t imagine how scared he must feel, and if you can go up there I can’t imagine how grateful he’ll be to have “extended family” come in to town to express concern about his well-being. I’d feel loved if I were in his shoes, at least!

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  • avatar

    kali January 30, 2017, 3:42 pm

    Background: both my sister (and her family) and I (and my family) took him high school students in dire circumstances, 15 years apart, with less than happy results.
    .
    FIRST QUESTION: why adopt and not just foster? Don’t make it permanent off the bat!
    .
    Comments: It’s tough tough tough to get through to someone who wasn’t raised in your home, with your ways, and your outlook. You may be water-wise – we were. Our foster daughter never even heard of turning off the water while brushing her teeth and couldn’t be bothered. On a larger scale, her self-protective walls were up so high, we could never get through to her. In our view, she was simply marking time until she was off to college. We considered her part of the family and she was busy salvaging herself. It was especially heartbreaking for my daughter whose idea it was to bring this girl home.
    .
    My sister’s situation was similar, except there were two kids. The girl only lasted a short time and the boy just recently left their home at age 18 because he wouldn’t stop smoking pot and wouldn’t follow other rules. The boy wouldn’t sleep in a bed as he’d never had one (he slept on the couch in front of the PS4 which drove my sister crazy). My nephew, his best friend, is heartbroken.
    .
    I’d strongly suggest the parents consider fostering this lad. See how it works out. Adoption is a lot more permanent. My understanding is that is money available for both foster children as well as non-familial adoptions. It doesn’t sound like this is the driving force behind the parents’ actions but please be sure that’s not what’s going on.
    .
    I wish the best of luck to all involved but I am not an advocate for teen adoption of fostering unless it’s a family member. I learned the hard way.

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    • Guy Friday

      Guy Friday January 30, 2017, 5:03 pm

      So, first of all, I’m truly sorry this happened to you. I don’t know if you went through the formal foster care procedure, but a lot of kids who come through there are, quite candidly, broken in ways that “unbroken” people can’t begin to understand. And when you’ve been bounced to 5 foster homes in 6 years — as one of my recent client’s kids was — you begin to develop a sense that you can’t trust anything anyone else says. And it’s really sad, because many of these kids become so jaded that they get themselves kicked out of situations that could have really helped them. But the reality is that — even for teenagers — courts are going to want homes where adoption is a possibility, not for a kid to spin their wheels in another home where it’s a matter of WHEN rather than IF the kid gets kicked out, and so there really isn’t continued funding available for ongoing fosters, and the kids that DO qualify for them are kids like the ones you described who are the toughest of the tough cases.

      Having said that, I think that the “adoption” comment was said colloquially, not formally. Most people don’t draw a distinction between the terms of art, you know?

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  • avatar

    jmarie January 30, 2017, 4:28 pm

    Thank God for your inlaws! God bless them and their open hearts. As a teacher my heart broke again and again for so many students with no homes. The “system” is broken and overworked and does not favor teenage boys; teenage girls with babies are given priority. People who open their homes and hearts (we did this for one of my son’s friends) and allow “couch surfing” or any kind of love and care and stability are true lifesavers. All people and especially young people in need absolutely need to know and feel they are cared for. It does not need to be “ideal” or even monetary–honestly, knowing that someone cares about you and your struggles is all and everything. Thank you LW for your willingness to do your part. I promise you that if everyone does his/ her part that it does not have to appear “perfect” or “ideal” ; it can be “messy” and still be the love and care a person needs. I have taught “at-risk” students for years and years; I think this situation of more than one family helping out is ideal. All thanks, love, prayers and blessings to your in-laws and to this young boy. Prayers for his mother. Thank you for this letter that is really at heart a testimony about the kindness of human hearts as well as a letter revealing the good work churches do, stepping in and taking care of those in need.

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  • avatar

    dinoceros January 31, 2017, 5:12 pm

    I like Guy Friday’s advice. I think we all want to look out for our family members. As long as your parents are logical, responsible people, it’s OK to raise concerns, but you have to trust that they can make decisions for themselves.

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  • avatar

    saneinca February 1, 2017, 12:57 pm

    I am sorry but I do have a suspicious mind myself. When a kid becomes a ward of state, they are not without resources. Any foster parent can get between $500/700 a month for fostering. Even his own sister.

    Jack requesting your parents to adopt him when hardly knowing them reeks of opportunism. (had he been younger, the situation would definitely be more acceptable) I feel that adopting him and leaving a teenager mostly unsupervised when they travel, is hardly an ideal situation for both the boy and your in laws. But perhaps they were pressured into it by the church leaders.

    Still doing these things without talking to a lawyer is really foolhardy. And I don’t think they can adopt legally without the father’s consent if he is alive.

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