Adoption at CSB/SJU: Part One of Two
They were just kids, too. Future Bennies and Johnnies who were faced with the turbulant nature of childhood adoption, but emerged, as we all do, with different stories.
Stories of happiness, of sadness, of being different differently.
The Record examines the lives and stories of adopted students in the CSB/SJU community, from their earliest moments to the experiences that have led them to become Bennies and Johnnies.
Rewind twenty years—the early 1990s.
A white, middle-class, two-year-old from Alexandria, Minn. is placed in foster care and then adopted into a white family with no knowledge of his biological parents, and no desire for that knowledge.
A biracial African-American/white female infant from South Dakota is adopted into a family of white parents, South Korean brothers and an African-American/Hispanic sister through an open-closed adoption—to be completely open 16 years later.
A white, female infant from St. Cloud, Minn. is adopted into a white family—with one biological daughter and an adopted son—through a closed adoption, which would become opened on her eighteenth birthday.
A Guatemalan baby girl is placed into an American family with two other Guatemalan adoptees, white parents and no knowledge of her biological parents or the country where she was born.
Twenty years later, as CSB/SJU students leading seemingly typical lives differently than many of us, these are their stories.
Fifteen years ago, five-year-old Brandon Brist came home from kindergarten crying. His class had spent the day discussing adoption. Brist knew he was adopted, as were two other children in his class – one from China and one from Japan. After pressing for details, it was discovered that Brist was crying not because he was adopted, but because he did not believe he actually was – simply because he was white.
“When they asked what was wrong, apparently my response was ’I’m not adopted, I’m not Chinese.’ So I thought that you had to be not white to be adopted,” Brist said.
Brist, currently a junior at SJU, has no recollection of this event. However, he does remember being told of his adoption on Christmas morning when he was seven years old.
“I’d always had this picture of my brother, my sister and my own handprints on the wall,” Brist said. “It was there from the time I was adopted to even now, and I never really knew why. My brother brought it down on Christmas morning and said ‘Brandon, you’re adopted.’ I was like ‘Cool, can I open more presents now?’ I just didn’t care.”
Brist was born at Douglas County Hospital in Alexandria, Minn. and was placed in foster care immediately. He lived with the same family in foster care for two years, until his adoption was finalized in December of 1995. To this day he is in contact with his foster mother and attended his foster father’s funeral five years ago.
His middle name is even Gene, after his foster father.
“When asked to take Brandon in, we already had a one and two year old and did not want three babies,” said Mary Inwards, Brist’s foster mother. “We said no but the case worker just kept asking us. I’m so glad we ended up taking him.”
“Over the years we have had a comfortable relationship with his adoptive family. Some families are very uncomfortable with foster parents and see them as competition for the child’s affection, but in Brandon’s case they looked at his needs and realized he can’t lose one family and be expected to take in a new family.”
Inwards has been a foster parent for 45 years, and in that time, has had over 200 children pass through her home – some staying only a couple days, others as long as five and a half years.
“When children move from here to a family comfortable with keeping contact with us, like with Brandon, then it’s not as hard,” Inwards said. “You miss them but it’s a whole different feeling. You know it’s a good thing good for the child. In your head you always know that it’s short-term, but your heart doesn’t always know that.”
As for Brist, he continues to have the same nonchalant attitude he had upon initially discovering he was adopted.
“I fit in,” Brist said. “I look like my siblings, and I’m a white, middle class kid. At this point it’s no big deal. If I were to open the adoption, I’d either be a trucker or farmer’s kid who was born out of wedlock, and they couldn’t take care of me. Or I could be a kid going to St. John’s who has a good future ahead of me.”
CSB senior Clare Foley connected with her birth mother through letters and Christmas gifts as a child – that is, until she discovered Facebook.
“When I was 16 I was on Facebook and my biological cousins have weird names so I looked them up,” Foley said. “I typed it in and the first thing that popped up is this biological cousin of mine. After that I quickly found my birth mom too.”
