James and Sarah Epling talked about adopting before they even got married. It was always a possibility in the back of their minds. But it became a reality in 2023 when they adopted a 17-year-old.
Their son was a Waiting Texas Child, meaning his biological parents’ rights had been terminated and he was set to age out of the system unless he was adopted. When the Eplings pictured adoption, they pictured a younger child. But when they met their son, they knew God had a plan for all of them.
Adopting a teenager is different from adopting a young child, but no less important
Imagine buying a car, applying to college or your first job, creating a resume, having your first serious relationship, shopping for car insurance, opening a bank account, getting a driver’s license – all without parents to walk with you through the process. Adopting a teen may not look like nighttime snuggles and nursery rhymes, but older youth still need and deserve a family’s support and love. Teenagers need guidance and encouragement as they enter their young adult years where they face many challenges and difficult decisions.
“What's really important to remember is as you're adopting an older teenager, you're not really going to be shaping and molding who they are, their character and all of that,” James shared. “Think about your own life. By the time you were an older teenager, you thought you were ready for the world, you thought there was nothing left to learn.”
Children never outgrow the need for a family
More than 1,000 teens age out of foster care each year in Texas. These youth are left vulnerable to human trafficking, addiction and abuse.
For Sarah, adopting a teen created a different role as a parent rather than just snuggles or playtime – even though there’s still room for that too.
“We see our main role as supporting him and providing that foundation so he has that stability going into adulthood,” Sarah said. “If someone ages out and they don't have someone there to support them, they can still succeed and do really well. But it's a lot harder just because they don't have that extra support around them.”
“We wanted to be that base he could always come back to whenever he needed either a hug or just some advice, or just a place to come hang out and have a friendly smile,” she continued. “We can be a constant source of support for him.”
Adoption is a lifelong journey
It’s a myth that an adoption is “done” the day it is finalized in court. Adoption is a lifelong journey for everyone involved. Children who have been removed from their biological families and placed in foster care have endured trauma and suffering they did not deserve. Adoptive families cannot go back and undo the hurt. And being adopted into a family doesn’t change what an adopted child has been through. Adoption is processed uniquely by each person at their own pace throughout their life.
“I think that it's easy for us to want that family, that picture perfect family,” Sarah shared. “And really, there's no family that's picture perfect. But especially when you're dealing with adopted kids, even in young kids, when they come in, they've still been through trauma. They've been through so much. And with us adopting a teenager, he's had 17 years of learned trauma.”
With that, they’ve learned not to expect perfection but to instead look forward for ways they can heal together, while creating an environment of safety, security and acceptance.
“We may not agree on every single thing, but we're going to love and accept him the way that he is right now,” she said.”
Advice for families considering adoption
As someone experiencing the adoption process, James recommends to others contemplating it to remember that while we can’t always do everything right, but we can give our best to others.
“Throughout our lives, nothing is perfect,” James said. “And just being one, being okay with that. And then two, learning to kind of try your best and not beat yourself up … I want to do everything right the first time, and if I can't do it right the first time, I'm usually too scared to want to do it at all.”
Sarah added that families should take their time when considering foster care or adoption.
“One thing James and I talked about [before moving forward with adoption] that's been really helpful to us is that Buckner did a great job of letting us know that there was no rush, and that we needed to take our time to feel good about it,” she shared.
Settling in as a family of three
Since their son joined their life, the Eplings have had moments of laughter, tears, joy and learning opportunities. Just like in any relationship, some moments are easier than others and there can be growing pains. But they have developed a routine as a family of three.
One place they’ve bonded is at the dinner table. James talked about their instant connection with their son over their shared love of fried chicken.
Sarah recounts one of their most memorable meals together. She isn’t the primary cook in their family – James is. She prefers “washing dishes and napkin folding, but I don’t cook.”
“Our son had told us he really missed traditional Black American food. Definitely if I don't cook, I don't know how to make Black American food,” she said with a laugh.
Determined to help that homesick feeling for her son, Sarah went to a friend’s house where she learned how to cook more traditional soul food. From fried pork chops and green beans to mashed potatoes, Sarah learned how to cook the full menu for dinner.
“We sit down at the table and our son looks at it, folds his hands and says, ‘Oh Lord, thank you for teaching my mama how to cook. She was really bad at it before, but thank you for teaching her. I can finally eat some good food,’” Sarah shared. “It was hilarious. It showed me that regardless of if it was actually good or not, he at least appreciated the gesture.”
God has perfect timing
The Eplings’ son didn’t deserve the hardships he faced in life. Their journey to adoption was far from a straight and easy path.
Adoption is messy and involves so much hurt and loss. But sometimes, God’s plan is to use adoption as an agent of grace. Though none of them wish their son had to go through what he has, they are glad to be together now and be a constant source of support and love for him in the future.
“And so even though he wasn't that little kid we had gone in expecting to find, he's grown up, he's had his own story, and we are just lucky to get to be a part of it even later in the game,” Sarah shared.