The Azachi family, left to right: Kobe, Jake, Hannah, Shai, Danielle, Karla. Photo by Michael Ventura
Karla Azachi still looks for the petite woman with shoulder-length red hair who used to panhandle near Azachi’s home in Potomac. It’s been a few years since she’s seen her, but whenever Karla drives past a certain corner on Seven Locks Road, or the underpass on Route 355 where the woman used to camp out, Karla checks to see if she’s standing there. She’s thought about what she’d say if she saw her—probably “thank you for the gift,” she says—but mostly she just wants to know that the woman is OK.
They have a complicated history. Six years ago, the woman, Ashley (her name has been changed), and her boyfriend dropped off their 7-week-old baby girl at a county building in Rockville because they couldn’t take care of her. Later that day, Karla got a call from someone in the Child Welfare Services Program asking if she and her husband, Jake, could foster the infant until the baby’s parents, who both had a history of substance abuse, got back on their feet.
“Yes,” Karla said. “Bring her over.”
A social worker pulled up to their house in December 2010 with a 6-pound baby who smelled like a cigarette, was covered in insect bites, and had on nothing but a Gerber undershirt onesie and cotton pants that didn’t fit. Karla scooped the newborn out of the car seat and tucked her under her coat to keep her warm while they walked inside. After Jake ran to the store for formula and diapers, she and her 7-year-old twin daughters gave the infant a bath, dressed her in cozy pink fleece pajamas, fed her a bottle and laid her down to sleep. They kept checking on her, expecting her to cry, but she never did.
The baby, Olivia (not her real name), was the sixth child they’d cared for as foster parents that year. They were only supposed to have her for a few weeks—just until Christmas Eve, they were told—but Ashley wasn’t getting the help she needed or doing what she told the judge she’d do, so weeks turned into months. At first, Ashley made an effort to see her daughter—Karla saw her running from a bus stop in the rain to make it to one supervised visit—but that faded over time. Karla would be driving home with Ashley’s baby in the back seat and see the woman on the street begging for money. In a hearing about the baby’s future, Ashley lashed out at Karla and Jake from across the courtroom. There’s no way she’s getting her child back, Karla would think.
As hard as it was for Karla to understand a mother not wanting to see her daughter, she started to wonder if it might be better for Olivia. She and Jake wanted another baby—they’d tried to have more kids of their own—and even though they knew that most children in Montgomery County’s foster care system end up going home or getting placed with a relative, they hoped to adopt her someday. The twins already thought of her as a little sister and fought over who got to hold her. Jake and the girls would sing her lullabies in Hebrew.
One morning in 2011, Karla opened Olivia’s bedroom door to find her standing in her crib, something she’d just started doing. “Ma-ma,” she said. It was the first time Karla had heard her say that word—and it was a court day, when a judge would decide if her case might turn into an adoption. Karla thought that had to mean something.
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Karla Azachi adopted her son, Kobe, this past March and her daughter Shai in 2012. Both children came into her home as newborns through the foster care system. Shai, whose biological mother used to panhandle in Potomac, started kindergarten in August. “Her story could’ve been so different,” Karla posted on Facebook that night. Photo by Michael Ventura
The Azachis went to their first meeting about foster care eight years ago, and Karla still can’t talk about it without crying. They’d been planning to adopt from Ethiopia—Jake was struck by the high number of children living in orphanages there—but had put that idea on hold because they couldn’t afford $25,000 in adoption fees while also making a down payment on a house. Jake called his wife from work one day in 2008 and said he’d spoken to a colleague who had adopted from the foster care system, and that maybe they should help kids closer to home.
“I need to think about it,” she said. Karla’s father, Herman Rosenfeld, lost his parents during the Holocaust and nearly ended up in foster care; an uncle found him in New York and took him in. One of her aunts lived in a foster home in England, and a cousin had adopted two girls from the child welfare system. But Karla had never considered becoming a foster parent herself.
“OK, you have until 7 tonight,” Jake told her. “There’s a meeting I want us to go to.”
