Archive for March, 2020

By Jackie and Bob Spears

When we were applying for our second adoption, a social worker told us “I would never give you a normal child.” We could see her point. By then we already had two Cambodian boys in permanent foster care plus an adopted daughter who had spent her first 11 months in Medical College of Virginia’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit and was still being fed through a gastrostomy tube. We were also temporary foster parents for a dozen refugee kids from at least four countries (thankfully, not all at once). Our “not normal” adopted son weighed less than two pounds at birth and came with a frightening list of actual and potential health problems.

None of this was planned. There was no sense of having a mission to help the less fortunate. More or less accidentally we stumbled across people who needed help, thought we might be able to provide it, and jumped in. We don’t regret it, but this is not a warm, fuzzy story of love triumphing over adversity. It’s real life, with a mixed bag of results, some uplifting, some heartbreaking.

Not What You’d Call a Normal Family

Chun Tate and Ra Yoeun

Our two Cambodian sons came first. For legal/bureaucratic reasons they were not adoptable, but we got permanent foster placements, and they are family. Both lost their families and spent much of their childhood in communist work camps with no formal education. When the Pol Pot regime collapsed, they escaped to refugee camps in Thailand. At about 14 years old, they arrived in Richmond semi-literate in Khmer and speaking no English. Initial adjustments were confusing and frustrating—they were teenage boys who had grown up with no family, no role models and brutal discipline, dropped into a bewildering new culture. They didn’t understand us, and we didn’t understand them. On the plus side, they were bright, hardworking and (mostly) cooperative. After English lessons and a year or two of public school, they each went to middle and high school at Collegiate School.

Here their paths diverged. One overcame his traumatic beginning. Today he is a retired Naval officer with a lovely wife and a son at Virginia Tech. He won a full scholarship to Virginia Military Institute, is an engineer with a master’s degree and has one of the sharpest minds we have ever encountered. The other was too emotionally damaged. After two failed marriages and a bankruptcy, he considered returning to Cambodia, but found he couldn’t successfully cope with either culture. He now lives in a Cambodian enclave in California with his third wife and children, subsisting on welfare and income from Uber. Their everyday language is Khmer, and his command of English has regressed to a rudimentary level.

A pediatric neurologist told us that our daughter, born in Chesterfield County, would never be able to hold a job or live independently, and probably would never learn to feed herself. Today she has friends, a good job and has earned her associate degree. She has emotional difficulties and a severe speech impediment, but she is successfully making her own way. We are enormously proud of her.

As an infant, our adopted son, born in Williamsburg, was at risk for cerebral palsy, had hydrocephalus (thankfully transient), had breathing problems from undeveloped lungs and lost his hearing due to an antibiotic reaction. Against the odds, he survived and grew into a healthy adult with good intelligence. Unfortunately, he also has poor impulse control, little ability to organize or plan, and has episodes of violent rage. He’s never held a job for more than a few months at a time and is currently unemployed and living in his car. We haven’t given up on him, but it is increasingly discouraging.

Not What You’d Call a Normal Family


Our temporary foster kids were an equally mixed bag. We had two Vietnamese American boys who were abandoned by their birth mothers. One was pulled from a trash bin as an infant by an older woman who raised him. He came to Richmond with his foster mother but was taken from her because she wasn’t an officially approved foster parent. She had an apartment near us, so we became his official foster parents, but he spent much of his time helping her. He was a sweet, good-natured kid, always cheerful and helpful. Today he is married with children and works as a mechanic. The other boy grew up wild on the streets in Saigon. He seemed normal at first but became increasingly erratic. He was removed to a psychiatric ward after he threw a kitchen knife at Jackie. When released, he went to a group home and later wound up in prison.

There were at least ten others. One was an Ethiopian boy, one leg withered by polio, who walked to Kenya and claimed his friend was killed by lions during the trip. He came to America because he was confident our doctors could fix his leg. When he learned the truth, he accepted it cheerfully and went on to a successful life. Another was a mildly developmentally delayed Vietnamese girl who grew up as a child prostitute and was sent off in a refugee boat by her mother, with instructions to send back money and medicine. She married (against our advice) at 18, soon divorced, and resumed her childhood occupation. There was a Somali girl who thought any cooperation with us was blasphemy against Islam. We had a four-year-old Cambodian girl, removed from her home because of drugs and neglect, who was ultimately returned to her mother by social services. We have heard nothing, but have little hope for her.

We have no regrets, but no illusions either. We were given a chance to change what we could and accept what we couldn’t. We hope we had the wisdom to tell the difference.

Jackie and Bob SpearsJackie and Bob Spears have been married for 48 years, have four children, and have lived in Richmond for 41 years. Jackie grew up in Richmond; Bob is from a military family and grew up all over. They were married at FBC where Jackie attended, and where her mother, Jackie Booth (later Bowles) was a soloist with the choir. They now attend the Studio class at FBC Sunday School.

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