When Foster Teens Find a Home


More families are adopting older kids. But taking in an adolescent can create a new set of challenges for the parents and the child.

By ANITA HAMILTON
Monday, May 29, 2006
TIME Magazine

When Sabreena Boyd was 11, she stood before the congregation at the New Jerusalem Full Gospel Church in Muscatine, Iowa, and asked for a new family. A member of the church's Sunday school, she had recently been placed in a foster home after her mother could no longer care for her. "I gave a speech saying that I wanted to be adopted by a Christian family, a loving family," recalls SaBreena, now 20. Stuart and Tina Juarez, a recently married couple who heard her speak that day, were impressed by SaBreena's maturity and after much soul searching decided to give the girl a home. "We just knew we had to do it," says Stuart. "We saw a child in need, we prayed about it, and everything just fell into place."

But what seemed at first like a storybook ending for a homeless child was actually the prologue to a far more complex tale. SaBreena, a tall, serious girl, had an explosive temper. A few months after her speech, she shoved a classmate's head through a school window and broke another girl's jaw on the bus, all in one week. And after she moved in with the Juarezes in the summer of 1998, she repeatedly ran away. "We did not believe that was the same girl that spoke at the church. It was like, no way," says Stuart. Nevertheless, he and Tina decided to stick with SaBreena and formally adopted her two years later, when she was 14. But things only got worse. SaBreena became pregnant the following year and once took a large Ginsu knife from the kitchen and kept it in her room for days. "She had us all scared for the longest time," says Stuart.

Now married and a mother of two, SaBreena is close to her parents, but as her story shows, adopting a teen can pose all kinds of challenges for the parents and the child. Over the past few years, however, the number of 12- to 18-year-olds adopted out of foster care has risen sharply, from 6,000 in 2000 to 10,000 in 2004. That's thanks, in part, to financial incentives and intensive campaigns to persuade people to take in some of society's most unwanted children. Monthly foster-care subsidies, which used to stop after a child was adopted, now continue typically until age 18 and average about $500 a month. In addition, the federal tax credit for adopting has more than doubled, from $5,000 in 2001 to $10,630 in 2005. And both national and state websites like adoptuskids.org and cominghomekansas.org have launched online photo galleries of older kids available for adoption.

Child-welfare advocates applaud the trend. Young people who "age out" of foster care because they fail to get adopted by the time they turn 18 are especially at risk for homelessness, unemployment and incarceration. "When you grow up in foster care, you just don't get the skills it takes to develop a successful adulthood," says Brenda McCreight, author of Parenting Your Older Adopted Child.

Concerned parents like the Juarezes can provide the grounding these kids need, but it can be extremely difficult for some foster teens to make the transition into a permanent family. About a quarter of adolescent adoptions fail before they're finalized, vs. about 12% of adoptions overall. "You get the double whammy of teen rebellion combined with the challenge of asking the child to change their way of life, which for them is like changing their identity," says McCreight. To make such adoptions work "takes flexibility and families that are willing to give unconditional love and set limits and discipline with love," says Annie Erickson, a psychiatric social worker at the Marillac residential treatment center for troubled kids in Overland Park, Kans.

More than half of all foster teens who get adopted are adopted by their foster parents. All states require prospective foster parents and those who adopt from the foster-care system to take a training program to prepare them for issues that range from coping with the horrors of sexual or physical abuse to the banalities of eating dinner as a family or observing curfews. But parents who have taken the courses say they are only somewhat useful. "Nothing prepares you for when the child comes into your home," says Shirley Williams, who adopted two teenagers last fall. Still, a look at how some teens and families have adjusted can offer insight into what it takes to make a new life for these youngsters.

OVERCOMING A LOST CHILDHOOD

SABREENA BOYD LEARNED TO cook, clean and take care of herself when she was just 7 because, she says, her birth mother was often too drunk or strung out on drugs to watch over her. After she moved in with the Juarezes, "I was told that I needed to try to live the rest of my childhood," says SaBreena. "But what does being a kid mean? I don't think I've ever gotten that explained to me."

