Elijah Pruitt had one special Christmas waiting for him this year.
At age 3, he’d had no problem telling Santa Claus what he hoped to find under the 14-foot Christmas tree in grandparents Patty and Bud Pruitt’s Aston home:
An electric motorcycle!
A dirt bike!
And as if his wish list weren’t exuberant enough, the Pruitts were guessing their big little guy wouldn’t be needing his siblings to help him tear the wrapping paper off all that bounty on Christmas morning.
But this holiday was different from those past in other ways.
Although Elijah’s been a member of the Pruitt family since birth, this Christmas his grandparents were also his parents. His place in this house was now legally protected and assured.
He had been sent there when he was 3 days old from Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, born addicted to drugs. His mother, a Pruitt relative, is also the mother of his three siblings. Patty and Bud Pruitt have custody of them, too.
“We adopted Elijah because since we got him when he was 3 days old, it was important to us to keep all the kids together,” said Patty Pruitt. “That was our main reasoning, besides the fact he’s our grandson and we love him. It was important to us to keep them together.”
On Nov. 19, a day celebrated across the country as National Adoption Day, a dozen families including the Pruitts came to Philadelphia Family Court to finalize adoptions of 15 children ranging in age from 22 months to 13 years. Most of them were kinship adoptions — children adopted by members of their own family.
Adoptions and foster care placements such as Elijah’s are part of a child welfare strategy and philosophy that youngsters taken from their parents are better off, when possible, living with members of their own family.
Philadelphia is well ahead of the national average in kinship placement.
Fifty-one percent of children put into dependent care and 57% of youngsters in family foster care in Philadelphia were placed with kin, according to City Department of Human Services most recent numbers, compared with 32% nationally.
“We take no delight when families are in crisis, and we take no delight when we have to separate families, but sometimes it’s necessary,” said Carla Sanders, DHS director of operations for Front End Services. “We want to minimize the trauma that is associated with this whole process and have children stay with people they are familiar with.”
Sanders, a child services veteran, said that, in the past, sometimes safety was the sole goal in a placement.
“It wasn’t a priority to also try to place a child with people who share the child’s culture and traditions,” she said.
But that is now viewed as part of the agency’s mission, and DHS has brought in trainers to teach staff family-finding techniques, she said. That’s because willing, suitable kinship caregivers aren’t always easy to locate.
In addition, some kinship families need extra services for themselves or the children to help meet special needs.
Sometimes, kinship placements are temporary, and reunification with the children’s birth parents is possible.
Other times, a new family is born.
On Nov. 19, adoption day, Sajirah Johnson was one little girl you could not miss.
Just 7 years old, she had a megawatt smile, a model’s poise, and the charm to match.
But when she first came to live with her great-grandmother Sharon Johnson-Rice in her Georgia home about two years ago, it was different.
“She had screaming, yelling temper tantrums,” said Johnson-Rice, 61, a former phlebotomist.
Sajirah is now in counseling, and her therapist says she has begun to open up, the great-grandmother said. The child has been diagnosed with ADHD and mild autism, but she is doing well in school.
“She is a joy,” said Johnson-Rice, who is also raising Dariahn Johnson, 11, her great-niece whom she adopted before Sajirah.
Johnson-Rice, a Philadelphia native, was also already living out of state when she learned from a relative that DHS had been looking for a kinship placement for Sajirah, whose mother had been deemed unfit to care for her.
When she learned that the child had been placed in a traditional foster home, Johnson-Rice said she became determined to get custody of Sajirah.
“My drive was to never, ever — how do they say in the movies? No man left behind? For me, it was no family member left behind.”
It goes back to her own childhood.
“When I was smaller, I had a brother who was put up for adoption. I had a sister who spent 13 years in foster care. I still don’t have a good relationship with my sister,” she said.
She often wondered how her brother was. “Even though he was adopted, I still never gave up on him being my brother.”
When she was about 20 and her brother was 13, she learned where in Philadelphia he was living.
She went to the house. His adoptive mother knew who she was. Her brother knew, too. He showed her a photo he had. It was him as a baby with a little girl.
