Long before they were trying to start a family, I was Brittany and Jeff's wedding photographer. I have been photographing their ever changing family since the beginning.
This week was a high point when the new family of 3 came to a mini session straight from Jonah's courthouse adoption.
Jonah's life story is laced with great joy and great tragedy. He was officially adopted and his mom shared her journey through foster care and adoption. Here's their story.
Jonah Curtis Bradfield was born on July 24th, 2015 via emergency c-section at just under 27 weeks and only 2 pounds.
He was born with multiple drugs in his system.
On September 9, 2015, our home officially opened for foster placements.
Everyone told us two things:
1. Expect a call the day you open. 2. Never expect to get a newborn, it’s unheard of.
Everyone got half of it right, In the midst of teaching a classroom full of second graders, I received a call and saw the words, “Bridge Youth Services.” I knew immediately it was a placement call, The voice on the other end said that there was a 5lb, drug exposed, preemie baby ready for discharge. She said she had no idea how long he needed care for but that she needed a place for him immediately.
Without even calling Jeff, I said yes. We didn’t have a thing for him, because we had been told, never expect a newborn. It was that day that I realized how big our village was. Luckily Jonah failed his car seat test that afternoon and we had a few days to prep. In those few days so many people came forward to help with car seats, diapers, wipes, clothes, a bassinet, swing, bottles. You name it, it was thrown our our way. That evening, at 8:30pm, Jeff and I walked in to meet the tiniest little chocolate drop I have ever seen. As I peered into the isolette, all I could say through tears was, “he is so tiny, he is just a nugget”.
Every day after school, I raced to Methodist Hospital to be by Jonah’s side. You see, the first night we held him, his nurse told us that he doesn’t get many visitors. He was literally born into care and from that point on he was only allowed one two hour visit a week with his bio-parents. That meant that other 166 hours of the week, he was at the mercy of the hectic NICU schedule. Despite his crazy early entry into the world, he was one of the “healthy” ones and so he didn’t get much extra attention. I spent every free second I had with him. Over the weekend I spent every waking moment by his isolette and fell in love with a child I didn’t even know existed just days before.
When it was time to bring him home, CPS called and said not to come up, that they would bring Jonah to us. They were fearful that his parents would be lurking and try to follow us home. Apparently now that they knew he had a home to go to, they were showing up outside of their scheduled visits. That one phone call snapped me back to reality. No matter how much I loved this little baby already, and cared for him and let my mama bear instincts take over, he wasn’t mine.
On Monday, September 14th, Jonah arrived on our front doorstep. All he had was his tiny bag of hospital diapers, hospital formula, blankets, discharge papers, his NICU sign and bracelet and 6 tiny diapers. There were 6 people in our living room that day for this little boy. CPS, CASA, Ad Litems, social workers, agency case managers. All telling us what we can and can’t do with this little life that we were now solely responsible for.
The very next day, our lives as foster parents began. We had to take him for his first parent visit at the Children’s Advocacy Center. I sat in the lobby and cried as they took him from me to spend his weekly 2 hours with them. I spent the whole time in the lobby waiting for them to bring him back to me. I caught a glimpse of his mom and was in shock when I learned that we were the exact same age. 28 years old.
Our lives had taken us on two very different paths. I was college graduate with a career and she was a single mother of 4, battling demons I had only ever seen in movies. My heart broke for her as I watched her hand her tiny newborn and other 3 young children over to a social worker. It’s an image I will never forget. She loved and still loves her children. Despite everything That has happened in three years, I believe this to be true.This is the day Jonah came home. We dropped this little sleeper off at the hospital, because we truly believed that Jonah had survived his “whale” in life.
We were so wrong, his “whale” had yet to come.
Getting through Jonah’s first six months of life was a roller coaster. Thursday evenings had become the scheduled 2 hour visit night each week. We slowly got used to the routine and would busy ourselves, mostly with washing bottles and doing tiny human laundry. I mean who knew that bottles has so many dang pieces to sterilize. 😂
The Lows: We still had no idea how long Jonah was staying and it didn’t seem like any family was coming forward to care for him, but still we worried that we would be saying goodbye soon. We knew as foster parents the goal was for him to return home, but we wanted to be the ones who cared for him until that day came. I slowly started to get to know his mom and she was hurting. She was embarrassed and ashamed. She asked how every doctors visit went and wanted to know if she had caused any permanent damage to this precious little boy. Every visit ended the same way. Her handing Jonah over to me, and asking me to please take care of him. I brought her pictures and showed her videos. Sharing all these firsts were so bittersweet. I felt like I was stealing all of these moments from her, which I know was not the case, but man did it hurt. I knew how much I loved this little boy and how much I struggled to be away from him for 2 hours. I couldn’t even imagine what it was like to have no idea where he was living, what he was doing or what his routine was. She didn’t even get a chance to get to know him and bond.
