Sarah Walor photo
The Neff family's Chesterfield home can get a little nuts. On a frigid February afternoon, 4-year-old Lily and a neighborhood buddy are running around the kitchen, stopping for a moment to ask for a juice box, while 10-year-old Luke, a tall boy with a round face and big eyes, bends over his dad, Dave, to give him a neck hug that looks more like a stranglehold.
Janey, their mom, rolls her eyes, telling Luke that's not the way to treat his dad. Luke bops upstairs, where the little girls are shrieking and playing.
Meanwhile, Aung and Ahu arrive home from high school, Aung having insisted on going, even though he had a 102-degree fever this morning. He's headed straight for bed.
Janey, 43, pauses and then takes another bite of tuna salad before she and Dave continue talking about how they became foster parents.
The Neffs met in church — St. Giles Presbyterian on Grove Avenue — in 1993, while Dave, now a 42-year-old doctor with a family practice in Prince George County, was attending medical school at Virginia Commonwealth University. He grew up in California, and Janey is a Varina native. They married in 1995, and two years later the couple landed in Roanoke while Dave entered his residency.
They began to consider adoption when fertility treatments didn't work, although Janey had long been interested in adopting, even before her marriage. As a young woman, she worked as a pediatric occupational therapist at a Romanian orphanage (an institution she learned about on 60 Minutes ) and met a teenage boy whom she wanted to adopt, but Janey was considered too young.
Although health insurance covered fertility treatments, the Neffs didn't have the funds to pay for adoption fees. Nonetheless, they had gone to an informational workshop on adoption. The agency called the Neffs in the spring of 1998 and told them that several biracial babies — traditionally more difficult to place than white infants — would be available in the summer. Janey said they'd pray about it, but the couple didn't know where they'd get the $20,000 they would need to cover fees.
Two days later, a second call came from Gilpin and Pam Brown, a couple they knew from St. Giles, offering the Neffs the money they needed. The Browns, knowing the Neffs' desire for children, decided to help based on a friendship started in a Sunday-school class.
"It was probably my idea to begin with, because I knew Janey really, really well," Pam Brown says. She and Janey used to meet weekly for prayer and conversation while Dave was at choir practice. "I approached my husband and asked him to pray about it. He said yes, and we both felt like God said yes. It's not something I do lightly."
The Browns are still close to the Neffs, although they no longer see each other weekly because they live on opposite ends of town and because of the Neffs' busy schedule. "It's just been so great, knowing them and walking beside them," Pam adds.
Luke was born two months premature in May 1998, suffering from respiratory and digestive problems, and he remained in neonatal intensive care for weeks. His birth mother, a woman older than the Neffs, was willing to sign away her parental rights before the state's 30-day period ended; she realized this was for the best, and she wrote a letter for her son to read when he was older.
Almost 5, Lily doesn't know the full story about her mom, who lost custody of her six children because of neglect and drug abuse.
Lily, a firecracker with bouncy curls and long legs, was born in March 2004 addicted to heroin and crack, requiring methadone treatment. The Neffs were living in Chesterfield by then, and Luke had been on a campaign for a sibling for a couple of years.
"Can we go to the baby dealership?" Dave recalls him asking. Luke wanted a sister because he figured she wouldn't play with his toys, although he knows better now.
The Browns pointed the Neffs to Children's Home Services, a Richmond-based agency. The call about Lily was not the joyful call they remembered from Luke's birth — because her birth mother's rights were being legally terminated, the case was going to be tied up in court, and there was no guarantee the Neffs would wind up gaining custody of Lily.
That is, even if they wanted custody; another expectant mother had contacted them about adopting her child. Dave and Janey prayed once again, and Dave called a neonatologist who specialized in drug-addicted infants to learn what they could expect if they did adopt Lily. He learned that although initial withdrawal from heroin is excruciating, the effects of crack are longer-lasting and ultimately more destructive to a child.
Because Lily's mother was primarily addicted to heroin, Lily stood a better chance of growing up with fewer problems — which has proven to be the case. Meanwhile, the other mother who had offered her child to the Neffs "dropped completely off the face of the earth" only days before her due date, Janey notes. They had their answer; Lily came to them as a foster child, and they later adopted her as their own.