Foley was born in Sioux Falls, S.D. She was hospitalized for five weeks due to a heart problem, but was then released to her adoptive parents. She has two older brothers adopted from South Korea and a younger sister adopted from Texas, but of African-American and Hispanic descent. Her adoption was open-closed, meaning she could contact her birth parents through the adoption agency but not directly.
But after finding her birth mother on Facebook, that contact became direct and they met when Foley was 16 years old. At this point, all Foley knew of her birth father was that he had previously been a Vikings player. Two years later, she met him as well. Four years later, she still has a relationship with both biological parents – but from a distance.
“They say ‘I love you’ to me all the time to me and I cannot say it back,” Foley said. “I don’t feel that connection, I think bonds are built by relationships. She (my birth mother) doesn’t understand that I don’t feel it, but I understand why she does.”
Much of Foley’s hesitancy stems from her sense of loyalty to her adoptive parents.
“I am so defensive of them,” Foley said. “I cannot tell you how amazing these people are – my parents are like the greatest human beings ever and to think that other people try to step on that or claim me makes me mad.”
Like Harvey, Foley is also enrolled in Jean Keller’s Adoption and Ethics class.
“I originally took the class because it can be really frustrating to navigate these relationships,” Foley said. “There are no how-to books on these relationships and what to do after opening an adoption. I didn’t really know how to approach it, and was hoping the class could give different perspective and open my eyes to understanding where my birth parents are coming from.”
Taking this class has also allowed Foley time to reflect on her personal experience.
“If I could go back, I would still have contacted them,” Foley said. “But I do think I would have gotten help, some sort of adoption counseling to help me with what to say. There aren’t set rules, but maybe it could have helped me set expectations.”
When Val Kloeckl flew to Delaware to meet her birth mother as a senior in high school, two of her teachers did not believe her – or the fact that she was adopted.
“They thought I was skipping school for a college visit,” Kloeckl said. “My (adoptive) mom had to talk to them. They did not believe I was meeting my birth mom because I look a lot like my (adoptive)dad and sister and fit in with the family.”
Kloeckl, a CSB junior, was adopted as an infant. Her birth parents were both student athletes at St. Cloud State University and did what they found to be in the best interest of the child by placing her for adoption – a closed adoption, meaning Kloeckl could not access any information about her birth parents until she turned 18.
Kloeckl was placed in foster care for the first month of her life because Minnesota law states that biological parents can reclaim their child within 30 days of the birth. Over that time, her birth mother visited the foster home, but each time she did so, the adoptive family was notified.
“It made my (adoptive) parents really nervous,” Kloeckl said. “My birth mom sometimes went 2-3 times a day. She said she was never going to change her mind, but wanted to spend the time with me that she could.”
Since she had a closed adoption, Kloeckl had many unanswered questions when she was young.
“I was very curious as a child,” Kloeckl said. “I asked a lot of questions. I kind of always knew I wanted to meet them (birth parents), and never knew if it would be possible.”
“On my eighteenth birthday, my birth dad called for the first time. It was a shocking moment. He called the house and just said he had been thinking about me for 18 years.”
About a month later, Kloeckl met her birth father in person, who then put her in touch with her birth mother. The two are no longer a couple, but are still in contact. Kloeckl first contacted her birth mother in September and flew to Delaware to meet her the following April.
Kloeckl’s biological parents chose her adoptive parents based on a letter they had written. The letter was handwritten and a mistake had been crossed out, which became the reasoning for choosing her adoptive parents.
“They thought it was really genuine,” Kloeckl said. “They noticed that my mom had made mistake and scribbled it out, and realized she was human and wasn’t so concerned about the letter needing to be perfect.”
At one point Kloeckl was talking to her adoptive cousins about the situation. As she was explaining the circumstances, her cousin interrupted and said he thought he knew the woman who was her birth mom. The two had been neighbors for years, and Kloeckl’s cousin and his wife knew about the adoption but never put two and two together.
“My cousins had even gone to Delaware to visit them,” Kloeckl said. “They knew the story but never saw photos or knew the name of the child. It turns out that the whole time my cousin’s wife had helped my birth mother through the adoption process, and here we’re related.”
