“People ask me. ‘What about gay adoptions? Interracial? Single Parent’ I say. Hey fine, as long as it works for the child and the family is responsible. My big stand is this: Every child deserves a home and love. Period.”
– Dave Thomas, Founder of Wendy’s / Adopted Child
Adoption touches everyone’s life in one way or another. Many Americans have a family member or relative that has been adopted at some point in their family history. Those that have not, usually have friends, classmates or co-workers that have thought seriously about or considered adopting a child. According to a 2002 study commissioned by the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, four out of every ten American adults have considered adoption for their own families. Additionally, sixty-four percent have experienced adoption within their own families.
On the other side of the issue, there are over 200,000 children without permanent homes in North America’s foster care system alone. These numbers are staggering and a direct outgrowth of contemporary societal concerns such as child abuse, substance abuse and teen pregnancy. However, as the above numbers suggest, there are very positive signs that adoption is being viewed as an appealing alternative in establishing permanency for children.
Despite the high level of interest, the pursuit of an adoption is not without obstacles. Many adults who would like to adopt, often do not fit the traditional criteria required for an adoption. Those that do, need to attend extensive parenting workshops and adoption training at local adoption agencies to even qualify. Sibling group adoptions are more rare, but not uncommon. Families that are willing to attempt such adoptions are a select few and often face even larger obstacles in their path.
THE CHILDREN’S HISTORY
The turning point in the lives of the nine siblings began back in 1997 when the body of a young boy was discovered floating in a river in southern Indiana. The Indiana State Police determined that he had been lying in Indiana’s White River for over a week before being found. Spurred by the boy’s disappearance a week earlier, an investigation was done into Kyle’s rural home. The local authorities discovered eight other siblings, all brothers and sisters, malnourished and suffering from neglect and abuse at the hands of their stepfather and birth mother. The children (Stephanie 13, Christopher 10, Ashley 9, Bob 7, Samantha 5, Scotty 3, Michael 2, Kristina 1, and Kimberly who was born later) were divided into two groups and placed into separate foster homes until an appropriate family could be found.
THE GAUNT’S HISTORY
My name is Thomas C. Gaunt, the son of Tom and Jean and director of A PLACE CALLED HOME. I am one of Tom and Jean’s four birth children. We grew up on a farm in northern Indiana in the mid-1970s. My father, Tom Gaunt, is a kind and practical man who loves children and relishes being a father. To support our family, he began working as a tool and dye mold-maker in the late 1970s. My mother, Jean Gaunt, is a compassionate woman driven by her love for children and a desire to see families succeed. At the age of twelve, she witnessed her father, who was adopted, die of cancer and five years later a brother head off to the war in Vietnam. Before discovering he had cancer, her father and mother where considering adopting a child into their family. When I was just two years old, her mother also died of cancer and she was left with a parental void in her own life. Despite these tragedies, Mom always felt that she had a full-filling and healthy childhood.
Seeing how much her father had benefited from being adopted, Mom felt that she could make a difference for children in the same way. However, she would go one step further. She and my father decided to become foster parents. In the following years, they opened our home to abused, special needs and disabled children who were in need of a safe and nurturing environment.
My birth siblings and I were excited to have new brothers and sisters, if even for only short stretches of time. As a child, there were times when the novelty wore off and it became a difficult task to share our parents with our foster siblings. It was a sacrifice that my parents were willing to make. After years of parenting classes, they became aware of the risks of exposing their own birth children to those that had their lives uprooted and their parental trust destroyed. Knowing these risks as they did, they also knew the rewards were potentially life-transforming. From their perspective, helping agencies reunite a child with their birth parents or find an accepting and loving family made it all worthwhile. Most of all, it gave my mother peace of mind.
After 9 years parenting dozens of foster children in northern Indiana, my parents moved our family to Indianapolis. It was there that my mother raised the stakes of foster parenting and became an outspoken advocate for children. Despite her early success, my mother’s burgeoning advocacy would ultimately lead to the end of our family’s foster parenting in the early 1990’s.
My siblings and I are all grown up now and most of us have families of our own. Inspired by a 1999 Mother’s Day newspaper article, they informed us that they were planning to adopt the nine siblings. Initially, we were all stunned. At the age of 49 would this even be possible? Some of us were worried that Mom and Dad might be assuming too much parental responsibility at that age. Also, a turbulent end to their foster parenting in the early 1990’s, gave rise to my doubts in the plausibility of any such adoption being possible?
A PLACE CALLED HOME: AN ADOPTION STORY takes viewers on Tom and Jean’s emotional journey as they role the dice and attempt an unusual adoption despite an unresolved past that could prevent it. Despite the obstacles they faced, my parents believed that the most difficult part of this process would be establishing a sense of permanency for the nine children and helping them to overcome an abusive past. If my parents are successful in giving these children the ability to hope, it will make their entire struggle worthwhile.
The overriding theme in A PLACE CALLED HOME: AN ADOPTION STORY is the importance of permanency in a child’s life. The word permanency comes from the root word permanence, which means “something permanent”. Many children grow up in abusive or neglectful homes and sometimes without parents at all. In a home of this kind, there are very few positive or permanent things that a child can count on. While A PLACE CALLED HOME does illustrate the emotional destructiveness of abuse, it more thoroughly illuminates the positive effects of permanency if given the time to take root in the right environment. Adoption is only one of a host of different ways for a child to achieve permanency in their life.
One hundred hours of cinema verité footage, interviews, home movies, news articles, and photographs have been collected in an attempt to capture life in the Gaunt household. The structure of A PLACE CALLED HOME consists of two distinct stories that have developed over the course of documentation. The journey of the nine siblings from an abusive past and an unknown future and Jean and Tom’s journey back to legitimacy. These two heartbreaking and uplifting stories run parallel to each other, weaving back and forth, until they merge into a dramatic and tension building resolution. Moments are spent with Jean as she drops the youngest children off at preschool and wonders if the older children will accept her love and guidance. At another point in the film, Stephanie, the oldest girl, begins to show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. In another scene, after a tension filled argument with Chris, Tom and Jean debate their decision to adopt and question whether they made the right choice. With each scene building on the last, the story of both families unfolds over time. In addition to learning about the adoptive process, we uncover emotionally moving testimonies of recovery and survival.
Many children grow up in abusive homes or without parents at all. Originally the film started out as a small project that was meant as a future gift to my new brothers and sisters. I thought that they could look back and see how their lives had changed and that even though they had incredibly painful lives that they, in fact, could grow and transcend that negative experience. What ended up happening was my awakening to the idea that my parents hadn’t completely transcended their past and that it just might cause them to lose the nine children that they so desperately loved and cared for. So I continued to film and interview and realized that I had a profound story of loss in both families and that they really needed each other to heal. The children and my parents both needed a family. They were all part of something special and I needed to tell this story. – Thomas C. Gaunt