In the front yard of a modest ranch home in East Windsor you can hear a pleasant commotion inside; the warm breeze blowing inward exchanges itself with happy laughter tumbling out. Rainbow bits of thick chalk are sprinkled across the driveway and a downscaled plastic yellow wheelbarrow leans against its replica in the meticulously kept garden. Approaching the breezeway curious voices, chattering toddlers and even a few squeals escape through the screen door – this is the Dziadul Family.
As high school sweethearts Dan and Andrea’s story began just down the road when the two were a sophomore and senior, respectively. They’ve essentially grown up together, sharing milestone moments – from prom to college graduation – all of which has made their bond recognizably strong.
“We got married in 2006 – I was 22 and Andrea was 24 – We always hoped to have one or two kids by the time Andrea was 30,” explains Dan with his two youngest children climbing across his lap. “Unfortunately after several years of trying to have our own children, it just didn’t happen.”
Like many intentions theirs did not go as planned and they began to explore adoption with the realization that having their “own” children was not an option. In March of 2014 they attended their first DCF (Department of Children & Families) Open House, the first step in understanding the agency’s mission, who they serve, their philosophy of foster care, licensing process and requirements, and if adoption was right for them. A long road, they began acquiring the proper licenses through a series of classes they began the following October. In the months following, they were inspected, licensed and certified to welcome up to two children under the age of six. With a case study that “read well,” it was expected they would receive a phone call for placements right away.
“One day our caseworker called with what she said was an “interesting situation,” remembers Andrea. “She said there were three children. I thought, three kids – wow.”
Those three children were Michael, Deanna and Nicholas. On March 30, 2015 there was a domestic violence call at their home, ultimately, their biological mom was arrested and the children remained with their biological father. The next day in court the biological mom disclosed that she believed Nicholas, the youngest at the time, had a broken arm. At Connecticut Children’s Medical Center they found it wasn’t just his arm, but he also had eight broken ribs, wrist, leg and very severe head trauma; a subdural hematoma. He had bleeding on his brain because he was either shaken or thrown down, injuries that had occurred weeks prior. He also appeared to have a severe case of malnutrition, as he was underweight. Gratefully, his siblings showed no signs of abuse.
At a disclosure meeting they were able to learn everything [DCF knew] about the kids – that’s when they say it “became real.” First, they visited Nicholas at the hospital.
“I just remember looking at him in this hospital bed – he had stitches in three different spots and a shunt from his head into his stomach to drain the excess fluid,” remembers Andrea.
“When we met Nicholas in the hospital there were no other parents there for him, so we were treated as such right away. It’s like we were bringing our own baby home,” says Dan. “All I can compare it to is seeing your baby in the NICU. Obviously we didn’t experience the pregnancy part, but seeing him covered in bandages with round the clock care…” says Dan, stopping to help Deanna get situated on the couch.
He says the doctors weren’t sure if Nicholas would have vision issues or long-term disabilities from the sustained injuries. While he has shown tremendous growth through the benefits of physical therapy and a variety of services, at a little over two years old he is just starting to walk. He also has limited use of his right arm, contributed to the impact to the left side of his brain, something they are uncertain will improve over time.
At first they brought just Nicholas home, Michael and Deanna were in a temporary foster home. It was when they went to meet the older two siblings that they realized how “crazy” this new adventure was going to be. Overnight things changed, the two became five and their quiet home was replaced with three children under the age of three.
“Talk about turning your life upside down,” says Dan with a smile. “But we have always hoped for a big family and said we wanted at least four kids. My yearbook comments actually said in twenty years I would be married to Andrea and have four kids - that came true.”
“The day we met Deanna and Michael they were smiling and ran up to give us hugs. That’s not normal in these cases,” explains
Andrea. “They called us mommy and daddy from the beginning and expressed little, if no memory of their past. It’s like they didn’t know anybody else and they were just ours from the start.”
