What makes a family? Love and support, for sure. People who challenge you, who tell you life's brutal truths and then pick you up again.

Considering adoption?

Of the 467 children in DSS custody legally free for adoption today, 323 are 13 years old or older. For more about South Carolina's waiting children, visit www.scheartgallery.org. To learn more about adopting, contact Jackie Adams at 953-9758 or jacqueline.adams@dss.sc.gov.

And family shouldn't end at 18, though it does for children in state custody, often removed from their biological families due to abuse and neglect. For many, foster or institutional care ends at the doorstep to adulthood.

Tough road to adoption

The older children in DSS custody get, the less likely they are to be adopted. However, children of all ages need permanent homes and lifelong family bonds.

Year* Total Finalized Adoptions Birth to 5 years Ages 6-12 Ages 13+

2000 402 195 171 36

2001 476 228 195 53

2002 338 150 147 41

2003 360 190 138 32

2004 337 192 111 34

2005 403 229 134 40

2006 460 242 175 43

2007 418 243 133 42

2008 513 291 164 58

2009 527 303 173 51

2010 533 300 180 53

2011 606 350 204 52

2012 833 463 284 86

* State fiscal year

Source: S.C. Department of Social Services

Out into the world they step, usually alone.

That might have happened to Isaiah, Christopher and Jacob Flood if not for a Summerville couple's calling to adopt kids who face the toughest road to finding permanent homes: foster teens with behavioral or learning challenges who have bounced from home to home, never knowing what forever means.

Ernest Flood hails from New York. He's a man who has seen that empty chair where a father should sit and the toll of illegal drugs and what the streets offer boys who don't see hope ahead.

Shana Flood is a country girl from North Carolina who knows the value of a big family, who knows what a kid learns playing outside and growing up in a supportive church and home.

Yet, when the Floods felt called to adopt, they wondered: What can we offer a child?

In the beginning

Ernest was driving trucks for a living back when Shana handed him an article about adoption.

She had long harbored dreams of helping children in need. They decided to look at foster parenting first.

For months, the daunting stack of paperwork from the state Department of Social Services lingered uncompleted. Could they really do this?

Then, they heard about therapeutic foster parenting for children with more intensive needs.

"We said, 'OK, we want to take on this challenge!' " Shana recalls.

They filled out the paperwork. They took classes. Then they stuck a toe into respite fostering first, taking in children for a day or two so their foster parents could get a break.

Each time, the kids said they wanted to stay with them. Forever.

"All kids, no matter what age, need some kind of family to support them throughout life," Shana says. Without that, they are at risk of homelessness, drug abuse and the other alleyways of lost dreams.

The Floods figured maybe they did have something to offer.

Meeting their sons

A child named Isaiah came to stay with them in 2010. Just for the weekend. Just to see how things would go.

At 10, he'd been in seven foster homes. He was angry at DSS, angry about living in a boys' facility, without roots, taken from his parents, separated from his sister, without answers or justice or a future he could see with hope.

That weekend, Isaiah got sick with a stomach bug.

Ernest and Shana cared for him. They felt his anger and his hurt. They decided to adopt him.

"He was a challenge at first," Ernest says, chuckling. "But we loved him where he was at."

Isaiah disrupted his school and his new home. He refused to listen. And often, he shut down, refusing to talk.

Ernest and Shana, a certified nursing assistant, decided Ernest should become a stay-at-home dad. That gave him more time to spend with Isaiah, along with two young biological sons, Ethan and Joshua, who today are 9 and 7.

Today, Isaiah is 15, a freshmen at Summerville High.

"If you saw him five years ago, you wouldn't recognize him," Ernest says.

The boy who once hated to read now devours books. The child who once broke down easily now sings at home. He says he's just happy to be there.

"I don't have to worry about going nowhere else," Isaiah says.

Need vs. reality

It is infrequent for families to adopt three adolescent boys as the Floods have, much less ones who aren't siblings.

Usually, the younger the better. Or so most adoptive families say.

"They want children they can mold. I hear that all the time," says Jackie Adams, a local DSS adoption specialist.

What don't they want?

Children with serious behavioral problems. Children who have been in the system for years. Children who are hurt and bruised and angry.

"It can be scary," Shana concedes. "They are not perfect, and neither are we."

Adams still remembers when the Floods called to adopt Isaiah. She remembers the tears in her own eyes.

"They have really been a blessing," Adams says. "They have made it work."

Today, Isaiah himself urges families thinking about adoption to step up.

"Take a chance and make a difference in someone's life so that kid can have a good life, too," he says.

Growing family

A year after adopting Isaiah, the Floods adopted his new brother, Jacob.

Now 11, Jacob was disruptive in school and "really tried to get a lot of attention," Ernest recalls. Today, he is known for his energy and contagious smile.

About a year and a half later, Christopher came from a different foster home.

"He felt like nobody loved him," Shana recalls.

Chris still remembers his caseworker calling to tell him about the Floods.

"At first, it was kind of awkward because I didn't know what to expect," Chris says.

Mostly, he just wanted a home.

In April 2013, a judge called him up to the bench. The judge took off his robe and handed it to Chris along with his gavel. He let Chris pound it to pronounce himself adopted.

Chris compares it to getting married, to promising a lifelong bond, no matter the highs and lows.

"It changes your life," he says.

Once failing in school, Chris became focused on academics and playing several sports. A freshman, he recently was accepted into Summerville High's Early College Initiative. He is determined to study aerospace engineering and aeronautics.

And if his parents tell him they want to adopt again?

"Let's go for it!" Chris says. "The more people adopt, the more lives are changed."

'Best dad I can'

Growing up without his dad, Ernest often prayed: "If I ever have the chance to be a father, I want to be the best dad I can."

Because he stays home today, he keeps close tabs on his sons' schooling. Their principals and teachers have his cell phone number. If the boys get into trouble at school, he is there. He has even sat in on their classes.

He also takes them to play basketball, to the movies, to the library, to track practice and football practice. He helps them with homework.

Two of their adoptive sons were in self-contained classes in school when they were adopted. Today, none are.

Ernest and Shana share their secret: Accept each son where he is, with whatever wounds and struggles. Then, love him from that place forward - with lots of structure.

"They know what we tolerate and what we don't tolerate," Shana says.

That means lots of studying, reading, playing sports and keeping busy. There is no TV or video games on weekdays.

Everyone goes to church on Sundays. God first, family second.

They also make heavy use of rewards: movies, trips to play basketball, new sneakers and one-on-one time.

"You can't just talk about that we love you," Ernest says. "We show you that we love you."

Something special

Last month, the Floods were invited to a women's basketball game at the University of South Carolina. Little did they expect, they were called up in front of the crowd and honored by DSS and the Gamecocks.

"We don't see what we do as something special. It's just what we do," Shana says.

The signed winning game ball sits on their kitchen table now. Photographs of each son's final adoption greet everyone at the front door.

One recent morning, Shana looks across the kitchen table at Ernest and smiles. She asks if he would consider opening their home to children who need emergency shelter after their families are broken up suddenly by drug busts or violence.

Ernest tries to pretend he is exasperated.

But really he smiles back.

Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563, follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes or subscribe to her at facebook.com/jennifer.b.hawes.