State Supreme Court Justice Margaret Workman poses with nine-year-old Savannah Emch after a Nov. 19 press conference about National Adoption Month. Savannah was adopted two years ago, and Workman has an adopted son. (Photos by Michael Switzer for the state Supreme Court)
Savannah Emch listens as her adopted father Nathan speaks during the press conference.
Chief Justice Brent Benjamin speaks during the Adoption Month press conference.
Court Administrative Director Steve Canterbury speaks during the event.
CHARLESTON -– Nine-year-old Savannah Emch said it more eloquently than all the adults who preceded her could.
"Now I'm happy," she said. "I have a home."
The student from Charleston's J.E. Robbins Elementary School spoke at a Nov. 19 press conference at the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia in honor of National Adoption Month. The main message was to encourage West Virginians to adopt foster children.
She described the five years she and her younger sister, Emma, spent in the foster care system before Nathan and Sue Emch adopted them in the summer of 2007.
After they were taken from their biological parents, they went to live with a foster family with whom they formed a bond. Then they moved to a second family, where they stayed six months. They moved back in with the first family for a while, before moving back to the second family.
Then they moved on to another home.
"But her husband had just died and she thought I needed a mother and a father and so I went back to the second home," Savannah said.
One day, while she and Emma were at the daycare program they attended before and after school, their social worker, her assistant and a stranger appeared at the door.
"I thought in my head, social worker, assistant, who's that?"
The stranger turned out to be her new mother.
Nathan Emch said that he and his wife were trying to adopt another pair of sisters who were foster children in their home when they met Savannah and Emma.
"They are a little bit of rapscallions," he said. But, "You can have a child born into your family who can cause you more trouble than these children can cause you. ... We looked at them and realized these children are children."
Because they had been moved so many times, he and his wife decided Savannah and Emma should not be moved again, and they would adopt them. "We decided no matter how hard it gets, we have to take in these children," Mr. Emch said.
Being an adoptive parent is simply like being a parent. "There's a little bit of a random element. There's a little bit of chaos," Mr. Emch said. "These children are no different than the children you give birth to yourself, and they need homes."
The Emch family now includes the two sets of adopted sisters, their biological daughter, and another foster child.
"I don't believe I am special," Mr. Emch said. "But I made a special choice. This is something we all are capable of doing."
Mr. Emch pointed out that nationally, thousands of children each year "age out" of the foster care system because they turn 18 without being adopted. They become adults, are no longer eligible for care, have no families, and no place to go. He worries about the teenagers still in the foster care system who are facing that day.
More than 4,000 children are in foster care due to child abuse, neglect, or abandonment in West Virginia . Of those, 1,000 are eligible for adoption. The average of age of those children is 8 years old, said Supreme Court Administrative Director Steve Canterbury.
Justice Margaret Workman said she dearly loves all three of her now-adult children, but recalled joking while they were growing up that she wished the whole family had the genes of her one adopted son.
"He was my easiest child," she said.
Workman said that one of her main interests as a Supreme Court Justice is making sure that the court system always strives to find permanent placements for children as quickly as possible.
"No child is safe until they have a permanent home," Workman said. "We have some wonderful leadership out in the circuits."
She acknowledged Nicholas Circuit Judge Gary Johnson, who is chairman of the Court Improvement Program. Johnson has received the national Commissioner's Award, as well as awards from the Children's Justice Task Force, the Children's Alliance , and the Coalition Against Domestic Violence. He also has been recognized as an Angel in Adoption by the U.S. Congress.
"One of the few really joyous things you see in the court system is adoption," Workman said.
"As a parent does not have to be perfect, an adoptive child does not have to be perfect," she said. "I hope we can continue to focus on the needs and hopes of children for permanency."
Chief Justice Brent D. Benjamin said, "The true treasure of the state of West Virginia is our children. ... Too frequently children don't have the choice that others in society do. They rely on people like us.
"Adopting a child does not have to be expensive. And financial assistance does not end when the adoption is final. Many families who adopt foster children are eligible for federal or state subsidies that offset post-adoption adjustments," Benjamin said.
Biological parents of the foster children who are eligible for adoption have lost legal rights to the children because they have abused, neglected, or abandoned them.
"This Court will continue to do everything we can do to help the cause of children in the justice system in West Virginia ," Chief Justice Benjamin said.
The Court encourages West Virginians to consider adopting a waiting foster child who is eligible for adoption.
More information about adopting a foster child is available at http://www.missionwv.org/frameworks/Families.html or http://www.wvdhhr.org/oss/adoption/.