Twelve-year-old Marisol Torres, a round-faced girl with a pink headband, long black hair and thick bangs, sits primly before a room of nearly 50 people at an orientation in Harlem for adults who are thinking of becoming adoptive parents. In a few minutes, Marisol will be videotaped as she tries to persuade this audience that someone out there should become her new mother or father.
Her image and her pleas–along with the fuzzy caption, “Marisol T. turns 13 06/04, would like to learn more about your family, call us”–will soon be broadcast on a cable access show aired in Brooklyn and Long Island. The producer of this program is You Gotta Believe!, a private adoption agency specializing in the curious business of marketing adolescents like Marisol to families. You Gotta Believe! branding includes perky slogans like, “If you adopt a teen, there are no diapers to change!”
To witness this peculiar event, I have brought with me Natasha Santos and Pauline Gordon. Both are 16 and writers for Represent, the magazine produced by teens in foster care that I edit. Pauline has just finished taking Marisol off to the side for an interview–hearing Marisol's story of how she aches to leave foster care and find a real family. Now, Pauline and Natasha are impatient for the performance to begin. They're rooting for Marisol.
The cameras roll. At first, Marisol deftly whittles the complications of her life to a few charming facts. She lives in a group home. She doesn't like exercise. She loves to eat. She loves eating so much, she explains shyly, that she looks forward to dinner all day. Oxtail with rice is among her favorite foods. She'd like an adoptive mother to make that dish for her. And she'd like a family “who loves me, family that will treat me nice.”
The audience members murmur appreciatively. Emboldened, Marisol warms up and takes a risk. Asked what she likes about school, she shrugs.
“Nothing,” she smirks.
“At all?” urges the moderator, a former foster child herself.
Natasha and Pauline look at each other, eyebrows raised. They know that Marisol's display of bravado is risky. Her insouciance could be interpreted as endearing. But it might also be condemned as bratty.
Then everything goes wrong. Asked to describe her day, Marisol answers like a robot. “Go to school,” she says, staring dully ahead. “School boring. Bored. Teacher? Hmmm. Can't stand her. Come home. Do my homework. Eat dinner. Good food.”
At this, Pamela, a sophisticated-looking and composed older teen flanking Marisol, calmly explains that she's never bored at school. Moreover, she loves books and reading. She volunteers in her school's library. She always follows her elders' advice. And unlike the other girls in her group home who listen to hip hop, Pamela says, “I'm really not into that…I know I'm unique.”
Further, Pamela's requirements for happiness are far less needy than Marisol's. Pamela doesn't expect a family to love her, she says. Only to appreciate her. At this, Marisol looks flummoxed, like she knows she's messed up.
Then Marisol drops a true lead balloon. After the young man on her left admits that sometimes he “destroys things” to feel better, Marisol follows suit.
“I'm always depressed,” she blurts, dropping her head. For a split-second, silence hangs.
“She's not always depressed!” interrupts Pamela, trying to rescue Marisol and the moment. But it's too late. The moderator politely smiles and plows on.
During question-and-answer time, after the taping has finished, no one from the audience addresses Marisol. Instead, one woman wants to know how tall the “girl in white” is. “I'm five-nine,” Pamela answers, sounding confused.
Later the woman–who already has some adopted children–says that those kids tease her for being too short. “So I'm not taking anyone taller than me,” she says. She's laughing, but she sounds like she means it.
Walter A. Jones III, also in the audience, has no interest in Marisol either. At last week's You Gotta Believe! training, he wore a tie-dyed tee and silver hoop earrings and peered through John Lennon-style sunglasses while flipping through an album of older kids and teens up for adoption.
“I want me twins. Triplets would be better,” he explained, pausing periodically at a photo that piqued his interest. Then he earnestly turned to the page describing the child and penned notes in the journal he reserves for tracking kids he might want. “Boys. Boys only,” said Walter. “I hate girls.”
Three years ago, the Administration for Children's Services entered into a contract with You Gotta Believe! The arrangement is part of ACS' ever-intensifying efforts to connect teens with adults who might offer stability to adolescents who are “aging out” of the foster-care system and facing the prospect of life on their own.
This year, ACS began requiring the private foster care agencies it oversees to help every teen link up with adults who–out of the goodness of their hearts–will support these kids after they leave foster care. The link could involve moving a teen out of a group home and into a private foster family. It could mean hooking a kid up with a “mentor.” Or it could mean arranging an adoption–even for a 20-year-old. Of all these options, adoption is preferred. As an ACS training manual on the subject explains, “Legal ties do bind.”
