In search of a home - again

Part I of an occasional series on the adoption of foster-care siblings.

In January 2004, Jaime, Carlos, Pedro, and Caroline Trinidad thought they had the one thing they wanted most: a stable and permanent family. The four siblings - Jaime now age 13, Carlos, 10, and the twins, 12 - loved their foster family and the slate-blue house where they lived in Lawrence, north of Boston. There was a fish tank in the dining room, a big backyard, and a long upstairs hallway where the children played ball with their foster brother and sister. The kitchen was full of laughter each night when Mami - or a grandparent or uncle - made dinner.

The Trinidad siblings had called this place home for several years. They knew that their foster parents, Daniel and Ileana Martinez, loved them and had started adoption paperwork. (The Trinidad children's biological mother struggled with substance abuse and their fathers were not in the picture.) What they did not realize was that all this would end by spring.

All they knew, that cold winter, was that the Lawrence courthouse had misplaced their paperwork, delaying their adoption. Then came another shock: Both of the Martinezes' biological children were diagnosed as requiring bone-marrow transplants. The Martinezes decided to focus all their energy on those needs. There would be no adoption.

The news was devastating for Jaime, who had run away several times in the past and who fled again, briefly. It also posed a challenge for Melissa O'Meara, the children's adoption social worker for the past 2-1/2 years. Most families prefer to adopt a single young child. Of the more than 500,000 children in the foster care system nationwide, about 50,000 are adopted each year, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services. Older children can be tough to place. The toughest placements of all involve sibling groups, social workers say.

Still, Ms. O'Meara of Catholic Charities believed she'd find a family that wanted the children as much as they wanted a family. "These kids were adoptable," she says. "They're sweet, they're considerate, they have a great attitude. They just needed to find the right home."

For the siblings, the "right home" would be much like the one they had - with lots of relatives nearby, religious parents, and a little sister for Caroline, who had become almost inseparable from her foster sister, Ismarys. But how could anyone find all of that?

O'Meara tried every avenue, taking the children to adoption parties and getting their story into local newspapers. She even got them on a Boston TV show that spotlights adoptable children. But "the families that were interested weren't good matches," she says.

Last fall, O'Meara got a phone call from the Massachusetts Adoption Resource Exchange (MARE). The nonprofit organization was planning a "Heart Gallery," a traveling exhibition of photos of children who need permanent homes. Did O'Meara know anyone who might benefit from the exposure?

When the show opened this March, it included a black-and-white montage of the Trinidads, who were smiling and laughing. The four even attended the opening, greeting prospective parents. Among them was Milton Ortiz, who works for MARE and is pastor of a small church in Malden, Mass. "I had known of them and seen them at other adoption events," he recalls, "but those photographs gave me a different image of them."

The next morning Mr. Ortiz told his wife, Francia, that they had to adopt all four children. She was open to the idea, since the couple, who'd emigrated from Colombia, had always planned to have two children of their own and then adopt two more. They just hadn't decided when to expand their family, though they had begun the training process for adoptive parents. "Helena and Jacob had always asked for brothers and sisters," says Mrs. Ortiz of her biological children. "That's something they really needed."

The Trinidad children needed it as well. So before she left for camp at the end of June, Caroline told O'Meara, "What I'd really like is to go off and have fun this summer, and when we get back, you tell us that you've found us a family."

O'Meara did better than that. During the first week of camp, she brought the children surprising news: A family wanted to adopt them. The four gasped as they flipped through a scrapbook the Ortizes had compiled. In it were pictures of the house, which has a long upstairs hallway, and shots of the immediate family.

A few days later, the Ortizes visited the camp. No one said a word at first. Even Carlos, the class clown in school, just smiled shyly.

Then O'Meara suggested that the Trinidads show everyone around. Within minutes, Caroline was holding 8-year-old Helena's hand and introducing her as "my sister" to other campers. Pedro paired off with 5-year-old Jacob, making sure the younger boy didn't trip when they climbed some big rocks.

"I knew right away that they were for us," Mrs. Ortiz recalls.

O'Meara was ecstatic, too. "Families are so precious," she says. "That's why we do adoptions."

Yet while the kids wanted to move in the next day, protocol required more visits and several overnights first.

Jaime never reached that point. Just before the first overnight, he ran away. He has since decided he does not want to be adopted.

Everyone felt his absence when the Trinidads walked into the Ortiz home. There were family pictures on the wall, a fluffy orange cat named Mono, and bunkbeds - as in the Lawrence home. Grandparents and an uncle also lived in the house. "Oh, it's beautiful. I love it," Caroline said, when she saw the room she would share with Helena. It had pastel-colored walls, coordinated bedspreads, and a dresser with some new clothes in Caroline's size.

The move was still several weeks off, but the couple already thought of the three as "our children." When the family returned the Trinidads to camp, Carlos didn't want to get out of the minivan. O'Meara was delighted that things went so well, but she also knew how crucial it was that the Ortizes felt such a strong commitment to the kids. "That's the most important thing," she says. "It will really get you through a lot of challenges when they come."

Next: It's a bittersweet move for the Trinidad children as the the adoption moves forward.

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