FARMINGTON — This Thanksgiving, while families gather in warm homes to reflect on their blessings, one local girl and her new family will be giving thanks that they have finally found each other.
On Monday, which was National Adoption Day, Renee and Rodney Hutchens legally adopted Shala, a pretty, bright and personable teen just two months shy of her 18th birthday.
Shala had been in the foster care system since she was 8 years old, and the Hutchens were her 29th foster home placement.
She said at times she lost count of how often she had been shuffled from place to place, and is relieved to have finally found a permanent home.
Renee Hutchens said the process of fostering and adopting Shala hasn't been easy.
"Shala has a lot of emotional issues, and she sabotaged all of her previous placements," Renee Hutchens said. "We had some really big trials, but we learned how to deal with her in a different manner. We give her quiet time to reflect, and that's what has worked for her."
Shala acknowledged she made it difficult for previous foster parents, and said she would continually test foster families and ruin the relationships they were trying to build with her. Once she realized, however, that the Hutchenses were not going to give up on her, she began to relax and accept the possibility that this could finally be her permanent family.
"I was surprised when they didn't give up on me, and that they were going to keep me," she said.
The Hutchenses, who have six biological children and are fostering four additional children, became Shala's foster parents a year ago. Renee Hutchens owns three daycare centers in Aztec and Rodney Hutchens owns a transmission shop and coaches high school football.
Renee Hutchens said they became interested in foster parenting two years ago when a child in one of her daycare centers had to be placed in Childhaven for two months.
"The aunt and uncle allowed us to see her every day after that, and I'm so thankful for that," Renee Hutchens said, tearfully. "From that time on, we decided to continue to foster, because nothing can take the place of a home for a child. Children need a home."
The couple depends on the kindness of others to help them manage their large brood.
"We couldn't do all of this without the help of the community, and I rely so much on my friends, particularly Carri Watson, Karina Sanchez and Jessica Scott."
Patricia Hale is a Children, Youth and Families Department foster and adoptive parent recruiter. Hale said there are about 2,000 children in New Mexico in the foster care system, with 300 of them available for adoption. In San Juan County alone, about 100 children are in foster care. Children in the system have been removed from their homes for various reasons, including abuse or neglect.
"The first thing we try to do with these children is to get them back with their families or with relatives," said Hale. "But if we can't find any relatives who can take them, we turn to these amazing people who choose to grow their families by adoption."
Training, which is free, to become a licensed foster or adoptive parent takes six months, and placement of a child in a home can take several additional months or even, at times, years. For this reason, Hale encourages those interested in fostering or adopting to start the process as soon as possible.
During Shala's adoption proceeding, which culminated with Shala, Renee and Rodney signing the adoption petition in front of Judge Sandra Price, the Hutchenses were asked if they would make sure that Shala, whose ethnic and cultural background is Navajo, will continue to receive exposure to the Navajo culture, and will be allowed to visit her Navajo relatives on the reservation. The Hutchenses, who are not Native American, affirmed that they would.
The couple was visibly moved as they made the adoption official, as was Price.
"Every time I saw another notice of change of placement for you, it would break my heart," Price, choking back tears, told Shala. "I am so, so glad that this is happening, and am thrilled that you've found a place to call home, and people to call family."
Shala was asked what the adoption means to her.
"They have shown me that even if I mistreat them, they'll stay with me," Shala answered. "So this means I'll finally have a family, I'll have a home of my own. I'll have brothers and sisters."
Shala was then asked if she understood that from now on, Renee and Rodney would be her mom and dad.
"I thought they already were," said Shala, a huge smile spreading across her face.
For information on fostering or adopting a child, contact Patricia Hale at 505-327-5316, or visit www.CYFD.org.