- The Washington Times - Monday, December 29, 2003

In Eleanor Porter’s classic novel, the title character Pollyanna was a charming 11-year-old who arrived at her rich aunt’s house with a suitcase of hand-me-down clothes, a courageous game about being “glad” and a desire to be loved. Pollyanna’s story had several happy endings. She got a “forever family” with her aunt, and she helped find an adoptive father for a 10-year-old orphan named Jimmy.

Congress wants to see similarly happy endings for the more than 116,000 foster children who are free for adoption. Nearly half of these children — 47 percent — are 9 and older.

“For the sake of our children, this nation has a responsibility to encourage adoption of children at all ages — from infants to adolescents,” President Bush said on Dec. 2 when he signed the Adoption Promotion Act.

The new law continues a bonus program created in 1997 that rewards states for increasing their adoptions of foster children.

It also adds a section to give states per-child bonuses of $4,000, and even as much as $8,000, if they increase adoptions among foster children 9 and older.

Specialists on older-child adoptions applaud the bonus, but warn that achieving higher numbers of adoptions for preteens and teens won’t be easy.

“I worry that we have this Hallmark-card picture of adoption. … These are not Pollyanna orphans,” says Kathy Harrison, a foster and adoptive mother in Massachusetts who, with husband Bruce, has cared for more than 100 foster children in 13 years.

“These are children with horrible, traumatic histories and it is not enough to put them in a new dress and give them a haircut and send them to a nice school and say, ‘There, now you’re all better.’

“These kids need intensive services and the [adoptive] family needs intensive services if that adoption is going to be maintained,” says Mrs. Harrison, who has written “Another Place at the Table: A Story of Shattered Childhoods Redeemed by Love,” a book about her foster parent experiences.

“Having said that,” adds Mrs. Harrison, “I will also say that we adopted two older kids,” ages 8 and 11. “The adolescent years were hard,” but today the girls are in college and doing well, she says.

The emphasis on older-child adoptions is both old and new policy, according to historical accounts.

In the late 1800s, only children ages 2 to 14 were placed for adoption, Elizabeth S. Cole wrote in the 1997 book “Adoption Policy and Special Needs Children,” edited by Rosemary J. Avery.

This was because older children had better survival rates than infants and were welcome additions to hardworking farming families, Ms. Cole wrote.

In the 1900s, infants displaced older children as adoption favorites. Labor laws made it harder to use children as income earners, and infant formula, introduced in the 1920s, made it much easier to adopt babies.

As a result, older foster children were relegated to state care. Many child-welfare agencies even discouraged adoptions by requiring foster parents “to sign agreements saying they would not adopt children placed in their homes,” Ms. Cole wrote.

In the 1960s, interest in older-child adoptions revived as single mothers began keeping their babies, reducing the number of infants for adoption, she wrote. Also, and perhaps most importantly, professional child-welfare workers and adoptive parents began embracing the idea that “all children” were adoptable.

Still, many children, such as Paula McLain and her two sisters, grew up in foster care.

“I don’t even know if we were eligible for adoption,” said Ms. McLain, who spent 14 years in California’s foster care after being abandoned by both parents. She wrote a memoir, “Almost Family: Growing Up in Other People’s Houses.”

Having a permanent home meant “everything to us” as children, but being adopted seemed like an impossible fantasy, Ms. McLain said in a phone interview from her home in Ohio, where she lives with her husband and son.

At one point, the McLain girls were placed in a loving foster home “and we were really happy there,” she said. But one day the foster parents said they were moving and couldn’t keep the girls. “I think my heart was broken,” Ms. McLain said.

From then on — especially since no one tried to find them adoptive parents — Ms. McLain became resigned to living in limbo. Her older sister also “shut down,” convinced that she was “better off with no parents whatsoever,” said Ms. McLain, who added that, as adults, the three sisters have reconnected with their wayward mother.

Older children are considered “special needs” for good reason: These are children who typically have been in and out of foster care for several years, and have experienced a lot of neglect or sexual or physical abuse, says Nonie Bouthilette, a veteran social worker with the Massachusetts Department of Social Services.

“They have not learned that they can trust adults to take care of them,” she says. As a result, when loving, responsible parents come into their lives, the children often “freak out and start doing things to push [the adults] away” — throwing tantrums, breaking things, cursing and running away.

Older children are also involved in “enormous numbers” of disrupted or failed adoptions, says Mrs. Harrison. These disrupted adoptions are incredibly painful, for both the parents and child, she adds.

Pre-adoption education, support groups and post-adoption services are all important for successful adoptions, say groups such as the National Council for Adoption.

Adds Pat O’Brien, founder of You Gotta Believe, an adoption agency in Coney Island, N.Y., that specializes in placing preteens and teens: “When kids have somebody who is committed to them, it is one of the best and fastest and most rewarding experiences a parent can have.”

Adoption means “you’re going to weather these storms and you’re going to be there,” he says.

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