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Derek Jennings

Bless the child


I don't get into the whole obsessive-compulsive New Year's resolution bit. For one thing, my penchant for procrastination would render most resolutions meaningless, unless I prolonged the deadline until June. Still, as the calendar flips from one year to the next, I do entertain thoughts of what I want from the coming year. My wish list is fairly consistent: health and happiness for my family, more community involvement, professional and spiritual growth, and success in my side business interests. But in 2002, there was something else, a small, insistent voice telling me that this was the year.

Before we had kids of our own, my wife, Tricia, and I agreed that we'd like to adopt one day. Having watched friends and relatives anguished by their inability to conceive, and being sensitive to the vast numbers of children in need of a good family, we made a pragmatic and altruistic pact: If we had problems conceiving our own children, we'd pursue adoption in lieu of fertility clinics and stress. We ended up having no problems whatsoever in the fertility department. But even after being blessed with three children, we maintained our desire to open our home to a needy child.

Acting on that desire, though, has always been relegated to a just-out-of-view future in which we're a little more financially stable--mainly because we'd always figured that adoption necessarily requires thousands of dollars, lawyers and red tape. We'd never thought of foster care as an option.

But things have a way of happening, and by seeming chance we often stumble upon the paths we're meant to take. One day last fall, while I was busy coaching my youngest son's recreation league basketball team, Tricia struck up a conversation with the mother of one of my players. As it turns out, the little boy on my team was her foster child. She and my wife talked through the entire game and then some, as she related her experiences and told us about the next orientation session for prospective foster-care parents. Tricia was intrigued by this young woman who, along with her husband, has foster-parented six children over the last two years.

My wife and I talked about it on the way home from the rec center. And during lunch at Chick-fil-A. And at home during dinner. And later that night before going to bed.

Commitment wasn't the issue. The perpetual crisis state of black youth has long been a concern of ours. We've always considered it crucial that we be part of the solution instead of the problem, as the saying goes.

What we found daunting, though, is the fact that foster parenting is, by design, temporary. It was hard for us to envision forming attachments to children and then having to "give them back" after only a few weeks or months. Still, kids in the foster-care system are precisely the kids that we've always wanted to help--children whose innate potential may never be realized if they're not given a chance to grow up in a loving, nurturing environment.

A week later, we attended one of the monthly orientation meetings offered by Wake County Human Services' Foster and Adoptive Care program. About 50 of us curious, prospective parents were out that night, gathered in a classroom tucked away in one of the county office buildings near Wake Medical Center in Raleigh.

The session was conducted by Vanessa Hickmon, the county's foster-parent recruiter, who told us she'd reached a turning point after several years of working in various mental-health and social-work settings. After four siblings she was trying to place in foster care had to be split up and sent to four homes in four different parts of the county, she became distraught, then determined. Hickmon convinced her supervisor there was a pressing need for someone to actively recruit foster parents, and she's been doing so ever since.

She ran down the relevant statistics for us: At the time of the meeting, there were a total of 512 children in Wake County's foster-care program. Of those, 408 were black, 94 were white and 10 were Hispanic.

I wish I could say I was surprised by the numbers, but I'd figured that the disproportionate number of African Americans represented in various indices of misery--including poverty and all manner of social dysfunction--would correspond to a large number of black youth "in the system." I also knew that once in the system, they'd be less likely to be placed in homes.

More heartening were the statistics about foster parents in the Wake County system. Of these, there are an equal number of black and white couples, while single, black foster parents outnumber their white counterparts by three to one. To me, that's a sign that black folks are actively trying to respond to the needs. Attendance at the orientation meeting, unusually high we were told, was about 80 percent black--roughly mirroring the racial breakdown of children now in the foster-care system.

Such things are important to me because whether the genesis of black social problems lies solely with black folk, or stems in large part from historical and contemporary oppression, the problems won't be solved without the active participation of black people in the solutions. That said, let me make it clear that I'm not hung up on cross-racial adoptions--an issue that's been controversial in the past. While I believe cultural identity is important, I feel even more strongly that all children deserve a caring, supportive environment in which to grow up. If white people are the only ones available to provide that environment for a black child (or vice versa, of course), more power to 'em and may God bless 'em.

