Children romp and play in front of the family Christmas tree. One occasionally rolls right into the pile of gifts underneath and gets a gentle reprimand from his mother, Karen Cummins.

“Xavier! Watch out!” she says. 

“Sorry, Mom,” he replies.

While such a scene may be played out across the Quad-City region and elsewhere during the holiday season, it’s a bit different at the home of Steve and Karen Cummins in rural Blue Grass. Steve, 51, and Karen, 48, have six children, five of them adopted — and four of those joined them from the state of Iowa foster care system.

Most of the Cummins children are from unsafe backgrounds that threatened their well-being and development. For example:

- Charley, 12: He was found by authorities in the former Schricker Apartments at 407 W. 4th St., Davenport. He was barefoot, with long hair and a single toy. He also lived under the Government Bridge at times and ate his meals at McAnthony’s Window, from which free food was distributed by St. Anthony’s Catholic Church in downtown Davenport. He was 3 years old when he first stood at the doorstep of his new home in Blue Grass.

- Xavier, 8: Born to a drug-addicted mother, the 8-month-old had already been to three foster homes by the time he reached the Cummins household. “He cried all the time,” Steve Cummins said of the effect the drug exposure had on the baby.

- Joe, 6: A brother of Xavier, Joe was also greatly affected by his birth mother’s drug addiction. He was “stiff as a board,” when he came to the family. Joe could not lie down to sleep at night, so Steve Cummins said he slept with the child — sitting upright in a chair — for two years.

- Cariyana, 6: Living with an elderly foster couple who wished to retire, she came to the Cummins home as part of a respite program. The family “fell in love” with the tiny girl, who has a type of dwarfism called achondroplasia and some serious health complications. 

- Nick, 20, is Steve and Karen’s biological son and a junior at Augustana College in Rock Island, and Alexis, 11, joined the family at 3 months of age in a private adoption.

 

Doing well today

While most of the children had troubled beginnings, they are doing well these days. The Cumminses just won the Hy-Vee Family Makeover Challenge, sponsored by the supermarket chain, and the children stay busy with daily exercise, school and extracurricular activities such as Scouting. They are active in their faith and attend St. Andrew Catholic Church in Blue Grass.

All of the adopted children have what are called open adoptions, so the couple is in touch with several members of those biological families. This past spring, for example, the Quad-City area residents traveled to Texas to visit Charley’s grandparents and an aunt. Xavier and Joe meet with their mother when she is clean and sober. Joe’s father is incarcerated. Xavier’s dad recently was released from prison and has met the boy.

It was more than a decade ago when Steve and Karen decided to attend classes for interested participants in Iowa’s foster care and adoption system.

“We had just one child, a big house and both of us make good money,” Steve said. 

Karen, a registered nurse, is an assistant professor at the Trinity College of Nursing & Health Sciences in Rock Island, while Steve works at the Deere & Co. cylinder division in Moline. Both are from large Scott County families.

Steve actually came up with the idea of adopting foster children after he chaperoned a Boy Scouts fishing activity along with son Nick at West Lake Park. A youngster caught his first fish that day and was so excited that he told Steve about his life. He was a foster child, had been in multiple homes and had suffered abuse, he told Steve. 

The youth’s story was so poignant that retelling it still causes Steve to become emotional about foster children and the challenges they face. He and Karen resolved then to try to make a difference in some lives.

Alexis joined the family 11 years ago, while Charley and Xavier both arrived within a month of each other. Joe and Cariyana are more recent additions, but they, too, were adopted several years ago.

The Cummins family is no longer part of the state foster care/adoption system, although they support its goal of finding a safe home for all children in Iowa.

 

Health issues

“Something’s always happening when you have six kids,” Steve Cummins said. The children are pretty healthy, and they are finding success in school. Charley and Alexis attend Walcott Junior High, while Joe and Cariyana are kindergartners at Buffalo Elementary. Xavier attends Rivermont Collegiate in Bettendorf.

With her small size, Cariyana has the most serious health issues of the children. She requires oxygen every night, hooked up to large tanks that are stored in the couple’s immaculate home. They had a horrible scare in March when she had a respiratory illness and had to be treated at University Hospitals in Iowa City. She was unable to breathe and turned blue before doctors were able to use a device to open her air passages. That device is now inserted every night to assure her safe sleep and breathing patterns. Surgery by University Hospitals specialists is planned in the spring to enlarge her airway.

Cariyana is 32 inches tall and not expected to reach 4 feet when fully grown. She is challenged by accessibility situations, but her dad tries to help. For example, he attached dowels to the switches so she can turn the lights in the house on and off. 

She keeps up with her siblings pretty well in other ways, playing kickball and other sports in the KidsFit program at the Scott County Family Y in Davenport.

Charley presented a serious developmental issue at first and still has a learning disability. He did not crawl as a baby and did not develop strength in his trunk area because his birth mother carried him constantly. Most seriously, he did not have normal use of his hands. 

For several years, he went to the Children’s Therapy Center in Moline to build his strength and motor skills. Today, he also plays the cello and the piano to help strengthen his hands, but still struggles with writing.

The varied and significant health costs are covered by two insurance providers. The entire family has coverage through Steve’s job with Deere & Co. Iowa’s Medicaid program covers many other costs associated with the four adopted children through the foster care system. 

 

There is a need

The overall number of children in Iowa’s foster care and adoption system is trending down, according to Roger Munns, a spokesman for the Iowa Department of Human Services. There were 1,050 total adoptions in 2007, but only 850 in 2011. 

New parents are needed — not so much for infants and babies, but more so for children who are 10 to 12 years old. Many of the children now up for adoption have developed behavioral issues and may end up in the foster care system longer than officials would like, Munns said.

The state looks first for family members to care for children.

“We are better, now, at not removing kids who don’t need to be removed from a family,” Munns said. “We are also better at reuniting children with the birth families, when possible.”

The state aims to find a safe, permanent home for the children, he said.

“There is an ongoing need, though, for adoptive parents,” he added. “We very much tip our hats to people who might want to extend their families in the way that this family did.”

It’s not easy to raise five adopted children, but it’s not that hard, either, the Cummins couple says.

“If every family in the United States each could take one child, there wouldn’t be any more homeless kids in America,” Steve said.

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