The sun was almost lost to the horizon when five brothers stepped out of their childhood home onto the streets beneath gray city buildings and a colorless winter sky. The two-year-old had a high fever, and panic spread like a winter wind as they climbed into a dark van.
“It was really stressful,” said Xavier, the oldest brother.
They drove out of Newark past heart-shaped paper cutouts dappling school windows with pink and red, decorations awaiting tomorrow’s Valentine’s Day celebrations.
But instead of coming home with cards and candy to show their parents, the Vasquez brothers would spend the day dedicated to love separated and with strangers.
On the night of February 13th, Xavier and Aidan, the eldest brothers, lay sleepless in a bed in a foster home. The two youngest, Logan and Peyton, spent the night in a different house and the middle brother, Ethan, was alone in a third. The only home they had ever known had been pulled out from underneath them, and the boys were left floating.
Xavier was scared and uncomfortable, unsure of what was happening to his sick baby brother. He held on to hope, though, because his caseworker told him that he would see his brothers again soon, and that a family was waiting to take them in.
The next day, the boys were reunited, but their future remained foggy. When the state vehicle carrying the five brothers, ages 2, 4, 8, 10 and 14, arrived at a home in suburban Linden, New Jersey, it was the first time Xavier had ever experienced the world outside of the city.
“I just remember seeing the grass and it feeling really nice,” he said.
A line of brothers followed their caseworker across the front lawn, glancing up at empty branches just visible against the darkening sky. Inside the home, one nearly identical to the hundreds of houses sprawling for miles on Northeast New Jersey’s suburban blocks, a family of strangers was waiting anxiously.
A few days prior, newlyweds Benecia Sanchez and Edwardo Berrios had agreed in a two-minute phone call– they would take the brothers into their home. So instead of exchanging conversation over the warm glow of candles on a Valentine’s Day date, the couple cleaned the house and prepared to expand their family by five.
Before the boys arrived, workers from the Department of Children and Families (DCF) rang the doorbell toting bunkbeds and blankets. The team assembled the bunks and Benecia and Edwardo watched as their once spare bedroom became the sleeping quarters of the five faceless boys.
Benecia and Edwardo desperately wanted these boys to feel comfortable when they arrived, and the first-time foster parents faced the question: beyond having a place to sleep, what makes someone feel welcome in a home?
“He didn’t have the confidence to just be a kid.”Benecia Sanchez
The idea of home has been integral to humans since their beginnings. Nomadic people found home in the few places they circulated throughout the year, often following the patterns of the land that provided sustenance. The indigenous Unalachtigo people, a dialectical clan of the larger Lenape nation, likely spent summers by the ocean gathering fish to preserve for the long winters inland in the Pine Barrens. In the north, the Munsee subtribe occupied the headwaters of the Delaware River. For indigenous people, water meant life, food and survival. The act of finding home has always been first and foremost a way of meeting one’s survival needs.
So it makes sense that for Edwardo, a sense of home meant having a hot meal ready for the boys when they arrived.
Indeed, for five fearful brothers, the smell of pizza broke the ice. Xavier gorged himself. “I hadn’t eaten the night before,” he said, sitting straight and looking out from under his clean-cut dark hair. The warm meal is still what the boys remember most about their first night in the new home.
However, as indicated in the famous, but ethically questionable psychological study by Harry Harlow, the fulfillment of physical needs isn’t all that matters. In his experiments, Maslow found that baby monkeys preferred to spend their time on a pretend “mother” monkey who was covered in a soft comfortable cloth, as opposed to the uncomfortable mesh mother who provided milk. The babies would feed briefly on the milk mother, and spend the rest of their time on the comfy mother. Comfort is a huge part of home.
The boys were removed on an emergency basis, and arrived at the Sanchez-Berrios house with no physical belongings and little sense of comfort. “I remember how sad it was to see them when they arrived,” Benecia said, “I didn’t understand how a mother could do this to her sons.” Despite her nerves and sadness, Benecia made the boys feel welcome in one way she could control – buying them the necessities. So shortly after pizza, they went to Target.
When twelve-year-old Aidan Vasquez got into the car with Benecia, body odor filled the vehicle, forcing a nauseated Sanchez to roll down the windows and feign enjoyment of the frigid February air. “The smell was horrible…they didn’t know how to bathe or brush their teeth. We had to give them showers that first night,” Benecia said, sitting on a mid-century style couch beside a large bay window in her newly self-renovated home, “When I saw the condition they were in it broke my heart as a mother.”
