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'I will be there': Jacksonville woman, 6 adopted grandchildren celebrate first Christmas together

Mary Kinney, 50, adopted six of her grandchildren, ages 3 to 11, who were being neglected by their parents, she says.
Credit: Bob Self/Florida Times-Union
Mary Kinney with grandchildren has adopted six of her grandchildren who were being neglected by their parents.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla — Click here to read the Florida Times-Union story, see pictures and learn how to donate.

Her grandchild's question was simple and yet full of import.

"What's an adoption?"

Mary Kinney, 50, who raised four children of her own, was about to adopt six of her 11 grandchildren. Their parents struggled with substance abuse and domestic violence and the children had been abused and neglected. In 2017 state authorities removed seven children; one with special needs was with an aunt, the other six, ages 3 to 11, were with Kinney.

She had been involved in their lives since they were born, but now they were together all the time. And the step they were about to take, moving from foster care to adoption, was permanent. She worried about their emotional scars. 

For her response to the question, Kinney chose her words carefully.

"It’s when someone takes you in and loves on you for the rest of your life," she said. "You are still going to be my grandkids, but you are going to be all mine."

As Christmas neared, Kinney took some time to speak with The Times-Union about their story and the grace of the nonprofit Daniel agency.

Credit: Bob Self/Florida Times-Union
Mary Kinney with grandchildren has adopted six of her grandchildren who were being neglected by their parents.

Sweat equity and some support

Kinney works 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. at Sally B. Mathis Elementary School, first with autistic children and then in its after-school program through Communities In Schools Jacksonville. She’s worked for Duval County Public Schools for about 20 years and Communities In Schools for about 15.

"I love what I do," she said. "I give kids extra love that no one else will give them. I think that’s my calling — working with kids."

The four oldest of the grandchildren now in Kinney's care go to Sally B. Mathis with her and stay for the after-school program. The two youngest are homeschooled with her sister.

"I get up and ready and we all leave together and all come home together," she said. "My supervisor was very, very supportive when all of it happened. Thank God for my job, it would have been tough to get them to another school. That was a big blessing."

Kinney built a new life for herself and them because she had to.

"It was not a decision," she said. "When you know what needs to be done, there’s no thinking about it whatsoever. I was ready — I got their blankets and bedding and put them in my room and put myself on the sofa so they’d be comfortable.”

Daniel, a child-service agency funded by Family Support Services of North Florida, has had a team working with Kinney and the children: Tim Decker, director of case management; Nicole Trippett, a family service counselor; and Katie Malloy, an adoption specialist.

The case was extraordinary, but not only because of the number of children: Karron, 11; Tyree, 9; Jade, 7; King, 6; Amaliah, 5; and Jacob, 3. The Daniel team quickly discovered that Kinney, in addition to working full-time and caring for the children, was fixing up her house — on her own.

Daniel had pointed out a few needed repairs to ensure the children's safety. Kinney did not want to move: She raised her own children in that house, loved the neighborhood and had a low mortgage. So she, with help from her 85-year-old father and other relatives, began repairs herself.

"I’m either gonna break it or fix it," she said. "I had fix-it tools and fix-it books and went on YouTube."

Inspired, the Daniel team joined her work crew.

"In my time with Daniel, I have never seen a caregiver work so hard on their own to get kids in the home," said Decker, who has been at the Jacksonville nonprofit since 2001. "The lion’s share of physical work … was done by Grandma herself. She is a machine. I have so much respect and admiration for that fact. I had to go all in with support."

Decker did hands-on work and contributed construction materials he had been saving for his own home renovation. He, Daniel and Family Support Services could not afford to foot the estimated $10,000 bill for all the needed work and supplies. So Decker contacted construction-trade friends who donated materials and initiated a Facebook outreach to collect more materials and funds.

The project included renovating Kinney's beloved fireplace, complete with a mantel that now holds treasured family pictures. She had told Decker how she loved that fireplace.

"I didn’t do it in front of him, but I cried when he left," she said. "I could not wait to put my babies’ pictures on the fireplace. Daniel helped me in so many ways. They came in and made sure the kids were comfortable and had everything they needed. If I asked for it, they made sure I had it. Honest to God, Daniel is a blessing to anyone who comes in contact with them."

Decker was forever impressed with Kinney's determination.

"I knew the grandmother was the only person likely to take all those kids as a group," he said. "Those kids love their grandmother and that is the only place they wanted to be. She definitely loves them. She went through all heck fixing that house to get them."

Making it work

As work on the house proceeded, so did the children's adjustment to their changing family dynamics. Kinney allows them phone contact with their mother — her daughter — who she views through a clear but nonjudgmental lens.

"I knew she loved her kids, but when things became overwhelming, she lost focus," she said. "In the beginning when they talked to their mom, they would act up or act sad. … [So Kinney told them] 'She’ll be back another day, but right now, she had to go. It’s OK to be upset. It’s OK to be angry, but I’m here.'" 

In recent phone calls with their mother, the children show no evidence of anger or frustration. They tell her they love her.

Daniel caseworkers visited the children often and provided counseling. And Kinney has worked hard to build trust and understanding between herself and the children.

"When they came to live with me, that was a big change for them — knowing we would be together all day, every day," she said. "At that point we had to all re-learn each other. Some of them are going to take a while … But that’s why I’m here, to help them understand the change. As they get older, they are going to ask questions and I will be there to answer their questions and help them deal with the blow. It’s going to be OK."

On Aug. 7 the adoption was formalized in a Daniel conference room during a Zoom session with Circuit Court Judge David Gooding, who handles foster care, delinquents and adoption cases and retired a few months later. Decker got a bit teary.

"There is nothing I do or see in my job that makes me happier than [family] reunifications and adoptions," Decker said. "I still have to push back watering eyes at most everyone. In this case, I truly believe Grandma was the single-best chance these kids had."

In recent weeks, the new family began preparing for their first Christmas together, with Kinney hiding presents from the children's snooping eyes. She even pondered starting a fire in her renovated fireplace, even though her heating and air-conditioning system was upgraded before her grandchildren arrived.

"I’ve thought about cutting it off, just to have a fire for Christmas," she said.

Click here to read the Florida Times-Union story, see pictures and learn how to donate.

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