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Forever Family!

The Important Goal of “Virginia Adopts”

1311_Adoption_FNearly 81.5 million Americans have thought about adopting a child.

If just one in 500 of these adults adopted, every waiting child in foster care would have a permanent family.

Shirley Massie has a lot to be thankful for this holiday season. For the first time in years, this 12-year-old will spend Thanksgiving with her family. Her parents, Dan and Kristen, can’t wait to carve the turkey and celebrate a dream come true.

“Shirley never knew the love of a permanent home,” Dan said. “We are so honored to have her as part of our family. No child should be without family.”

Dan and Kristen had always wanted to have children, but were unable. Then they learned about the nearly 1,300 children in Virginia’s foster care system awaiting adoption. They knew without a doubt what they wanted to do.

“We felt we were called to do this,” Kristen said. “We have been truly blessed.”

The couple contacted Lutheran Family Services and enrolled in training classes so that they would be better prepared to parent an older child who had been in the foster care system. Shirley was placed in their home in 2011, and the adoption was finalized last December.

“What a wonderful Christmas present that was!” said Shirley, who lives just east of Sandston with her new family. “I couldn’t have wished for anything better.”

Shirley is an honor roll student who loves reading, playing on the computer, and riding roller coasters. The family treasures their time camping, fishing, going to baseball games, and eating ice cream. Shirley’s favorite flavor? Mint Moose Tracks.

“I remember hearing that when you adopt an older child, you miss out on all those firsts – those first words or those first steps,” said Kristen Massie, a physical education teacher. “But you still have plenty of firsts – the first time she saw a Toys R Us, the first time she had a warm embrace.”

Kristen’s husband, sales manager for Merchant’s Tire and Auto Centers, said there is no greater feeling than becoming a father.

“We both come from a large family, so we couldn’t imagine not having children,” he said. “We wanted to adopt…to help bring a future generation into the world. The experience has been incredible.”

Shirley has no trouble expressing her thoughts on adoption.

“It’s been perfect!” she said. “I have a forever family… nothing could be more wonderful.”

She only wishes every child in Virginia’s foster care system could share her happy ending. Virginia is working hard to make permanency a reality for all children awaiting adoption. “Virginia Adopts: Campaign for 1,000” is the latest statewide effort. The gubernatorial initiative, announced in May, has a goal of finding permanent homes for a thousand foster care children in the state system eligible for adoption.

Virginia Secretary of the Commonwealth Janet Kelly, a mother of two, has helped spearhead the effort that the General Assembly has budgeted more than $1 million in funds to support. Plans call for that funding to go toward targeted recruitment for older children (nearly half of the children awaiting adoption are at least ten), post-adoption support to families, assistance to children after they turn eighteen, and the use of technology to creatively recruit adoptive families. That includes locating relatives who might be interested in adopting.

“This initiative is a meaningful way to impact children who need a permanent, loving home,” Kelly said. “It’s not only the right thing to do, but when you look at what happens to children who age out of foster care, this makes sense on so many levels.”

Children who turn eighteen without being adopted are more likely to become homeless, incarcerated, and jobless. They are less likely to graduate from college.

“Their prospects are grim if we don’t do well by them,” said former Virginia First Lady Anne Holton, the wife of US Senator Tim Kaine and a long-time champion for children under state guardianship. “That comes back to us as a society. Every child deserves a loving home, and we must continue to work hard until that is a reality.”

Lutheran Family Services, along with twelve other partner agencies in Virginia, works with the State Department of Social Services to find adoptive families for children in foster care. As a united group, they organize match parties, recruiting events, educational programs, and more.

“The emphasis is on helping our parents understand the trauma these children have been through and the impact that trauma has on their lives,” said Nina Marino, director of foster care and adoption for Lutheran Family Services. “These children have been abused and neglected, and many have experienced so much loss.”

Training programs aren’t the only means of support for adoptive families. Over the summer, three local organiza- tions working together to find permanent homes for foster care children received a $100,000 state grant that provides respite services to adoptive families. The grant, awarded to Children’s Home Society of Virginia, Coordinators2inc, and Virginia One Church One Child, provides trained staff members to teach life skills to youth and provide therapeutic opportunities, in- cluding behavioral lessons and techniques for expressing feelings appropriately.

“Virginia is absolutely making positive strides, but we must continue doing so,” Holton said. “I have had the opportunity to get to know some of these kids, and these are remarkable kids. They are strong and resilient. We have a very clear responsibility to do right by them.”

The percentage of children exiting foster care to adoption has improved in Virginia over the last ten years, from twenty to twenty-six percent. In fiscal year 2012, just over seven hundred children were adopted from foster care in Virginia. Still, in that same time period, more than six hundred children aged out of the system.

1311_Adoption_2“Before I knew about all the children awaiting adoption from foster care, I wanted to adopt a toddler,” said Lori McConnell, a single mom in Richmond who adopted Ellena, now sixteen, and twin girls, Rachel and Emily, now eleven, from foster care. “But then I learned about the great need to find families for older children.”

Lori attended an event where Anne Holton and several foster care children spoke about the great need for adoptive families. Her eyes, she said, were immediately opened.

“All the children said the same thing – all they wanted was a family to call their own,” Lori said. “Just because you are a teenager doesn’t mean you don’t need a family anymore. Everyone needs family.”

She later attended training classes through Children’s Home Society, where social workers shattered the myths as- sociated with foster care youth. What are these myths? There are many, including: the biological parents can return and take the child back; children are in foster care because they committed a crime; foster care adoption is expensive.

But the reality of adopting from foster care is much different: biological parents have no way to gain back custody of the child or children once their parental rights are terminated; children enter foster care through no fault of their own and usually are victims of neglect, abandonment, or abuse; there is little cost associated with adopting a child from foster care.

For some, these myths are a roadblock to adoption. But by working with local agencies in Greater Richmond and learning the truth, adoption can become reality.

“I encourage everyone to get the facts,” Lori said. “See what a difference you can make in the life of a child.”

Janet Showalter is a freelance writer who lives in King George with her husband.
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