At Target, Benecia bought the basics…times five. “She spent like a grand on us that night,” Xavier said. “Even though she didn’t know what was going to happen.” For Xavier, this offering of physical comfort made him believe that even though they were strangers, these people cared. Benecia wasn’t worried about the money, “At that point, I wasn’t even thinking about getting reimbursed; it’s just what the boys needed.”
While they had only been married a year, Benecia and Edwardo (affectionately referred to as Benny and Eddie) had children of their own from other relationships. Edwardo’s son Eddie and Benecia’s daughter Natalie live with them full time. Together, they planned on fostering a little girl.
Then, they heard about the boys.
Edwardo was out of work while recovering from knee surgery and, instead of binging Netflix, he spent his extra time volunteering at a mentorship program. Jesus, Edwardo’s mentee, began to discuss his brothers. “It wasn’t always a very pleasant experience because Jesus would talk about the conditions his brothers were living in,” Edwardo said, the words emerging slowly and evenly while he sat straight-backed on his couch, bathed in light from the large window in his living room. Jesus informed Benny and Eddie that the state was going to remove his brothers from their home and asked if the family would take them.
Eddie said ‘Yes, yes!’ But I said, ‘Wait a minute, hold on, I just finished,’” Benecia said, referring to her two grown daughters. “But we discussed it and I said, ‘You know what, just bring them.’ Twenty minutes later, DCF was here with bunk beds and pillows!”
This was Benny and Eddie’s very first placement.
Their household went from four to nine in a moment when five boys arrived wide-eyed and uncertain on their doorstep. That night, for the first time in the Sanchez-Berrios household, nine heads rested, unsure of what tomorrow held.
Two years after the boys arrived in Linden, the days were growing longer and the world warmer as spring emerged. Superhero action figures now regularly lay strewn across the house, casualties of the never-ending battle boys play at while growing up. Bananas, apples, and clementines pile up on the kitchen counters, but the fresh fruit never spoils in a home with five growing boys constantly on the prowl for snacks.
That afternoon, the boys were dressed for the season in light-colored button-down shirts and khaki shorts. A small, decorative chalk board on the coffee table read “Forever Sons,” illuminating the day’s intention. It was adoption day.
In the corner, the youngest brother, four-year-old Logan, was immersed in his iPad, seated on a wide salmon-colored armchair chair before cool gray walls. Ethan, 12, and Peyton, 6, were hunched over math homework at a modern kitchen island, situated in an open floor plan extending into the living room and dining room, where the second oldest brother, Aidan, sat reading.
The couple had purchased a new house when they decided they wanted the boys with them long term. “I did the construction, she did the decorating,” said Edwardo, an unexpected smile arising on his hardened face. He works as a cook in a local restaurant and radiates a calm unique to someone used to staying level-headed in chaos.
Some of this chaos was obvious when the five boys were seated around the dining room table. The oldest, Xavier, balanced Logan on his right knee, while Peyton was practically magnetized to Xavier’s side, watching his every move as Ethan and Xavier played chess. “The pawn can move two squares!” Logan said when Xavier only moved it one. “Only on the first turn, Logan,” Xavier said. “Someone give me a noun!” Aidan interrupted from the end of the table, seeking collaboration for a Mad Libs word game.
But that was only five of them. The split-level’s front door keypad was keyed-in constantly, it seemed, with members of the nine-person family coming and going and their small mop-like dogs yapping from downstairs upon each arrival. Once, the door opened to Benecia arriving home from work. Making her way up the split-level’s steps, she greeted us, two camera-wielding strangers in her home, with effortlessness, as if such an intrusion was entirely normal. After a quick hello, she hurried off to change for the event. She returned with a comb in hand, ready to smooth Logan and Peyton’s hair. Then the family made their way, slowly, out of the house.
“The hardest thing was telling my brothers it was going to be okay, because I didn’t know if it was going to be okay.”Xavier Sanchez
Some evidence-based predictive factors for adoption applied to the boys; they were living in traditional foster care (a non-kinship home), and their parental rights had been terminated. But in other ways, the boys were outliers. There were five of them, and at the time of their adoption, three of them were twelve years old or older, an older age which can be indicative of more difficulty being adopted. Yet, they were off to the courthouse.
Under the patchy spring sun, surrounded by flowered trees stretching above neat suburban lawns, the family piled into different cars, Xavier with his older brother, Eddie, and the rest of the boys with Benny and Edwardo. The black SUV and grey sedan rolled down the hot driveway and headed off to the courthouse in Newark, the city that the boys left behind two years earlier.
