Now Or Never

Why a first-time parent decided to adopt a 20-year-old

Shannon Culkeen said asking an adult to be her kid felt like proposing, for parenthood.

‘I don’t think it’s ever too late to make a family’

Shannon Culkeen cracks open the sparkling apple juice at her soon-to-be daughter Cheyenne's twentieth birthday party. (Cormac Culkeen)

Shannon Culkeen met her future "kiddo" when she was working as a mentor to youth transitioning out of homelessness in Peterborough, Ontario. 

She remembered Cheyenne as a tough teenager with a regal stance, who was willing to threaten the life of anyone who dared touch her bag of Cheetos. 

Shannon would take Cheyenne on long drives, getting to know her better. She found out about her goals, her taste in hip-hop, her affinity for decorative pillows covered in glitter. 

They kept in touch. 

Shannon was there for Cheyenne's high school graduation and her first powwow dance. 

She supported her in decisions about post-secondary school and through a medical crisis. 

Shannon and Cheyenne recently expanded their little family, adopting a puppy named Bruno. (Cormac Culkeen)

While filling out an application to become a foster parent, it occurred to Shannon that she had become more than a mentor to Cheyenne. The form asked if she had any other children and she thought, "Oh no, I think maybe I do." 

They moved into places a block away from one another. They adopted a puppy named Bruno together. And they continued to take daily drives to talk about life and their future plans. 

Cheyenne Marilyn Marie Kirk Jacobs-Culkeen turned 20 in October. In a few months, she will mark another milestone, with a legal letter (or a notice for a court date) to confirm she is legally Shannon's daughter. 

Never too late

The regulations for adult adoption in Canada vary from province to province. In Ontario, it's legal as long as both parties sign the documentation and consent. 

Shannon didn't know it was an option until she searched for it. 

Cheyenne hadn't heard of it either. When she was 16, child welfare staff told her she was unlikely to find a foster family placement at her age. 

In Ontario, about 800 to 1000 children this year will age out of the foster care system without finding an adoptive family. 

Shannon wants people to know they still can. 

"I don't think it's ever too late to make a family, or to imagine that you could be surrounded by people who are going to love and celebrate you for the long term," she says. 

The adoption documents will help establish hospital visitation and inheritance rights. But making it official also provides a signal to everyone around them that this is real, and it's for life. 

Shannon's parents will officially become Cheyenne's grandparents, and if Cheyenne has children they will be Shannon's grandchildren. 

Cheyenne [left] is Ojibwe and has been reconnecting with her Indigenous roots. Shannon went to see her dance in her first powwow. (Cormac Culkeen)

For Cheyenne, it's a comfort to know their relationship isn't contingent on a bad day or a bad mood.

"Someone has faith in me to do the right thing and will also still be there even if I don't," she says. "It's not like I'm doing anything out of fear of losing her." 

A parent proposal 

Two years ago, Shannon was nervously avoiding the question she had wanted to ask Cheyenne for the last six months. 

When her soon-to-be daughter turned 18, they went on a drive. 

"I didn't want to put any pressure on her," Shannon says. "But in the end, I sort of freaked her out because we were driving, and I just kept on driving further and further because I couldn't spit it out."

"It's like proposing, but for parenthood," she says. 

Once Shannon finally found the words, she saw, across the car seat, the look of someone who had been waiting to hear them. 

"It was 'yes' right off the bat," Cheyenne says. "It wasn't really much of a thought process." 

"I wanted to be adopted."

And if anyone needs more proof this is a long-term commitment, Cheyenne is legally adding 'Culkeen' to her last name. And Shannon is getting a tattoo of their regular coffee orders from their daily drive-thru runs.