exposing the dark side of adoption
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New effort to find homes for older foster children

Author: Lisa Rauschart,

The Washington Times

The little boy was more silent than most, withdrawn really. Yet his new adoptive mother was still surprised by what happened one morning after she sent her children into the hallway so she could make up their beds.Called away unexpectedly to the telephone, she returned an hour later to find the 5-year-old still standing in the same place although his two siblings had drifted away long before.

"I just fell on my knees and hugged him," the boy's mother says. "I could not imagine a little child standing in one spot for so long."

The child was Anthony A. Williams, now the District's mayor, probably the nation's best-known success story among older adopted children. Virginia E. Hayes Williams raised two other adopted children along with Anthony and her five biological children.

With many older children still languishing in foster care, the need for adoptive parents is clear. However, how to handle the older adopted child, who may bring a whole trunkload of baggage from the past, is not always as easy to see.

"Older children come to their new families with a previous history and previous influences," says

Jody Sciortino

, clinical director at

Kidsave International

, a nonprofit organization that seeks to place orphaned and foster children in permanent homes. "That's a critical point for families to understand."

Still, many parents of older adoptees say the rewards outweigh the negatives.

"She's got this wonderful energy," says the Rev. Laura Schultz of Camp Springs, who, as a single parent, adopted a 15-year-old girl eight months ago. The girl's name is being withheld for privacy reasons at Ms. Schultz's request. "She's not perfect, but I wouldn't expect her to be."

Long stigmatized as "unadoptable," older children are becoming the focus of a new push to adopt. Recent legislation provides incentives to states that increase their adoption rates, particularly for older or hard-to-adopt special-needs children.

"The current administration makes it easier for states to be excited about adoption," says Ed Schwartz, president of Loving Shepherd International, a not-for-profit Christian adoption services organization, and LSI Institute for Adoption Research.

Through the administration's adopt-uskids.org Web site, more than 2,400 children have found permanent homes, Mr. Schwartz says.

"We have a tremendous resource of parents out there," he says. "There are over 275,000 Christian congregations in the U.S., and only 126,000 children waiting for adoption."

For older parents especially, the prospect of an older child can be quite appealing.

"I'm a widow, and we had no children, so I'm vulnerable in that area," says Wendy Graham, vice president of investment at Capitol Securities in McLean, who is in the process of adopting a 13-year-old girl from Russia. "But I'm also working, so I need someone who would be in school part of the time."

Teenagers, of course, come with their own issues.

"Teenagers are probably not going to be all lovey-dovey the way they might have been at 6 or 7," says Ms. Schultz, who is the pastor at Bells United Methodist Church. "Their job is to be individuating instead of bonding."

So just when a family is hoping to bond, the teenager may be ready to strike out on his or her own.

"The older a child is, the more time he or she has had for rejection and trauma, and the more repair work there is to be done in the family." says Sylvia Stultz, a psychologist in private practice in the District who holds a doctorate. "It's important to find a way to have a balance between establishing the outer bounds of protection and limits."

That means the boundaries have to be clear, and the players have to understand one another.

"Setting limits is very important," says Terry Baugh, president of Kidsave International, which last summer placed 153 prospective adoptees across the country as part of its Summer Miracles program.

Short-term programs such as these allow parents and children to meet without strings. The hope, of course, is that attachments will begin to form.

Wishing for a harmonious family relationship, for immediate success in bonding and behavior is not enough to make it so. For adoptive parents like Ms. Schultz, having a sense of the kinds of behaviors they can tolerate is important before contemplating adoption.

"Assess what you can handle and what you can't handle," she says. "I'm OK with [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder], but not with things like animal abuse or fire setting."

Many prospective parents have spent so much time with the paperwork and the preplanning that it is difficult to focus on the reality of what will happen totheir lives when the child arrives.

"I know it's not going to be easy," says Mrs. Graham, who traveled to Moscow to meet with Dasha. "I have no illusions."

To help parents prepare, most adoption agencies offer pre-adoptive training and get-acquainted workshops for those interested in exploring the process.

Adoptions Together - a licensed nonprofit agency based in Maryland and the District - recently received a grant from the Department of Health and Human Services to recruit black families to adopt some of the many older black children who languish in the foster care system.

"Of the 126,000 children in foster care [nationwide], nearly half are African American, and of those, nearly half are over 10," says Kamilah Bunn, family recruitment specialist for Project If Not Us at Adoptions Together. The project will host an informational program from 2 to 3:30 p.m. June 26 at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library on Ninth and G streets NW.

"African Americans have adopted informally for many years; it's part of the natural fabric of the community," she says. "We want people to see our program as an extension of that."

Ms. Schultz credits her own training at Diakon Adoption Services for helping provide her with the tools she needed when things started getting out of hand. After a series of incidents with the teen - disrespect, talking back and just plain not responding - she came up with "the rules," a series of 12 mandates that help set the bar for behavior.

Here's a sampling: Don't answer a question with a question. Don't question an adult's decision. Respond in a clear voice.

In response, the teen has blossomed, improving by two reading levels at school. She wants to be an emergency medical technician and spends time at the local fire department. She's active in the church youth group as well.

Still, there are good days and bad days, even with the rules. An adoptive parent has to be prepared for any eventuality, including some unanticipated changes.

While all children are different, a few general rules from the experts - professionals and adoptive parents alike - can help ease the transition for everyone. Prepare to be knocked for a loop.

"The initial adjustment period knocks everybody off," Ms. Sciortino says. "The rhythms, rituals and traditions of the family have been changed with the new arrival."

*Establish routines - and stick to them.

"Predictability and limits are what makes kids feel safe," Ms. Sciortino says.

*"All my children had jobs," Mrs. Williams recalls. "As soon as they could walk around and throw things out of the toy chest, I expected them to put them back. They washed dishes, made up the beds, cleaned up rooms. Anthony still talks about having to switch the laundry from the washer to the dryer when he was little."

*Don't shower your child with presents.

"The number one mistake that parents make is that they overindulge their child in material things," says Joyce Steckel, executive director of the Ranch Project, a nonprofit Montana-based ranch designed for children from Eastern Europe who are having difficulty in their adoptive homes. "Almost every kid I see comes in with designer clothes."

*Keep the stimulation to a minimum.

"You don't have to be running around all the time," says Mrs. Steckel, who has three adopted children and has fostered "dozens and dozens" over 35 years. "Shut off the television, video games and access to the Internet. They should learn to value family activities, not material things," she says.

*Be a parent, not a friend.

"Children look at you and say, 'If you're not strong enough to control me, than you're not strong enough to protect me,'" Mrs. Steckel says. "Most of them are already accustomed to authority through the orphanages and foster care."

*Listen and learn.

*"Most children come from places that we would not understand because we would not have been there," Mrs. Williams says. "You have to sit down, be still and listen to them."

*Get support.

"It's important not to isolate," Ms. Sciortino says. "Network with families who are in a similar situation. A lot of early intervention can prevent moderate to severe problems in the future."

*Give them your time.

"Don't take a child unless you are going to give them time," says Mrs. Williams, who gave up pursuing her second love - music - so she could cherish her first love: children. "You can't just bring them into the house and let them grow

2004 May 16