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Image: Jillian and Sandra Titus
Courtesy of Titus family  /  Courtesy of Titus family
Jillian Titus, 29, poses with her new mom, Sandra, 49. Sandra and her husband, Ross, legally adopted Jillian last November.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 6/8/2011 8:26:25 AM ET 2011-06-08T12:26:25

Sandra Titus mists up with a mere glance at her adopted daughter’s baby photos.

After the adoption went through last November, Sandra and her husband, Ross, reveled in their new family’s first Christmas together. One of their first gifts to their daughter Jillian: a sterling silver baby cup engraved with her new initials.

“To me, the cup means: ‘We’ll always make sure you’re taken care of,’ and no one can touch the fact that we’re family, that it’s unbreakable, irreversible. It’s priceless,” Jillian says.

Impressive words from the “baby” of the family. But then, Jillian Titus is 29, and an executive at Nintendo in Redmond, Wash. Her new parents — Sandra, 49, and Ross, 46 — also work at the video game company. The trio met at the office in 2008 and, initially, bonded over their Boston terriers. They later asked a judge to approve their homemade family for two reasons: love and money.

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Adult adoptions appear to be rising in America, according to Chuck Johnson, president and CEO of the National Council For Adoption. The advocacy group is the only organization that tallies the number of domestic adoptions taking place in the U.S., said Johnson, though it does not specifically track adult adoptions. Statistics are difficult to compile, experts say, because many states still mandate that adoption court records are sealed and confidential.

“But anecdotally, it does seem to be occurring more frequently,” Johnson said. The most common scenario he sees: former foster children — now adults — who are being adopted by their long-time foster parents. In rare cases, adoption experts say, adults who have lost or are estranged from their biological parents befriend older people who begin to feel like mothers and fathers — and they ultimately seek to legalize that emotional attachment.

“No matter how old you are,” Johnson said, “you never lose the desire for a family.”

Adoption can help provide a feeling of stability, says Deb Castaldo, an adoption therapist in Englewood, N.J., and a faculty member at the Rutgers University School of Social Work.

“Why would someone want to do this as an adult? Many reasons. First, wanting to remove the stigma of not having a family, of not having a feeling of permanence,” she said. “You can imagine what it’s like for someone who has no sense of belonging.”

In addition to grown foster children yearning to legalize an emotional link long felt with their foster parents — or grown stepchildren with their stepparents — same-sex couples who can’t legally marry are also using adult adoptions to ensure that when one partner dies, his or her split of family money goes to the other partner. Also, in rare instances, orphaned adults who are physically or mentally incapacitated are adopted by caretakers who then become authorized to make medical or financial decisions.

But in an age when the explosive question: “What defines a family?” can divide even, well, families, the most unique adoptions are those that legally unite adults who have never shared a home, much less the pages of a family photo album.

People like Sandra, Ross and Jillian Titus.

Each of Jillian’s biological parents — who divorced shortly after her birth in Cheyenne, Wyo. — are alive, although Jillian is estranged from her “ex-mom” and “ex-dad,” as she calls them.

Until she grew close to Sandra and Ross Titus, Jillian rarely told anyone about the dark corners of her upbringing. They include, she said, a father who once fired a gun at her while he was drunk and a mother who routinely abused cocaine and who chased so many men around the country that Jillian attended 13 different schools.

When Jillian was 16, police raided her Seattle home and arrested her mom for drug possession.  With her mom in prison, Jillian slept on friends’ couches and floors as she finished high school. At 17, she enlisted in the U.S. Army, spending eight years in the reserves to help pay for her college education.

'Why don't you just hurry up and adopt me?'
Three years ago, Jillian took a job as a buyer at Nintendo. She worked with Ross, who schedules packaging and shipping. And she spent employee-orientation time with Sandra, a human resources manager. Ross and Sandra have no biological kids, only grown stepchildren from previous marriages. A fast friendship soon developed.

“From day one, I was so drawn to Jillian. I noticed her laugh. I thought, ‘Look at that cute little monkey,’” Sandra said. “Not having any kids, it didn’t occur to me that it might be maternal stuff I was feeling.”

Image: Ross, Sandra and Jillian Titus
Courtesy of the Titus family
Ross, Sandra and Jillian Titus pose with King County (Wash.) Superior Court Judge Eric Watness on Nov. 18, 2010 - the day Jillian, 29, was legally adopted by the couple.

Each new man in Jillian’s life had to pass muster during evenings spent at Ross and Sandra’s home in Redmond. In jest, Jillian later began calling the older woman, “Mama.” As their mutual trust and affinity deepened, Jillian once quipped: “Oh, why don’t you just hurry up and adopt me!”

