Bill and Brenda Clary married in 2000 and became foster parents to 12-year-old Kristen in 2002. They later adopted her through Petersburg Social Services in April of 2004. Kristen, now 19, is a rising sophomore at Virginia State University who's studying computer science. Since the interview took place, Sebastian, 10, was brought into the Clary home as a foster child on April 3. The Clarys are currently walking through the adoption process for Sebastian.
Kristen: I lived with my biological parents in Virginia Beach until I was about 8 or 9. My parents were on drugs, off and on. I would never really see them much because they were always in their room, and they would bring bongs in the house. I'm not exactly sure what happened, but my sister and I were staying at my aunt's house in Hampton for a couple of days, and my mom and dad were somewhere else, and we had nowhere to go. So my aunt called social services, and it was three in the morning, and they came and took us to the foster home. My foster mom was an older lady in her 60s. Maybe four children would be in her home at one time, and they would cry all night. I stayed there for two years. My older sister did not like the rules there, so our other social worker tried to find a home for her to go to. But she was older — 14 — and nobody would take her, so she had to go to a group home. I was really close with her; I was mad at her for wanting to leave. I cried the whole day after she left. I was 9. I lost contact with her the second year I was in that foster home. [Kristen and her sister are still not in touch.]
On the weekends, my social worker would come and pick me up, and we would go out to eat and to the movies. Whenever I had a problem, I could call her. I was lucky to have her. I used to read the Bible a lot; reading it would help me. I also had a counselor through social services for a year, and I would go there every Saturday in the morning and we would talk about the stuff I go through.
In my mind the whole time, I was not going to be adopted, I was going back with my biological parents. It was stuck in my mind that they were going to come back and get me. But after a while, my social worker started talking to me about adoption, and that's when I realized that I was not going to go back to my biological parents. I was just thinking that it would be a better life, that it would be a better home, and I could start school and have a mom and a dad.
Brenda: When I was growing up in San Diego, someone on our block had adopted, and I thought that was the neatest thing. I thought: "I am going to do that!" My husband was also raised knowing about foster care. So we were both aware of the need. We started the process in 2001 of going through the different classes, and it took about a good year. We had profiles on two little girls, and when we saw Kristen, it was like love at first sight.
Kristen: I remember that my social worker called me on the phone, and I went outside to talk to her. She said, "We found a family for you." And I said, "Really? What is their name?" I asked how many children they had and if they had any pets.
Brenda: We met for the first time in June 2002. The social worker brought Kristen in, and she was a tiny little girl, and we were all excited. She dressed herself up for the day, and you could tell. We all love seafood, and so she picked the restaurant, Joe's Crab Shack. Kristen didn't have any trouble ordering in the restaurant and laughing and telling us stories and asking questions. It was a true connection. The transition from that point moved rapidly. Two weeks later, she came to stay with us.
Kristen: I was really excited. I remember asking my social worker, "When can I go and stay with them and see their house?"
Brenda: She didn't have any problems calling us mom and dad. That first year, she talked about her biological family a lot. And I told Kristen that people make bad choices, and sometimes they are not always able to understand the ramifications of those choices. And so Kristen was raised to love these people as much as she loves us. We just accepted that this was a part of Kristen's past life, and we tried to make as little judgment as possible.
Kristen: They were willing to let me talk about my biological family and my foster family. It did help because it is better to talk about it; if you hold it in, you will always be wondering. It's good to have somebody to listen to you.
Brenda: It was good because we had the whole summer of 2002 to get to know each other, to set some rules. Chris, who is Bill's grandson, was living with us as well, and he helped her transition into the house rules. When she started school, people thought that we'd had Kristen for years. It was a quick connection.
Kristen: Sometimes people that we meet, they will say, "You look just like your mom." I never really questioned being here because I knew I did not want to go back to my foster mom. I knew I could not go back to my biological parents, so I was happy I was here because I have a mom and dad and brother and a dog, and we are a family.
Brenda: It has been fun to see her grow, but like everyone else raising a teenager, we have had the teenage issues. It was just the normal things that teenagers do. We never looked at our problems as, "This is an adoption problem." The challenge of adoption is just raising a child and loving her and providing her with the things she is going to need to be a decent person in this world. We had a good relationship with Connie, our social worker. I would call Connie, and Kristen would call Connie, and she would always say, this is your daughter, you must make sure she is understanding. We are Christians and we had prayed before we did anything toward adoption. Our faith has been a major role in unconditional love. Our church, Union Branch Baptist Church, just embraced her. Norman and Florence Brown, her favorite aunt and uncle, have had a big role in helping her to adjust.
Kristen: There were ups and downs, but in the end I know this was a good choice because I have done a lot of things like volunteering and running track, and I know if I was with my biological parents I probably would not have done half the things I am doing now. It was positive even with the ups and downs.
Brenda: The adoption took about two full years, longer than it should have, because the lady who was doing the legal paperwork died, and they had to start the adoption process all over. Then we finally got the paperwork, and she was ours, forever. We went out to eat and laughed and joked, and I said, "Well, we can't give you back now." [Brenda and Kristen both laugh.]
Kristen: I was thinking when the time comes when I am older, I would like to adopt one kid. I would tell others in my situation to have faith and know that good will come eventually, if you believe.
—As told to Bethany Emerson