A few hours later, Karla found herself in a room full of prospective foster parents, where a recruiter from child welfare services—part of the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services—was explaining what happens when children are removed from their homes. She said it usually happens after a relative, neighbor or school counselor calls to report suspected abuse or neglect. Karla raised her hand. “Do they get to bring their favorite blanket?” she asked.
Her own daughters, Hannah and Danielle, were still attached to the blankets they’d had since they were born. “No,” she remembers the social worker saying. “They don’t get to bring anything.”
“I literally had to get up and leave the room,” Karla says.
At the time, Karla was doing marketing and events for a startup in Bethesda, and Jake had a contracting job. They had twins in kindergarten and had just bought a modest five-bedroom home in the Winston Churchill High School cluster. She didn’t know anything about the county’s child welfare system. She didn’t understand the sense of urgency, the way children often have to be taken from their parents so quickly that there’s no time for a social worker to grab clothes or stuffed animals. Some kids have been caring for themselves for days or even weeks because their parents are intoxicated or suffering from mental illness.
“I lived a very sheltered life,” says Karla, who was raised in Potomac and graduated from Thomas S. Wootton High School. Growing up, she saw her parents helping families at their synagogue who’d been struck by tragedy, and her mother, Irene, led a Girl Scout troop for children with special needs. But Karla had a nice home with a housekeeper and a father who spoiled her. “I didn’t know that on the other side of the fence things were happening to kids.”
Kobe, now 2, adores his big sister Shai and tries to do everything she does. She’s the first person he looks for when he walks into a room. Photos by Lisa Helfert
Her eyes are wide open now, she says. Over the past seven years, she and Jake have fostered 11 children and adopted two of them—Olivia, whose name they changed to Shai, which means “gift” in Hebrew, and a baby boy they named Kobe. They’ve cared for an infant whose drug-addicted mother was filling his baby bottles with soda. One time, they had to ask social workers to come pick up a 6-year-old boy who was kissing their daughters on the neck. Karla’s had to gently pull a hysterical 2-year-old from her father’s arms after a court-ordered visit because the toddler wouldn’t let go. One little boy walked into the Azachis’ house and immediately started calling Karla mom. “You don’t have to do that,” she told him.
“I want to,” he said.
Being a foster parent is hard, Karla says. Her twins, now 13, are obsessed with babies—they argue over whose turn it is to run in and get Kobe from day care and walk him to the car—and they’re so proud of what their parents do that they’ve written about it for school assignments. But they’ve had to grow up fast. “Two children have stayed with us, but we’ve had a bunch that have gone,” says Jake, 45, who now manages an information technology team at a nonprofit. “Every time they take that child away, it just rips you apart.”
They’d had Shai (pronounced shy) for more than a year when they found out a distant relative might try to adopt her. “You live in fear, you really do. Every day,” says Karla, who recently became president of the Montgomery County Foster Parent Association. “You’re always trying to get the social workers to give you more information.”
At times they’ve thought about quitting, she says, but there are too many children in Montgomery County who need somebody to advocate for them. The Azachis’ lives are hectic—she has a part-time job selling life insurance and works as an event planner on the side, and Jake rarely gets home from the office before Shai and Kobe are asleep; the twins help their mom with dinner and bedtime. But even now, at 51 with four kids, including a toddler she’ll be potty-training soon, Karla isn’t sure she’s ready to stop being a foster parent. Neither is Jake.
Shai, at the pool with Danielle, likes to say that she and her older sisters-—identical twins—are triplets. Photos by Lisa Helfert
People always ask me, ‘Where did you adopt them from?’ ” she says. “I’ll say Gaithersburg, Wheaton. These kids were born in the hospitals where your children were born—and they didn’t have a safe place to go home to.” The first night she had Shai, who had been sleeping on a floor with her mother and was so used to soothing herself that she didn’t make a sound, Karla watched as the newborn melted into her crib, as if she realized she was finally going to be OK. Kobe’s biological mother had a drug problem and didn’t remember giving birth to him, Karla says. Now he’s a happy 2-year-old who’s starting to understand Hebrew and loves pizza, trains and his book about trucks. When things get tough, she reminds herself: You’re doing this to save a child.
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