Children who wait: growing up in foster homes
When Sarah talks about what she wants to do after she graduates from college this year, staying close to her family is a top priority. ''I could probably get a teaching job in the South or out West, but I'll keep on looking near home until I find something,'' she says. ''I just got a family, and I'm not about to leave it.''Skip to next paragraph
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Sarah was adopted five years ago, at the age of 17. Today there are between 500,000 and 750,000 children in foster care in the United States. Of these, at least 100,000 - and possibly 250,000 - are legally free for adoption. Many of them, like Sarah, have been waiting for families for a long time.
The fact that today's so-called ''waiting children'' generally are over nine years old, that they often have physical or emotional handicaps, that many of them are black, Hispanic, or native American, and that many come into foster care in large sibling groups is changing the face of adoption. As public and private agencies look for innovative ways to recruit parents, these children continue to wait.
Sarah was 10 when she and her nine brothers and sisters were taken from their home. ''Our parents were very young and kept having children but didn't know how to take care of us,'' she recalls in a soft voice that gives no hint of the hard times past.
For more than five years, the children were moved from one foster home to another. Occasionally they lived together in groups of two or three, but most of the time they were separated.
''Lots of people thought they knew what to do with us, but they never asked us,'' Sarah explains, echoing the feelings of many older children who find themselves being ''controlled'' by adults they don't know in a system they don't understand.
''When I went to my first foster home, I didn't want it to work,'' she says. ''I always wanted to go home.
''In my second foster home, the people were nice, but it was like a cute, perfect little family. And it was always them and me. When we'd go camping or have Christmas, it would always be them and me.''
After five years in foster care, Sarah's brothers and sisters gradually were adopted. Perhaps because she was the oldest, she was overlooked. ''In my second foster home, the parents said, 'Well, if you want, we'll adopt you.' But I didn't think it would have worked out there.''
Two of Sarah's sisters and a brother had been adopted by one family, and when she went to visit them she says she often asked if she could live there, too. But there were complications. The mother in the family was a therapist who had been counseling Sarah, trying to help her ''make it'' in her foster home.
''She had always been very professional with me because she really wanted me to give the home a chance,'' Sarah explains. ''So I could hardly believe it when she asked me - as a friend, not as a therapist - if I wanted to become part of their family!''
Like many older children who have been moved from home to home for no apparent reason, Sarah had come to blame herself for the unexplained, sometimes sudden changes in her life. ''I hated myself a lot,'' she recalls, ''and I never thought I could do anything. What my new parents did was to say, 'Sure you can. You are a good person.'
''And they were right. I could do things. I got over hating myself. I got my driver's license. And I went to college.'' Sarah will graduate this year with a major in special education. She hopes to become a teacher for children with learning difficulties and eventually wants to marry and raise her own family.