Building a family

Local couple adopts three sisters

T-R PHOTO BY SARA JORDAN-HEINTZ Sara and Justin Nickel of Marshalltown adopted three siblings on Adoption Saturday, and they are looking forward to building a life with them. The couple adopted twin girls Libby, far left, and Mya, far right, 4, and their little sister Allie, 3.

For Sara and Justin Nickel of Marshalltown, the holiday season will be filled with extra love, laughter and cheer. That’s because on Nov. 19 — Adoption Saturday — their family grew by three little girls. In honor of National Adoption Month, the Times-Republican shares their story.

The Nickels, who have resided in Marshalltown for two years, and previously lived in Kansas City, always knew they wanted to have a family. Sara’s experience teaching special education to needier populations of children in Kansas City helped nurture her maternal instincts. Today she is employed as a school improvement consultant at Area Education Agency 267. Justin is the director of public works for the City of Marshalltown. In their nine years of marriage, conceiving children biologically proved challenging.

“It was a lot of expense and heartache,” Sara said. “But when we moved to Marshalltown, being closer to our Iowa family, we knew it was a good time to start the adoption process.”

They decided to enroll in foster/adoption courses in November 2015 at Marshalltown Community College through Iowa KidsNet, earning an adoption/fostering license. After Christmas of that year, the couple learned of an opportunity to foster — and potentially adopt — not one, but three children, through Iowa KidsNet and Lutheran Services in Iowa (LSI).

“Deb Millizer, a social worker, thought we’d be a good match for the girls,” Sara said. “We first got to meet them February 2016. We started with home visits, Saturday visits, and Easter weekend they stayed with us.”

By April, the girls were living with the Nickels. Libby and Mya, 4, are twins, and Allie, 3, is their little sister. While the couple always envisioned adopting either a baby or young child, taking three youngsters at one time was not in the initial plan.

“I would never have envisioned having three little girls a year ago,” Justin said. “Two kids were sort of our cap we thought.”

Before the girls could be officially theirs, says the Nickels, the couple went through background checks, massive amounts of paperwork and building a relationship with DHS.

“There was also a lot of paperwork if we took them out of state, and we even had to contact DHS for permission to cut their hair,” Sara said.

The pair called the transition of the girls coming to live with them as “seamless,” and despite the expected bumps in the road, being a mother and father to the sisters has felt natural to the Nickels. However, they noted how the classes didn’t prepare them for all the little struggles and setbacks of everyday life.

“The hardest part of the classes was when they would give you tough scenarios to work through, and what severe behavior issues to prepare for,” Sara said. “But the simple things we weren’t prepared for. For example, I figured I could put them all in the tub at the same time for bath time. It was chaos. You also spend time learning what they’ll eat and their likes and dislikes … You don’t get told everything in their story. Because of legalities there are things we don’t know about them, and things will just come out when they’re in play therapy or talking to us.”

Libby, Mya and Allie officially became part of the family in an adoption ceremony held at the Hamilton County Courthouse in Webster City, one of only a handful of courthouses in the state where the ceremony was held this year.

“The judge requested our case because he’d heard the court case about their termination of parental rights and he wanted to see it through. It was a really neat day,” Sara said.

“I remember the judge turning to me and saying, ‘sir, you are outnumbered now,'” Justin laughed.

The girls enjoy going on nature hikes, learning about the seasons and watching Sara cook.

Having gained insight into the world of foster/adoption care, the Nickels feel strongly about the need for others to get involved.

“There is really a need for foster and adopted parents,” Justin said.

According to information provided by Iowa KidsNet, 100,000 children in the United States — 345 in Iowa — live in foster care awaiting adoption. In many cases, it takes three years for these children to be adopted. The need is greatest among groups of siblings, teenagers, and children over eight years old. Every year over 23,000 children age out of the foster care system, upon turning 18.

“We’re just over the moon with these girls. We’re really looking forward to Christmas. This has been better than having a family on our own,” Sara concluded.


Contact Sara Jordan-Heintz at  641-753-6611 or