“When you turn around, what do you want to see?”

A father who saw what can happen when children age out of foster care talks about adopting five children—including four teens.

March 08, 2018

Thomas family
The Thomas family says their motto is: "If we can do five, you can do one!"

As a warden working in a Pennsylvania state prison, John Thomas saw first-hand what could happen to children who aged out of foster care.

“Back then, kids would age out at 18. They end up very often in bad situations—homeless, addicted, with mental health issues—or incarcerated,” John said.

When John was in his 40’s, he married Jane, who was working in the prison as a chaplain. Together they committed to changing children’s lives—first through adoption and later through sharing their story with other families.

An unexpected first

Shortly after they were married, John and Jane started taking adoption classes and working with a local agency. Before completing their training, a woman who was pregnant and not prepared for parenthood found them through Jane's family. She asked them to adopt her child, and they said yes.

“Our plans to adopt from foster care were temporarily derailed in the best possible way,” John said. “We were in the hospital when Jordan was born. There was an immediate connection. I cut his umbilical cord, and he became our first adopted child.”

Getting “hooked into teens”

Soon after Jordan’s birth, John and Jane got licensed and started working with an agency. At first, they considered focusing their search on younger children. A persuasive social worker—and the persistent appearance of a group of three siblings—convinced them otherwise.

“We first saw Jonathan, Alaina, and Isaiah on AdoptPAKids. After that, it seemed like their picture was following us! If a worker gave us a stack of photos, theirs was on top. When we went to an adoption event, their picture was in a display. We realized that these must be the kids we were meant to be with,” John said.

The feeling was mutual. When the children were told about Jane and John and heard that John was a warden, they were attracted to the safety he represented.

“Later they told us they were excited because they thought, ‘Daddy is going to protect us, he’s not going to let anything happen to us!’ ” John said.

Soon after adopting the siblings, they adopted another teen, Dontae.

Encountering unexpected challenges

John and Jane had been warned about adopting teens by friends who had heard that older children would not attach or would have too much baggage. But John says none of those fears came true.

“For real, I didn’t see too many challenges with our teens that our friends weren’t having with their biological teens—relationship issues, getting homework done, those sorts of things,” John said.

Surprisingly, John says that one of the biggest challenges was finding effective ways to discipline them, because the typical techniques of withholding privileges or taking away devices did not work.

“Our kids grew up not knowing where they were going to be spending the holidays—or maybe living the next week. Taking their video games or cell phones away didn’t faze them. They knew we weren’t going to take away the one thing that really mattered to them, which was having a family,” John said.

“Doing the soapbox thing”

It’s been more than a decade since Jordan, Jonathan, Alaina, Isaiah, and Dontae became part of the Thomas family. Today, Jordan is 10 and thriving. The older boys are young adults and doing well: they’ve all graduated from high school, have jobs, and, John says, each has at least tried college.

John retired from working in corrections several years ago but is far from slowing down. He has an active ministry—working with men in prisons and churches—and frequently gives presentations about adopting from foster care.

“People thinking about adoption often ask me, ‘Is our life going to change?’ I tell them, ‘Well, yeah! But when you turn around, what do you want to see? A pile of toys and a new car? Or a family and a life blessed with love.’ ”

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