SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Since 2019, 132 children have aged out of South Dakota’s foster system without ever finding a forever family to adopt them.
Department of Social Services Cabinet Secretary Laurie Gill says while some of those youth were not legally available for adoption when they exited foster care, many of them can struggle to navigate life without the support of family.
“Being part of a family doesn’t stop with adulthood. Family provides a sense of belonging and security through all stages of life,” Secretary Gill said.
It’s why one South Dakota family went through a lengthy legal process to ensure one local teen was part of their family forever.
“I think I was born at almost 10 pounds, so I was a huge baby,” Sadie Schmieg said.
It’s a stage of Sadie that Blake and Rachel Schmieg didn’t get to experience in person.
“Oh that’s when I decided to cut my own hair,” Sadie said while looking through old photos.
“Well it could have been worse,” Rachel Schmieg said.
But the Schmiegs love learning more about the pieces of Sadie’s life they missed out on.
“We didn’t get to see your first steps or your smile, but we’re not going to miss a second of your life from this moment on,” Rachel Schmieg said.
It’s a feeling the Schmiegs felt strongly just a few months after meeting Sadie.
“Deciding to take in an 18-year-old girl when your oldest child is six or seven, I was like, I don’t know what to do with a teenager,” Rachel said.
The Schmeigs had signed up as foster parents, mainly working with younger kids, when they got a phone call that would forever change their family.
“The local police chief was trying to find a home for this girl that could not go back home. She went to school and asked for help and she could not go back home,” Rachel said.
It was a terrifying place for Sadie to be as she was finishing out her senior year of high school.
“I had applied to college and I was like, I don’t know if I can really go,” Sadie said. “That was very emotional for me.”
With no idea where to go next, Sadie was introduced to the Schmiegs.
“Initially when she came it was, she just needs somewhere until she can graduate high school,” Rachel said.
So in January, with just a few months left of the school year, Sadie moved in with the Schmeigs.
“It was actually a really great experience, my younger brother who is seven now, and his name is Jensen, he goes ‘Hi my name is Jenson James Schmieg’ and he was like ‘Nice to meet you,’ and I was like nice to meet you too. They just all crowded me and were like, you’re awesome, you’re amazing, and I was like, wow I feel so loved,” Sadie said.
A feeling that only grew over the next few months and even after graduation, when both Sadie and the Schmiegs started to question what was next.
“Where is she going to go once she leaves here, who has this girl, where’s her safety net?” Rachel said.
As those questions and conversations continued…
“I had had the talk with my mom, and I was like, I don’t really know what I’m going to do. I don’t know where to go, I don’t know who I’m going to stay with. These are all my cards and I don’t know what to do with them,” Sadie said.
…the Schmiegs shared an idea that had been on their hearts for weeks.
“We expressed our interest and our wiliness to adopt her if that was something that she wanted. And the reaction was overwhelming,” Blake Schmieg said.
“I was actually shocked. I was in awe that somebody who barely knew who I was and barely knew anything about me, wanted to be a part of my life and my upbringing,” Sadie said.
An upbringing that doesn’t stop just because a child turns 18.
“When you’re officially a parent through adoption, you take on all the responsibilities that a parent has. The expenses, the college stuff, the happy days and the sad days and the calls for help, the calls for joy,” Blake said.
It’s exactly what the Schmeigs set out to officially do for Sadie, going through the state’s adult adoption law, until they ran into a technicality.
“The law was written for an adult adoption to happen, before your 18th birthday you had to reside with the people who were going to adopt you for the period of six months,” Blake said.
But since Sadie was already 18 when she came to live with the Schmeigs, she didn’t qualify for adoption under South Dakota law.
“It was super empowering when my dad said, if this is our only roadblock, why don’t we just do something about it. I was like, that’s a fantastic idea. Let’s do something about it. Then we went on the process and went down the road of changing the law,” Sadie said.
In 2019, the Schmiegs worked with state lawmakers to change the law, allowing for more young adults to find a forever family through legal adoption.
“The law was re-written to allow that extend that age to 21, so if that happened any period before your 21st birthday, they would allow that to happen,” Blake said.
The law was overwhelmingly passed by the state legislature in March of 2019 and became official that July.
“The earliest available court date after the law was passed was when it happened,” Blake said.
Finally allowing Sadie to legally become a Schmeig.
“Everybody deserves to belong somewhere,” Rachel said.
Giving her a family and a place she can always call home.
“Having that peace and just the harmony of belonging to somebody and knowing that somebody wants you back,” Sadie said. “And at the end of the day, no matter what they’re going to love you, and that’s just the greatest feeling.”
It’s a feeling everyone deserves, but there are plenty of other teens across South Dakota who are in the same spot today, wondering what’s next and longing for somewhere to belong.
The Department of Social Services is looking for more adoptive families for older kids, sibling groups and kids with special medical or emotional needs. You can learn more about becoming an adoptive parent through the state’s foster care system.