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.''

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.

But things haven't turned out quite as well for some of Sarah's brothers and sisters.

''Foster kids are basically floating around,'' she begins. ''They don't belong to anybody. And for a family to work, you have to want to belong.

''For a long time, I didn't want to belong to anybody since I couldn't go home to my own parents. The reason I reached the point to say, 'All right, I know I can't go home,' was because I remembered what it had been like.

''But my brothers and sisters either don't remember, or don't want to remember. In their minds, they think that our parents were perfectly normal people who really loved us, and that we got yanked out of there for no reason. They think it's not fair, and they have the attitude that the world has ripped them off.

''They don't remember that our parents were always drunk, always beating on each other. They don't remember that my mother was always trying to commit suicide and that I was always stopping her. They don't remember not having food in the house, not having furniture, or heat, or even light bulbs.''

In addition to not remembering things as they were, Sarah says some of her sisters and brothers also have shut out efforts to be helped. Social workers who try to place older children in permanent homes confirm that youngsters often isolate themselves in an effort to protect themselves. If they don't get close to anyone, the reasoning goes, they don't get hurt.

Many of Sarah's perceptions are echoed by Iris, a young black woman who, with her two sisters and brother, has been ''waiting'' in the foster care system for some 10 years. As an 18-year-old college freshman, Iris says she's happy to finally be independent.

''For me, I see it's too late (to be adopted) . . . I'm on my own,'' she explains. ''My brother and sisters still could be adopted, but people tend not to adopt kids of their ages, which are 12 to 16. So all they're waiting for now is to turn 18, so they can decide for themselves whether to stay in their foster homes.

''Like many sibling groups that come into the foster care system, Iris and her brother and sisters were separated from their natural parents when the marriage didn't work out. The children lived at different times with relatives, and with their mother and stepfather.

One night when her mother was away, Iris's stepfather tried to rape her. She gathered up the younger children, took them to a neighbor's house, and the following day applied for foster care.

For a long time after that, blaming herself for her family's situation, she withdrew from the help foster parents offered and practically dared them to be kind to her. As a result, she changed homes frequently.

''I was the one who got bounced around the most, because I was the oldest, and because I was very hostile,'' she recalls.

''Sometimes foster parents would give you chores to do, and one of mine was washing dishes, and I hated it. I didn't see why I should have to wash everybody's dishes when I only ate off one. I'd bang the pots and drop plates and glasses, just for the sake of it. And after so many broken dishes, they'd get sick of it.

''I had a bad mouth, too, and anything I felt like saying, I'd say. I didn't want to be that way, but I just had to let it out some way. I think I was having fun. I'd go as far as I could go until they'd say, 'Well, you have to go.' And that would be the end of it, and I'd go somewhere else, and do the same things.''

Listening to Iris tell about her experiences, it's difficult to imagine her as either a nonverbal or a tough-talking young teen. She chooses her words carefully, uses an impressive vocabulary, and is articulate beyond her years. When she says that she has her sights set on a career in television, as a talk-show host, nothing sounds more natural.

How did the turnaround begin?''I guess I got to the point that I just got sick of holding it all in. I wanted somebody to know how I felt,'' she explains. ''Sometimes in my foster homes we'd get into a discussion of my family. Of course, I only told them what I wanted them to know, but I began to tell it in a way that I could laugh about it.''

As Iris began to open up, she began to learn. ''Finally I got into one home where I stayed for four years. That was the place where a lot of breakthroughs were made. The lady there would tell me that I was normal, just like everybody else, and that I'd better try to wake up and live because the world didn't owe me anything. It was up to me to go out and get it.''

The one thing lacking, says Iris, was someone to be close to and talk to. "(One foster mother) talked, but it wasn't what I'd always pictured - a mom and daughter going off somewhere, sitting down, and talking about everything freely. So I looked for that kind of care outside of the home, which was usually boys. And I got pregnant.

''When her foster parents found out she was pregnant, Iris had to move again, this time to a home for unwed mothers. She continued her high school classes by mail, however, and had her baby, while her boyfriend and his mother stayed by her.

The baby's death three months later was a devastating blow, but Iris determined to make yet another fresh start, and she moved to a new foster home. An excellent student, ranked sixth in her graduating class of 100, she applied for and received several scholarships and grants to college. Jobs as receptionist-secretary for a mental health center, as check auditor at a bank, and fashion modeling have helped to provide money for school.

Looking back at the 10 homes she lived in while she was a ''waiting child,'' Iris has some regrets but even more aspirations.

''I was never in a home where I was the only child, and I wanted that,'' she says. ''I never had anybody to cuddle me, and things like that. But somehow I always knew that I would be the family type and that I would get married.

''I guess it comes from not having a family, not being in a situation where everybody was comfortable, like on 'The Waltons.' Now I want to be in a situation where I can help someone, and I can be there when they need me. . . . I think I'll be a terrific mother - the most terrific mother in the world.''

In many ways, Iris and Sarah are typical of older children who have been ''parented'' by the foster care system. Separated from their natural parents at an early age, with a large sibling group to care for, they developed tough shells at times to protect and isolate themselves from feeling anything too deeply. Some of their foster home situations were helpful, others were not. They've both come through difficult experiences emotionally intact. Perhaps the fact that both young women want to have children of their own some day says it best: family means a lot to them.

In many ways, however, Iris and Sarah are the exceptions. For every older child, like Sarah, who is adopted, there are thousands who are not. For every older child, like Iris, who somehow finds her own way and succeeds, there are thousands who do not.

Those are the children who continue to wait.

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