SHERIDAN – Evenings at the Sweeney house begin in much the same way as other Sheridan homes. Kids get out of school, parents shuffle kids to and from after-school activities and eventually, dinner is started. However, at the Sweeney home, when dinner is served, 12 people sit down to share food and tell about their day.
Mike and Stacy Sweeney are the parents to nine children and are currently serving as foster parents for an additional child.
The Sweeney’s grew up in Sheridan, but have lived elsewhere, most recently Williston, N.D., before moving back to Sheridan in June 2012. They have three biological children: Elli, Janika and Kael, triplets born 15 years ago.
The expansion of their family through adoption began in 2006 with the adoption of their daughter Layne, who they initially fostered. Just five days after completing certification to become foster parents, the Wyoming Department of Family Services notified the Sweeney’s that a three-week-old baby at Sheridan Memorial Hospital was in need of fostering.
“Our intention was not to adopt. But we fell in love with her and felt we would be the right family for her,” said Mike Sweeney, noting that they formally adopted Layne a year and a half later. Over the next couple years, as the children studied different countries in their home school curriculum, Stacy Sweeney said they became more drawn to and interested in Africa, specifically Ethiopia. Then, in 2009, they decided to pursue adoption of an Ethiopian boy named Gavin, through America World Adoption.
Although they did not know it at the time, during this initial trip to meet and adopt Gavin, they also laid the groundwork for adopting additional children.
“We went to an orphanage where we were just taking gifts,” explained Mike Sweeney. “A couple of our triplets and I met Micah but we didn’t know he was an orphan at the time. He presented himself so well I thought maybe he was a son of the people running the orphanage. A couple months later, Elli found his picture with three other siblings on the adoption agency’s website.”
He said the family began praying that the siblings would find a home together soon. However, the Sweeney children soon decided that the sought-after family should be their own.
“We keep praying for them to find a family, why can’t we be their family?’ That is what the triplets said to us,” he added. “That is pretty hard to argue against.
We felt God was putting that on their hearts.”
And so, just five months after beginning the adoption process, siblings Micah, Leah, Gabe and Hallie officially became part of the Sweeney family.
Though the children are catching up rapidly and participate in schooling year round, they initially faced difficulties due to their lack of English (they spoke native Amharic) and the very limited education they received in the orphanage. However, the children are now in various stages of their education and the family lives a fairly normal existence, with some accommodations made for logistics.
“We have to take two vehicles wherever we go,” said Mike Sweeney, about how the family scales up their activities to accommodate so many members. “Meal times take a bit more preparation and all the recipes are tripled. And even with a six-bedroom house, everyone has a roommate! Any activity that is going on, each person has a part. We don’t get invited to people’s homes for dinner very often! Not sure if people don’t like us or if they think, holy mackerel, 12 people!”
Every member of the family helps with household chores, including laundry and making dinner.
They also attend each other’s activities as a family, supporting one another in endeavors such as dance, soccer, music and track and field. In fact, everything flows smoothly most of the time and the children actually enjoy having multiple siblings in the home to share experiences with.
“You always have somebody to play with,” said Gavin Sweeney. “We are the same as other families, there’s just more people.”
“You always have somebody to be with,” added Elli Sweeney. “You always have someone who looks up to you. Because of our choice to adopt and our trips to Africa, I’m looking into working in Africa, in the mission field, someday.”
In addition to daily logistics issues, the Sweeney family has dealt with a larger, more important difficulty concerning the children’s birth certificates. According to the Sweeney’s, birth certificates for children in the developing world are often incorrect, based on guessing, or nonexistent. Therefore, children with birth certificates that appear to have incorrect information, are often seen by a pediatrician who does a physical examination and other tests to get a more accurate date of birth. The Sweeney’s said in their case, the estimated birth dates were off by as much as two years or more.
While a judge can authorize the change on the birth certificate, the Sweeney’s said the Homeland Security Department refused to recognize the change on citizenship papers, essentially rendering the children with two sets of official documents that did not match.
“With Homeland Security not recognizing that, the certificates of citizenship have the old dates on them,” explained Stacy Sweeney. “When you don’t have matching documents for your child, you can’t get a Social Security card, a driver’s license, passports and it becomes a huge issue when they are older, for voting, and figuring out when are you really done in the public school system. And it makes our kids look like they stole someone else’s identity because they have two sets of documents.”
To help rectify the situation, the Sweeney’s enlisted the help of Senator Mike Enzi to get a law passed to force Homeland Security to accommodate the changes. The bill has passed both chambers of Congress and is now awaiting President Obama’s signature.
Despite the hurdles and challenges, and occasional stares and questions when they are out together, the Sweeney’s say their experience has been nothing but positive.
“I think that is our role now is to encourage families who are interested in adopting,” said Stacy Sweeney. “There are other families like us in Sheridan. They have adopted and have a trans-racial family or are in the process. There is a grant that is available to local families to help with adoption expenses, which is kind of unheard of in a small town to have that assistance available.”
“We’ve been cautioned by almost everybody not to adopt,” added Mike Sweeney. “People have said this is a great thing you have done for these kids, but it is just the opposite. God has blessed us by having this big family.”