They quickly got into the groove of being a five-person family, along with experiencing the wide range of emotions affiliated with being new parents: joy, excitement, anxiousness, frustration…and then surprise. After two months they learned the biological mom was pregnant. After turning herself in for child abuse, Emily, now the youngest, was born while her biological mother was serving a jail sentence. It was during a home visit that Andrea asked what would happen to baby Emily; both her and Dan insisted she come be with her siblings instead of being separated. They picked her up when she was just two days old.
Where some couples systematically plan their families, Dan and Andrea had all their kids at once. Adopting siblings is a wild adventure – in scheduling alone – but there’s comfort in knowing you’ve provided vulnerable children a home filled with love and stability. But they didn’t do it alone.
“That old saying, it takes a village is so true,” says Dan. “At church there are always people willing to help us with the kids, our family and also DCF in that regard – they are part of our village. We’ve experienced so much generosity from other people. We’ve received toys and clothes – so much support.”
“It’s been amazing to see how people poured their hearts out – and still do,” adds Andrea. “We had to go get car seats last minute – because we were getting three kids at once – and picked them up the following day. When we got to the store, the manager had a cart full of baby stuff. We didn’t even know her!”
They describe gifts of clothing, baby gear, toys, essentials and even prepared foods for quick dinners – gifts that were immensely appreciated, especially when starting a family overnight – literally.
The months following brought tremendous joy—and a sizable amount of stress – as new parents. Worry all new parents face, but also combined with a looming anxiousness wondering if a biological family member would step forward and claim responsibility for the children. Even with terminated parental rights, legal risk is a common distress amongst pre-adoptive foster parents. With relief, just one month ago, Dan and Andrea signed papers to finalize the adoption of all four children. They are now a forever family, something that was always true in their hearts.
Growing quick, Michael is now 5 years old, Deanna 4, Nicholas 2½ and Emily is 16 months. They are four incredibly sweet children, the kind who bound over one another to greet Dan as he walks in the door from work. He says hearing them yell “daddy” is an incredible feeling and he enjoys every moment of this age.
“When they look up at you with those big brown eyes…it’s so awesome,” says Dan beaming.
For these kids this adoption represents the promise of a better life. For Andrea and Dan it’s the realization of the large family they always dreamed of. Their authentic happiness is apparent; both speak from wide smiles and with pure joy when talking about their family – it’s beautiful. But they know the road may not always be easy, particularly when the children become more curious about their past. Thankfully, kids are extraordinarily resilient and it’s easy to see in this environment, they will soar.
“As far as what we will tell them when they’re older – particularly Nicholas who is going to ask how he was injured – we are just going to be completely honest,” says Dan.
“We don’t want them to hate their parents, but we want them to understand they couldn’t take care of them in the right way,” says Andrea while pushing Emily on a swing. “At this point in time they [the biological parents] have accepted this and shared they just wanted the kids in a safe, good home. We have letters and photos from their biological parents and is eventually something we will share.”
“They know they’re adopted, although at their age they don’t really understand the term,” says Dan. “None of them show any real recollection of the past.”
“I tell them that we’ve prayed for kids for so long and one day they came to us – you weren’t in my belly, but in my heart,” says Andrea.
May is National Foster Care Month, a campaign to raise awareness of the more than 400,000 children and youth in foster care, and celebrate all those who make a meaningful difference in their lives. In conjunction, Dan and Andrea will be attending the 22nd Annual Foster Care Conference in Connecticut to receive the Foster Parents of the Year Award for Region 4 of DCF. An honor, but even more, hope that their story inspires others to consider adoption. They mention DCF is most often portrayed negatively in conventional media, largely publicizing only the negative aspects of cases.
“Like in our case,” Andrea says. “There were all these articles about the biological parents who abused these children, but no follow up with how they’re doing.”
From the outside it can seem frustrating. While they recognize the process is not always perfect – particularly with the emotions associated with legal risk placements – they are a reminder that happy endings do exist.
The Dziaduls are a beautiful paradigm showing parenthood doesn’t require DNA, but the acceptance of love with all of its challenges. True joy and happiness has found its place within their home and for this family, their story has just begun.