She was the outsider in this situation, with her own baby.
The first time we ever had any extended time together, his mom and I, was when Jonah got dangerously sick. His little life was literally hanging in the balance. I was standing in JoAnns and I looked at him in his carrier. I planted a kiss in his forehead as I always did and realized he was stiff and had a strange look on his face. I picked him up and he wasn’t breathing and his eyes were wide open.
What was about 10 seconds felt like an eternity. Terrified I sprinted with him in my arms to primacare and pleaded for someone to check his vitals. He was breathing again but his oxygen levels were dangerously low and they told me to get him to the nearest children’s hospital immediately. I’m by myself, I have never driven so fast. We make it to the ER and we end up waiting for 3 hours.
An almost 4 month old preemie stops breathing twice within an hour and we are made to wait. I was so angry, and then I start to feel stupid and question myself. Had I over reacted? He seems fine now. It’s been 3 hours and he hasn’t had one “spell” and then. It happened again.
I yelled for a doctor and everything became a blur. Someone grabbed him, led us through to a trauma room and I just watched as clothes were torn off, they were searching for a pulse and trying to get him to breath by stimulating him with oxygen and doctors swarmed him. This episode lasted a solid 60 seconds and I literally felt like I was in a movie. A social worker approaches me and asks for all kinds of information and explains what’s happening. The doctors get him breathing again and stabilized, but we are definitely there for the night.
For the next 36 hours, we are still battling these episodes but now they have increased and his monitors are going off every 5 minutes. He is moved to ICU and at one point they look at me and say, he is very sick. We don’t know what it is yet, but his little lungs just can’t fight it. Test after test is run and finally it comes back as Adenovirus. Similar to a common cold, but wreaking havoc on his respiratory system. We spend 5 days in ICU and one day in general admitting before he was allowed to go home.
Back around the time Jonah was in the hospital, we had decided to open up our home to straight adoptive placements through foster care while we cared for Jonah. It had become clear that he was reuniting at some point but we just didn’t know when. In January we got a call that we had been matched with a brother and sister sibling pair. 2 and 8 months old. The little girl was 6 weeks older than Jonah. Crazily yet excitedly we said yes and all of a sudden we had 3 babies in our home.
Jonah continues to grow and thrive. We celebrated him learning how to crawl, which quickly turned into pulling up and cruising. He was cutting teeth and we took our first trip to the dentist. Jonah took a liking to table food. Y’all. I mean LOVED it! He would eat all day if we let him. What I loved most during this time, was how much my little family loved each other. Trysten (the 2 year old) and Emmie (the baby girl) had their own traumatic, hard story...but the love y’all. The love these 3 babies had for each other. They were my world and every time I looked at them, all I could think was how lucky I was to chosen to care for these 3. No matter the outcome.
We celebrated, Valentine’s Day and Easter... and my very first Mother’s Day.
That was a hard day. I was so proud and happy to be called mom to these babies, but my heart broke for birth mamas. They were missing so much and their babies had no idea who they were. I spent that day so conflicted.
Soon after, in late May we got a call, the call that broke my heart. Jonah would be leaving us to go to his maternal grandmother. After nearly 11 months, we took Jonah- and every single thing he owned. I will never forget standing in that nursery holding him tight. Tears streaming down my face as I told him how much I loved him, how special he was and how much he changed my life. I pleaded with God to keep him safe and that he always feel loved and wanted. I prayed for his mom... for her to be able to connect with this precious boy and overcome her demons. I walked out of that daycare broken that day. I knew this day was coming, but you can never prepare for the hole it leaves in your heart.
I had two other babes at home that needed me, that were here to stay, but I felt lost. I was now on the other side. I had no idea where Jonah was, what he was doing. Did he feel safe? Was he confused or scared?
Now we, the only parents, family and home he had ever known were the outsiders.
Forewarning; This is the beginning of the darkest parts of our story. This is the part of our story that left us depressed, hopeless and angry with God.
After Jonah left, we poured every ounce of ourselves into Trysten and Emmie. We started planning for the future with them. We missed Jonah everyday and there were constant reminders of him in everything we did. We went from knowing every detail of his little life to being in the absolute dark. Still we had faith that everything would be okay and that he was loved, cared for and safe. Surely if it was anything different, we would have heard.
