For Danyl Graham, the decision to give up her daughter was a decision she never wanted to make.
“I just did what I had to do,” said Graham. “I had to think about Ava, not myself.”
Graham, 26, of Creston, resides at Crest Haven Care Center, where, from her wheel chair, she is reminded of the events that lead to the loss of her mobility and her ability to do the most simple task – holding the daughter she birthed seven years ago.
On May 28, 2016, Graham and her daughter Ava were passengers in a vehicle when it wrecked in rural Adair County during Memorial Day weekend.
“He was a little drunk. We were both a little drunk ... We were on a gravel road and all of a sudden, he just started going really fast. Really, really fast. I told him to slow down, because my daughter was in the car,” Graham said.
The driver of that vehicle continued to speed until the vehicle hit a ditch and threw Graham from its window. Officers told Graham the car had been traveling 89 mph. A break in the C4, C5 and C6 vertebrae in Graham’s neck left her paralyzed from the neck down following the accident.
Fortunately, Ava was uninjured.
At the time of the accident, Ava’s father was long out of the picture.
“We didn’t have the best relationship,” Graham said.
Following the accident, Graham said her options for care were limited.
“My mom is a drug addict and was going to prison at the time,” Graham said. “She would’ve been the one to help ... but at the time, she wasn’t healthy enough to take care of Ava.”
With nowhere to turn, Graham’s grandmother took Graham and Ava in.
“But, she was just getting too old. She was raising other people’s kids, too,” said Graham.
So, the Iowa Department of Human Services (DHS) became involved.
In January 2017, DHS placed Ava into the foster care system, where she remained until Aug. 30 of the same year.
During this time, Ava started exhibiting behaviors that caused distress for Graham and were concerning to Ava’s case managers as well, such as pulling out her hair, biting and scratching herself.
Ava expressed to her mother and case workers that she didn’t want to go back to the foster home. Sending Ava there was hard for her mother to watch.
“They were good people, she just wasn’t happy,” said Graham. “I had to get her out.”
In February 2017, April Loudon, 40, of Creston, started working for Children and Families of Iowa. In her role, she was tasked with transporting and supervising visits for children who had been separated from their families and removed from their homes.
In June of that year, Loudon was assigned to Ava’s case, and the two had an immediate connection.
“It was just, instantly I was her best friend,” said Loudon.
Loudon, who had to drive Ava from her foster home to visit her mother, said their car rides consisted of singing, laughing, sharing snacks and telling stories, such as telling Ava about how she remembers eating the same snack as a child.
“We just opened up to each other,” said Loudon.
Mom to mom
Since their first supervised visit, as case worker and client, Loudon and Graham recognized each other. Loudon said she recognized Graham, but it took the entire visit to recall from where. Eventually, she remembered a friend once babysat Graham when she was about Ava’s age.
“I remember them running around as little kiddos,” said Loudon.
Loudon kept the detail to herself. However, it was their second visit where Graham asked Loudon about her sister, and the women put it together that Loudon’s sister Marissa was their common bond.
“We had all these connections, so we both felt more comfortable with one another,” said Loudon.
Loudon said even though she was there for a job, the two of them continued to get closer.
One day, Graham asked Loudon about her family
“Do you have kids?” Graham asked Loudon.
“I have one, but we can’t have any more. Maybe someday we will adopt, you know, if we decide to,” Loudon responded.
Loudon said she and her husband had always been open to the idea of adoption after suffering three miscarriages, however, she had never set out to actually do it.
Then, at the end of June, Loudon said she was asked a question that rendered her speechless.
“Would you ever consider adopting Ava?” Graham asked.
Loudon didn’t know how to respond.
“Obviously I had this huge connection with Ava, loved her, wanted what was best for her, but that is not something you just say yes to,” Loudon said.
Due to the nature of her job, Loudon couldn’t break any confidentiality rules by asking her husband. During the visit, she contacted her supervisor and the DHS worker, and told them what Graham had proposed.
Shortly after, DHS contacted Loudon and Graham to inquire about the proposition.
“They had to make sure ... that it was my idea and that’s what I wanted,” said Graham.
After Graham made her wishes known to DHS, its contract with Children and Families of Iowa was terminated. With confidentiality no longer an issue, Loudon was able to ask her husband Travis and soon introduced him to Ava, Graham and Graham’s family.
