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.
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."
It's different with real discussion of what adoption could mean. Otherwise, a social worker checks off no, and the child misses a chance.
In a study of emancipated youth in the Midwest, University of Chicago professor Mark Courtney documented poor outcomes regarding education, economic hardship and victimization. Fourteen percent experienced homelessness after leaving the system, 60 percent were unemployed and 25 percent were malnourished. The same study found family connections are important to successful transition for emancipating youth.
Children who reach adulthood without finding new families or being reunited with their first one rarely go to college. "The barrier is to get them to think they are worth it, that they can do it," Munger said. "They need help filling out applications. And when the dorms close for winter break, where are they going to go? ... We want to get kids into a permanent family. There's no time you reach a certain age and don't need family."
Bruce and Kathryn Failor of Wytheville, Va., adopted three children internationally nearly a decade ago. The children are now older teens, a challenging age under any circumstance.
"When I came here, it was really, really hard," said Yana Failor, 18, who was born in Kazakhstan. She is a junior in high school because she was behind when she got to America. She didn't know the language and didn't really know her new parents, who had already adopted siblings Zhenya and Andrew from Russia. They "hosted" Yana while the agency looked for a family. Her brother had been adopted, her sister institutionalized. Ultimately, the Failors adopted her.
The little Failors were far from anything familiar. Andrew had been in the orphanage nearly his entire life; the girls ran wild as toddlers, had been abused and witnessed violence. Early in her new life, Zhenya would raid the refrigerator and feed Andrew, same as always, leaving chaos behind. None of them spoke English.
Even now, there are adjustments. "The hardest part is forgetting your last family and where you were born," Yana said. "I have to let go of my past and what happened to me" — a euphemistic reference to great trauma. Being adopted has given her the chance to plan a future. "I want to go to college and study how to be a pharmacist."
Bruce Failor believes the love in your life depends on how much you put into a relationship. "I am putting it all into all of them," he said of his family, which includes natural and adopted children.
The Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, founded and significantly funded through Wendy's restaurants, focuses intensively on older children and best practices to get them adopted, Soronen said.
The foundation over the years has refined its efforts. It hired a child-focused recruiter, helping families understand what children need and helping the children, often bruised emotionally and physically, understand the value of family. "Some protect themselves by saying no because they are afraid of being re-abused or abandoned again."
Since starting in 2005, the foundation has helped match 6,000 children to new parents; more than 3,400 of those adoptions are final, others in the works.
It's an age bracket fraught with problems — past childhood traumas translating into belligerence sometimes, or misbehavior. Post-traumatic stress disorder is not an uncommon diagnosis. Sometimes it's flat-out hard. But older children are "at a developmental stage where they're ready to shine and grow and contribute," Soronen said. If, that is, someone steps up.
"This is definitely not for everyone," Jacob said. "I'm not going to tell you adopting older children doesn't have challenges."
Many of the children have had multiple placements and repeated rejections. Older kids have trouble trusting. They've been lied to and had promises broken. They may lie themselves and break promises. Biological families may still be part of life: Some of the kids maintain relationships; some have siblings who cannot be adopted with them, but the ties remain.
Claudette Soto and Rene Barraza of Chicago adopted sisters when the girls were 11, 9 and 8. They had a son already, but Soto was led to adopt because she had been changed by the death of a friend when he was 19. He'd battled addictions and major depression. "No one had taken him, his teachers gave up on him, his mother gave up on him. He was electrocuted on the third rail of the el (elevated) train in Chicago. I was a senior and vowed never to let someone pass through my life again without reaching out."
The couple share a heart for children with issues like alcoholic parents or histories of being abused or neglected. They started a nonprofit summer program for such kids. When they met their daughters, "I felt like they were already part of our lives," she said.
Everyday things are sometimes unfamiliar. They've had to teach the girls respect and morality. They sent them to private Catholic school to help with that. They're showing them how things are supposed to work. Even privacy required a lesson. Used to being interrogated by others, they had few filters.
Trust has been the greatest challenge — a common issue in older adoptions and hard in both directions. "Their mother did a brave thing and gave them good closure. She told them she could not take care of them and was entrusting us to be their parents. It let them go," Soto said. "Some keep going on and on and keep their children in limbo."
There are setbacks, Barraza said. Somehow, they're always followed by growth and progress. He would not rethink the decision to adopt.
Neither would the Walkers. "(Rae)'s brought a lot of energy and chaos to our lives," said Ellen Walker. "It's a lot of fun sometimes. And really hard sometimes. I hope she knows she has a permanent home. We are always going to care about her. She had never really had that."
On a recent sunny Saturday, fresh from riding horses with her mom, Rae talked about family. She and the Walkers entwined their lives through adoption one year ago, at Easter. She has a wealth of pets and people who care about her, including those new brothers who tease her gently.
When Don and Ellen Walker talked about adopting her, she said, "I wondered how long it's going to take before they realize I'm not good and they throw me back." That has happened a lot in her life.
Do you really think you're no good? she is asked.
"I used to. But not anymore. I know I am loved."