Our Towns

Michael’s New Family Is Forever

HOWLAND, Ohio — Michael Fortune’s mother died when he was just six years old, and with no other family members to care for him, he spent the next eight years moving from foster home to foster home.

“Two thousand, four hundred and fifty-seven days to be exact,” he states as he sits on a comfortable wicker settee on the back patio of his new adoptive parents’ house here. Michael, now 14 and entering eighth grade, is talkative, articulate, well-mannered and curious – the perfect fit in the eyes of his new family.

“Michael moved in last June [2015] as a foster child and he was adopted May 11,” says Erin Gabrovsek. “It took just under a year.”

Gabrovsek and her husband, Tony, decided to become foster and adoptive parents after their son, Luke – now age 9 – started to get older. “He wanted a brother or sister, and we considered adoption,” she says.

The prospect of becoming a foster parent was nothing new to Erin. While she was in college, the family of one of her best friends fostered five children, and she even discussed the benefits of the foster and adoption system on her first date with Tony. Once they married, becoming foster parents was always in the back of their minds.

After they made the decision to become foster parents, the couple contacted Northeast Ohio Adoption Services in Warren – an organization that helps connect families with the children most in need. They selected NOAS because the required classes as part of the application process fit their schedules.

“Tony and I respected the people there,” Erin says. “They made the recommendation and thought Michael would be a great fit for Luke and the family.”

Michael has already lived a tough life, but he is fortunate in that he’s finally found a permanent home with the Gabrovseks. In Ohio alone are 4,000 children between the ages of nine and 17 looking for a family to take them in. In addition, 12,000 kids are in foster care across the state.

Drug addiction, poverty, alcoholism, domestic and sexual abuse in the home take the heaviest toll on children, inflicting emotional scars that can take a lifetime to heal, says Cheryl Tarantino, executive director at Northeast Ohio Adoption Services. The spike in heroin use has led to even more destructive behaviors, increasing the need for foster and adoptive care.

“Demographically, it’s evenly spread out, largely because of heroin and meth, which started in the suburbs,” Tarantino says. “Rural counties are hit as hard as the cities.”

The fallout is that many older children in their teens who never experienced stability in their childhood are coping with enormous personal and psychological challenges, and few families are willing to step up and provide the support needed to help turn their lives around, Tarantino says.

“We have always specialized in harder-to-place children,” she continues. The nonprofit agency is working with 90 children across northeastern Ohio trying to find them families. Since 1978, the agency has successfully placed 1,200 children into adoptive homes. Unfortunately, teenagers who have experienced trauma and neglect through no fault of their own are often stigmatized as troubled and too risky for a family to consider for adoption. “There’s a perceived fear,” Tarantino says.

Regardless, the need is more pronounced than ever for both adoptive and foster services, she says. “Unfortunately, so many children are aging out before they find a family,” she says. Once a minor turns 18, he or she has the option of leaving the foster system, and many choose to do just that.

Recent statistics show that 25% of those “aging out” of foster care experience one or more instances of homelessness, 56% are unemployed by age 24, 27% of males are incarcerated at some point in their lives, and just 58% will be graduated from high school by the age of 19.

“Their future is not bright. They’re starting from behind the eight-ball,” Tarantino says. For example, a person needs to have a residence to receive a driver’s license or obtain an identification card. Without this documentation, young people can’t apply for jobs, trade schools, or any sort of post-secondary education – assuming they’ve earned a diploma or GED.

Tarantino emphasizes that these children are not lost causes, and their lives can be turned around when they’re matched with the right families. “Most of the kids that are adopted have a normal experience,” she says. “A family is forever.”

Still, there are challenges throughout the entire process, Tarantino adds. Children who have experienced trauma are likely to build emotional walls and reluctant to let down their guard down or show emotion. “A lot of them live with fantasies,” she notes. “Some may have a parent in prison, and they say, ‘When my dad gets out, I’m going to live with him.’ We have to make sure they understand the truth and their past and get past that.”

These problems are often made worse with the stress of moving from one place to another, changing schools, and losing relationships with other children, Tarantine says. On average, a child between the ages of nine and 17 who seeks an adoptive home will move between four and seven times.

And there’s a challenging learning curve for the families as well. “The scariest part is that we all have had to adjust,” Tony Gabrovsek says. “Michael wasn’t used to us, and we weren’t used to him. So, there was a trust factor. It took four or five months for us to get connected.”

Moreover, Tony and Erin say that the adoption was difficult for some members of their extended families. “We realized that it’s our passion, but your families might not be gung ho about it.”

Northeast Ohio Adoption Services hosts nine classes a year that are mandatory for families thinking about becoming foster or adoptive parents. Parents considering foster or adoptive care must complete 36 hours even before they fill out an application to adopt. “One thing I liked about working with NOAS is that they will let you know the worst cases, ever,” Gabrovsek says. “When you need help, they are right there.”

So far, Michael’s life with his new family has been one of the most rewarding experiences for both parents. He gets along well with Luke, loves to play video games, and is adjusting as best he can. “He’s already been through so much,” Erin says. “We both love him like he’s our own, but it’s more of a protective love,” she says. “And Luke has been just great.”

As for Michael, he’s enjoying a long hot summer at his family’s backyard pool before school begins. Making the transition to a new school wasn’t easy, he recalls, noting he was often subjected to teasing from other students – harassment he simply shrugs off.

“To be honest, I didn’t care,” Michael says with a quiet dignity. “I made the honor roll.”

Pictured: Tony, Erin and Luke Gabrovsek of Howland welcomed their adopted son, Michael, into their family in June of last year.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.