A friend's mother came to the rescue
The Scotts have provided a home for more than 50 foster children
A pair of sisters join the Bayfords in Gloucester
A mother and her daughter discuss their journey from foster care to adoption
From housing children to finding them homes
Myth No. 1:
"You must be married"
"You can be single, you can be married, you can be divorced," says Jennifer Albertson, supervisor of foster-parent training team for the city of Richmond. The age minimum differs across the state. For some localities, it is age 18, and in others, such as the city of Richmond, the age minimum is 21.
Myth No. 2:
"You must own a house"
Foster-care individuals can live in a house or an apartment — the only requirement is that there is appropriate space in the house for the child or children in question. Renting a home is acceptable.
Myth No. 3:
"You must have a large income"
There is no income requirement; families must just be self-sufficient, meaning they are not currently receiving any welfare benefits. Foster parents also receive a stipend each month to assist with the child's expenses. Medicaid covers all medical and dental needs for foster children. For adoptive families, financial aid also is available.
Myth No. 4:
"Foster-care adoption is expensive"
Fees for adopting a child
from the foster-care system through social services and a number of private agencies are minimal. The home study is free through social services, but sometimes fees apply if a private agency is used. However, adoptive parents generally must pay attorney fees to finalize the adoption, but in some cases they may receive a reimbursement of
up to $2,000. —BE
Foster-Care and Adoptive Resources
Children's Services System Transformation
Features information on Virginia's statewide foster-care transformation, including information on CORE, videos, reports and a feedback form.
Children's Home Society
353-0190 or chsva.org
Facilitates foster-care adoptions with state agencies and provides extensive training for adoptive parents. Also, the society's Web site features the stories and videos of children who need foster-care and adoptive homes.
FACES of Virginia
A nonprofit that provides advocacy, collaboration and training for adoptive, foster and kinship families.
National Foster-Care Resources
888-200-4005 or adoptuskids.org
A national photo database of children in the foster-care system, waiting for an adoptive family, as well as general information on foster care.
Information on foster care and adoption in Richmond, including schedules of free orientations and more.
(866) 558-3533 or 353-4461 or umfs.org
UMFS offers foster and adoptive services including partnering with the state to find homes for foster children or return them to their biological parents; training for parents; and additional support to families post-adoption. Also, UMFS runs a treatment center for children in the system ages 11 to 18 with a certified charter school, as well as therapeutic after-school, day and summer programs.
Virginia Social Services dss.state.va.us/localagency
Featuring a list of local social-service offices, organized by county.
Jermira is only 15 but has lived in 16 Richmond foster homes since 2002.
Removed from an abusive family when she was 8, she has attended only one school for more than a year. Jermira currently resides in a Richmond-based treatment center, where she attends school, meets with a counselor and waits for a foster family. She knows that finding a permanent home at her age is beyond tough. "I am scared because I don't know what is going to happen," she solemnly says. Jermira's fears are well founded. Virginia ranked No. 1 in the nation for foster children exiting the system by choice at 18 or by law at 21 without being adopted, returned to their biological parents or transferred into the custody of another family, the Pew Charitable Trusts reported in 2007, using 2004 state statistics. In 2004, the state had 21 percent of its foster children leaving without a guardian, and by 2008, that percentage had increased to 34 percent, state social services reported. "It is hard to be a teenager anyway, but once you have been in 10 homes, in 10 schools, you have been placed so many times, it is so hard to trust," says Cate Newbanks, executive director of FACES, a nonprofit that supports foster families. "You start to see some hard-headedness. If they don't develop some resilience, the system could wear them down, so they get very strong. After a while, some of them say, ‘I don't want to be adopted, I don't want this. I am just going to go out on my own.' " Eighteen-year-old Elijah Gee is one of those system-worn young adults. Gee had been in the foster-care system since he was 3, passing through more than seven homes. "My mom was addicted to drugs," he says. "It is never positive moving from home to home." "Basically, I am homeless," says Gee, who was released from the foster-care system in December 2008, after a rule violation. "I have been going from house to house, pillow to post, searching for jobs, doing work on the side." Gee cuts grass and washes cars. His wish is to "live comfortably, find a job, continue my education and possibly join the service." Youth who leave the minute they turn 18 miss out on what can be a beneficial period of foster care, says Donna Rohde, a social-work supervisor in Petersburg. If young adults stay under the state's care or are in a foster home, they can apply for a two-year grant for community-college tuition if they have their GED or are a high-school graduate. For those 18 and older who are not placed with a foster family, assistance with housing and transportation also is provided. Many of the young adults who don't find families each year exit the system without the financial or the emotional support to pursue a career or even finish high school, says Donna Douglas, director of the Hanover County Department of Social Services. One in four of the young adults leaving the system are incarcerated