They thought they were just going to see a baseball game. But when six-year-old Jayden and his newly adoptive mother, Shellie, arrived at the minor-league Kane County Cougars’ ballpark, in Geneva, Illinois, over Labor Day weekend, they realized they’d been tricked.
“Welcome to our family, Jayden! Congratulations!” read the banner on one wall of the luxury box. A loop of photos of Jayden played against another wall. A table in the middle of the room overflowed with presents.
Shellie’s adoption of Jayden had just been finalized.
The size of the party spoke to the excitement that had been building since Jayden and Shellie met. More than 50 family members and friends were in attendance. So was Jan Miller, Jayden’s Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA), who flew in from Los Angeles as a surprise guest.
But for Jayden and Shellie, the excitement was paired with a big dose of relief.
They met almost exactly two years before—during Labor Day weekend 2012—after Shellie inquired to an online adoption registry. Then 4 years old and going by his birth name, Jayden was living in a group home for medically fragile children. A year earlier he had suffered life-threatening injuries—cervical/spinal-cord damage, compression fractures to two vertebrae, and upper extremity deformity—as a result of extreme physical abuse. When Shellie met him, he was a quadriplegic but was becoming more verbal, could sit with support, and was learning to use his legs.
“When I first met him, I introduced myself as a friend. I told him I brought a friend with me. It was a teddy bear,” she remembers. “We played together for a while and then I left for the day. When I went back the next day, he had that teddy bear with him, and he started talking about how friends can’t leave friends alone. It broke my heart.”
On the third day, it was time for Shellie to go back to Chicago. She tried saying goodbye.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“I have to go back home,” she replied.
“No, you can’t go back.”
“Why not? I need to.”
“Because you’re my mom! You need to stay here.”
“No, I’m just a friend,” she countered, and the two went back and forth like this for several rounds.
Eventually she asked him, “Would you like me to be your mom?”
“Yes. You are my mom,” he insisted.
Shellie flew back to Chicago that evening convinced they were a good fit. She eagerly contacted the adoptions worker and stated her desire to adopt him.
That weekend, she met Jan, who had been working with Jayden since July of that year. (Jan took over for another CASA, Joyce Sutedja, who had managed Jayden’s medical care in the critical early stage, immediately after he was hospitalized, at the court’s emergency request.)
“My role in the beginning was to connect with him, to be a part of his life as much as I could be,” Jan explains. “He had no family in his life, and I would visit him at school and his group home, attend his doctor’s appointments and physical therapy appointments. I would take pictures and videos of him to share with Shellie, the court, and his social workers.”
By rights, Shellie didn’t have any standing with Jayden, so once it was clear that his team was seeking to have him placed with her, Jan got a court order saying that Shellie should be included by phone in any doctor’s appointments or school meetings.
“If necessary, I would get out my cell phone and use that as a speakerphone, just to make sure Shellie could participate,” Jan says. “She had only seen him for a few days once and then wasn’t going to see him again until she came to pick him up and take him to Illinois. It ended up being a long gap, about ten months.”
The wait was so long, in fact, that Jayden—who by this time insisted on going by the name of his favorite Power Ranger—became increasingly suspicious that he would ever go live with Shellie. “You left me here!” he would often shout during their phone calls.
Shellie was able to assuage his fears in part with video chats and recordings, utilizing the equipment they received after Jan got a court order for shared therapy sessions via Skype to address his move. Shellie took him on tours of his soon-to-be new home, showing him his bedroom, toys that had been amassed for him, Christmas presents waiting under the tree with his name on them, and even the neighborhood and neighbors.
“The staff at the medical home said he watched those videos all day, every day,” Shellie says.
Meanwhile, Jan was working with others on the case to get Jayden the equipment he would need for his life outside of the medical home, including a portable gastronomy tube—he wasn’t able to eat on his own at the time—and a gait trainer, to allow him to stand upright and walk within a harness so he could develop strength in his legs. (The gait trainer would also help remove barriers delaying Jayden’s placement with Shellie.)
In June 2013, everything was at last in place for Jayden to live with Shellie. She flew out to L.A. to pick him up, allowing a day for a trip to Disneyland before the flight back. Jayden, however, couldn’t wait to get to Chicago. He desperately wanted to leave his old life behind.
But for the first few months, life in Chicago was full of ups and downs. Jayden was so insecure that Shellie literally couldn’t leave his side. If she just went to the restroom, she would have to talk to him through the door. At one point, she was hospitalized with pneumonia, forcing the two to be separated. Jayden was beside himself, but when Shellie came home from the hospital, he seemed at last to realize that she wasn’t going to abandon him.
Jan continued as his CASA. She visited him in his new home in September of 2013, talked to him by Skype at least once a month, talked to Shellie even more often, and participated in school and therapeutic conferences by speakerphone. Now Shellie was the one sending the pictures and videos to Jan in California.
Still, Jayden talked constantly about his adoption. It was clear that he wouldn’t be truly at ease until it was finalized, although he dreaded having to go back to California for the hearing. He refused to answer questions about his life in California and would speak of no one he knew there—except for Jan, whom he began calling Grandma Jan.
He got a nice surprise in August, when the judge agreed to conduct the final adoption hearing from Los Angeles via Skype.
“Mom, I’m adopted now, so I don’t have to go back to California,” he said afterward. “We’re a family now. You’re my mom and I’m your son and that’s it. It’s all done.”
“You’re right. It’s all that,” Shellie told him.
With that, the last of his insecurity about his family melted away. Now Jayden talks instead about school, cars, food (he’s eating on his own), and—his favorite activity—Buddy Baseball, in which an able-bodied boy hits the ball for him and he runs the bases in his wheelchair. His prognosis is still in many ways uncertain and he often asks whether eventually he will be able to, say, drive a car or walk on his own, but he has a poise about it all that can only be described as precocious.
“I may not be able to do everything other kids can do,” he says, “but I can do them my way.”