People often return home from time abroad with souvenirs. Florida Panhandle couple Doug and Ellen Fannon brought something back with them from a two-year missionary assignment in Southeast Asia and Oceania, but it wasn’t anything tangible. The couple returned with a desire to care for other people’s children. That desire led them to become foster parents; ultimately, they adopted a son from foster care. Already adoptive parents before going overseas, the couple has a heart for making other people’s children their own.
Doug and Ellen met in March 1991, during church. Doug, an Air Force officer, had recently transferred to Eglin Air Force Base and began attending church at First Baptist Church of Niceville. Ellen, a veterinarian originally from Cincinnati, had moved to Florida because she hates cold weather. She also attended First Baptist and, as she explains it, “nabbed him (Doug) before anyone else could.”
The couple adopted their first son through a private adoption. At the time, the Fannons were unaware that there were other avenues to adopt. They worked with a local law firm that handled adoptions and waited to be matched with an expectant mother. Surprisingly to Ellen, the couple received a placement in about four months. Ellen had not been holding out much hope “at the old age of thirty-nine that anyone would choose us as adoptive parents.” She firmly believes it was all “God’s timing.” Doug and Ellen took their newborn son, Nathaniel (“Nathan”) home directly from the hospital.
After Doug’s retirement from the Air Force, the couple received a two-year assignment from the Southern Baptist International Mission Board. Ellen taught English, led a neighborhood children’s club, and helped in the street children ministry while Doug worked disaster relief and finances. Nathan was 6 by then, and Ellen partly homeschooled him.
Their work with street children from 1999-2001 deeply affected Doug and Ellen. They learned that in many third world countries, there are no social services for children; parents who could not afford to take care of their children sometimes took them to big cities and left them on the streets. The mission for whom the couple worked rented a home for street boys from age 5 through teenagers. The boys’ daily needs and medical care were taken care of, and schooling was provided. Because they were too far behind to attend regular classes, these boys mostly had to be homeschooled. While Ellen and Doug realized they couldn’t save all the children, they wanted to make a difference in the lives of a few.
Upon returning to the United States, this desire was channeled into becoming foster parents. They served in this capacity for ten years, from 2007-2017, during which time they fostered more than 40 children. Some children were with them for as short as overnight; others remained for as long as three years. Substance abuse by a parent was the main reason for the kids they fostered for being in the foster care system.
The Fannons had to undergo training to become licensed foster parents. Ellen felt that this training was educational. Nevertheless, she notes that “nothing can completely prepare you for the reality of foster parenting.”
When they were both 55, Doug and Ellen adopted their foster son, Darion, who had been with them for three years. The couple had not planned to adopt out of foster care. Ellen emphasizes, “we certainly weren’t looking to start over raising children in our fifties.” But the adoption landed in their laps. A biological relative of Darion’s half-brother had been working to adopt him, but things fell through. As a result, the Fannons were left with the decision whether to adopt Darion themselves or allow him to go back into the system. For the couple, “there was no choice” but to adopt him.
Adopting through foster care turned out to be easier than their private adoption had been. There was no guarantee of a placement through the private avenue, and there were additional legal fees that had to be paid. With an adoption out of foster care, the adoption fees were largely covered for them. Nevertheless, through a private adoption, they were able to adopt a newborn, something that is unlikely to happen when adopting out of foster care. Darion, now 14, was adopted 11 days before he turned 4. This momentous event in their family history is celebrated each year by doing something special to recognize it.
The Fannons, who are Caucasian, adopted a Caucasian infant privately. Their adoption of Darion, who is black, was a transracial one. Thankfully, the family has experienced no negativity due to the racial makeup of their family. Sometimes, however, people occasionally don’t realize Doug and Ellen are the parents of an African American son.
Although adopting from foster care was easier for Doug and Ellen than a private adoption, they learned that foster care adoptions are not without risks. Foster parents may become foster parents with the intent of becoming adoptive parents of a child or children in the system. Unfortunately, the goal of the foster care system is reunification of the biological family, so there is always a risk that children foster parents want to adopt will be returned to their biological family.
Serving as foster parents was an eye-opening and disheartening experience for Doug and Ellen. They were appalled at how the numbers of children entering foster care kept growing while the number of available foster homes kept decreasing. The burnout and turnover rate of those working in the foster care system is high; caseworkers are overworked and underpaid, and children can fall through the cracks.
The foster care experience was not without its positives, though. The Fannons made many friends who were foster parents as well. The couple worked under the umbrella of Florida Baptist Children’s Homes, and their staff were “absolutely wonderful” to Doug and Ellen; they were always there when the foster parents needed something or had a problem.
