A day after his adoption, as well as those of his four siblings, was finalized, 11-year-old Julian Saak couldn't contain his excitement, his dad Robert said.
“He said, 'I was adopted! Yes!''” Robert said. “'When I get in trouble, do I get called by whole new name?!'”
In some ways, it hasn't fully sunk in for the five siblings, who have been in the foster care of Robert and Heather Saak for more than three years. Save for 12 days, they’ve been together that whole time, along with two half-siblings the Saaks adopted a year ago.
Rayne (age 12), Julian, Ava (10), Sophia (9) and Isaac (8) joined maternal half-siblings Alan (4) and Brooklyn (3), who was born while her older siblings were with the Saaks. On top of that, they joined eight adoptive siblings already in the Saak household – Geary (22), Madelyn (18), Daniel (17), Santos (16), Lanissa (14), Kody (13), Molly (10) and Charlotte (10).
Add it up – when everyone is at their sprawling eastern Independence home, that’s 17 seats filled at the dinner table.
Geary and Madelyn have graduated from high school, with Madelyn starting college this month, and Daniel is a high school senior.
The family’s size still isn’t as impressive as keeping the seven siblings together, considering the struggle to keep two or three siblings together in the foster care system. Madelyn and Molly also are sisters by birth, though they had been separated for a time in foster care.
Systemic deficits and state licensing restrictions within the foster care system – lack of available space in one house when multiple siblings are in need, for example – often lead to sibling separations. A social worker by trade and now the director of training for foster parents for the local non-profit FosterAdopt Connect, Heather Saak knows how important it is to keep siblings together when possible but also how hard it can be.
In Jackson County, a foster child’s average time in the system is 25 months, and in that time they move an average of seven times. Missouri, meanwhile, ranks near the bottom in the U.S. in funding its foster system, she said.
“It’s a huge travesty when we don’t push for (keeping siblings together),” Heather said, noting there are times when siblings are best kept apart for therapeutic reasons. “They (the seven siblings) had a social worker that really advocated for them.”
A sibling most often represents one’s longest connected relationship, Heather explains, as one doesn’t meet their spouse until later in life and often outlives the parents.
“They’re the ones you keep secrets with; they’re your first playmates,” she said. “When you break a sibling bond, it’s hard for continuity and a family bond.”
“They had been through everything. Julian, he was kind of the little general.”
In that aforementioned 12-day span, the boys and girls were in separate foster homes, Robert said it became clear that couldn’t last.
“Their anxiety during that time period was horrible,” he said.
“It’s a miracle,” Julian said about staying with his siblings permanently. “We’d been waiting a long time. I didn’t think it was going to happen, because of how many kids we had.”
Robert, a computer programmer for Sprint and a native of California, Missouri, met Heather when they were at the University of Missouri. They married in 1997 and took in their first foster child two years later.
Heather said she was inspired to become a foster parent after her work with youth services made her aware of a couple children who died after they returned from the foster system to a broken birth family situation that hadn’t improved.
“How can we get to the point where people have good homes, safe homes,” she remembers wondering.
They started by fostering teenage boys at a Drumm Farm house. Heather got pregnant once, Robert said, but after they lost that child they decided to stay with fostering.
“We started backwards; we learned how to change diapers later,” Heather said jokingly, referring to taking on teenage boys at first. “It’s always been a big family. Our purpose is to be that bridge (to a permanent home).”
In all, they have welcomed about 100 foster children under their roof. A few of them aged out of the foster system, and now 15 have been adopted after a reunion with the birth family wasn’t possible. The rest all found a permanent home with some birth family member, Heather and Robert said.
Kody, the 13-year-old, was the first to be adopted – in 2005 when he was 14 months old. It’s not like Heather and Robert could simply pick-and-choose whom to adopt – a “frequent misconception” about fostering kids, she said – but they stuck with a mantra treating all children the same, whether fostered or adopted. They remember once when a visiting social worker said she couldn’t tell the difference who was which.
“That’s the greatest compliment we can get,” Heather said.
This is the first month in 17 years the Saaks don’t have a foster child, but of course it’s far from an inactive house. With a large yard surrounding the house and many trees and a couple ponds on the property, there’s plenty of room to play and experience nature.
And no matter the activity of choice, there will always be a sibling to join in.
“There’s always somebody to play with,” Julian said. “You can always stick up for someone and watch out for someone.”
“You always have someone to do something with,” added his sister Rayne. “You don’t have to be alone.”
Now, they surely never will be.