PHOENIX — Michelle Schooley would seem to be the perfect girl to adopt. She's smart. She's cheerful. She maintains a perfect attendance record in school. She likes to read - mainly Mary Higgins Clark novels.
But the foster-care child has been difficult to place in a permanent home for one overriding reason: She's 15, and most Americans don't want to adopt a teenager.
So Michelle's best hope at starting a new life may be a budding trend that promises to reshape adoption in America: putting children up for placement on the Internet.
While online adoptions have been around for several years, a growing number of states are now experimenting with the idea as an effective way to find homes for hard-to-place kids in particular.
Arizona, where Michelle lives in a foster home, is having some of the most success. In the first year that state child-welfare officials began showing kids on the Internet, 17 were adopted. Three others are awaiting final paperwork. That is a phenomenal rate when compared with the 100 kids placed this way nationwide since 1995.
The Internet, says Don Greenwalt, a foster-care recruiter with the Arizona Department of Economic Security, is a natural extension of the more traditional mediums of newspapers and television - a sure way to get national exposure. And it's free.
But there are concerns - mostly about the privacy of those involved. Historically, any information about kids who are wards of the state has been well guarded to protect the children and their biological families. So, this kind of exposure along with the brochures, television, and newspaper interviews in the past few years is a change of philosophy for child-welfare officials.
The thinking now, Mr. Greenwalt says, is that it is more important to find these kids permanent homes than stifle the sometimes distasteful details of how these children came into state care.
For the most part, the children on the Web site (www.adopt.org) are considered hard to place. They are older, part of sibling groups, or have been diagnosed with emotional or physical problems.
"These are difficult kids, and they are getting placed faster off the Internet than in other ways," says Mady Prowler of the National Adoption Center.
Most adoptive parents want infants or toddlers and few are willing to take children with problems. So these are the kids who most likely would spend the rest of their youth in foster care.
Though there are similar Web sites, this was the first and has the best placement record. Started in 1995, it features more than 2,000 children from many states and gets about 1 million inquiries a month. For each child, there's a photograph and biography, listing the child's history, school performance, likes, and dislikes.
Not all states put adoptable kids on the Internet. And even states that do, don't post all their kids. Arizona has 53 children listed on the Internet. Texas has 423.
"People see their little faces and want to know more," says Belinda Hair, who recruits foster and adoptive parents for a Texas state agency.
The children on the Web site must be legally free for adoption, meaning the rights of their parents have been terminated. Their last names are not given.
Because of the Web site, three brothers from Arizona, ages 11, 7, and 6, are now living with a couple in South Carolina, ready to be adopted in less than a year.
A 12-year-old Arizona girl is calling an Illinois couple mom and dad after waiting two years to be adopted. "Without the Web site, those kids would probably still be waiting," Greenwalt says.
Michelle - with long, light brown hair and a spray of freckles across her nose - has been waiting since she was 5. She has been at a group home since she was 10.
Kathy Bass, program director for the group home, remembers the day near Christmas when Michelle arrived. She was expecting a scared little girl, but Michelle came in cheerfully, carrying a hockey stick. "I got a little girl who was ready to take on the world," Ms. Bass says.
"I still am," Michelle says. Now, she adds, if only she can find some parents to help her.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society