A middle-aged woman with wavy blond hair stoops down so she’s eye-level with a slight, dark-haired girl gripping a bowling ball. The woman whispers a few pointers to her pint-size partner, and the girl confidently flings the ball down the lane.
Woman and girl watch it fly, knocking down all but three pins. They jump up and down with glee, giggling and clapping. It could be any mother and daughter on a Saturday outing, but this pair happen to be complete strangers, and this little girl has never had a mother who loved her.
How Nina Aguilar, 42, and Tiffany, 8, came to be bowling together this day in Aurora, CO, along with a dozen other children and 19 families is the newest chapter in the story of adoption today. Tiffany is just one of some 100,000 children living in foster care who need permanent homes; their biological parents’ rights have been terminated or will be. Virtually all of these children are emotionally traumatized; 18 percent have a mental or physical handicap. Sixty-two percent are age 6 or older. Many have been removed from abusive homes and have been shuffled between foster-care placements for years. “We don’t have families lined up waiting to take these kids, so we asked ourselves, How do we recruit?” says Ann Sullivan, adoption program director of the Child Welfare League of America in Washington, DC.
It’s not easy. Most couples prefer infants and will pay dearly for them in terms of fees to private agencies, long waits, and even travel to foreign countries. Once a child passes through that adorable toddler stage, most prospective parents fear the unknown. Is the little girl healthy? they wonder. Has the little boy been abused? Are they already too emotionally scarred to become part of a family? Sadly, their worries are sometimes well-founded.
Agencies have learned that for these kids to have a shot at getting a home, communities have to know they are available. This was first done through newspaper and television ads. “By showing the children riding bikes or playing ball, they were no longer abstract numbers,” Sullivan says. “Families started coming forward.”
“Adoption parties” came next, and agencies nationwide have increasingly turned to picnics and fairs where prospective parents can meet children in a relaxed setting. It can be a powerful experience that literally puts a child’s face on otherwise cold statistics.
Advocates forged ahead despite resistance. “It was thought to be exploitative, tantamount to putting the kids in a store window,” says Dixie van de Filer Davis, director of The Adoption Exchange in Denver, a nonprofit organization that works with social service agencies in seven states to place older children. “But my answer is: What’s the alternative? That these kids just sit and wait and wait. Is that any better?”
There are no national statistics to gauge how effective the parties have been. But Sullivan says that individual states indicate that nearly half the children who get public exposure-either at events or through advertisements-are adopted.
And so it was on a recent crisp fall day that 19 families hoping to adopt accepted Davis’s invitation to come bowling.
Nina Aguilar and her husband, Fernando, who live about an hour outside Denver, had been working with social services for several months and had already attended the parenting classes required to adopt. While looking through a photo album of available children circulated at one of their classes, they were drawn to a picture of 6-year-old James, a small Mexican-American boy, shown with his older sister, Tiffany. Fernando, also Mexican, was especially interested in the cultural tie. But more important, they were looking to fill the emptiness left in their lives by the sudden death of one of their sons four years earlier. They have two other sons, Michael, 16, from Nina’s first marriage, and Bron, 8. But they were missing the child in the middle.
One February weekend in 1993, their son Roque, 8, complained of a sore throat, and was running a fever. The Aguilars were not particularly alarmed, but since Fernando, an Air Force officer, has military insurance benefits, they decided to take Roque to the emergency room, rather than wait to call the clinic on Monday. Doctors told the Aguilars that their son merely had a routine infection, prescribed antibiotics, and sent everyone home.
But after several days, Roque’s symptoms had worsened. Nina took him to the hospital several times before she was able to get doctors to agree to do tests. “As a mother, I just knew something was wrong,” she says. It would be a full week before the Aguilars had to face the gravity of their son’s illness: He had Kawasaki syndrome, a rare disease that weakens coronary arteries resulting in aneurysms or heart attack.
While doctors warned them it was serious, Nina and Fernando were given hope that the disease could be treated. Roque was kept in intensive care for a week and a half, and doctors, satisfied that he was out of immediate danger, discharged him, explaining that once he had stabilized, they would perform an angiogram to determine the extent of the damage to his coronary arteries. He was put on steroids and blood thinners and instructed to check in at the hospital every day for monitoring until a long-range treatment plan could be proposed.
That day never came. One week later Roque collapsed at home of heart failure. He never regained consciousness and died on March 13, 1993, in his mother’s arms.
