By: Robin Ford Wallace Reporter
Talking to Tony Moreland is like watching an old Capra Christmas movie. It’s inspiring and refreshing and you will seriously need a hanky. No one gets through this one without a certain amount of eye-wiping and nose-blowing.
“I’ve been a police officer my whole life,” said Moreland, 52. “I’m a rational human being. It’s hard to go around and tell people you’ve been touched by God.”
But that is precisely what he is going around doing. As Moreland and his wife, Dori, prepare to move into a sprawling building they bought out of foreclosure – and, coincidentally, to bring home a new foster baby that will boost them to a total of six resident children – he is going from church to church to talk about their experiences as adoptive and foster parents and, with any luck, to convince others to join them. As Christmas approaches, says Moreland, 21 Dade children need at least a temporary home.
“I think that Dade County is full of kind, caring Christian people, and I have to believe it’s just because they don’t know the scope of the problem,” said Moreland. “I think if they know there’s such a need, people will respond.”
Indeed, fostering foster parents will be one of the main objectives of “Savannah’s Canopy,” the name the Morelands have given to their new home and to the enterprise it will house. The couple’s move into the old Clara’s Assisted Living facility, behind Woodhaven on Highway 136 East, signifies their admission they have become something more than just a biggish family; and giving that something a name – under which they have begun proceedings to incorporate as a nonprofit – formalizes it as a mission.
But Moreland says he and Dori acknowledged the mission a long time ago, probably around baby No. 4. “Basically, we just finally surrendered,” he said.
Moreland wants this to be a story about the mission, not a story about the Morelands; but the Sentinel’s the one pressing the keys here and can’t figure out to tell one without the other. So let’s back up and start with baby No. 1:
“Nine years ago, my daughter was grown and my son was in his late teens, and my wife and I were basically looking forward to retirement,” said Moreland.
Dori, who had stayed home with that daughter and son when they were small, had returned to work as a registered nurse. Moreland, a Dade native, was a career cop who had moved back home a couple of years prior to 1996, when he ran for sheriff against incumbent Philip Street.
Moreland lost that election by 300-odd votes and found himself casting around for Plan B. What he happened on was a brand-new police-related opportunity: Georgia had just changed the law to outsource probation supervision for misdemeanor offenders. Thus was born Probation Services, a private corporation housed in Dade but which supervises parolee compliance for the justice systems of some 22 counties. Moreland is chief executive officer.
It was through the probation business that the Morelands met baby No. 1: She was five weeks old and her mother was a probationer with nowhere to leave her while she went to work one day. Dori happened to be in the office. “I’ll take her,” she said.
Moreland disapproved – emphatically. “I pretty much told her this was insane,” he said. Dori would get attached to the child, he warned her, then something awful would happen and her heart would be broken. “My wife was giving this baby a bath, and I got on her so hard about it that she started to cry,” he said.
Dori said OK, he won, she’d never do it again. Meanwhile, could he please hold the baby a minute while she got a towel?
So there Moreland was, a 40-something cop who had just made his wife cry, holding a wet little baby with nowhere on earth to go, and – well, that’s when whatever happened to him happened. “It was the most profound thing that had ever happened to me,” he said. “I have never been floored by anything like that in my life. I fell in love with that child, and she’s still with us to this day.”
From that baby, whom the Morelands were ultimately able to adopt outright, comes the mission’s name. Though she goes by her middle name, Jade, Baby No.1’s first name is Savannah. A savanna, the Morelands learned, is an ecosystem where an open canopy of trees provides protection to underlying plants but admits sufficient light to nurture them. They found that significant as it emerged how prominently protecting and nurturing figured in their future.
Their nurturing of that first baby began as an informal arrangement with her birth mother, but eventually such was her situation that DFACS, the Division of Family and Children Services – which was also to figure prominently in the Morelands’ future – took legal charge of her. So when Baby No. 1 officially entered the foster care system, the Morelands became official foster parents in order to continue caring for her.
It is sometimes inadvisable to tell, or at least to print, a foster or adoptive child’s whole life story, says Moreland; suffice it to say that when, shortly after baby No. 1, he and Dori were offered the opportunity to adopt No. 2, a toddler boy, they didn’t hesitate. Then, perhaps a year later, came No. 3, a newborn boy whom the Morelands also found good and sufficient reason to welcome, and whose legal guardians they have since become.
“A couple of years rocked on, then about a year ago, DFACS called and said, ‘Would you consider taking another child?’” recalled Moreland. He called Dori and they discussed it, then he called DFACS back and asked when. The answer was: “Would 1 o’clock be all right?”
It was a bit abrupt, but the Morelands had already begun feeling that maybe taking care of these babies that came into their path was their purpose and reason. Moreland, a deacon in his church, in fact wondered if he hadn’t previously been missing the whole point of Christianity. “It wasn’t for deacons wearing suits and ties on the front row of the church,” he said.
Rather, he likes to cite the Bible verse about Jesus thanking the faithful for feeding him when he was hungry, clothing him when he was naked and visiting him when he was in prison. The faithful said, when had they ever done that? “He said, when you did it to the least of us, you did it to me,” said Moreland. “That’s what it’s supposed to be about.”
Infants have a pretty good physical claim to be the least of us. In any case, the Morelands could resist neither baby No. 4 nor, shortly thereafter, baby No. 5, both of whom they expect to adopt legally by spring 2013. And this week, they take foster care of a premature baby who, born at 1.323 pounds, may well be the least of all.
That’s where the Morelands are now. They are determined to continue taking in babies that need them – that’s why they bought the larger building and that’s what the first prong of the Canopy’s mission will be – but they’re not planning to become an institution, precisely.
“We want to do more, but we don’t want to get so big that we can’t be mama and daddy to them,” said Moreland. “We don’t want to be so big that we’re just warehousing children. That’s why the other part of our focus is recruiting other people to be foster parents. If we’re really successful, we may never get another child.”
A third goal, he added, is helping birth parents retain or regain their children, keeping families intact, which Moreland says is DFACS’ primary aim. “There’s some birth parents that could make it if they had some support,” he said.
The typical case, he said, is a single mother with no husband or family to help her care for her infant. “She may have good intentions but she just physically can’t do it,” said Moreland.
But to return to the second part of the mission, and the reason Moreland is speaking to church audiences, not to mention the Sentinel: Savannah’s Canopy could use a little help. “We need foster parents badly,” said Moreland. “I wish one family in every church in Dade County would become foster parents, and then the church support that foster family. If that happened, the problem would be solved.”
For more information on foster parenting, see the accompanying article. Meanwhile, let’s say goodbye to Moreland as he, Dori and babies No. 1 through 5 get ready for Christmas, close on the bigger house and take care of tiny new No. 6, all at the same time.
Moreland swears it’s a wonderful life and he’s never been happier.
“All of us screw up with our kids,” he said. “I get a second shot.”