“Donna and I thought we were happy before we had children, but these four kids complete our world.”
— Sharicka McHenry
In 1996, Donna and Sharicka McHenry met through a mutual friend. While there was an instant connection, Sharicka was in a relationship. Four years later, they found each other and fell in love. The couple said “I do” in 2003, in front of 150 family members and friends. At the time, same sex marriage wasn’t legal, so a second ceremony was held in 2008 to seal the deal. “I was just excited she said yes the second time,” joked Donna.
Donna and Sharicka were satisfied with their lives in Phoenix, Ariz., and happy in successful careers.
But something was missing …
“We always wanted children,” said Donna, who holds more than 20 years of experience in the juvenile justice system. “We wanted one of our own, but we also knew we would go through the foster care process because there are nearly 20,000 children living in the child welfare system. We wanted to have an impact on some of these children’s lives.”
Finding a foster care partner
In 2013, Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health hosted a foster care open house at its Phoenix center. The event specifically targeted lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals and parents who were interested in becoming foster parents, so Donna and Sharicka jumped at the opportunity.
At the time, Donna worked for the Regional Behavior Health Authority and was responsible for its therapeutic foster care program. She was familiar with Devereux as it was one of her company’s preferred child welfare providers.
“We attended the open house because of Devereux’s reputation. We had a chance to meet the director and staff, and they had a guest attorney who answered questions about foster care,” she said.
Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health, a leading national nonprofit provider of behavioral healthcare, partners with individuals, families, schools and communities to serve many of the most vulnerable members of our society in the areas of autism, intellectual and developmental disabilities, specialty mental health, and child welfare. As part of its continuum of care, the organization also impacts the lives of thousands of individuals in the foster care system every year. And, as a result of its work with LGBT foster and adoptive families, Devereux’s Arizona, Florida and Georgia centers hold the Human Rights Campaign’s (HRC) “HRC All Children – All Families Seal of Recognition.”
Welcoming Gracie and Cathy
The McHenrys initially fostered a six-year-old girl. But after nine months, they realized she needed a higher level of therapeutic care than they could provide. Note: Therapeutic foster care involves caring for individuals with significant medical, psychological, social and emotional needs.
The couple was ready for their next foster parent experience and, on July 30, 2014, Donna and Sharicka welcomed sisters – Gracie and Cathy (at the time ages 11 and six, respectively) – into their home.
“Our priority was making sure they were stable, and that we gave them a healthy and happy home,” said Sharicka.
As soon as the girls moved in, Donna and Sharicka found out about Gracie’s and Cathy’s other two siblings – Angel (age nine) and Julio (age five) – who lived in separate foster homes across town. The children saw each other, and their biological mother, once a week during supervised visits.
During those visits, the McHenrys spent time getting to know the entire family. “We were the glue for these kids during the foster care process, making sure they had continual contact with each other,” said Donna. “When it was someone’s birthday, we called the other foster homes. And we made sure they got together during holidays.”
A judge’s order leads to a new family
After several review board meetings and court hearings, all signs were pointing to the possibility of adoption. “In the back of our minds, we felt if it came to a point where the kids could be adopted, we would consider it,” said Sharicka. “But we also didn’t want to set ourselves up for disappointment.”
And then it happened. In February 2015, a judge ordered a hearing to sever parental rights, which would mean the children would become eligible for adoption. The biological mother did not contest. When asked if the couple would be willing to adopt, Sharicka immediately said: “Yes, we’ll adopt.”
In disbelief, the judge asked: “Are you thinking about adopting all four children?” Sharicka confirmed.
In the courtroom, “Our caseworker with Child Welfare told us we should take time to think about it, and our Devereux staff worker told us that, whatever we decided, they were there to support us,” said Donna. “But we said, ‘No, we are going to keep all four together.’”
“Donna and Sharicka are one in a million – actually two in a million,” said Devereux Arizona Executive Director Lane Barker. “The first word that comes to my mind when I think about this couple taking in all four children: amazing.”
The transition of care began with Julio moving in that April; Angel arrived at the end of May 2015 when school was out for the summer. “It was all about excitement having everyone under the same roof,” Donna said. The weekend Angel moved in, they went on a camping trip to bond and start their life as a new family.
‘I think I stopped breathing …’
Fast forward to December 2015: The courtroom was filled with family and friends to finalize the adoption.
“It was a bittersweet moment for the kids,” said Sharicka. “They had to say goodbye to their mom, whom they love. But I know that, in their hearts, they knew they were safe, that they were loved and we would do anything for them.”