Nina cried every day for a year, and even today, the smallest reminders can trigger profound sadness. “Around the holidays, I walked into a Christmas store, and it was so beautiful that I just started crying because Roque would never have another Christmas,” she says. “The pain never goes away. But it has gotten a lot better. The first year we were the walking dead.”
Nina also had to deal with her fears that her other sons, too, would suddenly fall ill. “At first we panicked every time they got sick,” she says. “Then I realized I had to stay calm, particularly for Bron, who started worrying that he was going to die or that we might die and leave him.” The Aguilars bought the boy a stethoscope so he could listen to everyone’s heart when he worried. (Doctors have no evidence that the syndrome is hereditary.)
But Roque’s death also took an emotional toll. Michael fretted that he had caused Roque’s death by roughhousing with him a few days before his collapse, and feared that his parents blamed him. “I told Michael it wasn’t his fault and that we all felt guilty,” says Nina. “I worried that I didn’t wash Roque’s apples enough or that I didn’t feed him enough broccoli. We had a lot to work through.”
Nina and Fernando slowly started to resume their lives the second year after Roque’s death. But their home remains a vivid memorial to their son. An entire wall of their living room is covered with framed photos of him, 16 in all. They have not yet been able to take a family portrait without him. In one recent photo, Nina holds a large portrait of Roque smiling broadly. “We could never leave him out,” she explains.
Tiffany and James, too, had endured their own pain over the past few years–a cycle of abuse, neglect, and abandonment. The children were taken from their unmarried mother and father two years ago. The youngsters will need all Nina and Fernando, 42, have to give. It’s hard to imagine how the couple will be able to take on the additional pain and heartache of these troubled children when they are still grappling with their own tragedy. But they say that it is precisely because of their own suffering that they are better equipped to assume the challenge.
“It’s an inconvenience, yes, for us to adopt these kids,” says Fernando. “But if you compare that with what they’ve been through, it’s nothing.”
“My feeling is,” says Nina, “as long as my kids are alive, I can deal with anything else.”
Davis arranges about five adoption parties a year. She sends invitations to social service agencies. foster parents. and social workers, as well as to anyone who’s called inquiring about adopting. Between ten and 30 children–from 6-year-olds to teenagers–attend. The children are told enough to make them aware of what is happening, but not so much that they’ll become self-conscious.
At today’s party, there is Sharnisa, 12 years old and African-American, who says she would like to be adopted by a “nice Christian family with lots of sisters and brothers.” Because she has behavioral problems and learning disabilities, her social worker is recommending that she be adopted by a family in which she can be the youngest or the only child. At her age, her prospects do not look good.
There’s also 9-year-old Jeremye, a handsome, well-mannered African-American boy who’s been in foster care about four years, after being taken from a mother who neglected him. His foster mother, an older woman, is committed to raising him until he finds a permanent home. “Jeremye would prefer to be adopted by someone rich,” she jokes. “He had his eye on Oprah Winfrey for awhile.” But Jeremye’s primary objective at the moment isn’t to find a home; it’s to bowl. “I love bowling,” he says.
Most of the children seem to share that sentiment, and soon the alley is filled with excited screeching and the pounding of bowling balls on the lanes. A few feet from the action, prospective parents observe quietly before they begin to mingle. For many, this is their first foray into the uncharted emotional waters of adoption. Dawn Hosick, a teacher, and her husband, Roy, a contractor, have two daughters, 10 and 9. Dawn can no longer have children, but the Hosicks feel their family is incomplete and are looking for a younger boy. Another couple in their 30s are also having trouble conceiving and are hoping for a toddler. A 51-year-old single woman is looking to adopt a sister for her Filipino daughter, also adopted.
Davis brings two thick books filled with pictures of other children in need of loving homes, in case the prospective parents don’t bond with any particular child at the party. The photos are captioned, and they speak volumes about the children’s hardships. Under the picture of a small, adorable Caucasian boy, Joseph, 7: “He’s an active boy who likes running, swimming, climbing…and a real firm hug. Due to abuse and neglect…he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder…and has been diagnosed with Fetal Alcohol Effect…mild hearing loss…lacks reasoning skills.”
Under the picture of a striking blond girl: “Since 1992, Tracy, 11, has been in three receiving homes and three foster homes….Due to significant abuse in her birth family she still has some difficulty with children her own age. Given time, she does make friends….Tracy loves to read and would like to become a librarian when she grows up.”
Virtually every child featured in the book has been neglected and abused, and social workers pull no punches when talking to families. But once a family makes an emotional connection with a child, nine times out of ten they stay committed no matter what they hear, say adoption experts.
