Home Sweet 'Forever Home': One Couple's Unexpected Blessings of 5 Children
Kriss and Riley Stewart wanted nothing more than to have a baby of their own.
After trying to get pregnant for more than three years, the couple decided to seek help through a fertility specialist. But before doing so, Kriss was diagnosed with Graves’ disease and hypertension. The radiation pill Kriss needed for her treatment meant she would have to put the fertility specialist on hold.
“We started praying that wherever our child was that God put his arms around them and protect them until they could come home,” Kriss said.
Little did the couple know their prayers were waiting to be answered at Cook Children’s.
From the time she was 5 years old, Kriss dreamed of becoming a mom. She was devastated to learn that she was diagnosed with a severe polycystic ovarian syndrome as an early teen. Doctors told her then that she would have difficulty trying to conceive a child.
Kriss married Riley in March 1998. By Christmas 2003, the couple had tried Clomid and injectable fertility drugs but every attempt to have a baby ended with disappointment. Shortly after the holidays and much reflection, the couple decided to adopt.
In May 2004, Kriss and Riley made the decision of their lifetime … at least up to that point.
“During that week a friend of mine approached us and asked us to call a local fostering and adoption agency who handles children from child protective services,” Kriss said. “We thought about it and decided what do we have to lose. These are children who really need homes.”
That was the summer the Stewarts' prayer was answered with a phone call from CPS.
They were told a 5-day-old baby boy had been tossed from a second story apartment window and landed between two air conditioners and a railroad tie on the grass. The agency told Kriss and Riley the baby was fine and being cared for at Cook Children’s.
“When we first arrived at the medical center for our little boy after his fall they treated us so kindly,” Kriss said. “We were immediately seen as mom and dad to this baby. They helped me learn how to care for him since he had a seizure and brain bleed. I was allowed to go back for his CT scans and they allowed me to care for him immediately. When I left Cook Children’s I felt completely comfortable because of the time and teaching that was given. I still remember the neurology doctors sitting with me and going over the care and meds he would need.”
But because of all the legal ramifications involved with the child’s injury, he wouldn’t be legally available for adoption yet. Despite all of this, the couple decided to bring the little boy into their home.
“That in itself was a leap of faith and it was a scary, uncertain time,” Kriss said. “When I got home from work Riley was shouting for me to come to the living room because the story of our little boy was in the news. It was then they showed a picture of his sister.”
Her first reaction was, “It’s a shame we couldn’t have her too.”
Those words proved to be prophetic because the next day when Riley and Kriss showed up to sign paperwork for the boy they found out the state wasn’t going to split the siblings up. The couple was shocked. They took a moment to think about everything that was happening.
After years of trying to have a baby, they were now faced with the reality of taking home two children. They talked and prayed before deciding that their choice was an obvious one.
“What a blessing,” Kriss said. “That night we got up to go to Cook Children’s and see our son and hold him for the first time. It was the most emotional moment because it seemed so unreal. For him sustaining such a horrible fall, he had no bruising and no broken bones. He was perfect. It was as if God had cupped him in his hands and gently lowered him to the ground.”
They took their new boy, Brady, home first and then two weeks later they got to bring home Britney, who was nearly 3 years old.
Kriss and Riley fostered the two children for a total of 10 months before they could finalize their adoption. They became a “forever family” on Aug. 29, 2005.
And while this story is amazing enough at this point, there were more surprises awaiting the Stewart family.
Following the adoption of Brady and Britney, the Stewarts received a letter in the mail telling them that the children’s biological parents were pregnant and the baby was due in two months. They were asked if they would be interested in raising the baby with the other two kids. Because of a felony charge (injury to a child), the birth parents weren’t able to keep the child.
“When I first found out, I couldn’t help but cry,” Kriss said.
After much discussion, Kriss and Riley made the decision to adopt the third child. After working with CPS over the next two months, the family brought Benjamin into their family at only 30 hours old.
But the couple's story wasn't over. They still had one more miracle awaiting them. Well, actually two more because in 2012 Kriss learned she was pregnant with twins. Barrett and Brennen Stewart were born on May 22, 2013.
Cook Children’s has helped with everything from Ben’s broken hand to taking Britney to Carla Morton, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist, to determine her age equivalency for her delays, caused by physical abuse from her biological family. Dr. Morton has asked to continue to monitor Britney until she turns 18 to help get her services into adulthood.
“Cook Children’s has been super helpful in navigating our daughter’s long term brain injury. We are fortunate to live so close to the hospital. They have been with us every step of the way,” Kriss said. “We’ve been married 21 years. We are so busy living our lives, but sometimes when we stop and reflect on everything, we just go, ‘wow!’ We have been able to make sure our kids have had their needs taken care of and Cook Children’s has helped us meet those needs. I’m just so humbled to get to be the ones to raise these kids. All of them. Especially when I think about where they would be if we didn’t take them, especially with all of their needs.”