We decided to take our first trip as a family of four over the 4th. We went to Florida. The same trip we took Jonah on. 2 days after we returned from our week long trip, we got a devastating call. These babies were leaving us. We didn’t understand. We felt a lot of different things, shock, anger, immense grief, but mostly confusion. How could this happen? They have been with us 2 weeks shy of 6 months. Rights have been terminated, there isn’t any family to care for them.
We were supposed to be going to court to finalize adoption in August. How. Did. This. Happen? Long story short, maternal relatives from out of state petitioned for custody. We fought hard., but we were 2 weeks shy of 6 months. That meant we had zero legal standing in the case.
2 weeks stood between us fighting in court for these babies.
A week later, we relived the same horrible goodbye that we had with Jonah. This one was different. I won’t say worse, because, telling Jonah goodbye, that sucked the life out of me. Even though we knew Jonah was going back, he was our baby. We had him from the day he left the hospital. We prepped for these babies differently. We didn’t guard our heart. We changed their names, we planned a future with them in it. We were blindsided. We were devastated.
I came home and immediately packed up any evidence that children ever lived in our home.
In the midst of all of our despair, just days later we given the most selfless gift. 3 frozen embryos. We decided to head down this path. We spent the next month or so prepping for embryo transfer. Excited, scared, and anxious we went in for transfer in late September. 2 weeks later. Confirmed pregnancy. 5 weeks after that suspected miscarriage. 1 week after that- confirmed miscarriage. Again we went home to mourn the loss of another child. Depression set in. And hard. I was giving up on the dream of ever becoming a mom.
Two days after my miscarriage, I receive a Facebook message from Jonah’s mom. She is concerned that he is depressed. She wants us to come see him. We meet at a park and I see my baby boy for the first time since June. He isn’t the same boy. He is tiny. Mom says he won’t eat and all he does is sleep. 20 hours of the day, he is sleeping. I walk over to him in a swing and call his name. He opens his eyes and looks up at me. He scans over to Jeff and immediately he reaches for us. He remembers. I pick him up and bury my face into his little neck, crying the biggest tears. Something is not right. He isn't well and we notice sores in his mouth. We implore mom to take him to the doctor. He is sick.
We spend a little over an hour at the park loving on him and talking to mom about how he is doing. He is having seizures, he isn’t walking, or crawling or eating. He isn’t doing much of anything but she promises to take him in to the doctor first thing in the morning. We exchange numbers and I tell her to call me if she needs help getting to the pediatrician the next day. She takes him- strep throat turned scarlet fever is the diagnosis. We seemingly have answers, untreated strep and scarlet fever have caused the seizures. A new neurology referral is made and now we wait.
In the meantime, Jeff and I keep in touch and make a few visits a month through December. He is spending the night with us some weekends and nearly every weekend we spend a few hours with him. His health is improving, but by December it is very clear that his vision is impaired and mom says the seizures are worse. Mom tells us, he has lost most of his vision due to the seizures.
We never could have prepared for what came next.
We continued to see Jonah through the beginning of 2017. On one of my last visits with him, before his nightmare came to light, he started smiling. Every time he heard our voice, or we held him, he would hug us tight and give us the biggest smile and laugh! I asked mom about the neurologist report and she told me that he had prescribed seizure medication and that they were unsure if the vision loss was permanent.
By early April, we had started the process of a private adoption of a baby boy in Michigan. This little boy literally fell into our laps. A friend of my cousin was looking for an adoptive home for her weeks old newborn. We were still very broken from all that had gone wrong in 2016, but with guarded hearts we began to talk with this birth mother and we sent our adoption profile to her.
As we are boarding the plane to meet the birth mom, my phone rings. It’s Jonah’s mom. She said that he is really sick, and is in the hospital and that CPS is taking him again. Stunned in the middle of the airport. I scramble to get all the information I can. Tears rolling down my cheeks as I try to make sense of what I’m hearing.
His babysitter found him in his crib with a bloody nose....shallow breathing...multiple injuries... blood on the brain.
She is saying all of these things and I ask her what happened. She said she doesn’t have an answer, so CPS is taking him and won’t wait, Can we take him? I explain to her that we are about to board a flight to go meet a birth mom and her baby. That we will be back in 24 hours and that if CPS would just find an emergency placement for the day/night, we will come get him. Unfortunately CPS didn’t wait, they didn’t find an emergency placement for the night, they send our bruised and broken baby al the way to Del Valle.
The next month was spent fighting like hell to get our boy back to us.
Finally, we got our boy back. I will never forget standing on our front porch, the social worker walking up with Jonah and a blue duffel bag. Jeff called out for Jonah and he lunged out of the social worker’s arms. He held him tight, laying his sweet little head on Jeff’s chest. He knew he was home and safe.
