By Emily McCluhan | Photographed by Hillary Schave
Families come in all shapes and sizes and can grow in all sorts of ways. For these couples, the desire to share their love with children was met through adoption.
The Hart Family
Kim and Jim Hart had a long—and sometimes perilous—journey to creating the family they knew they wanted. After six years and three rounds of unsuccessful IVF, including two life-threatening tubal pregnancies, they decided to take a breath.
“I began to realize I don’t have to carry a child to love a child. It’s not about being the bus,” Kim Hart says.
They knew they wanted to adopt but weren’t sure where to start, so the couple talked to friends and went to meetings to learn about international adoption. Kim Hart notes that Guatemala stood out because at that time babies went to foster care instead of orphanages after birth, which gives them a one-on-one adult connection from the start.
After a lot of paperwork, multiple trips to Guatemala and patiently waiting, the Harts brought Leighton home from a small town in southern Guatemala and returned from Guatemala City with Maia a few years later.
They quickly realized that whether they had a baby naturally, or through adoption, they faced the same new-parent challenges.
“You still learn as you go along,” Jim Hart says.
His wife nods and adds that she got really good at middle-of-the-night feedings. They both learned when they brought Maia home that parenting is also a lot of trial and error. What works for one child doesn’t always work for the other.
Now that Leighton is 15 and Maia is 10, the family is going to Guatemala this June to visit the kids’ birthplaces.
“I really just want to show them how beautiful their home country is and embrace where they come from. It’s a place where I feel like they’ll fit in,” Kim Hart says.
Between activities like hiking a volcano and cliff jumping, Leighton and Maia will get to see the cities where they were born. The Harts decided not to hire lawyers to find the birth mothers and foster families, knowing they wanted to focus on their own family time while exposing the kids to their home country.
Hart remembers how excited and anxious their extended family and friends were as they went through the adoption journey. She says they were all accepting of the process and reflects on how she and Jim were both raised, with the idea that family is family.
“It’s not based on blood. It’s life experiences and sharing and giving and being there for each other,” she says. “All of that stuff forms your family and builds your tribe.”
The Karls Family
Roxanne and Joe Karls grew up with big families so it was a given that they would have a large family of their own. But when Roxanne got pregnant with their first son, her doctor called him a miracle baby and fertility tests later showed that she couldn’t produce more eggs. The Karls knew they needed to move to adoption if they wanted to grow their family, so they found a private agency and adopted their daughter Alida at birth from Texas. Soon after, Roxanne met a friend who had fostered children.
“I had heard about foster care, but I had no idea it was so big right here in our own area,” Roxanne Karls says. “We knew we wanted a big family and it was exciting to know we could help other kids.” After connecting with Dane County Foster Care in 2014 and getting approved as foster parents, the Karls were quickly asked to take in siblings, 6-year-old Troy and 8-year-old Olivia, for a weekend. There was no family lined up after the weekend and the Karls didn’t want the kids to spend another night in a shelter. So they offered to take them in as a short-term placement. Four years later, Troy and Olivia made the Karls a family of six when they were officially adopted in early 2019. Dane County foster care officials caution that fostering a child isn’t an automatic path to adoption. It just happened to work out for the Karls clan.
“Reunification with the biological family is always the goal,” Karls says. “But that makes the process an emotional rollercoaster.”
The Karls built a relationship with Troy and Olivia’s biological mom and dad, even celebrating Christmas with the kids’ mother. When their birth mother got pregnant and was allowed to keep the baby, Troy and Olivia started preparing to go home. But their mom overdosed and died, and the one-year old baby went to live with another family member.
“We can often be very quick to judge. Looking back now, it’s very sad. I know they love their kids, they just couldn’t be the parents they wanted to be,” Karls says. “But building that relationship with the parents is so important, because we knew that if the kids went home, we could visit. You invest so much as a foster, so that makes it a little easier.”
During the first year of the ups and downs with Troy and Olivia, the Karls got a call for an emergency placement for an infant, JJ, in 2015. They fell in love with him and started the same emotional rollercoaster. Both JJ’s parents were in and out of jail and JJ’s short-term placement turned into an adoption in October 2018.
But the Karls weren’t complete until Troy and Olivia’s half-sister, Harlyn, joined them in September of 2018 when her family placement didn’t go as planned. The Karls were able to adopt Harlyn in May 2019.
Now as a family of eight, the Karls are juggling therapy sessions, managing meal times and configuring rooms for optimal space. But their support network is what gets them through it.
“Finding those other foster families that have gone through it was so helpful,” Karls says. “Just having the support for the ups and downs when mom or dad come back in the picture, or to get ideas on how to handle a certain type of behavior.”
The rollercoaster isn’t ending but the Karls crew is complete. After Harlyn’s adoption, they threw a party with friends and family, cake and special T-shirts, and photo timelines of each of the kids’ journeys. And even though the Karls know they may foster more children in the future, their big-family dream is complete.