LaDonna Humphrey's life did not take the path that she had expected it to take. The mother of seven -- including five special-needs children younger than age 12 -- had a different vision for her future when she was younger.
"I thought that I was going to be single and a reporter and was never going to have kids," she says with a laugh. She majored in journalism as an undergraduate at the University of Arkansas. "I had determined that I was going to write for a large newspaper or a magazine, something really sexy like that. That's not really what happened. And that's not a bad thing -- God took me in a different direction."
Arkansas Department of Human Services
Department of Children and Family Services
“There’s a wealth of information there,” says LaDonna Humphrey. “We’ve built great relationships with DCFS and the caseworkers and adoption specialists there. I want people to know they’re there to help; they’re there to answer questions.”
Humphrey says that The CALL is an “amazing resource. They have always been available to us and have always been a great example of ‘this is how you handle these situations.’”
“For people who want to find out more about adoption, or for people who are interested in foster care — I love the folks at Project Zero,” says Humphrey. “They are actively working to get the older children who have already had their parental rights terminated to find loving homes. If you’re over the age of 5 and in foster care, your chances of getting adopted are really small. It happens, but it doesn’t happen very often.”
That "different direction" did take a bit to make itself known: Humphrey had finished college while raising two children (now 18 and 21), had found a career in marketing and communications, working at both nonprofit and for-profit companies, and had transitioned out of one marriage before she started hearing what she now thinks of as her true calling.
"[My husband and I] really felt like God was calling us to foster care," says Humphrey of her second marriage, to Danny Humphrey, her childhood sweetheart with whom she had reconnected. "I think we were both a little resistant in a way. He had never had children, and I had two older kiddos, so there's a lot of freedom in that kind of situation." But when Humphrey signed on to volunteer at the Northwest Arkansas nonprofit The CALL, a faith-based organization that works with area churches to find placements for foster children, she knew she was on the right path.
"She and Danny really had a heart for foster care and foster children, so they signed up for our training and signed on to open their home to help serve the children in Northwest Arkansas as foster parents," says Ann Meythaler, Benton and Washington county coordinator for The CALL.
"Concerning foster care and adoption and family, she's probably one of the most selfless people I've ever met," says Caleb Gabriele, pastor at Grace Point Church. "She has the capacity to make her [biological] kids feel loved and valued as she shows them, 'We're going to help every kid we can, until our home is full.' She and her husband Danny are two of the most selfless people I know."
Couldn't say 'no'
"We went into it thinking that we would have these strict rules," says Humphrey. "'We would only take school-age children, they could not have any of these problems' -- we were really, really strict. But then the first child we took was 3 years old, because, when you start getting the calls, you realize you can't say, 'I'm only going to take this certain population.' Maybe that works for some people, but our heart was different. So our first placement was 3. We had him close to a month and helped him reunify with his family, which was an amazing experience."
At the time, says Humphrey, she and her husband had no intention of adopting children, and the success of their first foray into fostering seemed to support that decision -- but the next call they received would challenge their assumptions.
"Our second placement came to us when she was 17 months old," she says, takes a sip of water and pauses. "I don't even know if I can talk about this.
"We helped her detox from methamphetamine, and I fell in love with this child. And after nine days, a temporary judge moved her back home, and I couldn't stop crying. And my friends would say, 'See, this is why I can't do foster care,' and I would answer, 'See, this is why you should.' Because she got loved this way.
"In my opinion, if you're a foster parent, you're going to have pain when a child leaves. That means that you gave love, they received love, and you built a bond. That's something that a lot of these children had never had."
Two days later, Humphrey received a call from the little girl's social worker. She was bringing her back to the Humphrey home.
"She said, 'She hasn't smiled since we picked her up. We're bringing her back to you,'" remembers Humphrey. "She got to our office, and she was still wearing the same clothes we sent her home in. When she saw me, that little girl lit up. We promised that little baby that we were going to do everything we could to help her, and we did. We worked really hard to reunify her with her mom and family, and it just didn't happen. So we adopted her. Her adoption was official two years ago tomorrow. She's going to be 5 in November, and she's a fireball."
Though the couple originally had no intention of becoming adoptive parents, Humphrey said that, once they found themselves in that situation, it seemed like the most natural and logical choice.
"It was a big eye opener for us," she says. "We had never planned to adopt. We worked hard. We loved her family. I still love her family. But it wasn't a safe situation for her."
As she celebrated the addition of her new daughter to the family, Humphrey's heart was telling her that she wasn't finished.
"One day, I was on the Project Zero website," she says. Project Zero is a nonprofit organization with a goal is to find every parentless child in Arkansas a home. "I found a sibling group, and I thought, 'No.' So I sent the photo of these kiddos to my husband, and he said, 'Yes, I think we should inquire about this.' That's not at all what I expected. I was thinking that he would say 'No,' and then I could say, 'OK, we're done.'" Instead, the couple moved forward and adopted three siblings -- ages 6, 7 and 11 -- who have been a part of the family for two years.
