Couple shares COVID’s impact on adoption process

Editor’s note: Due to the sensitive nature of the adoption process, the Delaware State News is withholding the teenager’s name, the adoption agency and some details of her situation.

DOVER — Dr. Jesse Riggin paces in an empty room.

He stares at blue walls and sees the ocean.

The 38-year-old chiropractor looks at the yellow trim and visualizes the sun.

The room holds the vastness of both a family’s hope and the devastation of that hope delayed.

The spare bedroom in the home has held joy, love and fear, as well as paid witness to pain, desolation and loneliness.

But more than anything, it has remained empty.

The dream of finalizing his future daughter’s adoption has been delayed by COVID-19, and Dr. Riggin, without a timeline or way forward, bears the weight of the unknown.

Wanting to create a family

Dr. Riggin, and his wife, Barbara, decided in 2019 that they wanted to develop a family, and because they couldn’t biologically have one, they started the adoption process.

At first, they wanted to adopt a young child, so they could watch him or her grow and flourish, but as they started their search, they found a teenager in February and fell in love.

She recently turned 16.

“She has hopes and ambitions, but no family to come home to,” Dr. Riggin said.

“We met her, (and) it was amazing. She’s a pretty special person. I’m getting as much as I’m giving.”

Dr. Riggin describes her as very self-aware. “She’s seen more about adult problems than most adults. Yet at 16, she’s still a girl.”

She’s a special girl, with a very special room.

During one of their home visits, she and Dr. Riggin went to The Home Depot and picked out the colors she wanted for her room, which she described as yellow for the sun and blue for the ocean.

It was a room that symbolized the hope of a new life — and the whole family came together to paint that into reality.

A dream delayed

That dream had to be paused when COVID-19 arrived.

The pandemic’s appearance in March caused visitations to end and delayed the adoption process —– creating a cascade of uncertainty and despair for both the teen and the Riggins.

Jesse and Barbara had scheduled an overnight visit for March 21, which would have brought them significantly closer to adoption.
“(But) that’s when the restrictions started happening,” Dr. Riggin said.

“The group home stopped having visits. We went from everything moving along and we would bring her home as our daughter in June, to now, we won’t see her for an unidentified amount of time,” he said.

“It’s been incredibly painful for everyone.”

An uncertain future

As uncertainty mounted, Dr. Riggin speared into action.

He shared his concerns about the stalling process with the Delaware Division of Family Services and the adoption agency.

“They have been responsive,” he said. “They listened. Within the confines of the restrictions, they are doing everything they can.”

“This unprecedented public health emergency has forced the Delaware Division of Family Services to inherently change our day-to-day operations, but we are committed to providing permanency and stability for children,” said DFS director Trenee Parker.

“DFS continues to work with families, Family Court, adoption providers and other child welfare stakeholders to file and finalize adoptions for youth.”

The division finalized seven adoptions in March and 15 in April. In May, one adoption was finalized and eight were pending. Many adoptions have been delayed as the state struggles to adapt to coronavirus guidelines.

“We want to do everything we can to ensure that COVID-19 does not impact the dream of a healthy, happy and loving home, while protecting the youth in our care and families,” Ms. Parker said.

“The health and safety concerns of COVID-19 have forced the division to discontinue face-to-face contacts between youth in our care and families for the time-being, but we are using virtual visitation through video calls, as well as video and photo sharing to maintain connections. This decision was driven by public health guidance and information from the federal Administration for Children and Families that allowed for virtual visitation of families.”

Dr. Riggin has had several Zoom sessions with his future daughter. They’ve played card games and talked.

But there is little laughter in their conversations anymore, he said. The weight of uncertainty has cast a cloud over their virtual time together.

“This is not an ideal situation, but ultimately, we want to protect our youth and families and keep them safe,” Ms. Parker said. “The coronavirus has completely upended our lives in so many ways. We recognize this is an extremely difficult time for youth and families, and we want to do everything we can to ensure safety, encourage connections and keep children on their path toward permanency,” she continued.

A continuous fight

Dr. Riggin said that while he appreciates the abundance of caution the Division of Family Services is exercising, he feels that in some cases, it’s creating unnecessary trauma for children and families.

He appreciated some progress early this month when in-person visits resumed. “The state is working with us to resume visits and all that,” he said. “We are still waiting.”

He would like decision-makers to consider physical health concerns, as well as the potential mental health trauma these restrictions are causing.

“I’ve been really amazed by how she’s handled this, but her resilience is waning,” he said.

As is his.

“Everybody has their breaking point,” he said. “It’s getting to a point where it’s taking tolls on people that (are) going to last for a long time. The last month of my life rivals the difficulties I experienced in two tours in Iraq.”

But like the proud father he hopes to become, his main concern is for his future daughter.

“My biggest concern was that I didn’t want her to see me as someone else that wasn’t going to fight for her,” he said. “Not enough people have fought for her in her life.”

Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

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