When asked how it felt to finally be a family, Sharicka explained it in the words of her newly adopted son: That day, “Angel looked up at me and said, “Pinch me. Am I really adopted?’”
Looking back, the McHenrys felt the adoption went as smoothly as possible. “During the adoption hearing, the mom said she was more scared to take her kids into her home and put them back in an unsafe environment,” said Sharicka. “She said she knew we had her kids’ best interests at heart and that we could give them something she couldn’t. At that moment, Donna and I were holding hands. I think I stopped breathing for a little bit.”
Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health was also on hand to assist. “Devereux helped guide us through the process and plan the whole adoption,” said Donna. “They also helped make the process age appropriate, helping the kids understand what adoption means. We felt very supported.”
Setting boundaries; overcoming obstacles
Since the siblings’ arrival, the McHenrys have worked tirelessly to help their children overcome extraordinary obstacles. “Two of our kids have ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder) – and they all suffer from trauma,” said Donna.
Part of that involved setting boundaries. For instance, when the siblings came together, “Gracie was constantly placed in the role of being ‘mom.’ We had to help her just be a kid. We had to help them all understand what’s appropriate and what is not appropriate,” Donna said. “We also needed to help them understand we were there to address their needs – they didn’t have to fend for themselves anymore.”
Today, Gracie (13), Angel (11), Cathy (nine) and Julio (seven) are flourishing. And Sharicka’s update (below) demonstrates the children’s amazing progress:
Gracie: As the oldest, Gracie did not have parental guidance from Kindergarten through fifth grade. She struggled in school and truancy was a serious issue. Today, she earns straight “A’s,” was elected class president, is a member of the volleyball team and participates in school theater productions. “She is a shining star and finished writing her entrance letter for high school. She used to be afraid of the police. Now, she wants to be a detective in the sex crimes unit.”
Angel: When Angel arrived, he had reading comprehension concerns, anger issues and did not possess self-advocacy skills. “Part of what he needed was just to be hugged and rocked, which was soothing for him. He wasn’t given that attention as a baby. Now, when Angel has what he needs and has the right support in place, he thrives. He is very helpful at school, is getting the support he needs and we know he has the potential to be a straight ‘A’ student.”
Cathy: Initially, Cathy disliked everything about school except for recess and lunch. But her most recent progress report showed straight “A’s.” “She is active, doing well and making friends. She can express herself now – we call her Chatty Cathy.”
Julio: The youngest member of the family was a bit willful and prone to running off into a crowd. “He was spoiled and babied, but he wasn’t a baby. So we had to change that. Today, he is still a precocious child, but he is really bright. Sometimes, I think he is afraid to show how bright he is. He is such a great kid.”
“I look at the growth from when we first got our kids to where they are today, and it is nothing short of amazing,” Sharicka added. “We look back and say to each other, ‘We did that!’”
A cancer diagnosis
As Donna and Sharicka continue to strengthen their family unit, it has not come without a few setbacks.
In July 2016, Donna was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and kidney cancer. But, in January 2017, she had her last round of chemotherapy for the Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. And even better news, the cancer in her kidney is benign.
Donna’s fight has only brought the family closer together. Even though she was fatigued during treatment, Donna said, “I still tried to fulfill my role as mom: dropping the kids off if I could, attending school meetings and creating performance outfits.”
The siblings have also been there for their parents. “They have made us breakfast and cleaned the house. And they give me hugs every day,” said Donna with a smile in her voice.
We’re gonna need a bigger house …
When the McHenrys envision their future, they see more children.
“Our kids want more kids. We want more kids. Sometimes, I think we are crazy,” laughed Sharicka. “Our life changed this past year with Donna’s treatment, but I don’t see us being done with this journey. When we move, and get into a bigger house, we will entertain the thought of another child.”
And as they dream about their children’s future, Donna is hopeful and confident. “Obviously, you want your kids to do their very best,” she said. “The main goal is that you don’t want them to repeat the cycle of their past.”
Sharicka agreed: “On Gracie’s high school entrance form, she said she plans to be the first in her biological family to go to college. I not only want her to be the first who goes to college, but I also want her to live a productive life. The fact that she is talking about college now, in eighth grade, is huge and I know she will do it.”
Foster care at Devereux
Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health trains and licenses individuals to become foster parents, and provides foster families with workshops, support groups, respite services and 24/7 support. These services are offered in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts/Rhode Island, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Texas.
“We believe all individuals deserve a loving, supportive and nurturing family – and a positive home environment – to help them reach their unique potential,” noted Barker.