Our boy had a deep scar under his eye and on his belly. He had a cast on his left arm. He couldn’t stand, he was barely 25 pounds. He didn’t talk or make a noise. He was just a shell of the baby we knew. He just wanted to be held tight, by only Jeff.
He didn’t want any of the women in the room to touch him.
The social worker told us that he had a 6 broken ribs, and two broken bones in his left arm, all in various stages of healing. This was not a one time incident. This was ongoing. He had a devastating brain injury. They weren’t sure of the prognosis but it was permanent and then they rattled off a list of appointments that he had coming up.
Over the next few months, our adoption in Michigan fell apart. But we poured ourselves into healing our Jonah. He was our priority and deserved and needed every piece of us. slowly he warmed up to me, and we bonded. He had to relearn how to eat. Slowly he started to come alive right in front of us. He was playing more, sleeping peacefully, and adjusting to life with us again. We took trips, had parties, celebrated life with Jonah again. but it was all so bittersweet.
Doctor visits were the hardest, seeing and hearing the depths of his injuries. Seeing the devastating brain scans, his vision centers were destroyed, the neurologist telling us that the vision loss was permanent.
Traumatic Abusive Brain Injury.
Digesting that this was not an accident, that someone intentionally hurt him over a period of time was too much to handle. We learned all the awful things that were happening in his home during that time he was away from us and we asked why didn’t CPS DO anything?
That’s when we learned, his previous social worker did not monitor his return as we were led to believe. We both felt immense guilt, did we miss it, the abuse, the neglect. Should we have called someone? CPS was supposed to be monitoring, how could we know that they weren’t? Through the rest of 2017 it became very clear that Jonah had never seen a doctor, except for the one time that we begged mom in October 2016.
This is the part of our story where we learned the redeeming power of love. We continued to pour ourselves into Jonah. By August 2017, we had enrolled him in the best therapies we could find. 5 days a week (and still to this day), this boy had some kind of therapy.
Jonah changed right before our eyes. He was walking with a white cane, talking, eating, laughing. He was our happy boy that we remembered in early 2016. We were in close conversations with CPS and the District Attorney about Jonah's case and what the future looked like for him. Reunification with mom was off the table and we were fighting to keep Jonah with us.
Still we went through the usual protocol of waiting for CPS to do their due diligence. They had to make sure that there were not any relatives to take Jonah. We were scared but hopeful and this time, we knew we had the legal system on our side, we could fight in court if we needed to. Then one day during one of usually monthly visits with CPS, we were told that Jonah's mom has requested that we adopt Jonah. Even from her brokenness, and after the horrible things that she is suspected to have done to him, she still loved him and wanted what was best. I couldn't believe it.
Frankly, I had spent a lot of time hating her. In her darkest moments, not knowing what her future was going to look like in the legal system, she chose us to be Jonah's parents. In April, she relinquished her rights, signing a mediation agreement stating that we would be Jonah's adoptive parents. He was legally free! We had waited a very, very long time for this day. Jonah had literally gone from being a broken shell of a baby knocking on death's door, to a vibrant toddler full of life.
Getting to adoption day was painstakingly slow. What was taking so long? National Adoption Day was coming up and it just so happened that Dallas County was hosting their Adoption Day on the same day. November 17th. We asked if it was possible to in 1 weeks time, get everything filed with the courts and ready for that adoption date.
Miraculously, everyone jumped into high gear. I had never witnessed things move that quickly. We met on November 13th for adoption presentation. By the end of that day, after signing papers galore, Jonah was officially and adoptive placement, he was no longer in foster care! Then on Saturday, November 17th at 9:45 am, we walked into The Henry Wade Juvenile Justice Center Courtroom to consummate Jonah's adoption. By far, this was the most emotional day of our lives.
Surrounded by all of the people who loved Jonah from that first day as a tiny 5 pound chocolate nugget, all the way through the brokenness, despair and heartache and now through the redemption, we promised to love him forever and be his mommy and daddy, to continue fighting for him and to give him the life he deserves.
Hearing the judge say the words, "adoption granted" is something I will never forget.
We were legally a family of 3. No more social workers, no more asking for permission to cut his hair, or needing a prescription for tylenol. He was ours and no one could every take him away. After 943 days of walking and fighting alongside Jonah through his foster care journey, walked in to the courtroom with Jonah Curtis Bradfield and left with Jonah Pierce Nowakowski.
We love adoption stories! Let's tell your family story. Now booking lifestyle sessions!
Tiffany Hopwood Photography specializes in family and wedding photography from Dallas, TX to Edinburgh, Scotland and everywhere in between. www.TiffanyHopwood.com