MESA, Ariz. (BP)–Shirley Hughes never imagined her family would be featured on the front page of USA Today’s Life section. But then she never thought she and her husband, Van, both 52, would adopt 10 siblings, ages 4 to 17.
Instead of planning for retirement — a cabin in the woods on a lake and dinners out — they are tucking children in bed at night, helping with homework and counseling teens on dating.
“I can’t compare the blessings I receive from these children to any type of retirement I could have had,” Shirley told USA Today.
Retired from the Navy, Van works as a security officer for the city of Phoenix. “I love it,” he said of adopting 10 children. “Think of all the grandkids I’m going to have,” he told the newspaper.
Active members of Calvary Southern Baptist Church in Mesa, Shirley and Van hope their story will encourage others to adopt some of the thousands of children waiting for permanent homes.
It all began with a heart-breaking news story Shirley heard a few years ago about a group of hungry children police found in a filthy house in Phoenix. As foster parents, the Hugheses took in some of the children, and in July they adopted all 10 children in what USA Today reported to be the largest group adoption of siblings.
The Hugheses already have two grown sons and four grandchildren, but their family mushroomed to include Doni, 4; Veronica, 6; Stephanie, 8; Jose, 9; Juan, 10; Agustina, 12; Steven, 13; Asucena, 15; Teresa, 16; and Frank, 17.
The children, with Hispanic and Native American heritage, have four fathers. They moved from house to house in Phoenix, their birth mother disappearing for days at a time. Teresa often acted as mother, and Frank, the oldest, would sometimes steal food to feed his siblings.
The siblings were discovered by police in a house in Phoenix in April 1995. The children had lice, and Doni, only a baby, was dehydrated, and he was running a fever. They were shipped off to different shelters, foster homes and group homes.
About that same time, the Hugheses began to take in foster children. They had two children from a different family when, in June 1995, they were asked to take in Stephanie, one of the girls from the large family. Only 3 when the Hugheses took her in, Stephanie was quiet and scared. “Her eyes were like saucers,” Shirley told USA Today. “She’d go every place we told her to. When we told her to sit down, she would, and she wouldn’t move until we told her to.”
In July, they took in two of her brothers, Jose and Juan. The Hugheses began working with other foster families so the kids could get together each month to celebrate birthdays and have picnics. On some weekends, the Hugheses would take all 10 kids. “It was a zoo,” Van told USA Today.
In December 1996, they were asked to take in the two youngest children from the family, Doni and Veronica. As a result of his birth mother’s drinking during her pregnancy, Doni suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome. “Doni was immature. He was just like an infant,” Shirley was quoted as recounting. “I’d wrap him in a blanket and sing and rock him to sleep. He’d just stare at me until he fell asleep. Every morning, he’d just sit in his bed until I came to get him.”
At that time, caseworkers asked the Hugheses if they would be willing to adopt all 10 children. At 50, they were ready for retirement, so they said no.
In March 1997, caseworkers said they had families in Michigan and in the East willing to adopt all 10 children. “That’s when it hit me that they were going to take my kids,” Shirley told USA Today. “The mother instinct had kicked in.”
After praying about what to do, the Hugheses decided to adopt the children. They hosted a pizza party for the kids and asked them to vote on whether they wanted to be adopted. “What’s adoption?” Juan asked.
Realizing he would never go back to his birth mother, he left the table. Shirley found him crying in the hallway. “He was grieving, and my heart broke for him,” she recounted to USA Today. “I held him and hugged him.”
Four of the last five children came to live with the Hugheses in May 1997. Frank moved in with them in August. Shirley said that at 15, he had the most difficulty with the transition. “He was Mr. Macho,” she told USA Today. “He wore baggy pants, pulled his hat down over his eyes.” Van said Frank was the one he worried about. “He was not used to taking orders. He was wild, very wild, and had a couple of incidents with law enforcement,” Van told the newspaper.
Because a psychological evaluation suggested that Frank could not bond with a family, the Hugheses were told to “Treat him as a business venture.” They refused to do that, though it wasn’t an easy task. The day came when the Hugheses told Frank that if he got in any more trouble he would have to go back to a group home.
Then Frank received a letter from a lawyer saying the Hugheses had to pay medical damages for a fighting incident. When Frank showed her the letter, Shirley recounted, tears filled his eyes as he asked, “Does this mean I have to leave?”
Hugging Frank, Shirley’s reply was, “No, but this lets you know how it would feel if you did have to leave.” Although he still has issues to deal with, Shirley said Frank is beginning to come around.
The family attends church regularly. Frank joins them on occasion. “I know we’ve touched him,” Shirley told USA Today. “My belief is that you can’t push your faith. It’s in God’s timing.”
Several of the older children have accepted Christ and been baptized since they began attending church with the Hugheses. When behavioral issues come up, Shirley asks the children what Jesus would do in that situation and finds Bible verses that relate to it.
All of the children get allowances, and all of them are responsible for chores. Each of them has a bicycle, and eight of them have braces. The Hugheses recently bought an RV so they can take the kids on vacations.
“I want these kids to be normal,” Shirley told USA Today. “Just because there are 10 of them doesn’t mean they should have any less than if there were two of them.”
The Hugheses were driving a 1991 Dodge van with 403,000 miles on it until receiving a replacement courtesy of the “Rosie O’Donnell Show” and Budget car rental. Van gets a retirement from the Navy and makes a good salary as a security officer. The state gives them $6,000 a month to help with the children. Each month they spend about $1,500 on groceries. Their bill for back-to-school clothes, supplies and backpacks this summer was $2,800.
Arizona Baptists, all the while, played a key role in the lives of the 10 siblings who needed a loving home. The Hughes family was licensed to be foster parents by Arizona Baptist Children’s Services in February 1995. ABCS social workers worked closely with the family as each child was placed in the home. Arizona limits the number of children who can be placed in a foster home to five. When the Hugheses determined they wanted to adopt the 10 children, Arizona Baptist Children’s Services helped them to get their home licensed as a group home, and in May 1997, they became licensed for 10 children, which allowed the children to be in their home until the adoption proceedings were finalized.
ABCS social workers also worked with Van and Shirley to help them meet the challenges of 10 new children in their home. Parenting tips were given during monthly visits that helped the couple organize and manage the many challenges that 10 children can bring.
“All our needs are met,” Shirley told USA Today. “Sometimes our wants are met.”
Langley is a freelance writer and a student at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.