During the orientation meeting, which lasted more than two hours, speakers stressed that the primary purpose of foster care is family reunification. We heard presentations from two private, nonprofit adoption agencies--Another Choice For Black Children and Children's Home Society of North Carolina--that partner with the state to assist in temporary and permanent placement of children. Staff members from those groups expounded on the many reasons kids end up in foster care, from situations involving drug abuse, physical abuse, neglect and abandonment, to circumstances in which parents die suddenly without any next of kin available to take custody.

They also worked to clear up a number of misconceptions about foster care and adoption, explaining that the process need not be expensive. In fact, there are enough support programs and subsidies available to allow for almost zero-cost adoption of so-called "special needs" children--a category that includes just about every kind of kid except healthy, white infants. When it comes to placing kids in homes, speakers emphasized that the ability to provide a stable, loving environment weighs much more heavily than the finances of prospective parents. We were surprised to hear that people as old as 64 can serve as foster parents, and that almost half of the county's foster parents have gone on to adopt in cases where family reunification is not possible.

Another key point they discussed was the role that media-inspired misconceptions play in discouraging people from adopting or doing foster care. Sensationalized USA Network-type depictions of psychotic children figure prominently, to the detriment of kids in need.

The orientation by no means downplayed the challenges facing foster parents. An "ice-breaker" exercise asked us to list the four most important things to us in the world and then reflect on how we'd feel if we lost not one, not two, but all of those things. The exercise was meant to replicate the insecurity children in foster care feel--children who could literally wake up one morning to be whisked away by social services and placed in a new home with a new family. Anxiety, fear, anger and confusion are natural human responses to the emotional trauma many of these children endure when jarringly separated from all that is familiar to them.

A video shown during the meeting provided some disturbing examples of the trauma that occurs when the foster-care system fails to help children. It featured several young adults speaking candidly about their experiences. One girl had been in 51 foster homes. She described what sounded like a continual stream of temporary identities, having been forced to reinvent herself at 24 schools and attend worship services as a Baptist, Catholic, Muslim and Jehovah's Witness. Another boy shared his deep fear of separation, exacerbated by foster parents who'd constantly reminded him that they didn't have to keep him. He eventually became a runaway, rather than live day to day wondering whether voicing an opinion or having a disagreement would get him kicked out of yet another home.

Three sets of current foster parents also spoke frankly to us that night about the challenges and rewards of helping kids. They described the ongoing support that would be provided to foster families and children by the Human Services Department, including an 8-week training program and classes for birth children to help them understand and adapt to the changes going on in their homes. We learned that foster care isn't just about children. There are regularly scheduled visits with birth parents and in the best cases, foster care can improve the situation for an entire family.

The most inspiring of the speakers was not a foster parent, but a foster child, who's currently enrolled in a local university on scholarship, and who addressed a crowded room full of strangers with a confidence and self-assuredness admirable for a young man of any background. He was taken in as a teenager by a remarkable woman who's made it her mission to open her home to teens--among the hardest group to place in adoptive or foster care. As the rest of the nation laments what's become of its youth, she's making a difference quietly, one child at a time. Her bright-eyed foster son embodied all the limitless possibilities our youth possess, if only we'd give them the help they need to allow their talents to find expression.

Deep breath. We've prayed about our decision, discussed it at length with our children, and told them why we're doing this. We've begun the process of explaining to our family and friends, resolving to be patient with the "are y'all crazy?" looks that mention of our intention to become foster parents elicits.

We're committed, though. After listening to other foster parents speak, we understand that we'll just have to get over the temporary attachment thing--it will have to be our sacrifice for the welfare of the child. For the children involved, you have to love 'em as long as you have 'em and then some. If things go well, bonds are forged that can outlast the foster-care term.

In recent months, within our own circle, we've witnessed some families coming together and other families in the throes of falling apart. If foster parenting can help reunite and strengthen a family in trouble, we're compelled to help. In a few weeks, we'll start with the first of the official training sessions. Are we nervous? Yeah. But somebody's gotta do it. And for us, this is the year. EndBlock

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