Two years ago, Dawn and Scott Chenoweth decided to become foster parents. So they brought home 2-and-a-half year old Lluvia and her newborn sister.
"Ray, we picked her up from PICC. She was seven days old. She was born meth addicted and opiates," Dawn told me at the kitchen table of their family's Puyallup home.
The couple already has four children of their own.
"We had no intentions of adopting them," said Scott. "One thing led to another, we fell in love with them. We knew they were never going home so we talked about it and decided we'd adopt them."
"We were ready to kind of pay it forward," Dawn added. "We've been blessed with our family."
But adopting the two little girls, now almost 5 and 2 years old, was going to cost $3,600 in lawyer's fees, not to mention hundreds of dollars in other adoption fees, and the Chenoweth family didn't have that kind of cash to spare. They were going to have to wait until next year, when they go their tax returns. But then they were introduced to Andrew Schneidler, an adoption lawyer and founder of the Childrens Law Center of Washington.
A year and a half ago Andrew had an epiphany: Why are kids being kept from having permanent homes just because the foster parents can't afford the lawyer's fees? So he left his firm, started a nonprofit and now he only charges lower income parents about 10 percent of the typical lawyer's fees.
"These are just kids and so it's such a shame that kids would be stuck sitting in a state of in between," said Andrew. "Kids need to be home, that's where they need to be. I mean that more than just a physical space. Emotionally they need to have that feeling where, 'I'm home.'"
All three of Andrews kids are adopted, two of them from PICC, the infant drug withdrawal center I told you about last week. So he understands what it's like for kids like Estrella and Lluvia to feel like they're not 100 percent a part of any family.
"She does know that her [last] name is different," said Dawn. "She has asked us recently if she would have to go back to the building. We're not really sure what the building is. So I think she knows that once her adoption is through she doesn't have to go back to the building, she doesn't have to go to another family. That she's here permanently. So she does get it. And she wants to be a Chenoweth."
The girls will be adopted on Nov. 22, National Adoption Day, and Dawn says setting that date had an effect on the 5-year-old girl.
"She's changed a lot since she first came into our care. She's comfortable now, you know. She'll put her feet up on the couch and she sleeps in with everyone else and doesn't maybe have a sense of having to be perfect all the time. I think you see that a little bit with kids in care. They walk on eggshells because they don't want the families to think, 'Oh, well, they're a bad kid and that's why they were taken away and we're going to send you away too because your parents don't want you.' So all of that that she had in the beginning with trying to be perfect, she's relaxed. She's just like the rest of us."
Andrew's number one priority is giving kids a permanent home. He's seen grandparents unable to adopt their grandkids because they can't afford the adoption fees. Those can be four times as expensive as a foster care adoption.
"There was a case recently where grandma and grandpa were adopting their kids and they couldn't afford it. They came to me and they heard what it would cost and the grandpa was really anxious, let's get going. At the hearing I noticed he was relieved. I found out that one of the reasons he was so anxious was he was elderly and he wasn't sure how long he would be alive and he didn't have anything to give his grandchild. If you're just caring for your grandchild, and something were to happen to him, there's no pay it forward as far as social security. But if they're you're child, there is. So he was like, God forbid if something happens to me early, at least I can leave something to my kids. I don't have any house, I don't have any estate of my own, but at least I could leave social security. Two weeks after the adoption he passed away. Just two weeks. And so I really have a sense of urgency when I'm doing these cases."
Andrew wants to be clear that other adoption lawyers do great work, but he wanted to help an undeserved segment of the population.
"I feel like I was made to do this. I come home each day, I see my kids, they're just such blessings to me. I want to help other people experience that blessing. But I also want to help kids have a home. It's beautiful, I get to work with all different kinds of families, all different make ups of lifestyles. It's very rewarding."
Andrew is mostly funded through donors. Last year he was able to facilitate 33 adoptions and this year he hopes to double that number.