The courtroom stood upon the Judge’s entry. From the stand, Judge Cavanaugh’s glasses reflected the yellow light. Addressing Xavier, she said, “Your brothers may never know the details of what you’ve been through, but I do, and you should be so proud of yourself. You are a remarkable young man.”
On the streets of Newark, an empty fridge at home pushed Xavier to find food for himself and his brothers elsewhere. He would often walk to the corner store where nutrition is scarce and soda is cheaper than water. The boys’ bodies ballooned from the unbalanced diet. “I weighed over 260, that was the heaviest weight I’ve ever been at,” Xavier said. In Newark, the boys stayed in their rooms, watching YouTube videos. “The hardest thing was telling my brothers it was going to be okay, because I didn’t know if it was going to be okay.”
When fall arrived in the city, Xavier’s mother forgot to sign him up for school. Even after his repeated requests, he missed six months of freshman year. And when he was in the classroom, peers harassed him because of how he smelled. He hadn’t been taught to bathe properly and had grown used to the odor. “I honestly couldn’t even smell it,” he says, eyes fixed on the floor.
The middle brother, Ethan, also spoke about the conditions of their bio mother’s home. “It was always dirty; my mom had a dog that she didn’t clean up after. Sometimes random people came to live in the house with us. I don’t know why my mom did that.”
In an article in The Atlantic about the psychology of home, Senior Editor Julie Beck explains, “A home is a home because it blurs the line between the self and the surroundings, and challenges the line we try to draw between who we are and where we are.” In cases of neglect, this blurred boundary becomes more complicated. A child realizes that the environment they are in is not safe and must maintain a sense of separation between oneself and ones surroundings. Sometimes, this can result in reactive attachment disorder, where the brain protects the child by cutting off the child’s ability to form bonds with others.
Forming secure bonds with caregivers leads to an ability to find home not externally, but internally. When, as children, we attach to our caregivers in a secure way, we are set up with an ability to find confidence and security within ourselves and develop a healthy sense of identity. But these boys experienced an abrupt schism in their parenting, which could have played a role in their understanding of home. Sometimes, severe behavioral problems can extend from childhood turmoil. However, these boys have adjusted miraculously well despite their experience.
That said, the adoption process hadn’t been easy. Benecia was buried in paperwork and logistical planning while Edwardo focused on making sure the brothers were comfortable and had their everyday needs met, like getting ready for school with five of them sharing one bathroom. “I know that DCF has a lot to handle, but I could see how children fall through the cracks,” Benecia said. She was constantly fighting for the boys to receive IEP plans in school, see their therapists, and get the assistance they required. “It was therapy appointments times five, doctors’ appointments times five.”
“The tragedy and blessing that another woman’s child calls me mom is not lost on me…but they are my kids, that’s how I see them.”Benecia Sanchez
While Edwardo and Benecia had children from other relationships, the newlyweds had never raised kids together. Now, they faced the challenge of parenting five boys, managing everyday arguments between brothers, calling doctors to schedule appointments, filling out adoption forms, all while trying to maintain their own relationship. “It’s put a strain on our marriage,” said Benecia. “But l know and love that [Edwardo] loves his sons.” It’s this love that’s held the couple together through their difficulties.
Beyond logistics, there were visitations. As a standard part of fostering, which first focuses on reunification, the boys had visitations with their biological parents. “These visitations were difficult,” Edwardo explained, “because their mom was always under the influence.”
The boys’ biological mother was fighting a battle with heroin addiction. At the time of removal, she had been using for at least twelve years.” Logan, the youngest boy, had gone through withdrawal when he was born.
“Those visitations used to put us on a rollercoaster,” said Benecia. When adoption became a possibility because of the bio parents’ behavior, the boys’ biological father would often call the Sanchez-Berrios house, trying to get them back.
Then, he stopped. “It was hard for the boys to understand why their parents weren’t trying,” said Edwardo.
Home is also a place where memories are formed. The boys suddenly and permanently left the place only place they’d ever known. This abrupt change was a challenge.
“For a while, Logan wouldn’t even speak to me,” Benecia recalls. When Logan would cry at night, Xavier would find his way through the dark house to his brother’s crib to soothe his sobs. “I had to tell him, it’s okay, I got this,” Benecia said. But for months Xavier would hover around his younger siblings while they played or watched movies or ate dinner. “He didn’t have the confidence to just be a kid,” Benecia said.
Losing her battle with addiction, the boys’ biological mother overdosed on heroin three months before their adoption. “I had her buried here in Linden.” said Benecia, who, with the help of her daughter, started a GoFundMe for the project. “I wanted them to have a place that if they wanted to go visit her, they could.” She makes it clear that “The tragedy and blessing that another woman’s child calls me mom is not lost on me…but they are my kids, that’s how I see them.”
