When Ben Sell (center, in Colt’s jersey) was in second grade, he told his classmates he thought it was “perfectly normal” to have multi-cultural people in the same family. Jodi and Tim Sell (center) adopted (left to right) Luke, Bere, Malachi and Bassin.

By Photos by: Gregory Blank, Joanne Morvay Weant

On Mother’s Day, Jodi Sell – like mothers around Carroll and across the country – will gather with her children in Union Bridge and count the ways they have blessed her life. The question of whether each child carries her genes will never come up.

“When God gives you children – whatever way He gives them to you – you love them completely,” said Sell. “There is absolutely no difference whatsoever” between biological and adopted children.

When Ben Sell, the Sells’ biological son, was in second grade, each student in his class was asked to explain what was special about his or her family. Ben’s parents were not sure how Ben would respond. Ben’s adopted sister, Dassin, is originally from Gambia. And his two older brothers – Luke and Bereket – were born in Guatemala and Ethiopia, respectively.

“Ben’s special thing was that he is the only white child in his family,” said Jodi Sell. Ben is the child who doctors told the Sells they would never have. The story still brings a smile to Jodi’s face. It was gratifying, she said, to hear that Ben thought it “was perfectly normal to have multi-cultured people in the same family,” and that, in his mind, he was the one who was different.

The Sells brought their adopted son, Luke, now 16, home from Guatemala when he was just five and a half months old. They had no contact with Luke’s birth mother, who was ashamed that she was giving her child away, even if it was for a better life, said Jodi. Luke’s brother later died from starvation, she said.

The Sells were working on paperwork for a second adoption when they found out Jodi was pregnant with Ben, now 11. They decided to put adoption on hold until after Ben was born.

When Ben was just four months old, missionary friends asked the Sells if they would consider adding Bereket, now 13, to their family. The toddler was brought to the United States to undergo emergency medical treatment for a serious heart condition. His birth mother, who has AIDS, remains in Ethiopia. The Sells send her letters, photos and financial support a few times each year.

Dassin, 21, joined the family five years ago. Sixteen and pregnant with nowhere to turn, Dassin was referred to Mary’s House, a ministry jointly operated by Peter the Apostle Catholic church in Libertytown and Uniontown Bible Church in Union Bridge. The Sells are the host family for the ministry (they are members of the Union Bridge church), giving the teen mothers a home and offering them support, care and the framework of a healthy family relationship. Once the mothers give birth, they and their children either return to their families or are placed in other housing.

When it was time for Dassin to leave, however, there was nowhere for her to go. Her parents died before she came to this country. And the aunt she was living with here would not take her back. Dassin was too old to qualify for legal adoption, but she calls them Mom and Dad and they consider her their daughter and her son Malachi, 4, their grandson, said Jodi Sell.

Once shrouded in secrecy, shame and stigma, adoption in America has become increasingly mainstream. Transracial adoption, intercountry adoption and open adoption have replaced older adoption situations in which parents often wanted only children who looked similar to them, kept the adoption secret from all but their closest confidants and had no contact with the child’s birth parents.

Today, there are magazines devoted to adoption, and state and federal government agencies run websites that help place legally available children in permanent families. Celebrities – television weatherman Al Roker, actress Sandra Bullock, newswoman Connie Chung and movie director George Lucas, just to name a few – adopt children and talk openly of their joy. Some, like actress Angelina Jolie and singer Madonna, adopt children from underdeveloped countries as part of their efforts to bring international attention to the plight of youth in those nations.

Vicki Huber and Justin Geiman came to adoption through foster care. Their biological daughter, Elena, now six years old, was born a few years after the Westminster couple married (Vicki kept her maiden name). When conception appeared elusive in the years following Elena’s birth, Huber and Geiman began discussing adoption. They did not know why Huber was not getting pregnant, she explained, but that was not their main concern.

“We thought it would be better to adopt a child,” Huber said, “because there are children out there who need homes.”

Huber and Geiman took PRIDE (Parent Resources for Information, Development and Education) training at the Carroll County Department of Social Services. Jennifer McCabe, administrator with the Foster Care and Adoptions unit at Carroll County DSS, said that qualified people who complete the course become licensed for foster care and adoption. But DSS is not an adoption agency.

“Children are placed in foster care because where they are is not a safe environment,” said McCabe. “The goal is to work toward reunifying the child with his or her family. Sometimes, that goal can’t be met.”

In order for a child to become available for adoption, birth parents or other guardians must legally relinquish their parental rights. Currently DSS is overseeing four children in Carroll who have an “adoption plan.” Four children were adopted in the county through DSS in 2010. And there are presently 36 children in foster care in Carroll County.

Huber and Geiman received their first foster placement, a newborn boy named Jamell in November 2008. Three months later, Huber found out she was pregnant.

Huber and Geiman continued to raise Jamell until May, 2009, when he went to live with his great aunt who was raising his two half sisters. His departure was wrenching for the couple and their daughter.

In September 2009, Huber and Geiman got another call from DSS, asking if Jamell could return to their home.

“I said yes, of course,” recalled Huber. “We had already been very attached to him and we cared for him. I’m sure they could have found another home for him but we felt like he was already part of our family.”

The next month, Huber gave birth to a son, Adam. Last September, when Jamell was nearly two years old and Adam was just shy of his first birthday, Huber and Geiman finalized Jamell’s adoption. They remain in contact with Jamell’s great aunt, who lives in another part of the state.

“We want him to know his sisters and be part of their lives as well,” said Huber.

But there is no question that Jamell is their son. “Our first foster child was Jamell and he ended up being our only [foster child],” said Huber. She and her husband “closed out” of the foster care program when Jamell came back. Three children are enough to keep them hopping, said Huber, and besides, there are no more available bedrooms in their house.

For further information on foster care and adoption, contact the Carroll County Department of Social Services at 410-386-3434 or the Maryland Department of Human Resources at 1-800-332-6347.