“Just occasionally we hear of kids who age out of care to the street or shelter system,” explains ACS' Deputy Commissioner of Foster Care and Preventive Services, Lisa Parrish, diplomatically. In fact, a 2000 study by the Citizens' Committee for Children of New York, Inc. found that about 17 percent of the “age-outs” at one New York City agency went directly into homeless shelters. In 1999, Covenant House discovered about a third of the young adults in its homeless shelter had once lived in foster care. Parrish says homelessness won't happen “if you have caring adults in your life.”
And even if teens resist cozying up to adults, foster care agencies must now urge them to reconsider. Beginning last July, teens could no longer reject the general prospect of adoption–though they could still refuse to be taken by specific families.
Child welfare workers agree that adoption and adult connections for teens sound like noble goals. But many doubt that pursuing them is the best use of their caseworkers' limited time and resources. Further, they fear that the policy will raise teens' hopes for family without delivering. And when kids are adopted, that takes them out of the realm of state oversight and into private, unsupervised families. As a result, teens who are adopted may stop receiving services that they need, like therapy. Worse, as the notorious Jackson family case in New Jersey underscores, they may suffer neglect or abuse.
And there's always the risk–substantial, as it turns out–that the “connection” between the teen and the nurturing adult may go bad, especially if the grown-up's ideas about mentoring and adoption are based more on fantasy than on a realistic grasp of the problems attending such relationships.
It may seem commonsensical that linking teens to caring adults can bolster their chances in life after they leave foster care, but that outcome has not been proven. Few studies have explored the long-term effects of adoption or mentoring on youth. “It's risky to be putting all your resources in one model and not know what the outcomes are,” says Harriet Mauer, Director of Social Service at Good Shepherd Services. Mauer and other members of the Council of Families and Child Caring Agencies (COFCCA), which represents the city's private foster care agencies, asked ACS for proof that the adoption and mentoring policy really helps teens leaving care. If ACS could not come up with such evidence, the agencies had other models to offer: Inwood House raises about $350,000 a year to continue supporting about 65 of its teens once they leave care; Children's Village pairs boys leaving its residential treatment center with supervised, professional mentors who stay in touch not only out of the goodness of their hearts, but because doing so is their paid job.
ACS has yet to provide the goods, and some child welfare experts have begun wondering whether teen adoption is simply the city's way of abdicating responsibility for its youngsters. After all, adoptions cost the city far less than does keeping a kid in care, and, under the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, states receive a bounty for every adoption above the total they achieved the year before. Now, for the first time ever, nearly half of the kids in foster care are adolescents. So for ACS to increase adoption rates, it must try to get teens adopted. Yet it is extraordinarily difficult to find foster homes for teens, never mind adoptive ones.
Meanwhile, child welfare systems almost never get good press unless it's about their adoption efforts–which are right up in the public eye with apple pie and (biological) motherhood. As a result, says Gladys Carrion a COFCCA member and the executive director of Inwood House, agencies are afraid to utter a peep against adoption. If they do criticize, she says, “You almost have to preface it with, 'I believe in adoption, but I understand that it's not a panacea and it's not going to work for every young person….All of us have to devote all this time and energy into writing case plans about the efforts we're making to find adoptive homes for teens, when in reality that's going to be an option for a very small number of teens in the system. Hello! It's not the real world.”
Some child welfare experts warn that agency workers have their own motives for keeping kids in foster care, however. As ACS has pushed a policy of moving teens from group homes to private foster families, which happen to be less expensive, agencies have had to shut down the homes and lay off caseworkers. Losing teens to adoption means even more cuts.
Undeterred by these counterforces, ACS continues trying to persuade agencies that families who want teens really do exist, and finding them is worth the effort. “This isn't just turning the Titanic,” admits Alexandra Lowe, ACS' Special Council to the Deputy Commissioner for Foster Care and Preventive Services. “It's turning 50 Titanics.”
To push the effort, ACS urges agencies to refer teens and preadolescents to You Gotta Believe! The non-profit, which is based in a storefront office in Coney Island, is run by Brooklyn native and former social worker Pat O'Brien. Besides trying to find adoptive homes for older children, he conducts training sessions for adults who are considering adopting or have already done so. At the sessions, he warns his audiences that reversing an adoption because the child misbehaves is just as bad as child abuse. If that sounds dramatic, child welfare advocates nevertheless praise O'Brien's classes as some of the best available for people who do end up adopting.