"They are phenomenal kids," says Humphrey.
But the universe wasn't quite done with the Humphreys either.
"A caseworker called and said, 'Do you think you could take a newborn for a couple of weeks?'" says Humphrey. "We have a great relationship with several of the counties -- they know we'll take kids that have been exposed to meth. We thought, 'A newborn? Really?' But my husband and I said, 'Sure'. They brought us a 5-pound, amazing little baby. She had been exposed to drugs and had some problems, and we fell in love with her. I was able to meet her mom, and I just fell in love with her, too. I still love her [biological] mom. We did not anticipate that would go to adoption. We worked really hard for reunification in that case."
Reunification, says Humphrey, is always the goal in a foster care situation.
"All foster care is built around the idea of reunification, and we are really all about reunification," says Humphrey. "We want to know the family, we want to love the family, we want them to feel comfortable with us."
A foster parent is privy to all of the confidential information involved in a case where a child is removed from the home -- whether that involves drug, physical, emotional or sexual abuse. It can be difficult to maintain an objective frame of mind in that situation, but Humphrey's attitude is one of her strengths as a foster and adoptive parent, says Meythaler.
"I think LaDonna is very empathetic," she says. "She's not judgmental toward the situation that the children are in or how they got there. She's compassionate and passionate about using her gifts to help in any way she can. And that's such a big deal. It's a struggle for some of our foster parents to hear the situations these kids have found themselves in and to hear what's happened in their homes and [to not] judge the parents for that, but, instead, understand that, most of the time, these biological parents are hurt kids that grew up. LaDonna has a gift for seeing that and working with that to help them in their lives."
"It goes back somewhat to my faith," says Humphrey. She and her husband are members of Grace Point Church in Bentonville. "In my opinion, we all make mistakes. There's isn't a parent on this planet, for the most part, that loses temporary or final custody of their children that doesn't love their child. But they're stuck in their own trauma, their own generational issues, their own addiction. And addiction is just a horrifying thing to break away from. [With one of our children,] I have to forgive the family on a daily basis. She is currently in speech, occupational [and] physical health therapy, mental health services, vision therapy -- she was exposed to meth in utero and after she was born. She has big problems and will for the rest of her life. She suffers, and it makes me angry. Usually, my husband and I are in two different places with this -- when I'm at that really angry place, he's in a good place, and we balance each other out."
With the infant -- whose adoption was finalized in May -- the Humphreys found themselves, once again, helping a baby detox from drugs. This time, it was opiates.
"[Withdrawal] didn't kick in for a few days, and then, at that point, it was like a baby with colic for four to six weeks," she says. "I wouldn't say that I would never do that again, but it was really painful to watch this child go through that, through no fault of their own.
"I still talk to [the baby's] mom two or three times a week and probably always will. I love her. She gave birth to this beautiful little baby, and many, many times she said, 'I'm going to give up. I just want you to adopt her. You know what's best for her.' I would say, 'No, you're not getting off that easy. You have to work your plan.' In my opinion, it's always best for the child to go home, if you can offer services and supports that help heal the family. That's really what we hoped [for in this case], but it's just not what happened."
Listening as Humphrey details her experiences in the foster and adoptive care world, it's easy to understand that there's a particular heartache for all involved in each situation. That's one reason Humphrey serves as a sounding board and support system for new foster parents and those considering becoming foster parents. Her own experiences, as well as the work she's done over the years with various nonprofits and therapeutic organizations -- she currently works for Regional Therapy Services --have given her a good foundational knowledge of the resources that are available for foster parents.
"A year or two ago, she wanted to start a group that revolved around adopting and fostering families," says Gabriele. "It amazes me that, in the midst of her trying to survive and be a sustainable foster mom herself, she also finds time to encourage other families in the same ministry. At our church, we have a ton of people with questions and interest in fostering and adoption, and the first person I always think to send them to is LaDonna -- if anyone can share the struggles and hardships and ins and outs of it, it's her."
"I just hope that our journey can shed a light on what foster care is, why it's needed and why more people need to step up," she says. She's particularly enthusiastic about encouraging potential foster parents to consider taking older children into their homes. "I think that foster parents are afraid to take older children that have been in the system for a long time. One of the things that I absolutely tell people is that a child is not what's written about them on a piece of paper in a caseworker's file. There may have been behaviors, but let's look at why -- maybe that's all they've ever seen. Maybe they were coming out of horrific abuse or neglect. There's always a reason. If foster parents can just look beyond what's written ... the oldest that we've taken was 11. He had a pretty scary file, but we still have contact with him until this day. I don't regret that at all.
With her family of seven, you might think Humphrey and her husband have all they can handle, but she won't shut the door on future adoptions.
It's what she's called to do, she says.
"Once you see the need, you can't ever look away."
NAN Profiles on 09/30/2018