The girl clicked right away with her adoptive dad Stuart, now 39 and a Baptist minister. Soon after she moved in, they painted her bedroom her favorite color--sky blue. And after school, Stuart would talk with her about her day. "It was me and Dad all day, every day," says SaBreena, who never met her biological father. Getting along with her new mom Tina, a state clerical worker, also 39, was harder. Says SaBreena: "We didn't have anything to say to each other. The only time we would talk was about chores." Says Tina: "Dad was the friend. Mom was the parent."

Like most teens, SaBreena didn't enjoy being told to put the dishes away or leave her bedroom door unlocked. But instead of sulking when she got really mad, she would run away--sometimes for a few hours, sometimes for a few days. At first when SaBreena disappeared, the Juarezes would call the police and go looking for her. But "that became very old because we could never find her," says Stuart. Eventually, they began leaving a sleeping bag outside the back door as a reminder that even if she didn't want to come inside, she never had to sleep on the streets. When she did come home, the Juarezes would talk to her about what happened and either ground her or give her extra chores. One technique, suggested by counselors, was called "time in," which meant that SaBreena had to stay close to her parents and do whatever they did.

But then SaBreena got pregnant. "It was very shocking," says Tina. "All the values we tried to instill, for a brief moment in time went out the window." Their disappointment was so intense that they wouldn't even drive her to doctor's appointments. "We stepped back as parents," admits Stuart. When the baby girl died just a few days after she was born, SaBreena felt even more alienated from her adoptive parents and ran away again.

It was only when SaBreena left home a few months later to attend Iowa State University, where she is now a senior, that she was able to restore her relationship with Stuart and, for the first time, establish a true bond with Tina. "I missed her more. I used to call her all the time and say, 'Mom, I love you,'" SaBreena recalls. She drew even closer to her parents after she married and became a mother. "I get another shot at SaBreena through her daughter," says Tina. "I can establish a relationship with her on another tone."

RESPECTING THE OUTSIDER

UNLIKE SABREENA, DAN KNAPP NEVER RAN away or openly clashed with his adoptive mother. "He never gave me a problem. He just made me proud," says Jackie Knapp, 53, a single mom who is the education director at a Christian center in Elmira, N.Y. Placed in foster care at age 9 after his father died and his mother was unable to care for him on her own, Dan moved in with Jackie and her parents the next year. Now 24, he still remembers the meeting he attended in which his birth mother told the social worker that she was relinquishing her parental rights: "I was devastated," he says. "I was hearing my mother say she doesn't want me."

Such feelings of abandonment by the birth family are common among older adopted kids and can make it hard for them to trust any adult. "That your mom, the person who is supposed to be there for you no matter what in life, is the first person who actually wasn't there for you--that can be very painful," says Barry Chaffkin, a co-founder of the New York City-- based adoption-services agency Changing the World One Child at a Time.

Now a college graduate and program coordinator at a teen center in Watkins Glen, N.Y., Dan says that in some ways he has always felt like an outsider. When his last name was changed to Knapp, after Jackie legally adopted him when he was 14, "I expected everything to magically change, and it never did," he says. "I still felt like I was a foster kid." He recalls how upset he felt when Jackie's mother occasionally introduced him as her adopted grandson and how his cousins always seemed to get more presents than he did when the extended family exchanged gifts at Christmastime. Moreover, he says, he and Jackie "never really connected on an emotional level."

After Dan got his driver's license in high school, he started spending less time at home. He also stopped talking at meals or skipped them altogether. "I kind of just closed off," he says. Jackie noticed the change in him but opted for a tolerant approach. "I just took it that he's a teenager," she says. "I just kind of gave him his space."

Then Dan went to college, and they started instant-messaging each other to stay in touch. Although he and Jackie IM several times a week and Dan says he would like to work on their relationship, one of the few times he remembers calling Jackie Mom to her face was four years ago at church. "She was at the altar praying, and I put my arm around her, and I called her Mom. I think she cried," he says. Jackie says she knew all along that it would be hard for Dan to call her Mom. "I realized that it was because of the loss of his own mom," she says, adding, "I don't know if he'll ever really get over that, but I'm hoping."

BALANCING FAMILY LOYALTIES

MANY ADOPTED TEENS ARE TORN BY SPLIT allegiances to their birth and adoptive families. A tall, bubbly 16-year-old who plays drums and dreams of being a pilot or neurophysicist, Lamar Stapleton says being in foster care "taught me a lot about life. When push comes to shove, you've only got yourself and your family." And by family, he means his birth family. In November, Lamar and his younger sister Nasia, 14, were adopted by Shirley Williams, 61, a single parent in New York City's Harlem who had already raised five of her own children.