“As soon as he met her, he fell in love with her,” said Loudon.
After that initial meeting, the couple sat in their car, where Loudon asked her husband his thoughts.
“How can I say no to that face?” Loudon recalled him saying.
During a permanency hearing August 30, 2017, where DHS, Ava’s guardian ad litem, Graham, the Loudons and Ava’s foster family were present, a judge ruled the Loudons’ home “other suitable placement” and the adoption process began.
After completing background checks, in-home inspections and 10 weeks of classes, Ava’s adoption was finalized May 10.
“It was an emotional day,” said Graham.
Graham said she was upset about it despite knowing it would arrive eventually. She said she was upset because was never notified when it would be finalized.
Loudon said she didn’t feel the need to share the day with Graham, as Graham got to experience Ava’s actual birthday.
“This was our day,” Loudon said.
As with any adoption, particularly in cases where communication is still open between birth and adoptive families, the two mothers don’t always see eye-to-eye.
Graham is still bothered by the changing of Ava’s middle name, from Marie to Grace.
Loudon said it was a family decision to change Ava’s middle name, to Grace, which they teased Ava with gently after she exhibited some clumsy behavior. But, Ava pointed out that Grace had other meanings.
“Like the grace of God ... like the grace of God gave me a new home,” Loudon recalled Ava telling her.
Knowing that Ava’s former middle was not derived from any of Ava’s previous family members, Loudon asked Ava if she’d be interested in changing it, to which Ava agreed.
The new normal
Loudon said Ava’s transition to her new home was difficult.
“We’ve had the honeymoon phase – everything’s great. Grand. Perfect child. Perfect family. Like everything is going great and then we hit this, like, crazy point. Like, can we do this?” said Loudon.
After two months, Ava began to feel comfortable in her new home and started exhibiting negative attention-seeking behaviors, such as tantrums.
During this trying time, Loudon began questioning her decision.
“I thought, ‘It’s not working. She’s miserable. Ryder is miserable. We’re fighting, it’s not working,’” said Loudon.
However, the Loudons started exercising tools they had learned in the classes they took in preparation of Ava’s adoption, seeking advice from fellow adoptive parents and therapists, conducting family meetings and talking with the children one-on-one.
“She needs us. We need her. We just worked through it,” said Loudon.
Loudon didn’t want to do the classes at first because she felt she had enough experience with her background in social services.
“But, I don’t really know that we could have done it without (the classes),” said Loudon. “The support ... is exactly what we needed.”
Since Ava’s adoption, Ava’s visitations with her birth mother have become fewer and far between, in an effort to help Ava adjust to her new family.
“From the beginning, ... I was like, ‘I will never take her away from you,’” Loudon said. “Ava genuinely loves her mom. It’s not like it was this abusive relationship and Ava needed out of it. It was, she couldn’t be taken care of if she went to live with her mom. So, I always made that promise to Dani.”
Loudon said she would never keep Ava from Graham, unless she had concerns for Ava’s safety.
In Iowa, once an adoption is finalized, the adoptive family is under no legal obligation to maintain contact with the birth parents, as their rights have been terminated. Any contact that remains is done so at the discretion of the legal guardians. Loudon said her effort to maintain contact with Graham is important, but she is more focused on helping Ava adjust to her new life.
Since her adoption, Ava has competed in the Union County Fair princess competition, entered photo contests, participated in softball and is involved in dance.
“She’s doing well. They gave her own room. They give her everything. That’s not what it’s about, but they do dance and things I wouldn’t have been able to do with her,” said Graham.
“She has grown leaps and bounds since she’s been with us,” said Loudon. “You can even see it in some of her photos. You can see it in her school picture. It was this fake, toothy grin, like, ‘Someone told me to smile, so I’m going to smile.’ Now, she actually beams. She’s genuinely happy. Not that she was beaten down and broken. You can just completely tell how much she has changed.”
“It means a lot. I don’t think I could have gotten any better of people,” said Graham.
“I don’t think we are these great people who changed this little girl’s life. I just feel like we did it differently,” said Loudon.
“I’m happy. I’m not happy, happy. But, I don’t bawl every day about it,” said Graham. “It’s what God wanted, I guess. Everything happens for a reason. We both just want what’s best for Ava.”