Three children who have endured the horrors of abuse and neglect a continent away from Tempe have found fierce advocates and a loving home with Michael and Lacey Vega, members of First Baptist Church of Tempe.
Lacey, raised in poverty in South Carolina, said she moved across the country years ago to make an “entirely different life” for herself, keeping distance from troubled family members. She’s been endeavoring to gain custody of her cousin Samantha’s children for years.
A deaconess at First Baptist, Lacey said she grew up with Samantha.
Caught up in a lifestyle of drug abuse, Samantha’s children were taken from her by South Carolina and placed with an aunt — the same aunt who raised Samantha.
“I’ve always had a special place for Samantha in my heart,” Lacey said. “She was never really taught how to parent or how to do life. So every time she had a child, they wound up going to my aunt.”
The aunt, it turns out, was abusive and neglectful, Lacey said.
“Over the years, Samantha, their mom, would call me and tell me when things would happen,” Lacey said. “It would just eat at us, but there was no way we could get them until it got just really out of control.”
As the children got older, they began to speak of the trauma they were living with their aunt.
“When all of that happened, it was like Child Protective Services finally listened to us and we were able to get them,” Lacey said.
The three children came cross-country to live with the Vegas last year in the midst of the pandemic, joining a rather cramped household.
The Vegas are the parents of four biological children: Ethan, 14; Jasmine, 9; Ezzy, 7; and Nathaniel, 3. Also living in the smallish house was Lacey’s mother.
“We had 10 people in 1,900 square feet and we couldn’t go anywhere. It was bad,” Lacey said.
Last July, the family moved to a significantly larger home where all seven children have room to grow.
The Vegas have hired an attorney to plead their cause and allow 12-year-old Alex, 10-year-old Mari and 7-year-old Josh to join the family officially through adoption.
“Samantha and I worked together to get them out here and that’s how it really all happened so quickly. I told her I would do it because I love them,” Lacey said.
Whenever she visited South Carolina, Lacey made it a point to check in on the children.
“They were the ones I would go see because I knew their situation was bad,” Lacey said.
About five years ago, Lacey and Michael tried to persuade the aunt to give up custody of the children.
She refused. Lacey said food stamps and other benefits the state provided for the children’s care were the aunt’s incentive to keep them.
“It was money that kept them with her. It was very sad. She wouldn’t let us have them,” Lacey said.
Today, the children are running and playing with their newfound family here. They’ve been receiving counseling and are making progress.
“It’s working out great. They all have their little friendships already built,” Lacey said.
Ethan and his cousin Alex are high-functioning autistic.
“They get along like two peas in a pod,” Lacey said.
Mariana and Ezzy also get along well, she said.
“They’re both girlie-girlie, so they play with dolls and have a lot of common interests.”
Jasmine is a tomboy and Lacey said she and Josh like to ride bikes and play sports.
Then there’s the youngest of the family.
“Everybody loves Nathaniel because he’s the baby and he’s just fun to be around,” Lacey said.
Michael, Lacey’s husband, said he never dreamed he would one day be the father of seven children.
“I don’t think either of us did,” Michael said. “But we found ourselves seeing a lot of suffering and although we don’t feel we have much special to offer, it seems like it’s better than the alternative. We’re just the kind of people that are happy to share.”
Roger Ball, pastor of First Baptist Church of Tempe, sees the situation a little differently.
“Michael and Lacey as parents lead the way as great examples of compassion for the weak and the responsibility of the stronger,” Ball said. “To adopt three children takes much dedication with mercy.
“They not only love well by helping the weak but they teach their children to help carry the burdens of family life. Helping one another and caring for each other’s burdens are foundational life skills.”
According to Arizona’s Department of Children’s Services, there were nearly 14,000 children in Arizona’s foster-care system through December 2020.
Roughly 47 percent of them were being cared for by what’s known as kinship families. These are extended family members, such as grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, who agree to foster children after they have been removed by the state from their parents’ home.
Teresa Doud, who works with Catholic Charities Joining Hearts’ adoption program, explains what happens when a child is removed from a parent’s custody.
“Once these children go into DCS care, I know their first goal is to keep the children within the biological family setting if possible,” Doud said.
DCS staff will reach out to extended family to see if there is an interest in taking care of the children.
“If they can’t find a relative, they go into just a regular foster-care home,” Doud said
Until parental rights are severed, the state aims to reunify parents and children.
“Whenever a child goes into care, the number one goal of DCS is always reunification,” Doud said. “So it always starts with them trying to work with the birth parent on doing whatever they need to do.”
Whether that entails drug rehab or parenting classes, social workers create a plan for the parents to follow.
“They have to be able to work the plan and prove that they’re making progress and that the children will be safe in their home again,” Doud said.
For parents trapped in drug addiction, like Lacey’s cousin Samantha, it’s a daunting task.
“Addiction is a really ugly creature and it’s hard for these people to turn their lives around,” Doud
said. “They might have to go to rehab four or five times before they finally are able and DCS doesn’t give them five years to figure it out.”
When it becomes clear that a parent is not going to follow the plan, the state then moves to sever rights.
In the Vega family’s case, they are asking the court to sever Samantha’s rights.
“We can’t even find her so that’s going to be really simple,” Lacey said.
The children have three different biological fathers, and the Vegas are seeking to terminate their rights as well. Attorneys filed those petitions in recent weeks.
Since the Vegas are not an official foster family but constitute instead what is known as kinship, they do not qualify for any help from the state in paying the steep legal costs of adoption. The family turned to their church community and neighbors for help.
First Baptist Church of Tempe held a large yard sale that netted $4,300 toward the Vegas’ fundraising goal. Originally they were shooting for $10,000, but in a counseling session, Ball told them it was too low.
“He said, ‘your goal needs to be $20,000 and we’ll help you raise it.’ So we came up with this yard sale idea and it was awesome. It was also the hardest job I’ve ever done in my life,” Lacey said.
Raising seven children probably qualifies for that distinction, too.
The Vegas make it a priority to eat dinner together every night. They say they grew especially close during the COVID-19 shutdown.
“We talk about anything they want to talk about, anything and everything about life. We’re very open with our kids and we’ve advised them that they will
be going to college, the military or trade schools. It will be one of those things and there are no other options,” Lacey said.
“We just try to do good,” Michael said. “We don’t have a lot of means, but we try to do the best we can with what we have. This was something we could definitely help out with. It was within our means and there was a great need.”
“Our community needs more examples of sacrifice like the Vegas. Love, responsibility and sacrifice are needed in every family,” Ball said.
To donate to the Vegas GoFundMe account: gofund.me/538d943a.