Lamar, who had been in foster care since he was 4, is grateful to have a permanent home. He always calls Williams Mom, and he makes a point of hugging her every day and telling her that he loves her, but he says, "Seeing her as my mother--I don't think I can ever really do that because that would be blocking my [biological] mother out of my life." He continues to hope that he can find his missing birth mom and has even searched for her "once or twice" on the Internet. Having his sister with him helps, but sometimes the stress of dueling loyalties makes him moody. "He holds a lot in. I keep telling him it's not good holding in," says Williams. Admits Lamar: "I think I have less feelings than everybody else. Being in the [foster care] system kind of dilutes your emotions. I basically have two feelings. I am either happy or angry."

Experts acknowledge the conflict that many adopted teens experience and say letting them maintain a relationship with their birth parents (when safe) can help provide more continuity in their tumultuous lives. "We try to help kids realize that you're not replacing one family with another. You're building on," says Chaffkin, who counsels foster kids who are considering being adopted. Tina Juarez says one of the most important lessons she learned while raising SaBreena and the two younger children whom she and Stuart have also adopted is "Don't try and take their prior life away because they'll resent you for it."

ACCEPTING THE WILD CHILD

YEVONDA GRAHAM'S CHILDHOOD MEMORIES are mostly the stuff of nightmares. In and out of 36 foster homes, Vonda, now 22, says she was sexually abused by relatives, molested by a foster parent and raped as a teenager. By the time she got to the home of Dale Graham and Karla Groschelle in Whitley City, Ky., at 17, she had been in eight hospitals and three group homes and had just run away from her last foster home. Arriving at the couple's house for what she expected to be yet another short-term placement, she remembers, "I was so nervous, and I was just thinking to myself, Is this going to be another bad foster home?"

Instead she found that for the first time in her peripatetic life, she felt at home. Karla and Dale "didn't seem fake," she says. "Usually when I'd act up, my [other] foster parents would just send me away, but they didn't. They stuck in there with me." Even when Vonda's date wrecked Karla's brand-new Durango on prom night, Vonda remembers fondly that Karla was worried more about whether Vonda was hurt than about the car. In fact, for the first several months, things went so well that one evening Vonda sat Karla and Dale down in the living room and asked whether they would adopt her even though she was about to turn 18. "I wanted a place to always come home to," she says. "In a foster home, once you're 18, you're out." Recalls Dale, a sculptor: "She said she wanted a family that would always be there for her and for somebody to walk her down the aisle when she got married. Her approach was very sincere."

Vonda's adoption was finalized three weeks before her 18th birthday, but she's still waiting for her happy ending. At 13 she received a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. She never stayed on the prescribed medications but did get hooked on the painkiller Oxycontin. ("I forget my problems. I forget everything," she says of her addiction.) When Karla, now 47, and Dale, 53, tried to intervene, Vonda resisted. Karla, a therapist, says Vonda once agreed to enroll in a rehab program and then checked herself out just three hours after she arrived. She was arrested in 2002 for breaking into a house to steal money for drugs and has been in and out of jail since then on charges including theft, identity theft and intoxication in a public place.

A 2005 study by Casey Family Programs, a foster-care foundation, and Harvard Medical School found that 54% of young adults formerly in foster care as adolescents (including those who later got adopted, aged out or were reunited with their birth family) have mental-health problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. "A big part of our counseling is telling parents how to ride this roller coaster," says Kathy Boyd, supervisor of post-adoption services in Chester County, Pa. No matter how rocky things get, Boyd advises parents never to cut off communication. "Even if the child is rejecting you 100%, call, write, keep that door open so a big chasm doesn't occur and that kid is never willing to open that door again." But she also tells parents to "take care of themselves and to accept that they cannot do everything. We're careful not to lay more guilt on the parents." Karla and Dale say their home is open to Vonda as long as she stays clean. But they have also come to accept that their daughter will make the ultimate choice about how to lead her life. "All we can do is be there for her and be supportive when she's going down the right direction and try to redirect her when she's going the wrong way," says Dale. That kind of commitment is what being a parent--to any child--is all about.

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