Albert and Lisette McClinton first glimpsed Jalen Gibson on a television program profiling children awaiting adoption. A friend from their church asked the couple to watch it, suggesting that Albert might mentor Jalen because both were born with cerebral palsy. Albert, a Humana insurance agent, married Lisette, a substance abuse therapist, five years ago when she was the single mother of three sons. Jalen, then 15, had been in foster care for about 10 years. When his mother gave birth to a baby who tested positive for crack, the state took both children away. At first, Jalen lived with his great-grandmother, then his grandmother. When they died, he went into the foster care system. Lisette McClinton, 31, talks about the year leading up to June 20 when the family stood in a downtown Tampa courtroom and officially adopted their fourth son — just two days before his 18th birthday.
Jalen began spending weekends and school vacation breaks with your family in 2008. How did that go?
He was guarded at first. You could tell he had been through a lot. The very first time I picked him up and took him to our apartment he called me Mom and the boys (ages 12, 11 and almost 10) his brothers.
His (Albert's) cerebral palsy is not as severe as Jalen's, but he's gone through a lot of the same issues, the teasing and the same surgeries. He worked with him to build his self-confidence and not be afraid of what others thought. Albert has the true heart of a father. He gives motivational speeches at schools, and we have started a nonprofit mentorship program called Dream Builders to show young males they are important and capable of anything.
What made you so sure that he belonged with your family?
Albert and I knew Jalen was a special kid and was going to be part of our family right away. We saw so much potential and ability in him. Jalen started coming over for family nights and we would play board games and video games. We took him to Disney with us. He's a huge people person, easygoing, very loving. When we saw his report card, Albert started working with him more.
How did Jalen transition to being a family member?
Right away, we had concerns about some of the things we saw at Jalen's foster home, like his personal hygiene and not getting proper medical care. He was not getting the life skills to be successful. It was just a place to live. We sat down with HKI (Hillsborough Kids Inc.) and Roger Griffey, his guardian ad litem for seven years. They asked Jalen — he had just turned 16 — if he wanted to live with us. … But Jalen said no. He had gotten to know us awhile and he saw a lot of structure and discipline. He was used to being on his own and wasn't getting that kind of direction. That scared him.
The caseworkers who allowed him to make the decision saw things getting worse. He got locked out of his house and wasn't allowed to use the phone. In October 2009, he had very extensive surgery on his right leg and was supposed to recover at home for four to six weeks. He went back to school after four days. He didn't go to physical therapy and became worse instead of better.
What happened to change his mind?
We were very concerned when he was supposed to have the same surgery on his left leg. His caseworkers realized they should not have let him decide to stay there. They said, "We are now making the decision for you and moving forward." In June 2010, they helped us find a four-bedroom home in Wesley Chapel so he could join our family. The adoption was final a year later.
Do the rewards outweigh the challenges as adoptive parents?
It's been a challenge to guide Jalen, who was pretty much taking care of himself. It's almost like teaching a newborn baby 18 years' worth of training in a year. He's learning to let go of the reins. For the first time ever, he made honor roll twice. … He's very goal oriented. That's why he's going to physical therapy, to learn to walk without crutches. He's had more opportunities than he has ever had in his life.
And now, my husband feels it's time to try to adopt a little girl, hopefully a newborn. We're going to start that process next year.
Amy Scherzer can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3332.