Part 1, 2
Chris and Amanda say they're close because for a long time, all they had was each other. Photo by Jen Braun
When we met Chris and Amanda nearly two years ago, they were living in a little town in Central Minnesota. They're brother and sister, but they were living in separate foster homes, so they had lunch together every day at school.
They say for a long time, all they had was each other. They've been in foster care since they were 10 and 11. They'd been bounced from home to home for years, and they were looking for someplace they could be together forever. They were looking for parents to adopt them.
The first time we meet them, they're working on a brochure for themselves with their adoption recruiter, Jen Braun. Chris is 16 and Amanda's 15, and they're not taking the brochure all that seriously. They're joking about the picture in it. They're messing with each other and giggling.
Jen Braun wants to find them a family. She knows that once they turn 18 they'll have to leave their foster homes. They won't get any more support from the county. They'll be on their own. Nationwide, 24,000 teens "age out" of foster care each year. They don't do as well as those who find permanent homes. With no one to fall back on, they are more likely to be unemployed or victims of violence. One in seven will be homeless by the time they're 19.
Nationwide, advocates for kids are pushing states to try harder to find permanent homes for kids, so they won't be on their own at 18.
Over the past decade, the adoption rate for foster kids has risen. But only 10 percent of the kids adopted from foster care are teenagers. Jen Braun hopes to change that.
But today she's having a hard time convincing Chris and Amanda to be adopted. They're not so sure about the whole adoption thing. They go back and forth on it.
"It's hard after going through what we've gone through and thinking that there's someone who can change your mind about the whole thing of parenting," Amanda explains.
The kids' mother abandoned them when they were 10 and 11. Their grandmother was too sick to take care of them. They hated their first foster home, where they had to do chores on a farm.
And they had a bad experience with a woman who wanted to adopt them a few years ago. Amanda fell in love with this woman. "She reminded me of my mother, only flawless compared to her," Amanda says.
But Chris didn't trust her. he says, "I felt like she wanted it too bad to look at it and see if she was ready for it."
Chris wouldn't move in with her, but Amanda did. Soon afterward, their relationship deteriorated. Amanda blames herself. She says she was defiant, and she stole money from the woman's purse. Amanda's eyes fill with tears when she remembers the woman taking her back to her foster care agency.
"The last time I seen her was when she was leaving the driveway. I wanted to try to work it out. She didn't. I watched her drive away."
Amanda was ten years old when her mother left. She's been looking for a family for years. Photo by Ellen Guettler
Tears spill down Amanda's face.
"You set your standards pretty high after that. After your heart's been broken once or twice, it's pretty hard to want to go in a family a third time."
But their adoption recruiter, Jen Braun, wants to change the kids' minds. Jen works for a pilot program called the Homecoming Project. It got a federal grant to try to prove that if you look hard enough, you can find families willing to adopt teenagers.
The project is part of a growing national movement to find permanent homes for teenagers. Until quite recently, little effort went into finding adoptive homes for kids older than 12. Over the past few years, the adoption rate for teens in foster care has crept up. But even today, only about a tenth of the foster kids who get adopted are young adults.
The Homecoming Project does a lot better than the national average. It's been around for four years, and it's placed a third of the kids it works with in permanent homes - 30 kids so far - all teenagers.
Jen Braun says when they first ask teenagers if they want to be adopted, most of them say no. Many foster kids are attached to their foster families, and they're scared to start over with a new family.
"I had a kid explain it to me once as, you know, it's like you've won a dollar. Do you trade that in and try to win the hundred dollar ticket?" Braun says.
Chris and Amanda agree to keep an open mind. But every time Jen brings them letters and photos from a family willing to adopt them, they say no.
What changes Chris's mind is a catastrophe.
Chris has been in and out of trouble for several years. He spent some time in lockup for kicking out the window of his foster brother's car in a rage. "I have anger issues," he admits with a laugh.
He has also run away. But his foster family has always taken him back. He says he loves his foster parents and they love him. But he gets in angry fights with his foster mom. He thinks she favors her biological son over him.
And then one day he does something they can't forgive. It's not clear exactly what happened; juvenile records are sealed, and Chris doesn't want to talk about it. But his foster family kicks him out, and doesn't want him back. Chris goes to a group home for kids with behavior problems.
Chris is sent away to treatment. There, he decides he will consider being adopted, after all. Photo by Ellen Guettler
Jen Braun finds two more families willing to adopt Chris and Amanda. They know Chris is in treatment. They know what he did. But they were still willing to take him. Jen Braun says that's the kind of commitment the Homecoming Project requires of the families it works with.
"We want to make sure they understand that you can't give these kids back," she says. "If that kid does something dumb and winds up in JDC (a juvenile detention center), if they start using chemicals and wind up in treatment, then you're a family with a kid who's in JDC. Then you're a family with a kid who's in treatment. That doesn't mean that you get to walk away and give them back to the system."
She says she always tells families the good things about kids, but she warns them, too.
"I say to them, look around your house," Jen says. "What could you not stand having broken, or lost, or taken away? Put it away."
She asks families, can you stand it if this child screams at you? Can you stand it if this child hurts your pets? And there are families that say, yes, they can stand it. For the sake of a child they've never met, they'll take the risk.
One couple that got interested in adopting Chris and Amanda are Shannon and Eric. They're in their late 30s. They live outside Minneapolis, and they've already got three adolescent kids. The first thing you notice about them is that they're always laughing. But they have serious reasons for wanting to adopt.
Eric says their lives had gotten comfortable, and he couldn't live with being comfortable when so many people were not. "So we just wanted to make a difference," he says.
A family is williing to adopt Chris and Amanda, if Chris and Amanda will have them. From left, Kierstin, Sean, Korbin, Shannon, and Eric. The dogs are Sunny and Dory. Photo by Ellen Guettler
Shannon adds, "When Eric and I decided to do this, we knew that it was going to be a permanent thing, that if we have to travel around in our retirement years to a penitentiary to visit our child, then that's what we have to do."
Eric and Shannon and their kids sent letters to Chris and Amanda. And for the first time in years, the kids were interested.
"They sent me a whole bunch of letters saying they care, and that they're thinking about me," Chris muses. "They aren't taking me to Twins games and spoiling a whole bunch of money on us. They're being a real family."
Chris has the family's letters and photos taped to the wall next to his bunk at the treatment facility. He's even calling them his "adoptive family."
Amanda likes the family too. She thinks she might be willing to write them a letter back.
And a few weeks later, she agrees to meet them.
She's so nervous that she has to go home sick from school that day. She says later that when she reached their house, she felt like she was about to dive into a bungee jump. But as soon as she got in the door, she felt at home. She and the family's 16-year-old daughter, Kierstin, were chatting like old friends in minutes.
She talks to Chris on the phone later, and he asks her, "Did you hug them?"
She says she did.
Chris asks, "How'd you decide that?"
Amanda replies, "I don't know. I just winged it and hugged 'em!"
Continue to Part 2