Iowa couple with a heart for fostering becomes family of 7 in just 2 short months
Chris Norton suffered a severe spinal cord injury in 2010. Closing one of his recent speeches, he stood to help emphasize his message. Aaron Young/The Register
Four little girls in Florida needed a home about a year ago. They were sisters, ages 1, 4, 6 and 8, and they needed a foster home where they could remain together.
Chris and Emily Norton, young Iowa natives who live in Port St. Lucie, Florida, got a call from the social service agency that had already placed eight kids in their home during recent years.
Emily cried as the social workers detailed the ordeals these girls suffered.
“I thought I had heard it all, but their stories broke my heart,” Emily said. “I just knew God had sent these girls to us for a reason.”
Chris agreed, though four elementary-aged children were a lot for the couple's small home.
Still, this is a Chris and Emily Norton story, so, spoiler alert: It has a happy ending.
Meet the Nortons
Chris Norton grew up in Altoona. He broke his neck playing football for Luther College in a 2010 game. Doctors told him he had a 3 percent chance of ever walking again.
Chris never met odds he couldn’t overcome. He worked through years of arduous rehab so that he could walk across the stage, assisted by fiancee Emily Summers, to receive his diploma in 2015.
He also assembled the Chris Norton Foundation, which assists people with spinal cord injuries, co-wrote two books — one a Christian inspirational with his father, Terry Norton, and another about his marriage and fostering children called, "The 7 Longest Yards."
He also played himself in a documentary film, "7 Yards," reenacting the play that broke his neck more than eight years ago.
Two years later, the couple resettled in Florida where Chris again rose from his wheelchair to walk seven yards down the aisle, arm-in-arm with his bride-to-be, Emily.
Emily grew up in Muscatine and met Chris at a party while he was recovering from his injuries. Emily already had experience helping children despite her youth. When she was in middle school, she started to tutor second-grader Whittley Marquez.
Whittley suffered a lot in her first seven years. She believed she was worthless. But Emily worked hard to become her friend and confidant. The two discussed faith in God, and Whittley eventually became a Christian because of Emily's efforts.
Chris and Emily started fostering children at their Florida home. They even fostered Whittley, just seven years younger than the Nortons, who are both 26.
Meet the girls
Driven by their faith and bottomless well of love, the Nortons welcomed these four frightened, suspicious little girls.
Out of respect of the girls’ privacy, Chris and Emily declined to share the nature of trauma the girls endured before they came home.
But, at a minimum, the girls were repeatedly separated into different homes. They had spent more than 1,000 days in foster care before they landed with the Nortons more than a year ago.
“It’s very rare that a foster family will take four all at once,” Emily said. “From the start, we knew we had to keep them together.”
Whittley took to her four young foster sisters. "I love them so much," she said in a December interview.
Ava looked after her younger siblings and acted as a mother figure despite being only 8 when she came to live with the Nortons.
But within a few days, her active side showed. She often leads the quartet in songs she makes up on the spot, plays gymnastics and always seems to be orchestrating the girls in an activity, Emily said.
Liliana was 7 when she arrived at the Nortons. The couple calls her their “future actress.” She’s outgoing – often leading family and church prayers – and loves attention. She owns a charitable heart.
“She chose to use her chore money to buy her teacher flowers and candy,” Emily said.
Even at 4, Isabella showed athletic practice. She regularly challenged her siblings, foster parents and foster sister to races. She dared them to beat her. She’s always got scrapes and bruises from her latest adventure.
“She fast,” Chris said. “She can outrun everybody, sometimes.”
Ariana was just a year old when she arrived, but she possessed loving instincts. One day, Emily was nursing a sore muscle. Emily went to her room and retrieved a toy doctor kit. She showered Emily’s “owie” with kisses.
“She’s a very sweet, loving girl,” Emily said.
The thing about fostering is that the burden on foster parents is to create a safe, loving home – but they never know just how long those kids will be around.
Emily was ready to adopt all four almost from the start. There wasn't much of a decision process weighing the pros and cons. For Emily and Chris, this is what they do. This is how they live their faith. The couple believes the girls are part of God's plan for them.
"We had just had a placement where we needed to buy a new van that could hold eight people, and we were ready to adopt them, but it didn't work out," Emily said. "But I told Chris that I didn't believe God would waste our time if he wasn't preparing us for something else."
Chris and Emily believed these girls were that something else. Still, family court can be complex and confounding.
There was talk another family member would fight for custody. But eventually, that fell through. The courts terminated the girls’ biological family’s parental rights, and the path was clear for Emily and Chris to adopt the girls.
When Emily and Chris adopted Whittley, they made a dream come true for the teenager from Muscatine, who survived multiple suicide attempts and abuse.
For Whittley, who was 19 and a legal adult, adoption meant “I actually belonged to somebody and that I’m not just some stranger in the world.”
Whittley became a Norton on Dec. 11. Less than two months later, on Feb. 4, their family of three became a family of seven.
The girls, the couple said, knew exactly what adoption meant.
It meant no longer looking over their shoulder for social service workers at the door.
It meant no more moving, no more placements, and no more splitting up.
“They have a forever family now,” Emily said.
There’s perhaps no better way to illustrate the relief that came from adoption than on a recent night when Emily found Liliana crying.
Emily asked what was bothering her. Liliana, now 7, told her mother she was frustrated because her birthday was in a few weeks and she wished it would get here sooner.
Emily laughed and soon, Liliana did too.
“How beautiful is that?” Emily said. “To go through all of what these girls have gone through and now her problem is such a normal kid problem. She can’t wait for her birthday. It’s wonderful.”
Lest one think that going from zero to five children in a span of two months would slow the Nortons' ambitions for adding to their family, you really have missed the spirit of this Iowa-raised family.
They plan to keep fostering, though Emily admits they need a bigger house.
"I think we will always foster," Emily said. "There is always someone who needs love."
Register storyteller Daniel P. Finney grew up in Winterset and east Des Moines and was once a foster kid himself. Send story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 515-284-8144. Follow him on Twitter at @newsmanone or on Facebook at @danielpfinney.