After nearly 20 years of marriage, Jacksonville litigator and partner at Coker Law, Aaron Sprague and his wife, Heather, decided in 2015 that they were finally done having children. They had a houseful by then, with six youngsters total: three boys and three girls, ranging in age from 4-15.
But then, Heather, an autism therapist, met a troubled family through the Spragues’ church, and everything changed.
“Heather was asked to help one of the adult daughters of this family who had just given birth to a baby boy named Christian,” said Aaron Sprague.
“This young mother opened up about her fears for her baby’s future, due to the fact that she had two other children, both of whom were currently in foster care. These fears proved well founded,” he said. “Within days of bringing Christian home, DCF [Department of Children and Families] arrived and took Christian into care.”
Christian’s mother had a difficult childhood and was challenged by learning disabilities, but clearly loved her children. Heather was determined to help reunite this family by helping this mother win back custody of all three children. During the process, she met newborn Christian’s older siblings: Nathaniel, 5, and Aaliyah, 1. At that time, all three children were living in separate foster homes. Despite Heather’s efforts, the state decided to move forward to terminate the mother’s parental rights.
The Spragues had mixed feelings about the situation. “It was clearly the proper thing to do, because their mother was simply not cognitively capable of raising the children on her own,” said Aaron Sprague. “On the other hand, this woman, who most likely would have a mental disability diagnosis if she had the resources to get proper care and treatment, was completely lost in the legal process.”
After a great deal of soul-searching, the Spragues decided they would open their home and try to adopt all three children.
“We knew, based on our conversations with the caseworker, that the chances of finding an adoptive placement to keep all three of these kids together were virtually nil, and we did not want them to grow up never knowing of their siblings,” said Sprague.
Felicia Campbell Cunningham served as the Spragues’ Guardian ad Litem throughout the process. For more than 30 years, the Guardian ad Litem Program has served as the region’s exclusive advocate for children in the court system. The Spragues say that Cunningham truly cared about the children and made frequent visits to check on them to see how they were adjusting to the transition. They said they could see that she genuinely had the best interest of the children at heart and supported their efforts to give them a home.
Luckily for all concerned, the recommendations in this case resulted in a happy ending. Nathaniel, Aaliyah and Christian came to live with the Spragues in November of 2015, and their adoption was finalized in May of the following year. The Spragues make sure that the children see their birth mother regularly.
The Spragues were just settling in with the size of their new family when they learned another sibling was on the way and the state was going to take this baby away as well. Already stretched to their limits with nine children, they wondered still how they could ever let their children’s sibling disappear into the foster care system.
Ava was born in August 2016. Heather and Aaron were present for her delivery. When Ava was only a few hours old, an officer with DCF showed up in the recovery room of the maternity ward to take Ava. Fortunately, the Spragues were able to advise him that adoption arrangements for Ava had already been made, and that she would be coming home with them.
Ava is now six months old and growing up surrounded by a house full of loving brothers and sisters, bringing the Sprague family up to 10. The Spragues are grateful to their friends and colleagues at Coker Law for rallying around them and providing meals and baby showers. They say life is super busy with nonstop trips to ballparks, doctor appointments, long chore lists and a revolving door at the grocery store, but they wouldn’t trade it for all the world, because all their children – biologic and adopted – are “a joy.”
Read more about the Sprague family and the upcoming Guardian ad Litem fundraiser, There’s No Place Like Home