Meet the Arrows: How fostering changed this family forever
Eric and Jackie Arrow waited to go before a judge at the Allegheny County Courthouse as their two soon-to-be sons played with their toy swords and shields. One brother swung and jabbed as the other attempted to fend the wild flings.
The lobby of the Allegheny County Courthouse was alive with laughter, joyful tears and colorful bouquets as families from around the county waited to finish the long process of adoption on an aptly named occasion — National Adoption Day.
“You know what we’re going to do today?” asked Eric Arrow of the younger brother, James.
James, 4, paused his make-believe sword game and said: “Talk judge.”
James’ adoptive father hugged him, smiled and nodded approvingly. “That’s right.”
Nearly two years ago, Eric, 48, and his wife, Jackie, 46, made a life-altering decision. The Penn Hills couple started fostering James and his brother, Wadell, 11.
Since then, the family has only grown. Today, the Arrows are legal parents to the brothers, have taken in an additional three foster children and are moving to a larger home in Springdale Borough.
The decision to expand their family came after the Arrows raised four of their own biological children — one who still lives at home while attending graduate school. In all, the Arrows now have nine people living in a home centered on love, laughter and the importance of family.
From four to nine
The couple always dreamed of fostering dozens of children while the agencies worked to reunite them with their families. But the dream was pushed to the sidelines as they worked to raise their own children, all who recently graduated from college and work full time.
While the couple is extremely proud of their adult children, life without the energy of little ones was getting to Eric Arrow, who missed the parent life he’d grown accustomed to over the last 20 years.
“We used to think we’d want a slower life when the kids got off to school,” said Eric Arrow. “But some parts of that were really depressing. All of a sudden, a lot of function was taken out of my life.”
That’s when the couple went to Auberle, a McKeesport-based fostering agency, to learn about the program. The couple admits they had an idealized view of fostering before they began the process.
“We thought we could offer help to kids … we just wanted to be caretakers. We wanted this rosy story about parents getting their lives back together and then we’d reunite their kids with them,” said Eric Arrow.
The couple envisioned fostering a baby for awhile as the mother worked to get her life back on track.
“But then they called us one day and said, ‘We have a 3-year-old and a 10-year-old who really need some place,’ ” Eric Arrow said.
The couple talked it over and agreed to give it a shot.
“We asked them, ‘When do you need us?’ And they said, ‘Well, how about tonight?’ ” he said.
That night, Eric and Jackie welcomed James and Wadell into their home for what they hoped would be a temporary stay and end with the boys returning to their family.
Fostering to adopting
The Arrows’ idea of fostering changed as their bond with the children deepened.
“When James first came to us, I can remember that first night he was crying,” Eric Arrow said. “He was really angry. He didn’t know why he was crying, but a few weeks later, he was lying there in bed with us, he just seemed so content.”
For Jackie Arrow, a motherly bond with the boys formed naturally and quickly. It happened at different times for each boy, she said, but now she sees both as her own.
“Adoption doesn’t give it a justified name … (they’re) just like my other kids. There’s no difference,” said Jackie Arrow.
Eric Arrow said the boys’ biological mother, who has an intellectual disability and lives with her parents, did not have the means to care for her sons, who have different fathers. At one point, the utilities at the house were turned off.
One day, when the boys were left home alone, the older brother attempted to carry his toddler brother down the stairs when he dropped him. Eric Arrow said the fall knocked the toddler’s front teeth out.
“He got surgery to get his teeth fixed. That was one of the reasons they took the kids away,” he said.
When Auberle began to search for permanent guardians for the boys about three months into fostering, Jackie Arrow said it was hard to imagine the reality that James and Wadell may not be part of their lives anymore.
“I was like, ‘Wait a minute — (they have) a family.’ No matter who they were going to find, it was not going to be good enough,” she said.
In that moment, the Arrows began considering adoption.
By the numbers
There are 1,350 children in foster care in Allegheny County. Of those, 948 are with relatives and 402 are being fostered by non-relatives. There are another roughly 150 children in residential and supervised independent living units.
Marc Cherna, director of the Allegheny County Department of Human Services, said the majority of the roughly 1,500 children in foster care won’t get adopted.
“Placing children back in the birth family is our main goal,” he said. When that is not possible, the department looks for other solutions such as foster care or adoption.
James and Wadell represent a fraction of the children who qualify for adoption. The Arrrows were one family of 34 that finalized their adoptions on National Adoption Day this year.
In all, there were 43 adoptions Nov. 17 — bringing the total for the year in the county to 216. Most of those children — 123 — were given new homes in the form of permanent custodianship with family members.
Cherna said DHS doesn’t have a problem finding foster parents who later want to adopt. The issue, he said, is finding additional foster parents.
“We always have a shortage on finding non-relative foster parents,” he said. “Especially for kids that are harder to place. There’s a constant recruitment.”
Mark Bertolet, a DHS spokesman, said the children who are harder to place are those with disabilities and teens.
“With a disability, usually there is more care involved. And with the older (children), they have a different situation and sometimes have a lot more trauma,” Bertolet said.
To help the people who would like to be foster parents but are financially strapped, Cherna said agencies offer monthly stipends. Most, he said, pay families starting around $600 for each child per month, but stipends vary.
“There’s also a clothing allotment, Medicaid and other types of support. And some pay a higher rate for children with special needs. But (families) don’t make a profit on this,” he said.
Eric Arrow, who works for a call center, said they will accept a monthly stipend to help care for James and Wadell, but that they are otherwise financially stable. His wife sells insurance.
“I don’t think people could do this if they didn’t work full time,” said Eric Arrow.
Months into fostering them, the Arrows had the boys screened and learned both are on the autism spectrum. For the Arrows, the workload that comes with parenting two young boys with extra needs is worth it.
“It can be a little bit of a grind. But when you see and realize what these kids have been through it’s certainly not a grind to them … it’s a good tired at the end of the day,” said Eric Arrow.
A new journey
On their adoption day, the new parents walked out of Judge Eleanor Bush’s room with wide smiles and tears welling in their eyes.
“Nobody can take him from me now — he’s mine,” Jackie Arrow said as she hugged James.
Eric Arrow struggled to find the words to describe the feeling.
“There’s something emotional about doing this legally in front of people,” he said.
The family’s new house in Springdale will be able to accommodate the Arrows’ life as foster parents. For now, the plan is to put James and Wadell and another boy they are currently fostering into one bedroom. The two girls they are currently fostering also will share a bedroom.
The couple isn’t ruling out the idea of growing their family even more with future adoptions.
“I couldn’t raise my right hand to say ‘No,’ ” Eric Arrow said.
To learn more about fostering or adopting, call the statewide adoption network at 1-800-585-7926 or the county’s Director’s Action Line at 1-800-862-6783.
Dillon Carr is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Dillon at 412-871-2325, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @dillonswriting.