That got Sandra thinking — she Googled “adult adoptions” and learned they are legal in Washington.

Most states allow adult adoptions, according to the National Council For Adoption, though several restrict the process. In Alabama, only totally and permanently disabled adults can be adopted; in Illinois, adults may be adopted if they have resided in the petitioner’s home for two consecutive years in a parent-child relationship, according to Adopting.org.

“Did you know,” Sandra asked Ross last year, “you can adopt a grownup?”

“Jillian?” he responded.

“That’s what I’m thinking.”

“Well, I’d be up for that,” he said.

Last summer, Sandra gingerly suggested the adoption to Jillian, opening with “At the risk of scaring you to death, we’re not joking. We want to adopt you.”

“Well,” Jillian answered with a smile, “what do we do? Seal it with a hug?”

They hugged. But they also hired Dave Andersen, a Seattle attorney who handles about three adult adoptions per year. The process took three months, and they became a legal family on November 18, 2010.

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Few restrictions
Despite the nuanced restrictions some states have enacted for adult adoptions, the legal language in many states seems to simply boil down to this: “Adults may be adopted with consent of the person to be adopted,” according to Adopting.org. For example, Washington — like many states — does not mandate that any sort of age gap exist between the adoptive parents and their new, adult child, Andersen said. What’s more, consent of the birth parents is rarely required.

“A lot of times, the statutes are one-size-fits-all,” Andersen said. “All that’s required, in general, is that the adoptive person be over 18. And from there on, it’s really at the discretion of the court.”

In fact, adult adoptions aren’t laced with the vast amount of formal, long-term scrutiny that precedes and accompanies child adoptions, Andersen said.

“For under-18 adoptions, (would-be) parents have to jump through a lot of hoops: FBI fingerprint checks, abuse and neglect (legal) checks, medical and financial statement (reviews), and then the social worker goes out to your house” to assess the situation, Andersen said. For adult adoptions, “you don’t have any social background checks, no home studies or pre-placement reports.”

But, as is typical with child adoptions, a new birth certificate was issued for Jillian, listing her original birth county but changing the names of her mother and father. She also legally took Ross and Sandra’s last name. The decree of adoption officially made Ross and Sandra the parents of Jillian, her new next-of-kin.

The Tituses are comforted, they said, by the legal permanence of the adult adoption. While some state laws on the process may differ slightly, this uncommon form of family tie can, hypothetically, only be un-done in Washington if the adopted person later repeats the process with another adult or with another couple, Andersen said. Conversely, if adoptive parents later seek to bar a new son or daughter from inheriting their money, they can simply write that adopted person out of the will.

Adoption can trigger complex emotions
Neither Sandra and Ross — nor Jillian — harbor any plans to ever dismantle their new family. But in some cases, adult adoptions may contain hidden, emotional landmines, said Castaldo, the New Jersey adoption therapist.

“The actual finalization of adoption in adulthood can symbolize a myriad of complex, mixed emotions,” Castaldo said. “Even when the adoption has been greatly desired by all parties, becoming an ‘instant family’ can be unexpectedly emotionally wrenching.

“Similar to divorce, (it) can awaken deep sadness of all the losses that have led to this moment. Since there is often no formal grieving process, those feelings can resurface at significant moments in the adoptee's life when it is least expected."

For Jillian, there were early concerns, she acknowledged, about how her birth mother would respond. Although her birth mother is aware of the adoption, she has not communicated with her daughter about it. “I did talk to my (maternal) grandmother early on and she reminded me that my birth mom always prioritized her feelings over mine, always made everything in our interactions about how she felt.”

Her grandmother urged her to go through with the adoption.

“I now know what it feels like,” Jillian added, “to have a real mom and dad who love you and prioritize you. I’m starting to feel that stability and trust you get from having a family.”

While Jillian has maintained her own residence — in Seattle, about 15 miles from her new parents — Sandra also admitted wrestling with a new feeling after the adoption: motherly anxiety.

“I about died when Jillian went to Paris by herself in April. Just this year, she's vacationed in Paris, Miami, Las Vegas, and San Francisco, and I go into mother hen mode each time,” Sandra said. “Thank God, she sends texts day and night to let us know she's OK and having fun … I think we have an appreciation for one another that many ‘original’ families don't ever experience."

Not long ago, Sandra got her first glimpse of Jillian’s baby pictures: a days-old infant dressed in a pink outfit, wrapped in a pink- crocheted blanket.

“If I just think about those baby pictures, it chokes me up,” Sandra said. “I can’t believe she’s mine.”

Bill Briggs is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com and author of the new nonfiction book, “The Third Miracle.”

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