By Meryl Feiner

For older foster kids,Finding a Way Home

  |  Adoption  

By the time he was 15, Robert had lived in seven foster care homes and one residential treatment facility. He was available for adoption but that seemed unlikely; the young man was concerned about what would happen to him when he ‘aged out’ of the foster care system at 18. Then he got lucky. A social service worker familiar with his case took a liking to Robert, and decided with his wife to adopt the teen and give him a permanent home. Now Robert is 25 and living on his own, but the love and support of his adoptive family is his forever. There are approximately 1,200 school-age children in New York State who are currently waiting for adoptive homes and wondering, like Robert, what will happen to them if they ‘age out’ of the system. “These are the future homeless,” says Pat O’Brien, founder of You Gotta Believe!, a Brooklyn agency that works to find adoptive homes for teens and pre-teens. “The older they are, the more urgent it is that they get adopted.” At a recent Adoption Fair in Central Park, O’Brien pointed out that, after school, biological kids “move back home with their parents.” Foster kids, however, do not have that option. “These kids need commitment. They have been bounced around,” he said, pointing out that a foster child can lose his bed for misbehavior. Thirteen-year old Asia doesn’t have to worry about that any more. Last year, after spending six years in the foster care system, Asia was adopted into the Queens home of Dr. Belinda Johnston-Briggs and her husband William Briggs. The Briggs first learned about Asia in March 2001 when they received a copy of her bio through You Gotta Believe. After meeting with Asia’s caseworker, seeing a video of Asia and having a home study completed, the Briggs met their future daughter in May. “We got to take her out for the day and we took her to the Camden Aquarium,” says Johnston-Briggs. “I sat in the back seat and let her sit in the front so she could talk to my husband. We were all a little nervous.” Before adopting Asia, the Briggs took an eight-week training course run by You Gotta Believe as part of the adoption certification process. Johnston-Briggs says these classes were a tremendous help in preparing her and her husband for what to expect when adopting a child out of foster care. “The big message I got out of the classes is that these kids come with baggage. They have a past and everything does not commence with your family,” says Johnston-Briggs. “They keep saying it and it finally sinks in.” The Briggs have been a family for more than a year now and while it hasn’t been smooth sailing all the way, Johnston-Briggs says she is proud of what they have been able to accomplish in a short time. “It was the roughest year of my life,” she says. Part of the difficulty, she says, was due to the fact that they had never been parents before. “School was hard for us,” the mother recalls. “I learned that I had to check her bag for homework assignments. But I understand that happens to all parents.” She says Asia also had to realize that she could approach her parents for help with her studies. “She learned that we want her to do well and that it is not unheard of for us to make her study for several hours on a Sunday,” says Johnston-Briggs, a physician with the Beth Israel Residency in Urban Family Health, in Manhattan. She and her husband, who is executive director of Youth and Tennis, Inc., in Queens, place a strong emphasis on education. Johnston-Briggs advises adoptive parents of older children to realize that youngsters come from different home situations and they cannot take anything for granted. For example, she remembers having to teach Asia how to organize her things in her dresser. “Remember, these kids often live out of bags. In foster care they may or may not have had closet space. Some foster homes may have a lot of restrictions, or the families may not have talked as much.” Started in 1995 by a group of volunteers, The You Gotta Believe agency’s success stems from a grassroots effort to recruit parents. O’Brien first looks to the people who are currently in a child’s life such as caseworkers or teachers to see if any are potential candidates to adopt that child. He also recruits parents by sending staff members into the community to distribute leaflets, inviting them to attend one of the You Gotta Believe training sessions. “People do not have to commit to anything when they come in for training. They come to learn and then decide if they want to move forward,” O’Brien explains. You Gotta Believe was recently awarded a grant by the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, in recognition of its success and ability to serve as a model on how to best find permanent homes for children coming out of foster care. “The Dave Thomas Foundation puts special emphasis on children in foster care who have been freed for adoption. These children are typically not the first ones people think of,” says Rita Soronen, executive director of the organization that was started by the late founder of Wendy’s restaurants. “One of the myths people hold about children in foster care is they must be damaged goods, but these children have every ounce of potential they were born with,” says Soronen, noting that the first year is difficult in any adoptive situation. “These children have their own particular set of needs, but in the long run they fair no worse than biological children.” Last summer the results of a National Adoption Attitudes Survey were released. Sponsored by the Dave Thomas Foundation in cooperation with the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, the survey was conducted to identify public attitudes on adoption in order to find areas where Americans need further education on the issue. The research found that four in 10 Americans have considered adopting a child at one time in their lives. Unfortunately, the study notes, children still languish in foster care because not enough families who consider adoption do it. The survey also uncovered misconceptions about adoption. The most common is a fear by 82 percent of respondents that birth parents will try to regain control of the child. Soronen says there have been a few very high visibility cases “where the process got mucked up,” but the reality is it rarely happens in foster care adoption. “When parental rights are terminated, they have no recourse. The adoptive family has total control. It is totally up to the adoptive family as to how much contact they want with the birth family.” Another survey finding showed that many Americans perceive international adoptions as being easier — a notion that is not necessarily true, Soronen says. International adoptions can cost $30,000-$50,000 she notes, while many foster care adoptions are at no cost, and some may also include a monthly government subsidy. Soronen says the Foundation will use the survey results to try to streamline the adoption process and eliminate real or perceived obstacles. In New York City, there seem to be few obstacles for parents who want to adopt children out of foster care. According to information provided by the Administration for Children’s Services, single or married people can adopt; there are no fees to adopt a child in NYC; parents can be of any race or religion; adoption subsidies are often available; and there is ongoing support for adoptive families after the adoption is finalized.

Resources for parents considering foster care adoption • NYC Administration for Children’s Services (212) 676-WISH; • You Gotta Believe! (718) 372-3003 or email Pat O’Brien at • Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption:

Resources for Adoption • Adoptions from the Heart; 30-31 Hampstead Circle; Wynnewood, Pa.; 19096; (610) 642-7200; • The Salvation Army; Thulia Rice; 85 Willis Avenue; Mineola, N.Y. 11501; (516) 746-1484, ext. 241 • The Salvation Army; Elvia Wanna; 132 West 14th Street, 3rd Floor; New York, N.Y. 10011; (212) 352-5641 ext. 1 • Jewish Children's Association; Gelah, Tenn.; 120 Wall Street; New York, N.Y. 10005; (212) 558-9972