In addition to meeting and forming relationships with her birth parents, Kloeckl discovered she had a six-year-old half-sister and biological grandparents who live in St. Cloud. She now sees them almost every other weekend, and her biological and adoptive families have even celebrated Christmas together.
“It’s been really good,” Kloeckl said. “I look a lot like my birth parents. It’s fun seeing the personalities and similarities. Even the little things, like I have the same laugh as my (birth) mom. That’s been really exciting.”
When CSB junior Maria Harvey was adopted from a Guatemalan orphanage at two years old, she tried to make a break for it.
“My (adoptive) mom stayed in the U.S. and my (adoptive) dad came to pick me up,” Harvey said. “We were in a hotel and I just ran for the exit. I didn’t know him and was probably afraid. When he came to pick me up (from the orphanage) I just kept yelling out of the taxi.”
Since then, Harvey has come to terms with her adoption. She was raised in Omaha, Neb. with an older brother and sister, both adopted from the same orphanage.
“It doesn’t really occur to me that I’m adopted,” Harvey said. “It only hits me when we’re out to dinner or a movie and people are trying to piece together why we are a mixed race family.”
As a sophomore in high school, Harvey, her siblings and her parents traveled to Guatemala and visited the orphanage where she spent two years of her life, as well as met the people who took care of her.
“I kind of feel like I don’t identify with a culture,” Harvey said. “Going back to Guatemala I felt more like a tourist and not part of their culture. For the first time in my life, I looked like everyone else but I felt like a stranger.”
Harvey does not know much about her biological parents, other than the fact that her mother couldn’t provide for her and her father was not part of the picture. She has never spent much time thinking about contacting them, and being enrolled in Professor Jean Keller’s Adoption and Ethics course has solidified that thought.
“After going through this class, I don’t think I would want to contact them,” Harvey said. It could go badly, and I don’t want that. It also could go well, I’m always optimistic, but I just don’t think I’d want it.”
Based on her own positive experience being adopted, Harvey has considered adopting in the future.
“I think I would (want to adopt) because my parents gave me an incredible life and so many opportunities and I want to do that for another child,” Harvey said. “I think my dream would be to adopt a little boy from Guatemala.”
SJU junior Gabe Karstom’s love of chocolate can be traced back to his homeland of South Korea.
Karstom was born in Chungju, South Korea. His biological mother was handicapped and in a wheelchair at the time of his birth and his biological father disappeared. Karstorm was placed for adoption due to his biological mother’s physical inability to care for him. He was then placed in the care of Eastern Child Welfare in Seoul, South Korea and was adopted at 11 months old.
“One of my favorite things to eat when I was a baby was chocolate,” Karstrom said. “According to my parents that adopted me, chocolate was one of the first things I was ever fed (who knows what they were doing to me). As a result, I have been seriously hooked on chocolate for my entire life.”
Karstrom spent the first new years of his life in New Mexico, before moving to Omaha, Neb. where his family currently resides. He has two adopted brothers as well – one Russian, adopted from Siberia, and the other African-American, adopted from the Omaha area. His adoptive father is of Swedish descent, while his adoptive mother is full-blooded Aztec/Mexican.
“My parents have always been extremely open about talking to me about the adoption process and what my biological parents were like,” Karstrom said. “It is a pretty common topic of discussion for my family as we are all adopted.”
Karstrom has expressed minimal interest in locating his birth parents. At age 12, he traveled back to South Korea where his father was stationed for the Army. He met some of the agency representatives and spoke to his previous foster parents, as well as did some research into his biological parents. The search yielded little information. In the time since, based on medical records, it appears as if his biological mother has passed away and his biological father never resurfaced.
“There were hardly any strong leads or sources of information that we could have utilized to find them,” Karstrom said. “It made it pretty difficult for strangers to the country and culture. Someday, maybe I will return and find out more information.”
Even without that information, Karstrom is content with his life with his adoptive parents and brothers.
“I have never once felt that being adopted is in any way, shape or form a negative thing,” Karstrom said. “If anything, I have felt very privileged and blessed to have been adopted into such a great family. Being adopted brings a set of unique traits I believe and helps you stand out, something I think is really important.”