FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — They were motivated by the problems that their badges couldn't fix.
Marie Ornelas witnessed the struggles many children face in her job as a school liaison officer, later as a detective and now as sergeant of the Fort Worth Police Department's crimes against children unit.
"It was a feeling of helplessness dealing with abused and neglected and really just forgotten kids who had been put out like they were trash or something," she said.
Her husband, John Ornelas, lasted only one year as a school liaison officer before requesting reassignment. He said questions he often fielded from children — like "Why is Dad on drugs?" and "Why does Mom sleep around?" — weighed heavily on him.
"We're police officers. We're supposed to be able to go to the home and fix it, and I couldn't do it," said John, now a detective on the north side. "Emotionally it was just tearing me down, and I couldn't deal with it."
Both wanted to do more.
"You start asking God, 'What was I supposed to do?' " John said. "The answer we got was, 'I'm going to give you some children, and you take care of them.' "
In June 2005, the Ornelases, who had three grown children, became licensed as foster/adoptive parents.
Three years later, they have adopted nine children removed by the state from their original homes because of abuse or neglect.
"People ask us, 'Why would we do that? That must be such a pain and so hard. How do you give them baths? How do you get homework done? How do you get them fed?' " John said.
"The reward is in the hugs and the smiles."
'You can't put a number on it'
Once the couple were licensed, caseworkers pressed them to decide how many children they were willing to take in.
" 'Will you take two? Will you take three?' " John recalled. "We said, 'Well, how many need homes? If there's a group of four, I'm not going to break them up.' … You can't put a number on it."
Enter five siblings — Makayla, Jordan, Makenzie, Madelyn and Madison — at the time ranging in age from 8 to 2.
The children had been removed from their parents years before because of severe neglect. Some showed signs of malnutrition, like Madelyn, who had few teeth. They'd bounced from foster home to foster home, separated so often that a few barely knew each other.
"A child knows that they're not permanent … (that) this isn't forever," John said. "In the adoption process, they use that word a lot forever. You're a forever family."
In summer 2005, the five children thought that they had found their forever family. But the couple planning to adopt them changed their mind when the woman unexpectedly became pregnant. On Aug. 16 that year, they found themselves with the Ornelases.
"For us, it was a blessing because we have them, but it was a terrible thing to do to them," Marie said. "When Makayla came, she worried for a long time that I would become pregnant and we would get rid of them."
Those worries were put to rest on March 2, 2006, when the Ornelases became their "forever family."
The family keeps growing
Two months later, a caseworker from Covenant Kids, a child-placement agency, called again.
A 5-year-old boy at Cook Children's Medical Center needed a foster home and police protection.
Justin had allegedly been assaulted by a relative and suffered a head injury so severe that, almost four years later, he still undergoes surgery to correct the scar it left behind.
John vividly remembers meeting Justin in the hospital. The boy, his head swollen to the size of a pumpkin, chomped on nachos and watched DVDs while nervously glancing at John.
"It was awkward," John remembers. "I'm sitting there, and I'm trying not to crowd him. At the same time, I don't want him to think that I don't care."
Later that week, when Justin was released from the hospital and taken to the Ornelases' home in Parker County, John was grateful he'd made the visit.
"When he looked at me, he recognized me and it was like, 'Well, I'll go sit next to him,' " John said.
John and Marie were concerned for Justin, who showed signs of what psychiatrists deem "attachment disorder." Unlike the Ornelases' other children, Justin shied away from physical affection. He would wrestle with his new siblings but then fall to the floor in the fetal position if they touched his head.
They wondered whether he'd ever get over that.
"At night, he needed a hug, not a kiss," John said. "He would just grab on and hug so tight and then he'd go to sleep. He would let you kiss him on the cheek, and that was it."
Then one night, that changed.
"I said, 'You know what? I'm always kissing you. You give me a kiss,' " John said. "So I put my cheek out and just as he got there, I turned my head and he kissed me on the lips."
After that, John said, Justin's aversion to physical affection "just went away."
Three more arrive
After Justin's adoption on Nov. 18, 2006, John and Marie assumed they were done.
Their three-bedroom, 2 1/2 -bath house had been reconfigured to accommodate their six new children. Gone was the study. In its place was a fourth bedroom so that the children could be paired, two to a room.
