My Brother-In-Law Died In a Car Accident, So I Adopted My Niece

“Oh, these are your boys! And who is this?”

“My daughter,” I told the woman who asked when she saw me out with my kids. My husband Sam is Asian and I’m black, and our sons Scott and Sean look like both of us. But my daughter Tilea isn’t African American. I think about Angelina Jolie, who adopted her son Pak from Cambodia, and Madonna, who adopted her children from Malawi. How did those kids adjust to having parents that were of a different race? I’m sure Tilea can relate.

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For starters, she isn’t my daughter by birth. Last May, Sam’s brother was killed in a car accident, and we adopted her, our 12-year-old niece. Before that process started, though, we had the awful, awful task of picking Tilea up from school. She knew something was wrong because her dad didn’t come home the night before, and she had also boarded her bus in the morning without seeing him. That day, when we picked her up from school, she was confused to see Auntie Jami and Uncle Sam. We wanted to tell her as a family, so the whole car ride was agony — I had to keep a smile on my face. I was cracking jokes and trying to be lighthearted.

We met up with Sam’s mother, older brother, and my sons. I remember hearing Sam’s older brother say, “Tilea, we’re so sorry, but your father was killed this morning…” — and then I saw her face. She just turned blue. I hope I never have to do something like that again.

Then, there was a big debate over what to do next. Her mother hasn’t been in the picture since Tilea was born, and Tilea’s grandmother wanted to take her in, but she was getting older and not in the best health. I said that we should take her, because she got along with my boys so well and we had an extra room. Sam wasn’t exactly ready. (She looks so much like him, I can’t even imagine how Sam feels seeing his little brother in her every day.) But to tell you the truth, nobody was ready for this. Finally, Sam said, “Let’s ask Tilea.”

“I want to live with you,” she told us. So there it was.

It’s one thing to say it, and it’s another thing to do it. It was all scary. I prayed and prayed about it, and prayed to God, “If this is your will, let it be done. I’m putting this all in your hands.” (I still pray about it, every day.) Fast forward to June, and she moved in.

Jami Svay On Adopting Her Niece Tilea

Scott, Tilea, and Sean

Jami Svay

That first night, we decorated her room. We agreed on decor inspired by her favorite K-Pop group, BLACKPINK. Black bed, pink sheets, pink curtains, black wall hangings — she really put her fingerprint on it. The boys set up a little fort on the floor and slept next to her. They did that for about a week. My boys are pretty amazing, but don’t get it twisted. They all get on each other’s nerves too.

Before, I was Auntie Jami. We saw Tilea a lot during the summers, and we’d hang out or go to the pool. It was sporadic, and definitely not like it is now. It’s night and day. When she first moved in, she called me “Auntie Mommy.” Then, I became Mom.

At first, I just couldn’t recognize a girl’s name calling me Mom. Tilea said the word for a good minute and my husband had to tap me and go, “Hey, she’s calling you Mom!” What? I thought to myself. Who is that? Who’s she talking to?

One thing I’ve learned is that kids are extremely resilient. Don’t get me wrong, she’s still hurting. But when you put a kid in a happy situation, where they can flourish, they take to it pretty well. My 17-year-old son Sean plays Barbies and hosts tea parties with her, and my 15-year-old Scott even let her put makeup on him. She gave him red lips and dark black eyebrows. (Sam got a video of that for our family’s YouTube channel, Svay Productions). Having a girl in the house has been really, really funny.

But it hasn’t always been easy. Tilea isn’t a baby; she’s now a 13-year-old who knows her story, who knows who she is, and where she’s been. You can’t erase that. We get compared to her old life, and her biological father, all the time. Like when Sam made her waffles, she let him know they weren’t exactly like her dad’s nutty waffles.

It’s been an adjustment for my kids too. They’re having to share their parents, and financially, it’s expensive. We legally adopted her in October, and now we’re just trying to make sure we’re there for doctors appointments, school visits, things like that. We don’t want anyone to feel left out. Sam started a tradition of taking her to school every morning, and they’ll stop for smoothies or coffee and just talk. She’s definitely a Daddy’s girl. Sometimes, though, Tilea doesn’t get why we’re so present.

One night, I put dinner on the table and sat down to talk with the kids after they got home from school. I asked about their days, and was just busy getting all the tea. And at one point, Tilea turned to me and said, “Ugh, Mom. You’re always around. Why are you always here?”

I think she was confused because she was used to eating dinner alone, while her dad was at work. So I reminded her that I’m gonna be here, and I will talk to them about their days. (Heck, maybe someday they’ll ask me about mine?)

It’s also been tough racially. I tell Tilea that color is something we can’t control. But love is what we can control. I’m going to love her like I love my sons. I’m going to teach her and show her everything I know, give her everything I got, and I don’t care what color I am. That’s something that’s stuck out to me; having this mixed, biracial family, I just want to give my kids love. Even though Sam and I teach them that, there are a lot of kids that don’t hear those messages. We want our kids to be educated and strong, and to not cower and think, “Oh, there’s something wrong with me.” There is nothing wrong with them. We’re all human beings.

Holidays have been especially hard. We have a new tradition of lighting lanterns to set off in the sky for Tilea’s dad. His birthday was on February 9, and this year, we ate red velvet cake and lit lanterns again. This time, we each wrote down a message we wished to send to him. Mine went something like this:

“I wish you were here. I don’t know if I’m gonna do as good a job as you. I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m gonna try. Please shine your light and help me.”

Our family’s mood turned from sadness to anger when the toxicology report came back in October. Tilea’s dad’s death could’ve been prevented, and he trusted his girlfriend, who we now know was intoxicated, to get him home. She didn’t. And she lied to our family about it, telling us that she fell asleep behind the wheel. That hurt too.

Understandably, Tilea wasn’t receiving this message well from us. Tilea considered her father’s girlfriend a stepmom, a woman her dad loved and planned to marry, and she didn’t believe the news. I always tell my husband that sometimes it’s not the message — it’s the messenger. Tilea wasn’t hearing it from us because she just thought we must not like this woman. We needed her to hear the facts, black and white, of how someone’s actions resulted in her dad’s death. By April 4, the last day of the trial, she had come to grips with it. Sam asked how she was feeling after, and she said, “I believe you. Thank you.”

I hope more than anything that the experience established trust. A chance for her to know that we’re not going to lie to her about this, or about anything. I’m learning now, more than ever, that getting that trust foundation is everything in a parent-child relationship. With my sons, it’s built-in, but I don’t have that with Tilea. I have to build that from the ground up. Having a mother has been awkward for her, and it’s been hard to find that bond, but we both know it’s there.

As much as I’d love to sugarcoat it, my life is no longer the same. For anyone else going through a similar situation, think about it carefully, and remember to be patient. I feel like I constantly need to improve, but on the same note, I can’t beat myself up. A lot of people wouldn’t have made this choice. I’ve learned that women and mothers, we are the glue. We are the glue that keeps this whole thing together.

There are many moments that make it all worth it. I’ve been a professional makeup artist for 17 years, so it’s fun to have a little protégé, and she’s taught me a lot about Instagram. So if that’s my window in, to show her about makeup (and bump these YouTubers she loves out of the way), that’s it. Through that, I’ll go into, “How was your day? Oh, there’s a boy at school? Tell me about him!”


Last August, just before school started, Tilea got her period. She’s spunky and spontaneous, so she wasn’t coy about telling me. I took her to Target, we got the “stuff,” and I showed her how to use everything.

At one point, she turned to me and said, “I’m so happy you’re here.” So it went from “Go away!” to those five words. It made me feel so good, and I was happy to be there too.


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