The lobby of the Newark courthouse glowed yellow — incandescent light reflecting off the line of golden elevators that carried the family up to the courtroom on the tenth floor. Outside the courtroom, chatter rose from the crowd of family and friends that had gathered.
Research shows that the largest motivating factor for families who adopt is to provide a permanent home to a child in need. While other reasons, like infertility or a desire to expand one’s family are also cited, the overwhelming reason people adopt is to provide children with permanence and stability. That is, the most overwhelming reason is a selfless one. To be sure, the toll that such a task can take is only outweighed by selfless motivation.
Benecia and Edwardo were not expecting to add five kids to their family. When they heard about the brothers, they had actually put their licensing process on hold. “I wanted to take a step back,” Benecia says. “I was going to go back to school to become a Physician’s Assistant. I always wanted to be a doctor.”
But for Edwardo, the boys’ trials were too close to home. Sitting on the couch, he paused, his gaze fixed somewhere beyond the bay window. “I myself was adopted,” he said, searching for the right words in long pauses. “I know what it’s like to not have your parents around, to be in survival mode all the time.” He closed his eyes to the emerging tears. “God gave me a chance. I had to give them a chance.”
Benecia was on the same team. “I was always the helper of my family. It’s always been in me,” she explained. “I was the one that would go everywhere and translate for [my mother]… I wasn’t rich growing up, I grew up in the ghetto in Washington Heights… and I wanted my daughters to have a better life.” This desire to improve the experiences of others seems to be an unlimited wellspring that now provides hope to five young men.
A home is more than a physical place. It becomes clear when looking at photo of a first apartment or college dorm and realizing that you had entirely forgotten the type of pillows or decor you had. The physical items around us often fade, outweighed by the less tangible but more memorable feelings or experiences we have in a place. The sparsely decorated Sanchez-Berrios home may be both an intentional design choice and the result of financial streamlining to afford raising five boys, but it also speaks to how it’s not the items in the home that define it, but rather the feeling one gets from the space.
We met the family in their backyard one summer evening, where the playful calls and excited laughter of children carried through the yard while Benecia, her daughters, Aidan and Xavier sat talking at the patio table. Logan played a super-sized Connect Four game with Eddie’s biological daughter who visits every-other weekend and Peyton called to them both from the trampoline where he hung for moments in weightlessness. Near the table, Edwardo manned the grill. The family’s activities remained unchanged upon the arrival of a camera crew, except for Benecia casually welcoming us as if we were part of the family.
“I know what it’s like to not have your parents around, to be in survival mode all the time. God gave me a chance. I had to give them a chance.”Edwardo Sanchez
That first winter night I imagine the family greeting the five scared boys with the same ease and comfort they gave to the strangers recording video in their home. They made us feel like we already belonged there — like we didn’t have to do anything special or be anything special to be welcome. The Sanchez-Berrios family radiates openness, empathy and rationality that makes their house a home.
But it wasn’t just Benecia and Edwardo who created a sense of home. Before the courtroom Judge Cavanaugh spoke highly of the boys, observing that, “Each of these young men has allowed themselves to be loved and allowed themselves to be nurtured.” The brothers’ ability to accept love in the face of their challenges is just as important as the love their family offers.
In his basement bedroom that he shares with his older brother, Edwardo’s biological son, Xavier’s meticulously folded clothes sat on a rack and a candle glinted softly on his dresser. He showed us his ROTC rank patches, explaining that he’s been involved in the ROTC program since starting school in Linden two years ago. He attended a police academy program this summer, in the hopes of figuring out his next move after high school.
As for the other four, Aidan explained that he plans to read the whole Harry Potter series. Logan and Peyton have the freedom to be young kids, focusing mainly on their favorite action figures and who can win an argument between the two of them. Ethan loves both art and logic and thinks he might want to be a lawyer. These young men are heading down a brighter path than the one they left behind in Newark. As Xavier said, his face serious above clasped fingers, “If we had stayed, I don’t think some of us would still be here.”
The Sanchez-Berrios family is not naive enough to think that the boys won’t face difficulties finding home within themselves or in the places they inhabit, but what matters is that the boys have a family to support them on this journey.
On adoption day, the five boys left the courtroom with a new last name – Sanchez-Berrios, but over the past two years, they have received so much more. Xavier’s new middle name captures it well, “My middle name is Phoenix; it means to rise from the ashes.”
And risen is exactly what he and his brothers have done.