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Adoption often leaves older children behind, alone, but waiting families change the future

Published: Tuesday, April 16 2013 12:00 p.m. MDT

Don and Ellen Walker talk with their daughter Rae at their home near Spring City on March 16.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SPRING CITY, Utah — Don and Ellen Walker exchange a smile when they see Rae and her horse Flicka stand cheek to cheek in a casual embrace, both happy.

Rae is their daughter, nearly equal parts joy and vexation, born 14 years before they ever met her and around the time their sons were starting to leave home. Ellen Walker was drawn to Rae by the words "crazy about horses and animals," and wondered how to tell her husband she thought they might want to parent another child.

Don Walker says Rae is a child God always intended them to parent. He wonders why it took so long for them to find each other and why she had to endure so much to reach this piece of land where she rides horses and raises chicks and is starting to feel safe.

Rae, 15, bucked long odds to get here. If you graph children like her who reach their teens in foster care, you see something dramatic. Babies available for adoption are snapped up; by age 8, the trend turns downward, adoption becoming rarer. For teens, the adoption rate plummets. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says 400,000 abused and neglected children are in foster care nationwide.

Some return to their original families. Some wait for new families that may or may not appear. In September 2011, there were 104,000 foster children available to be adopted. Roughly 43,000 stay in foster care five years or more. And 27,000 children turn 18 and "age out" annually, with no permanent family to support or love them.

Foster care is not the only place where older children wait for adoption and permanent homes. But it's by far the largest pool.

Lost

There are parents willing to step up for older kids, said Linzy Munger, associate director of Oregon-based A Family for Every Child, a national agency that promotes adoption. It's not always easy to find the right match.

Children in foster care who don't find permanency face tangible consequences: Munger said half of those who are homeless have been in foster care. So have a disproportionate number of those in prisons and jails.

Children who move an average of three times a year don't know what stable family looks like, Munger said. They don't make long-term friendships or feel secure.

They long to do both, said Leslie Jacob, director of family-centered services for Chicago-based Children's Home + Aid. She's had children beg her, "Don't give up on me," and right now is working on the adoption of a boy who's 17. "That's more unique, but not an anomaly."

Children who aren't adopted "age out" to independence. "There are human and financial consequences, not because they are bad kids, but because 18 isn't necessarily the best time to be without resources and a safety net," said Rita Soronen, president and CEO of the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption. "No good comes from having a child have to learn how to survive on his own. Or having no surrounding of joy in times of good things happening — the graduation, marriage, childbirth, getting an apartment."

When the car breaks down or a job is lost, lots of parents help out or let children move home for a bit. Where, for these, is home? she asked.

New parents of older children missed their child's first step and first words. But there are other important firsts to come, like being part of what may be a first stable relationship or even first sign of hope for a future connected to others, Jacob said.

Years of sorrow

Older kids must agree to adoption and some say no out of fear. A 12-year-old who knows nothing of permanency assumes it's another move away from familiar people and places. "She can't get the concept of forever," said Munger. "So of course she doesn't want to move again."

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