Janey and Dave refer to "gotcha days," the dates when Luke and Lily's adoptions became official, anniversaries they celebrate like birthdays.
But the joy of Luke's and Lily's entrances into the Neff family was interrupted by periods of frustration and sadness.
When Luke was 3 and the family still lived in Roanoke, Janey and Dave heard about a paraplegic boy in Peru who needed a home, again through the Browns, whose daughter was a missionary there. Entering into a morass of misunderstandings and government corruption, they tried to adopt the boy, who had been hurt in a terrorist attack in which his parents and other relatives were killed in front of him.
Aside from the physical trauma, he suffered mental and emotional scars, and after years of work to adopt the boy — including moving to a home adaptable to his disability — the Neffs gave up.
"We said we'd never adopt again, ever, ever, ever," Janey says. "It took so much energy. It left us broke, it left us emotionally pained."
But healing came as they moved on from their misfortune, both symbolically and literally, from Roanoke to Chester.
After Lily's introduction to the household, it was time to move again, to a bigger home, the four-bedroom house in a woodsy Chesterfield subdivision where they now live. Lily was 2 when Janey started thinking about fostering refugee teens. She was an ESL teacher (a job she continues to hold part time), and she saw a billboard ad on I-95 for Commonwealth Catholic Charities' refugee program.
Dave and Janey entered six months of training in 2006 to become a foster family, and they were matched with a 14-year-old Liberian boy — not identified here to protect his privacy — who had already spent a few years in the United States and was considerably Americanized.
"He was not what you'd think of as a refugee," Dave notes. They were charmed by the boy's humor and good nature, especially toward 8-year-old Luke. But the relationships started to crumble after several weeks, with the boy becoming cold and cruel to everyone in the family while continuing to charm teachers and fellow students — the result of years of abuse and abandonment, Dave and Janey say.
He felt the Neffs were "too parental, too religious," Dave adds, and the teen left of his own volition after 11 months to live in a boys' home in July 2007. The Neffs are in periodic touch with the teenager, who has since told the family he loves them.
"CCC gave us a month — and then they called us again," Janey recalls, but the family was ambivalent about fostering another child after their rough initial experience. They even got a call about Aung as he was preparing to arrive in the United States in September 2007, but they said they weren't ready to take in another teen — a decision that now brings a wistful expression to Janey's face.
But they got to know Aung anyway, after taking in another Burmese boy — whose name we're also withholding for his privacy — in 2008. Aung, the only Chin speaker they knew who also spoke English, helped the 17-year-old, who was emotionally troubled and reluctant to learn English. He drank and often did not participate in school.
Aung came along on a family vacation to Kiawah, S.C., in the summer of 2008, serving as the other teen's interpreter. The Neffs, knowing that Aung wasn't happy in his foster home because the family didn't speak English as their primary language, invited him to move to their home, which he did in late July. The other boy was excited, but soon "things started falling apart," Janey says.
Unlike the other boy, Aung wanted to connect with Dave and Janey and learn English. "Things were getting tense between them," Dave says. "There was such a dichotomy."
The situation came to a head in September, when the Neffs say Aung overheard the other boy talking negatively about them to a friend on the phone and confronted him about it. The other boy tried to choke Aung, leaving marks on his neck. Luke and Lily were staying with a relative at the time, and Janey and Dave were away for the weekend, checking in with Aung by phone, but he didn't tell them about the attack until they came home.
After seeing the marks on Aung's neck, the Neffs telephoned the on-call worker for CCC. Because it was 9 p.m., and they knew the worker was possibly not up to the challenge of removing the boy from the household on her own, the Neffs decided to wait until morning to have him taken away.
The CCC employee told Janey and Dave to lock everyone — except for the boy — in the same room overnight for their safety, which they did. The next morning, the boy was taken to a temporary shelter, and a police report was filed. By all accounts, the boy, who currently lives in Henrico, is now doing better in school and at home.
Soon, Ahu was on his way to live with the Neffs, arriving at Richmond International Airport in late September.
The Neff household, while active and noisy, is stable now. "Lily and Ahu are so bonded," Janey says. They play together, and he even lets her brush his hair. Also, they talk a lot, which helps his English.
"These two boys — they're just great kids," Dave says, and he and Janey add that Aung and Ahu are welcome to live in their home as long as they want to, through college and beyond. "We're their American family."