Like their adoptive siblings, Cook Children’s has played an important role in the lives of Barrett and Brennen.
Kriss and Riley use the Cook Children’s Star Kids program for the twins. The couple has private insurance and in January were approved for Medicaid through the Star Plan as a secondary provider. Kriss and Riley had a choice between another insurance provider and Cook Children’s but chose the Star Plan after looking over their benefits book and providers.
“We fall in the Medicaid Buy-In program and we are thankful we do! Having five children and being able to have secondary insurance through Cook Children’s lets us provide more therapies for the twins that we ultimately could not afford before,” Kriss said. “Like for example, we had to choose OT or Speech but not both for the twins because we could not afford to do both. Doing one therapy for two children one day a week is a car payment for us. With Cook Children’s help, we will be able to do both now and not pick one over the other since they need both so badly.”
With so much going on, Kriss relies heavily on Cheyenne Feldhaus, a case manager/services coordinator for the Cook Children’s Health Plan.
“Cheyanne most recently helped me get a DME (Durable Medical Equipment coverage) company through Cook Children’s Home Health Plan because the twins are not potty trained because of autism and delays,” Kriss said. “Cook Children’s Star will provide the necessary diapering needs like pull-ups and wipes since they are over a certain age and not ready to potty train.”
The Stewarts have already been able to utilize Star Kids by providing the twins private occupational therapy at Monkey Mouths as well as working on pre-authorizations for private speech to further learn their LAMP device since they are non-verbal. The LAMP is a full vocabulary app for tablets.
“We recently had a nurse come to the house from Cook Children’s Star Plan and do an Individual Service Plan for both boys,” Kriss said. “We were really impressed that Cook Children’s Star Plan wanted to assist us making sure the boys had the care they needed. We were also assigned a case manager if we had any questions or problems. Having this extra level of support means better- coordinated care.”
While Cook Children’s has been there for the Stewart family, things would be much different today for them because of the new Fostering Health Program at the medical center.
“Limited access to medical care is common among children entering the foster care system,” said Sandra Johnson, a nurse practitioner in the Fostering Health Program. “The goal of the Fostering Health program is to provide medical care, using a trauma-informed lens. We understand that the removal of children is often due to a combination of trauma experiences and that even a visit to the doctor is unusual. Children in foster care are a very unique patient population that requires unique care.”
The team follows the American Academy of Pediatrics’ health care recommendations to provide a health screening within three business days and a well-child checkup within 30 days of removal. During these visits, the team will assess behavioral, developmental and chronic health care needs. The staff also will partner with case managers to help coordinate care with required specialists and act as a continued resource for the children and biological parents.
“The fostering health program through Cooks sounds amazing! I wish that had been available and let me tell you briefly why,” Kriss Stewart said. “When we got our daughter she was 34 months old. She had some serious delays due to biological family neglect that we didn’t discover until she was entering kindergarten and first grade. We found out when she was 7 years of age that she only functioned at 3 years and 8 months old. It was shocking. I wish we would have had Fostering Health back then to look at potential issues in the development and help provide services. Having OT or PT at 34 months would have helped her so very much and maybe made the mountain she had to climb not so tall.”
Raising foster children brings a new set of challenges, both logistically and emotionally. They have to:
• Be vetted legally through CPS and the foster care system.
• Be CPR and first-aid trained.
• Go through background checks and be fingerprinted.
• Make sure anyone who would babysit or watch their children, also go through a similar process.
Services provided from the Cook Children’s Fostering Health program include:
• Providing care coordination between foster and primary care physicians, specialists, therapists and behavioral health
• Helping establish a primary care medical home
• Providing sick and well-child visits
• Coordinating with the Department of Family and Protective Services and child placement agencies
To schedule an appointment with Cook Children’s Fostering Health program, call 682-303-6800. The team can combine the three-day required visit and the appointment for hair follicle drug testing if the drug test is ordered by Child Protective Services.
The program provides a medical screening within three business days of removal to:
• Assess the child’s overall health and confirm that there is no evidence of abuse
• Find out if the child should be taking routine medicines and help with refills if necessary
• Document behavior changes
• Provide a well-child checkup (Texas Health Steps) within 30 days of removal
• Reduce preventable hospitalizations and Emergency Department visits
• Connect children to services such as physical and occupational therapy, behavioral health and specialist visits
• Help foster parents access health care services
To Schedule and Appointment
Caregivers, Child Protective Services representatives and providers can call 682-303-6800 and ask for the fostering health program coordinator or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here to learn more about Cook Children's Fostering Health Program.