within two years, the 2007 Pew report cited. More than 20 percent become homeless, like Gee. How Did We Get Here? Virginia first lady Anne Holton has been involved with foster care since she became a juvenile-court judge in 1998. Contributing to Virginia's poor track record with older foster-care children has been a defeatist attitude, she says. "It's not that people don't want to help these kids, but there was just sort of that sense that these are challenged kids, and what can you do but warehouse them and wish them luck when they go into adulthood," Holton says. As of April, Virginia had 6,922 children in the foster-care system. Of those children, 1,431 were living in group homes or treatment centers, not with foster families. Most in congregate care are age 16 and older. Another factor contributing to the pile up in congregate care, Holton says, is that state funding has been heavily allocated to group homes and treatment centers, without sufficient money for community-based programs such as counseling and crisis-intervention services for birth parents in the hope that they can have their children returned. Virginia's Comprehensive Services Act (CSA) requires the state to fund all services needed by a foster youth, without a price ceiling, Holton says. Because of this, the budget has increased by about 10 percent each year during the last decade. In 2008, foster-care funding totaled $244.3 million. "This is not an area where Virginia is particularly stingy," she says. A good portion of the CSA funding goes to treatment centers, which provide a range of services, including housing, schooling and therapy. Holton says those centers play a vital role, but care can exceed $150,000 per student, per year. Turning the Numbers Around Holton saw the need to revamp Virginia's foster system months before the Pew report was issued. She launched "For Keeps: Families for All Virginia Teens" in January 2007. Holton's initiative dovetailed into an effort among state agencies to transform the system. "Secretary of Health and Human Resources Marilyn Tavenner was recognizing that if we do better by these kids by building better community-based services and helping them be successful in families, maybe we could get a grip on the increases in that portion of the budget," Holton says. Henrico, Chesterfield and the city of Richmond became part of a 13-locality Council on Reform in December 2007. Council members heard ideas from out-of-state professionals on many topics, including improving foster-parent recruitment. They then developed a new recruiting system, which Richmond now uses. Jennifer Albertson, the city's foster-parent training team supervisor, says local recruitment has shifted from asking an intrusive list of questions (queries about income, criminal history, house size and more) to a welcoming approach, providing callers with information and an invitation to the next orientation. "We were trying to determine in a single phone call if they would be an appropriate for us," Albertson says. "We want people to come and decide for themselves about requirements. Even if we have someone come to orientation who might not [foster children], our hope is they will take the info and share it with friends or family and increase awareness." Richmond also created a foster-care hotline (646-KIDS), centralizing calls that used to be fielded by a variety of employees. Orientation sessions have increased from every other month to once per month, and they include a panel of veteran foster parents. "Research has always shown that your best recruiters are your foster parents," Albertson says. "It humanizes these children who [are not] just statistics and a number, but are children with tremendous talents and dreams." Albertson adds that attendance at the orientations has doubled since the hotline was created. Team Approach Keeping children in family homes is another focus of the reform council. Last summer, team meetings involving the child and all adults in his or her life started in the city of Richmond. "They are meetings we are holding every time we are dealing with a child who might be removed [from an abusive home] or when we are even looking at some type of permanency plan or even an adoption plan," says Cheryl Williams, the city's foster-care program manager. "The goal is to involve the birth family, any community members … that the child knows as well as service providers. We bring everyone together and look at the family and child's strengths and see what strengths they have that might meet the needs that have been identified to help maintain that child and that family." Since this new plan was implemented, the city has held 260 team meetings for 304 youths, mostly between the ages of 12 to 19, who were living in group homes or residential-treatment centers. As of the end of March 2009, 24 children were returned to relatives through the team-meeting process; nine were placed in independent living situations; and 10 are now in therapeutic-foster homes. From Dec. 1, 2007 to April 1, 2009, the number of children in congregate care in the 13-locality council that includes Richmond has been reduced from 763 to 513 children; in the rest of the state, the number has dropped from 1,159 to 918. The hope is that the new programs adopted in the reform council's 13 localities will be implemented statewide by the end of the year. Realities with Older Children Children enter the foster-care system most frequently because of neglect and abuse, making up about 56 percent of the state's cases, according to 2008 data from the Virginia Department of Social Services. The next most common reason is when parents cannot meet the physical, mental or emotional needs of their child. "Some children have been born with challenging behaviors. Some children have been abused in terrible, terrible ways, so it's no surprise that they've got some issues," Holton says. "Some of them, once they came into foster care, we passed them around from