ALEXANDRIA, La. (AP) — Tammy Mock met her adopted daughter Keona five days before Christmas of 2015 at Children's Hospital New Orleans.
It was a miracle the 9-week-old, who Mock remembers as having lonely brown eyes and still wearing premature-sized clothing, was alive after enduring abusive head trauma labeled in medical records as shaken baby syndrome.
"I knew from day one that if she didn't go home she would just be ours forever," said Mock, who is certified by the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services to foster and adopt.
This August, Tammy and her husband Kevin Mock adopted Keona, 2, the ninth child in their blended family and their second child adopted out of foster care in the past 12 months. Elijah, 3, was adopted December 2016.
The Mocks are one of 528 families who gave one or more children in the state's foster care system permanent homes last year, helping set a new adoption record in Louisiana for the second year in a row.
Keona and Elijah were among the 764 children adopted between Oct. 1, 2016, and Sept. 30, 2017, according to DCFS records. The previous fiscal year's 735 adoptions is now the second-highest number in history.
The Mocks have been foster parents to 14 children in five years and are open to adopting at least one more time. Tammy is president of the Vernon Parish Foster Parents Association and an advocate for fostering and adoption.
"For me, I just want to give them the best life and all of the unconditional love that I can give them," Mock said. "I have seen that just the love makes all the difference in the world."
Keona is an example. She spent a month on life support at Children's Hospital after arriving with broken legs, ribs and bilateral hematoma — bleeding in both sides of the brain. Her former case worker and doctor say they believe the physical and emotional progress she's made would not have happened without her adoptive family's care and nurture.
Keona was in NICU care after birth while her body went through withdrawals because of her biological mother's drug use. But she was able to leave the hospital after two weeks in good health.
Amanda Cox, a child welfare specialist at the DCFS-Alexandria Regional Office, testified at the hearing that resulted in the termination of parental rights for Keona's biological mother and father. She said Keona was the most severe case of child abuse she's seen.
"This child is really just a miracle," she said.
Mock spent two weeks at the hospital over the holidays for special training after DCFS contacted her about Keona. She had to learn how to care for a child with a tracheostomy and other medical needs.
At that point, Mock said no one knew how the physical and emotional abuse Keona experienced would affect her long term, but a brain scan early on was promising.
For infants, violent shaking for just a few seconds can cause severe injuries, lifelong complications and death because of their large heads, weak neck muscles and undeveloped brains, according to The National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome.
One in four shaken babies die, according to the center's statistics, and an untold number of survivors live with cognitive impairments and physical disabilities like loss of hearing, speech, sight or ability to walk.
"By God's grace, she did not have any neurological damage," said Dr. Sohit Kanotra. "Usually, these kids end up with pretty significant brain damage."
Kanotra is an LSU Health otolaryngologist and director of Children's Pediatric Aerodigestive Center. He performs the risky procedure done few other places in the country that makes it possible for children like Keona to breathe, talk and have a chance at a normal life.
"They are fighters, I call them, and Keona is my biggest fighter," Kanotra said.
The surgery Kanotra performed in July involved taking pieces of Keona's rib cartilage and using them to widen her windpipe. The air passage was clogged as a result of scarring from the breathing tube Keona needed during those critical weeks at Children's.
The surgery meant air could pass through for her voice box to produce sound. Ten days after the procedure, Keona whispered her first word: "Hi." The surgery also meant Kanotra was able to remove Keona's trach on Dec. 5.
Like any other 2-year-old, Keona is now starting to put sentences together when she couldn't say anything or even cry six months ago.
"I think one of the factors that made all of this successful was the mom's care was exceptional," Kanotra said. " ... It's just been an amazing journey for all of us."
In recent months, Keona has come far in other ways. She now greets people at her family's church with a hug. Occasionally, she reaches out to be picked up by people she's never met before.
"You really can't classify it as PTSD, but it's so close," Mock said. "With the trauma that she had been through, she wasn't able to trust a lot of people. She would just cling to mommy tightly."
While playing in the nursery at Leesville First Assembly of God, Keona turns her attention to the Mock's newest foster baby, squirming nearby from an infant carrier.
She walks over to offer a pacifier and softly whisper "shh", actions she repeats throughout the morning with two baby dolls. Mock describes Keona as "the most loving baby."
"No matter all the trauma she's been through, she loves," Mock said. "That's amazing to see."
Cox, who sees a range of outcomes for trauma-exposed children in her job, keeps up with how Keona is doing, and said she's a reminder of the difference loving adults can make for a child.
"She'll only know what she sees," Cox said, adding, "With the loving and nurture she has in her life, I truly think she'll be able to overcome anything."
Cox recently started working with foster families through the agency's home development program. The state may be breaking adoption records, but there's still a need for more families willing to foster and offer forever homes, she said.
Cox said some families are held back from fostering by the worry that they will become attached to a child they aren't able adopt. She doesn't tell them otherwise because of the attachment she experiences on the job.
"I tell them ... that's what we do," she said. "We have to keep these kids in safe environments."
DCFS offers orientation for families every 21 days. The 2018 schedule for each region is now up on the agency's website, dcfs.louisiana.gov under child welfare.
Louisiana DCFS adoption profiles for more than 100 children in state custody ready to be adopted also are featured by adoptuskids.org and louisianaheartgallery.com.
Mock said through Elijah's and Keona's adoption process, "they have given back to us, I think, so much more than we give to them. Just the blessing of watching them accomplish their milestones is amazing."
Fostering and adoption are investments on many levels, but they are rewarding ones that impact generations, she said.
"It can change their lives forever," Mock said. "From a child that could grow up to maybe be mean, to a child that can just be so loving. They say when a child is abused, it follows them and it just keeps repeating itself. That's the cycle that needs to be broken."
Posted on Tue, January 16, 2018
by By MIRANDA KLEIN, The Town Talk