ACS also arranges agency classes with adoption guru and trainer Bob Lewis. After running an adoption agency in Massachusetts for twenty years, Lewis wrote the current manual that ACS uses to train its personnel in how to promote teen adoption. His staunch belief that teens can and should be adopted is reflected in the manual, which is replete with child welfare jargon and catch phrases, some of which are dated. (Lewis himself is a master of this melange, as in his vow to “make permanence as intuitive as steak.”)
ACS wouldn't tell me how much it pays Lewis or You Gotta Believe! But according to the city's contracts office, You Gotta Believe! has received $527,000 from ACS since 1997, with almost the entire amount given out since 2001–the year that ACS began to promote teen adoptions. The contract office does not have copies of Lewis' dealings with ACS, apparently because he is subcontracted by an entity with another name. But like You Gotta Believe!, Lewis has profited from private agencies' exasperation over their new mandates. Since 2001, Lewis has lectured to five thousand child welfare workers on the importance of getting teens adopted. And You Gotta Believe! has seen a marked increase in the number of teens that the agencies refer to the organization. During the last three years, agencies have sent You Gotta Believe! about 80 older children they hope will be adopted. The rate of kids referred has nearly doubled since ACS enacted its new policy.
You Gotta Believe's strategies for finding adoptive parents for these teens range from the practical–asking kids which adults they already feel close to–to the frankly desperate. Like church missionaries aiming to touch hearts through exaggerated displays of humility, You Gotta Believe! asks volunteers to bag groceries–and spread the word of the agency while they do it. Volunteers are also encouraged to serve as “parking angels,” putting coins in expired meters before tucking agency fliers under offending cars' windshield wipers.
Tonight, You Gotta Believe! director Pat O'Brien hopes that folks in the audience and viewers of their cable-access show will take an interest in the teens, like Marisol, that foster care agencies are parading before them.
The involvement of my writers, Pauline and Natasha, in this event is not merely professional.
Three years ago, at age 13, Pauline was expecting to be adopted by an aunt. Like almost all of the adults in the family, this aunt had a history of mental illness, but she had remained stable for a few years. Then she relapsed. After quitting her job and being hospitalized for schizophrenia, Pauline remembers, her aunt “would roam around the house like a zombie.” Pauline's hopes for adoption went down the drain and she became depressed and angry. “I felt betrayed,” Pauline wrote.
Natasha's fate was different. A year ago, she did find a new family, one willing to put up with the kind of complications that short-circuit many adoptions of teens. Natasha had spent years in foster care watching Family Matters and The Cosby Show, imagining that if she were adopted she would live like the kids on TV. Then, Natasha reasoned, she would be free of her childhood–the humiliation of hearing neighbors call her mother a “basehead,” her sense of being utterly alone.
Natasha is a thoughtful, studious young woman with glasses and a love of words that no one in her class understands–“parasitic,” which she uses to describe how too many foster parents view their charges, is now among her favorites. Natasha was smart enough to excel at becoming the perfect foster child. She got good grades, minded her manners, and maintained a cheery demeanor. When she was 12, she asked her foster mother to adopt her. “OK,” her foster mother said, so “nonchalantly” that Natasha didn't believe her.
But soon after, Natasha's law guardian told her she really would be adopted. Natasha asked her foster mother for confirmation. “She said, 'Yeah, if that's what you want,'” Natasha remembers. Natasha was disappointed. “I thought it'd be more dramatic like, 'We're planning to adopt you! Bring out the champagne!' But she's a very quiet person. She's not into the poetic charm of the situation.”
That was Natasha's first indication that her fantasies of family might be very different from the prosaic task of becoming somebody's daughter.
In the next few months, her behavior began to change. She brought pornographic pictures to school and stole small change from her foster home. She did it partly as a test, to see if her foster mother would throw her out if she misbehaved, as she had Natasha's older sister soon after Natasha moved into the home. Indeed, nearly half of all teen adoptions fail before or soon after the adoption is finalized. Adoptions of teen girls are especially likely to go bad.
But Natasha was also struggling with the inevitable–the realization that even after joining a family, the pain of her past might endure. “I had always thought about getting adopted in this na