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How the Walker family was made: an adoption story

The Walker family on a Zoom call with the reporter, from left: Lola, Jasper, Michael, Keith, and John.
Randi B. Hagi
Scenes from the Walker family's Zoom call with the reporter. From left: Lola, Jasper, Michael, Keith, and John.

One local family's adoption story stands as a testament to both the power of love and the difficulties of navigating the child welfare system. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports.

Keith Walker was at home late one night in 2019 when he got a phone call –

KEITH WALKER: … from Cumberland County DSS that asks me if I know this person's name, and I said, "Well, I do. I haven't seen her in years or heard from her in years."

That's Cumberland County, North Carolina. Walker recalls the social worker on the phone informing him that his cousin's 18-year-old daughter had just survived an overdose. But her four children, ages one to four, needed somewhere to go.

WALKER: And that's where this whole thing takes off.

 Keith Walker with his dog, Walter, before the kids get home from school.
Randi B. Hagi
Keith Walker with his dog, Walter, before the kids get home from school.

Walker lives in Stuarts Draft, and owns the DBK Salon in Harrisonburg. A few years before the fateful call, he had taken foster training and gotten certified – but wasn't quite ready to become a parent. That is, until he met Michael, John, Jasper, and Lola.

He started preparing his home for four young kids, and waited to hear when he could make the five-hour drive south to pick them up. That's when the problems started. The first of several case workers quit.

WALKER: Tuesday, I called, and they said, oh, she quit. … That happened three times. … They would say, "this is when you're going to come get the kids." So I would clear my book at work for two weeks … and it wouldn't happen. They would quit!

Finally, in August 2019, Walker said he got a call at 10:45 one morning and was told to be in Fayetteville by 6 p.m.

WALKER: I had a client in my chair. I just finished her up, got in the car, flew down to North Carolina. I got there, I think it was 6:20.

By now, he was on his fifth case worker, who told him to pull around to the back of the social services building.

WALKER: They bring them to the vehicle. No car seats. I had no car seats. No diapers. No clothes. They had a bag full of medication and a folder full of papers. … I'm like, did this really just happen? Like, I just drove to Fayetteville North Carolina, pulled into a back alley, got four kids shoved into my car, and here we go.

I met them over Zoom – and got a glimpse into the delightful chaos of a four-child household.

JOHN: I'm in second grade, and I'm a good basketball player, and I have lots of friends! …

MICHAEL: I'm the person usually doing my own thing, playing by myself or playing with like two or three people.

WALKER: But what's your favorite thing to play?

MICHAEL: … my RipStik and my hoverboard.

WALKER: What's your favorite thing to do, Jasper?

JASPER: It's to ride my bike, and work on my workbooks!

[kids talking over each other]

JOHN: Oh, and this is my favorite thing – my favorite, favorite, favorite, favorite, favorite thing is riding my bike.

LOLA: My favorite thing is to lay in my bed.

HAGI: [laughing] Did you say lay in your bed?

WALKER: That's what she said!

HAGI: I like doing that too, Lola.

LOLA: And climb a tree!

 When the kids kept having negative reactions to hearing sirens, Walker invited the rescue squad to come and give the neighborhood children a an ambulance tour.
Keith Walker
When the kids had negative reactions to hearing sirens, Walker invited the rescue squad to come and give the neighborhood children a an ambulance tour.

Walker said they faced a lot of challenges in the early days. Lola had a diaper rash so bad he took her to the emergency room. None of the kids had been to daycare or school. They were underweight. And they had experienced trauma.

On top of all that, Walker had to deal with the staff turnover at the social services office in North Carolina. He said he went through about 12 social workers over the four years it took to finalize the adoption. Each changing of the guard meant delays in the process.

WALKER: Every conversation is, "well Mr. Walker, there's been a complication."

I contacted the county's Department of Social Services to ask about their turnover rate and the typical timeline of an adoption. After initially responding, they did not answer follow-up emails or a voicemail about specific questions.

State documents show that retaining staff is a major and widespread problem, with one 2023 report from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services citing, [quote] "unprecedented staff turnover resulting in a child welfare workforce shortage." [end quote] In 2021, the agency reported a 36% turnover rate in front-line child welfare staff.

Of course, this isn't just a North Carolina problem. The Virginia Department of Social Services analyzed their own workforce in 2017. Part of that report notes "debilitating turnover rates." Entry-level child welfare positions saw a 42% turnover rate that year, largely due to low pay, secondary traumatic stress, and burnout.

Despite the challenges of the foster care system, the siblings' adoption was finally approved by the courts last year. An adoption attorney who spoke with me on the condition of anonymity said it's not that uncommon for it to take four years, especially considering it's extra complicated to adopt across state lines.

Walker is thankful to have had his family's support through it all. His aunt, Sue Woodson, remembers the first Easter the kids were here.

SUE WOODSON: My grandson said, "let's put some candy and stuff in the eggs and hide them for the children." So we did, and they had the best time.

The kids call her Grandmaw. She lives in Scottsville.

WOODSON: We often say, if it wasn't for him taking them in, it's hard to tell where they'd be or what they'd be into. So we're just real, real thankful to be blessed with them in our lives.

Walker encourages anyone who has the opportunity to become a foster parent to do so. "It'll change your life," he said.

[Lola singing a rendition of "Jesus Loves Me"]

Randi B. Hagi first joined the WMRA team in 2019 as a freelance reporter. Her writing and photography have been featured in The Harrisonburg Citizen, where she previously served as the assistant editor; as well as The Mennonite; Mennonite World Review; and Eastern Mennonite University's Crossroads magazine.