“He said, ‘Is that you?’ I said, ‘Yeah, that’s me.’ And ever since, he’s been in my family,” Johnson-Rice said.
She acknowledges she has strained relationships with some of her own offspring, including Sajirah’s grandmother and mother. She said she now knows more about child-rearing as a grandmother than she did when she was younger. “Parents aren’t born with these books,” she said.
One of the benefits of keeping children with their biological family, she believes, is the possibility some day they will have relationships with other family members they might otherwise forever lose contact with.
“I think a kinship adoption gives a child the opportunity to stay in the family and get to know who their family is,” she said. “I think it’s important for them to know where they came from, for them not to have to ask the question: How come no one wanted me?”
When the Pruitts brought home 3-day-old Elijah, his tiny body had the shakes. The infant was undergoing withdrawal from his mother’s drug use. His grandparents watched and hoped there wouldn’t be lasting harm.
Their fears appear to have been for naught.
“He goes to Kindercare. He does really well there,” Patty said. “He’s quick. He’s very witty.”
He’s quite the boy, too. He loves wrestling with his older half-brother Brayden Leon, 6, and dressing up as superheroes. Spiderman and Captain America top the list.
One of the Pruitts’ biggest hopes, meanwhile, seems to have come true: the forging of strong family bonds among the four siblings — Elijah, Brayden and their half-sisters Makayla and Angelina Montgomery, ages 17 and 15. The Pruitts had permanent legal custody of Elijah’s three siblings, first the two girls and later Brayden, all before Elijah was even born.
“We can’t imagine Elijah not being with us because we do have the other three and we think it’s important they have their siblings,” Patty said.
Brayden has another half-brother not related to the Pruitts whom they make sure he sees. When the Pruitts brought the boys into the family, Makayla and Angelina were all for it.
“Each time we had to go through the process of adding another [child], the girls were awesome,” Bud said. “‘That’s our baby brother. Brayden’s got to come live with us.’ And when it came to Elijah, it was the same thing.”
The Pruitts’ son Christopher, 24, whom everyone calls C.J., is tight with all his nieces and nephews.
The children’s mother, who is one of Bud’s daughters and Patty’s stepdaughter, is trying to rebuild her relationship with the girls,
“It’s a work in progress,” Patty said.
When the boys are older, they may want that connection, too.
“That’s our goal,” Patty said. “That someday they can all have those relationships.”
Patty, who is 54 and a technical writer, and Bud, 57, who has a lawnmower repair business and umpires college softball and referees other college sports, acknowledge that they weren’t planning to to be raising young children at their age.
When DHS called them about Elijah, Patty recalled thinking, “‘Oh, my God, I’m 50 years old with a newborn.”
“It’s not something we would have chosen to do,” she said. ”We have to be the parents as opposed to the grandparents, the disciplinarians as opposed to ‘sugar them up and send them back home.’”
So much for those weekends away, quipped Bud.
“Eleven years ago, we were thinking, ‘Oh, good, 11 years from now, [the kids] will be out of high school and we’ll be on our own,’” he said. “Then we got within three years of that mark and bang! We got 15 more years. It’s like, oh, well. So you deal with it.”
But there’s also much joy.
“It’s very rewarding,” said Patty. “They can feel very secure that no matter what, we have them.”
“We just believe God put them in our care, and you listen to the man upstairs,” she said. “He put them here because that’s what they need and we need.”
Even in a house with a 14-foot Christmas tree just a few nights before Santa’s ETA, children do eventually get tired. So after hours of lively family time, Elijah finally curled up beside Patty and turned his attention to Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch playing on the big-screen TV in the family room.
That is, until something in the show gave the 3-year-old pause.
“Mom-Mom, what’s a heart?” he asked.
“Your heart is here,” Patty answered, putting a hand on his little chest. “And when you love somebody, your heart gets very big.”
Elijah thought about that for a moment. Then he cuddled into her and smiled.
It seemed to be the answer he’d hoped to hear.