She explained to him that she had seen how Chris Sicks, a widower and father of three, treated his friends and his children. She told him that she knew what kind of man Chris was, and by that, she let him know what kind of man he wasn’t. He wasn’t the kind that David and his mother were living with when the state took the boy, at the age of 6, away from his family and into its custody.
Naomi recalls that conversation as she sits next to Chris in their Northern Virginia home on a recent morning. They are trying to describe the messy, often fraught path that brought them to where they are now: living as a blended family that counts David as a forever, no-matter-what member.
The autistic teenager, who is now 18, calls Chris “Dad” and waits for him each night to tuck him into bed.
He has also asked whether he can change his last name to Sicks to match Chris, his three teenage children and Naomi, who added it to hers when the couple got married in 2017. The name is pronounced the same as the number “six” — a detail that delights David because of his place in the family. He makes them six.
“He likes to say, ‘There were only five of y’all until I came, so I make the six pack complete,’ ” Chris says.
If we were to take a snapshot of the family at this moment, we would see a success story. Studies show that when children are removed from their families and placed with relatives, they have better outcomes. Among the many benefits: They don’t have to worry in the same way as their peers about aging out of foster care and being left on their own to navigate life, and its setbacks.
That is true of David’s situation. For years, his aunt fought to stay in his life, moving with him at one point across the country to Maryland to be near family. Then when his needs became more than she could handle on her own and officials in Connecticut, where he had initially been taken into custody, decided to place him in a group home, she visited him every month. Now, she and Chris are his legal guardians, and they have assured him that he will always have a home with them.
But the couple is quick to point out that they are not extraordinary. They use words like “flawed” and “broken” to describe themselves.
“We are a broken cup, and we leak every day,” Chris says.
They want people to also know that side of their family because they know that too many children aren’t ending up with relatives and that family members who are trying to take care of them aren’t getting the support they need.
Earlier this month, a Virginia-based nonprofit released a report about kinship care in the state. It describes Virginia as ranking last in the country for kinship placements and points to barriers that are preventing the state from keeping pace with others.
It’s a report that merits our attention, especially during a pandemic, when so many children are losing family members and stability. What happens to those children now will determine what the fallout of this relentless year will look like not just in the next few months, but 18 years from now, when its youngest victims become adults.
“Part of evolving is understanding what’s right for kids, how the system is set up right now and where you can improve it,” says Nancy Toscano, the chief operating officer of UMFS, a nonprofit that works with high-risk children throughout Virginia and produced the report. “We’ve been existing in a system where we know there are broken parts.”
Toscano says that the state has made significant strides when it comes to placing children with relatives or close family friends, but that momentum needs to grow.
She describes the organization’s staff as seeing children pass through multiple homes and become more disconnected from relatives with each move. Sometimes that’s because family members are not identified, not considered because of presumptions about them or overlooked as potential placements because of past crimes that wouldn’t disqualify them in other states. Finding a relative can also require tracking down people who may not have even known that child existed, but that takes funding and viewing kinship placement as a priority.
The organization does some of that intensive tracking work. It also provides supportive services to families, including the Sickses, who know too well that these stories aren’t all hugs and happy endings. They know that they are messy and unpredictable and can leave people who are used to helping others needing help.
As she tells it, Naomi was single and working as a schoolteacher in Alabama when she received a call from officials in Connecticut letting her know that her adopted sister, who was a teenager when she had David, had lost her parental rights. Naomi says she agreed to take care of her nephew and moved them both to Maryland to be closer to relatives because she knew his autism and the trauma he experienced would bring challenges. What she couldn’t prepare for was the intensity of those challenges.
Some days, they resulted in holes punched in the walls. Once, they left a car windshield shattered. And on the worst days, she says, she had to call the police to help.
She had resources that told her every behavior expressed a need. Even so, she struggled. She describes David as having a “tender heart,” but she believes that if he had ended up in foster care and been placed with strangers who had no emotional attachment to him, he would have probably not remained in their home for long.
Chris has thought about what might have happened to David even beyond that. Before he met Naomi or David, he spent time as a pastor working with refugees, the homeless and residents in high-poverty areas of D.C.
“I’ve been aware that many times the addict or the homeless man I’m talking with is someone who has come from foster care,” he says. “I’ve spent decades trying to help adults who didn’t have the opportunities when they were young enough to be on a healthier trajectory.”
When he met Naomi, he had lost his wife of 17 years to breast cancer and was raising three children on his own. Expanding the family to make room for David has created “ripples of healing” that have touched all of their “brokenness,” he says. One of his daughters has told him that it’s given her more patience, and the other has expressed the desire to work with children with disabilities when she grows up.
When David was 17, Chris asked him to take a walk with him one day so the two could talk alone.
“You’ve been here for almost a year, and I consider you my son and part of our family, and we want you to stay. Is that what you want?” he recalls saying. “He said, ‘Yeah, that’s what I want. Can I change my name to Sicks?’ Then he said, ‘Okay, what’s for dinner?’ ”
It was a short conversation, Chris says, but he immediately noticed some of David’s anxiety disappear. It also changed something else.
Chris says the teenager — who once questioned whether his aunt had picked a safe man to marry — now tells him frequently, “I never thought I’d have a dad.”