Denise Royal was single and looking for the right person to start a traditional kind of family, when she saw a Wednesday’s Child segment in 2001.
She watched the teenager featured, and thought, ‘I have an extra room. She could live here.’ When Denise called for more information, she received a package including materials from You Gotta Believe, the only adoption agency focusing on older children. Denise called You Gotta Believe to find out more about the girl on television. She learned that the girl had been placed, and was encouraged her to consider other teens. The agency sent 14 profiles of children waiting for parents – Christina was #3. That’s how Denise found Christina, “a random kid in the City’s Blue Book.”
Christina was 14 when she met Denise, and barely weighed 90 pounds. At their first meeting Christina was very shy and heavily medicated. Her social worker did all of the talking. At the end of their meeting the worker said to Christina, “Is there anything you want to ask Denise?” and Christina blurted out, “Are you good?”
It took years for Denise to understand what that question really meant. Christina had come into care at the age of 2, and by 14 she had moved 6 times and endured a great deal of trauma. When her current foster home was going to close, Christina needed a permanent place to belong and Denise expressed interest in adopting her. The social worker asked Christina what she thought and she responded, “I’ve never had a white lady before, I guess I’ll give it a try.” Christina moved in with Denise in July 2004.
From the start, Denise facilitated visits between Christina and her sister, Crystal, 12 who was living in a group home. Crystal had a big personality. She was loud and liked to draw attention to any situation she was involved in. As time went on, Crystal was around for every Christmas, holiday, and random weekend. She was becoming part of the Royal Family, though dynamics between the sisters were sometimes volatile, which made Denise hesitate on going further with permanent plans.
When Christina turned 18 she ran away during an argument with Denise and came back a week later announcing she was pregnant. Denise asked Christina to come home where they could handle the situation together, and they welcomed Baby Savannah on 18 January 2009. Christina suffered from post partum depression and was not able to care for Savannah very well. She was eventually hospitalized for an extended stay and Denise assumed responsibility for Savannah.
After Christine moved out, Crystal continued to visit Savannah and Denise. One day on a visit she asked Denise, “Why can’t you to be my mother? You are already my family.” She looked at Christina’s old bed and claimed it, “I want this bed.” Denise had been advocating for Crystal for years and knew the plan was to discharge from foster care and put her in an adult OMR/DD facility now that she was 19.
“When a child asks you to be her mother, there is no higher honor.” With the adult placement looming, Denise fought to adopt Crystal and bring her home. She is now living with the Royals 10 days a month as a transitional plan, with the intention of living there full time by the end of the year, when she can start a new vocational program and take a dance class like she has “always wanted”.
With the Royal Family growing, Denise needed a bigger place and moved the children from 15th street to 153rd Street in the Sugar Hill section of Harlem. Denise needed help with the move and called another adoptive mom to see if any of her sons wanted to earn some money moving boxes. One son showed up, saw how much there was to do, and he called his ‘brother from the group home’ Elijah, who had recently aged out of care. Elijah had been discharged from foster care with a job, apartment and a car. Within months he lost his job, then the apartment and finally the car. Now at 21 years old, Elijah was couch surfing with only a few garbage bags of belongings stashed at the home of a distant relative.
Elijah and Denise clicked right away. Over the next two weeks, she kept calling him to help with the unpacking and learned more about his situation. It was Crystal who first said, “I like him. If he wants to stay in my bed when I’m not here, he can.” Elijah was very reliable and showed up every day, and then all of a sudden one day he disappeared. Denise was worried and did everything she could to find him. A few days later, he resurfaced after being taken in by the police and released without charges – he had done nothing wrong. When she heard the story, Denise was furious, “If anything ever happens to you again- You tell the police that you need to call your mother – or whatever you want to call me Denise, Auntie, Mom – but you’re going to have to call me.”
It was not long before she told him, “We have room for you here and you are welcome, if you can stand all of us girls.” No one had ever claimed Elijah before. He moved in within a month. Denise took Elijah clothes shopping, bought him furniture, and got his closet set up. To build his skills, she helped him enroll in a Culinary Arts Course at Kingsborough County College and study for his driver’s license. But of all these new activities, Eljiah’s favorite thing to do is hang out at home with his family.
In Denise’s words, “If you want to know about my family, it’s a unique collection of one-of-a-kind individuals sewn together with love. You can’t ask for more than love. At times there were challenges to my vision of our ‘perfect’ family. Sometimes it felt like the complete opposite of that, but it’s just about hanging in there with them. They really are fantastic kids, they just have to shake a lot of stuff off. And I can give them a chance to do that. This family is the answer to my prayers.”