LEROY STEWART has a birth child, four adopted children and two stepchildren. Anna, whom he married six years ago after his first wife died, has two birth children from her first marriage and five stepchildren. In all, the couple's children range from 12 to 21 years. Four of the seven still live with the couple in their Westminster home.
Joan and Melvin Bitner of York, Pa., have 14 children, ranging from 1 year to 35. There are birth children, adopted children and stepchildren among them. There are grandchildren, too.
The Stewarts and the Bitners shared the stories of their "blended families" with others at last weekend's first Adoption and Foster Care Conference, sponsored by Families Adopting Children Everywhere (F.A.C.E.), a Baltimore-based organization that encourages, supports and trains foster and adoptive families.
"Until we were asked to do this workshop, I didn't know we had a name," said Anna Stewart, who works with an adoption agency in York. She cautioned that the children in their family often don't care to blend, and that many of the problems she and her husband have faced are because they are a stepfamily rather than a blended one.
For the sake of the conference, attended by more than 500 people from six states, "blended" was defined as families with both birth and adoptive children. But the blends went beyond even that.
There was a woman with a 13-year-old stepson and a 20-month-old birth daughter, and who is getting ready to adopt a 7-year-old son.
There was another family with two birth sons and an adopted Korean infant.
There was a woman with foster children, and a man with a birth daughter, inquiring about the intricacies of adding an adopted child to their family.
"Building families through adoption" is what F.A.C.E. is all about, says its executive director, Clyde Tolley. F.A.C.E., founded in 1975, has chapters in Maryland and surrounding states and a national mailing list of more than 2,500 families.
For many years, F.A.C.E. has been a model for adoption education, Tolley says. It sponsors more than 30 courses a year to introduce people to adoption.
But that emphasis is changing.
"These families need to be supported," says Tolley, adding that after adoptions are finalized, there is no support system for the families. "These families, by and large, do make it; they have an easier time with some help."
The weekend's regional conference included some introductory sessions, but many more addressing adjustment and attachment issues for both adoptive and foster families and the professionals who work with them.
Some of the issues raised during the "blended families" workshop dealt with sibling situations and others with reaction from relatives and even strangers.
Several parents were concerned about the sparring between siblings that might lead a birth child to comment "they love me best."
Stress that being a birth child is not an advantage, just a difference, advised Terry Gonzalez of Bethesda, who has a son, 7, and another child, 11 months. One is adopted; one is not.
"Our family grew when he was born," said Gonzalez. "It grew again when we adopted."
"It was always slide over and make room for the next one," said Joan Bitner, whose husband had six children when she married him nearly 25 years ago. The Bitners then had four children and adopted four, taking them into their home as foster children first. Even when the adopted children came between the birth children in age, there were few problems, she said.
Many parents were concerned about the reactions of others, particularly when the adopted child's race or nationality was different from that of the family. "Talk a lot about it at home," advised Anna Stewart. "Give them confidence; the remarks won't stop. What's normal to them isn't normal to others," she said.
The Stewarts, both white, have black children and biracial youngsters among their seven.
Then there is the situation where the grandparents or other relatives ignore or short-change the adopted or step children. One woman said she received no gifts from her family when her infant daughter arrived from Korea; she had received gifts when her sons were born. Another said her birth children get more money for their birthdays than her stepchildren.
"They'll come around," was the group's consensus.
Joan Bitner, however, tried to solve this problem before it surfaced. "I made a rule when we got married. Everybody will get the same or we will get nothing," she said, adding that she told the children's grandparents to decide how much they would spend for Christmas gifts for the youngsters and then divide that amount among them. "Everybody's equal; everybody feels equal.
"You stand up for them," Bitner advised. "Your attitude is important."
Anna Stewart agreed: "If you show that you're satisfied, your kids are going to be satisfied. It's your family and you do what makes you comfortable."
Consistency, she said, is key to making "blended" family life work. So is a healthy relationship between husband and wife.
Adoption information and support
Families Adopting Children Everywhere -- F.A.C.E.-- is an adoptive parents support and public education group that conducts introductory courses for people considering adoption and works with adoptive and foster families. It embraces families who have adopted through various methods and whose children come from a number of different cultures. F.A.C.E. has 10 chapters in this area and publishes a newsletter. To contact F.A.C.E., call the organization's Help-Line at 488-2656.