The children whom the couple fostered also provided high points. Some were great, although there were two who were not so great; none of these children will ever be forgotten. The Fannons still wonder where those children they fostered are and how they are doing.
Having adopted both privately and out of foster care has given Doug and Ellen the opportunity to view both options up close and personally. Even though they found adoption from foster care an easier route, no matter which route they took, they ended up as adoptive parents. Ellen emphasizes that couples considering adoption need to understand that the child whom they adopt will be their child forever. While parenting is never easy, she points out, being an adoptive parent has an added dimension. Difficult times will occur with all children, adopted or biological; but with an adopted child, there may be added stress due to the biological makeup of the child.
One difficult time adoptive parents may encounter is when the child wants to find his or her roots. Children adopted out of foster care were taken from their parents for a reason, such as substance abuse or neglect, so their roots may not be so good. Doug and Ellen worry about their son Darion reconnecting with his biological mother, who is dealing with troublesome issues.
Whether fostering or adopting the role is a hard one. Ellen identifies the hardest thing about being a foster parent is knowing that “you have so little control over the child’s welfare. You can fight tirelessly for the child, but in the end ‘the system’ knows best.” Foster parents also need to be prepared to have their hearts broken. Although it is not an easy job to foster, Ellen labels it “the most rewarding job you will ever have.”
Adoptive parents must face something hard as well, nature versus nurture. While they control the nurturing provided to their child, the child’s biological background is beyond their control. Doug and Ellen’s older son, for example, has a temperament that is the exact opposite of theirs. Nature has trumped nurture in that case. Ellen wonders whether a biological child of hers, if she had given birth to one, would be more like her.
Expectations and reality do not always coincide in either foster parenting or adopting. The biggest expectational disconnect Ellen experienced in fostering was thinking the system had the best interest of the children. She has concluded, “It doesn’t.” The thought of the types of situations judges would send children in foster care back to was frightening to her. Ellen’s expectational disconnect in adoption was that perfect parenting would result in her children turning out “perfect.”
The Fannons’ faith impacts every aspect of their lives. Their service on the mission field exposed them to the needs of children without stable families resulting in their becoming foster parents upon returning to the United States. After a decade of fostering, however, it was their faith which led to them discontinuing foster care. Ellen explains that they “simply couldn’t continue working with a system that was becoming more and more anti-Christian.”
After years of serving children through their mission work and foster care, the Fannons turned their attention to raising their sons who had joined their family through adoption. Ellen also turned to writing. She penned a fictional book, Other People’s Children, shortly after she and her husband gave up foster parenting. Who better to write about the experiences of fostering and adopting than one who had been through those experiences herself?
Several factors led to Ellen’s decision to write her book. First, she felt she had a timely topic with a story that needed to be told. With a child entering foster care every 120 seconds in this country, people need to have a realistic view of foster care. Ellen highly recommends anyone considering becoming a foster parent read her book, so they go in to that work with their eyes wide open. The book is available for purchase on Amazon.
As bleak as the idea of children being in foster care may seem, Ellen also wrote her book for entertainment. It is a humorous look at a very imperfect woman whose concepts of how things should be and how things actually are often colliding. Envision the main character as a female Don Quixote tilting at the system.
Other People’s Children presents foster care from a different perspective than most books on the topic. It is a story told through the eyes of a foster parent. Ellen found that most books and movies portray foster parents in a negative light. In her opinion, such treatment gives those who are truly trying to make a difference in a child’s life a bad name.
Finally, Ellen wrote her book to convey her faith. Although the book is not “preachy,” it contains a main character who, though often falling short, tries her best to be a good mother, both foster and adoptive. That character refuses to compromise her beliefs for anything, including political correctness.
Writing Other People’s Children was cathartic for Ellen. She could look back upon her experiences in adopting and fostering and analyze them in hindsight. That analysis has led her to believe that the foster care system and the family courts are flawed; sometimes they are so flawed that they fail to protect the people they are designed to protect—the children. While Ellen realizes “the system” is not portrayed very positively in her book, she offers no apologies. Only by recognizing flaws in the current system leading to major overhauls, she believes, will quality foster parents be recruited and maintained. The system needs to be improved to make a positive difference in caring for other people’s children.
Ellen and Doug Fannon have accomplished their goal of making a difference in the lives of a few children since they could not save them all. By adopting two boys, they are making a lifelong difference to their sons who are a part of their forever family. By fostering for a decade, they had the chance to make a positive impact on the lives of over 40 children who were sent to their home. Now, Ellen hopes to make an impact in the lives of other people’s children by focusing the attention of those who read her book on the state of the country’s foster care system and how it needs improvement.