This proves to be the case with the Aguilars. A social worker has arranged to bring James and Tiffany to the party specifically so the couple can meet them. Hopes are high on both sides. As “a sibling group,” in social worker parlance, James and Tiffany are harder to place than a single child, so it’s very good news that the Aguilars will consider both children. (Forty-four percent of the children in foster care are part of such sibling groups.)
The Aguilars spend most of their time just watching before they join the children on the lanes–Fernando on his knees patiently giving tips to James, and Nina laughing with Tiffany. But they also talk to the children’s foster mother, who is brutally frank. At a glance, she warns, the children look like any other active and well-adjusted siblings. But in fact they are deeply disturbed youngsters whose mother left them alone for extended periods, with Tiffany, barely older than a toddler, struggling to care for James and an infant sister. (The sister is in the process of being adopted by another family.) Both children are prone to prolonged tantrums, need to attend special education classes, and do not, in social-worker speak, “form attachments easily.”
Meanwhile, other small dramas unfold. The Hosicks’ daughters have been playing with Chris, a 10-year-old boy. “But when we looked him up in the book, it said they prefer he be adopted by a family where he can be the only child or youngest,” says Dawn. “He needs a lot.” In the end, the couple pick out a young brother and sister from the book, and fill out an adoption form. “Well, why not?” asks Dawn. “If you’re committed to adopting one, you can do two.”
An African-American couple, who came looking for a younger child, have been watching Jeremye. They approach his foster mother, who goes on at length about what a good kid he is. But later, after some soul-searching, the couple decide they’ll stick to their original plan and wait for a younger child.
A few lanes down, a woman leaves her game and seeks out Davis; she has figured out what’s going on and explains that she’s been thinking about adopting. She asks for Davis’s card. “This is how it’s supposed to work,” Davis says, as the party thins out. “There’s a lot of goodwill out there and it’s contagious.”
The party is a success. Davis has collected 15 formal queries from potential parents. And it’s clear to everyone that the Aguilars are hooked on James and Tiffany.
When the Aguilars got home, they promptly filled out forms asking for detailed personal histories, and one month later, social workers came to their rambler in Greeley, CO, for the “home study.” The couple also began preparing their sons for their new siblings, talking through the changes and challenges they might face. Together, they figured out a new bedroom arrangement, with James and Bron doubling up in one room, and Tiffany, as the only girl, getting her own.
“The boys are very excited,” says Nina, “but they don’t know how bad it could be. Bron just thinks he’s getting new friends to play with. I told him that they might say things that will make us feel bad, but that he shouldn’t fight back. He should come tell me.”
But just before Christmas, the Aguilars got a jolt. They were informed that Tiffany and James’s social worker, guardian, and foster mother had all agreed that it was in the best interests of the children not to place them together at this time. The Aguilars could proceed with Tiffany-but not James. “The feeling was that they tended to behave worse when they’re together,” says Nina. “We were also told that the termination of their biological parents’ rights has taken a greater toll on James, and everyone felt it could be damaging to take him away from his foster mother just now.”
Kathy Gibson, the children’s social worker, says the decision did not come easily. “Whenever we have a family who wants to adopt siblings, we try to make it happen. But our first priority is to make sure the kids are ready. James is not ready. A judgment was made that both children will perhaps do better and settle down if they’re separated.”
Nina was enormously disappointed at first, wondering how the children would fare with yet another loss. But she concedes that she and Fernando were also a little relieved. Taking both kids would have been a lot to start out with.
Still, the Aguilars have not given up on James. “I’m saving clothes for him,” Nina says. “They told us that if he reacts really badly to the separation, everyone would revisit the decision. And we’d love to have him.”
By the end of last January, Tiffany’s adoption was approved. As part of the process, the Aguilars were required to attend a three-hour meeting during which they talked to Tiffany’s teacher, foster parents, and guardian, and also viewed a video showing an inconsolable Tiffany having a 45-minute tantrum, complete with kicking and screaming. “Nothing we heard or saw discouraged us,” says Nina. “It just made us sad.” The Aguilars had also made a video of their own, so Tiffany could see her new house and room. And they prepared for her a photo album of the whole family, captioned with everyone’s names.
The Aguilars were required to wait 48 hours before giving their final decision. They said yes. “We really didn’t need to think about it,” says Nina. “We made up our minds long ago.”
Epilogue: Tiffany moved in with the Aguilars on February 21, as we were going to press.
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