When Jessica Benzakein was 12 years old, she became a ward of the state.
“My caseworker, his name was Ron, sat me and down and said, ‘Your mother has terminated her parental rights. What’s your plan B?’” Benzakein, now 46, told TODAY Parents.
Benzakein returned Ron’s question with a blank stare. She had no idea what he was talking about. Plan B? She didn't even have a plan A.
But before Benzakein could muster a response, Ron gave it to her straight.
“He said, ‘If adoption is your plan A, you are too old,’” Benzakein recalled. “And he wasn’t saying it to be mean. I got it. His point was, if your plan A is to be adopted, you don’t fit what people are looking for. By 12, they figure you are deeply damaged and horribly troubled and there’s no reversing it. Between the ages of 2 and 5, your chances of adoption drop substantially.”
Benzakein would remain in foster care until she turned 18 and left for college. She remembers spending Christmas on campus by herself.
“You’re expected to leave, but I didn’t have anywhere to go,” Benzakein revealed. “So, I paid to stay in a room the size of a guest closet.”
Benzakein will never have another lonely Christmas.
On Friday, the Milwaukee mom, who shares biological children Eli, 14, and Brenna, 9, with her ex-husband, added six boys to her family after years of fostering children in her home.
Will, 18, Carter, 14, Sidney, 13, and Markell “Buddy,” 8, are related by blood, as are Kendrich, 6, and Terrell “T.J.,” 4.
Benzakein initially got into foster care in order to help older sibling sets. It's something that Benzakein, who was separated from her own brother, understands all too well.
“In Wisconsin alone, we have over 7,000 foster kids,” Benzakein said. “The number of sibling sets is crazy high, and they’re often broken up.”
Benzakein's newly adopted sons are grateful to be together, but she is even more grateful for them.
“Everybody tells me how lucky these kids are and what a good thing I did,” Benzakein told TODAY Parents. “But ... I’m going to cry ... they grounded me. I went through my 20s thinking I didn’t really need a family. But I did. They give me purpose.”
Benzakein now lives in the kind of home she dreamed of as a child when she was bouncing from placement to placement. There’s a basketball hoop in the living room and they have frequent dance parties. Every Friday night, they do Papa John’s Pizza and a movie.
“We have fun here. It’s total chaos in a good way,” she said. “They have a safe place where they can screw up and make mistakes and laugh and joke and poke fun of each other.”
Benzakein says nothing has changed since Judge Mark Sanders signed the adoption papers on Friday. Kendrich and T.J. have been with her since 2015, and the others joined soon after.
“We’ve been living like a family for a long time,” Benzakein said. “But now, no one can tell us we’re not.”