Adopting an open heart

Jeff and Maureen Learned always knew they wanted a large family. So it was a blow when they struggled to conceive after the birth of their first daughter, Shanna.

The couple, who recently moved to Burbank after living in La Crescenta for years, went through seven in vitro fertilization treatments, all of them failures. They began exploring other options, eventually turning to foster parenting and adoption.

Less than four years later, their household has grown from three to seven. In addition to Shanna, 11, the Learned family now includes Connor, 6, Lacey, 6, Mia, 3, and Jemma, 2. And they are open to more children, Maureen Learned said.

"Now I am glad we never got pregnant again," Maureen Learned said. "If we did, our family would look so different. And I like the way it looks."

The Learneds were honored last week by Olive Crest — an agency that contracts with the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services to provide fostering and adoptive services — for their commitment to their children, and for helping to recruit additional foster parents in communities including Glendale, Burbank, La Crescenta and Antelope Valley.

"They are just a spectacular family," said John Andersen, regional director for foster and adoption with Olive Crest.

The experience of fostering and adopting children is rich with challenges and blessings, the Learneds said, and they have relied heavily on their Christian faith to guide them.

They were put through a rigorous vetting process that including background checks, finger printing, home inspections and foster parent training. They familiarized themselves with county social workers, and the tangles of the court system.

The longest the Learneds had to wait to complete the adoption process for one of their children was 20 months. The waiting isn't easy, and there is always the chance that the child will be moved.

Early this year, the Learneds fostered for six weeks a baby boy they called J.J. They offered to adopt him, but J.J. had two biological sisters and the court wanted to place the three siblings together. When J.J. was removed from the Learneds' care, it stung, Jeff Learned said.

"You don't know for sure if the child is going to stay with you, and you become attached," Jeff Learned said.

When the foster children first arrive at their home, they are frightened and disoriented, the Learneds said, and it is not unusual for them to hoard food or toys. For the first several months, Lacey, who arrived malnourished, would eat until she threw up. And when Jeff and Maureen told Connor he was going to spend the weekend at his grandparents house, he was convinced that they were passing him on to another foster family.

The Learneds' large and racially mixed family generates mixed reactions. People often express amazement when they say that they are open to more children. And Maureen has been mistaken for a nanny and a school teacher.

Despite the non-traditional approach, being parents is tremendously rewarding, the Learneds said. They fantasize about buying an enormous, 10-bedroom home that they could fill with additional children.

But their house is already ringing with the sound of children running, laughing and playing. And they said they wouldn't have it any other way.

"We didn't understand why we couldn't have more children biologically at the time," Maureen Learned said. "[We] totally get it now. It was for our kids, so that way we could do it and then tell others about the great blessings of being a foster parent."

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