But in fall 2007, three other siblings — twins Gregory and Michelle, now 10, and Jacob, now 7 — were looking for a home. Little was known about their background, but Child Protective Services warned that the two boys had emotional problems.
The wheels started turning again. The couple baby-sat the three for a weekend to see how all the children meshed.
"They broke off in little groups by ages, and the house was quiet," Marie said.
Three more weekends together were followed by a five-day stay over the 2007 Thanksgiving break. After clearing some hurdles with CPS, the children joined them in May.
When they moved in, they each carried their possessions in a single Wal-Mart bag.
"That's all they owned. That's it," Marie said. "Gregory had three socks. Not three pairs of socks. He had three socks."
As is tradition in the home, Marie took the children shopping for clothes that very first day.
"They were in awe," she said. "The first thing I did was pick two bags of socks for Gregory. How can you have three socks and not one toy?"
Not always easy
Soon after the new trio moved in, the behavioral problems surfaced.
"Honeymoon periods" are common with foster children, the couple said.
"When you have children come into the home and they've come from a situation that is undesirable, even to them, they're happy to be there, and everyone gets along real well," John said.
Once children relax, their true personality — and the behavioral problems — surface, he said.
Gregory, moody from prescribed psychotropic medications, began hitting some of his siblings. Jacob threw enormous tantrums usually seen only with 2-year-olds.
But the Ornelases weren't deterred. They worked with doctors to wean Gregory off his medication. They continued to offer love and, when needed, discipline. And as they proceeded with the adoption, the boys' behavior changed.
"They realize that whatever they do, however they act, we're not going to get rid of them, that they're permanent," Marie said. "It made a big difference in their behavior."
Covenant Kids caseworker Lesley Ashford visited the Ornelases every month leading up to the adoption and describes them as a "true representation of a family."
"They are just a great couple that have opened their home to kids that need a forever home, a selfless couple that want to do the best for kids," Ashford said.
In a Collin County courtroom Nov. 15 — National Adoption Day — Gregory, Michelle and Jacob officially became Ornelases.
"It was the greatest day of my life, and I'm proud because I won't have to go back with foster care or anything," said Gregory, who, along with his sister, turned 10 the day after Christmas.
Jacob beams as he describes life with his new mom and dad.
"They let us swim and play and ride our bikes all the way in the yard and to our next-door neighbor," he said.
One big family
Only once — before getting licensed — did the Ornelases question what they were about to do.
"We went and sat in the back yard and said, 'Let's just look at this little slice of heaven we have for ourselves,' " Marie said. ". . . It was just like something you read in a novel. We were watching the horses play out there. We sat there about five minutes, and I looked at him and I said, 'It's too boring. We're not that old.' "
Now their days are filled with rides to school, Cub Scout meetings, cheerleading and sports. They help the kids with homework and do laundry — three to five loads a day, and even more on the weekends when they change sheets.
At dinnertime, the children each get several uninterrupted minutes to talk about their days.
"It's very chaotic and crowded," Marie said. "But I wouldn't change it."
The children don't seem to mind, either. All agree that having built-in playmates is the best part.
"You don't have to go around in the neighborhood looking for friends," Michelle said.
Marie said John, who never changed a diaper with their biological children, is a different person now.
"I could never do this without him," she said. "He gets up at 4 o'clock every morning, and he irons for an hour and a half. Everything they wear is ironed, except their underwear."
"Couple time" is a rarity. They estimate that it's been a year and a half since they last had a date.
"We went to Macaroni Grill, and I reached over and cut his meat while we were talking," Marie said with a laugh. "He just sat there, watching me. Then he goes, 'I could have done that.' "
Although the Ornelases aren't planning on adopting more children, the kids feel differently.
Marie said that before the last three were adopted, the kids had asked her during a car ride whether they'd have a party once Michelle, Gregory and Jacob legally became part of the family.
"We're going to have a 'We're-not-adopting-any-more adoption party,' " Marie joked.
"The car was silent, which made me start looking in the rearview mirror because they're never silent," Marie said.
"The older one said, 'You can't do that, Mom.' I said, 'Do what? Aren't you guys tired of being crowded and sharing and everything?' "
Marie's voice cracked as she recalled Makayla's reply: " 'You don't know what it's like. You can't say no. If somebody needs us, we need to be there.' "
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.