place to place, so that if they weren't a mess when we got them, they are a mess now." Paul McWhinney, the state's family-services director, adds that by law all reasonable efforts must be made to reunite or keep the child with his birth parents. If that is not possible within a reasonable amount of time, the preferred next step is transferring custody to relatives. "The third step is adoption and requires the procedure of termination of parental rights, which sometimes extends the child's stay in foster care," he says. Neglect and abuse or living in a chaotic situation as a young child are more damaging to development than is usually realized, says Don Wilhelm, a child psychologist who has counseled foster kids and families for more than 25 years. "Kids who enter the foster-care system have some degree of attachment-related trauma," Wilhelm says. "It's too complicated to say there is one problem that caused it. It's very sad." Lack of trust and struggle with control are typical with attachment disorders. While the complexities of a child's history can be intimidating, particularly with the older teens, Wilhelm reminds parents that kids of all ages are extremely resilient and often recover quickly once brought under a permanent care. Families considering foster care should take into consideration the child's case file, but should also know that a child most frequently reacts positively to being placed in a home with a long-term, loving environment. "If a family is trying to adopt a child who has been in the foster-care system, you want to prepare yourself. You want to understand what attachment-relationship problems are," he says, adding. "A lot of those self-correct pretty easily. What it takes is secure care." Wilhelm has seen the profound impact that kind of care can have on an older child. "Adolescents get a bad name. I don't think adolescents are any harder than younger children. Obviously the younger the child, [the longer] you have to retrain them," he says. "You just have to judge a child's potential to change based on who they are, not their age." People are intimidated by fostering older children, says Ronald Scott, a Richmond foster-adoptive parent of three teens with his wife, Viola. "You are covering a lot of ground when you take one in and teach them what you know. "The point is: You save a life."
Beyond the Case File
In spring 2007, Kevin and Robin Mason began pursuing Robin's dream of adopting through foster care. They were drawn to Aaron, now 14, whom they saw on a Web site that listed children waiting for adoption. But as they began to take steps in the process, they discovered that Aaron was on 10 medications and had troubling behavior patterns noted in his case file.
Kevin and Robin decided to look beyond that file. After meeting Aaron, they had him come for a weekend visit in their Petersburg home.
"There is nothing wrong with this child. All the things you heard and read and then there is nothing wrong with this child," Kevin says of his early visits with Aaron. "We are still looking for the symptoms. We haven't seen them."
Soon, Aaron's doctors reduced the amount of medication he was taking, and he was adjusting to family life. As with any child, Robin says Aaron had attachment issues, but having three birth children had prepared her well. Also, classes at the Children's Home Society had equipped them. "It was like he was testing me," Robin says, adding that at times he refused hugs or stayed in his room. "I learned to not take myself so seriously. And what I thought was him pushing me away, was just him testing me to see if we would really keep him."
Aaron's adoption by the Masons was finalized in February. Aaron, who at first would just stare awkwardly when jokes were made, is now the comic of the family and keeps them laughing. "Anyone who is thinking about doing [foster care], especially with older children, just be patient. Don't take it personally," Kevin says.
"It is worth looking into because it is not as bad as you think," Robin says. "You cannot go on what you read or hear or what people say. You need to get to know the child first before you decide to turn them away."
Aaron's now dreaming of college and law school. "I am now looking forward to the future."
Waiting and Wishing
While the Masons found Aaron through an online search, Jermira still waits, along with 835 other children statewide whose parents have had their rights terminated. In the Richmond region alone, 370 foster children are 16 or older.
At the residential treatment center in Richmond, Jermira receives personalized therapy. She says that she has overcome anger issues and is ready to find a long-term family. "I have changed a lot," she says, adding that she finds comfort in talking with her roommate and focusing on her goals — to finish high school, go to college and become a doctor. "I have watched pain every day," she says. "I want to help people."
Jermira's voice warms as she talks about her peers at the center. "I'm a leader," she says, explaining that she will break up fights, and then take time to listen to both sides. "I just sit down, and they cry on my shoulder or cry on my arms. I can feel their pain. I just sit down and shake my head and say, ‘I feel for you.' It's hard to be in a place like this," she says. "I ask myself why I have to be here."
Her regimented days of school and therapy sessions leave little free time, time in which she listens to music, including her idol, R&B singer Keyshia Cole, who was adopted from the foster-care system.
"I live for my music," Jermira says, her dark eyes lighting up. "The sad songs, I just cry them out or sing." She begins humming a Cole song: "Have you ever had someone who loved you? Never leave your side?"
Jermira stops, explaining that although it's a love song, the lyrics speak to her. "I want someone to love me and care about me. I want to stop moving from home to home."
Jermira: photo courtesy Children's Home Society; Aaron: Jay paul photo