Stephen Smith: From American Public Media, this is an American RadioWorks documentary.
Amanda: Each year that goes by, it's more of a reminder that I don't have a permanent family.
Amanda and her brother Chris are looking for parents.
Chris: We're up for bid, kinda.
Amanda: Like a puppy in a free box.
But Chris and Amanda are teenagers. Most families want younger kids.
Michelle Chalmers: Usually after about age 10, folks start saying "unadoptable," and I just don't believe that.
Most teenagers in foster care never get adopted. They turn 18 and the state cuts them off. They're on their own.
Mark Courtney: If I had a friend who was a parent who behaved that way toward their 18-year-old, I would be horrified.
In the next hour, Wanted: Parents. First, this news.
Smith: It's a bright fall day in a little town in Minnesota. A dozen people come down the steps of the courthouse. They're laughing and hugging each other. People passing by might guess there's been a wedding. But it was an adoption.
A 16-year-old girl was just adopted - the girl in the army cap, the one holding a little bunch of flowers and grinning. She poses for photos with her new mom and dad and her new sister and brothers. The parents have only known this girl for a year. During the court hearing, they told the judge they understand what they're getting into. They said they were happy.
But the joy was bittersweet. The girl has found a family, but they wish she had never had to look for one. The mother who gave birth to her wouldn't take care of her. The foster home she bounced through wouldn't keep her. So at 16 years old, she has to forge a new family. She has to make parents from strangers. The family drives off to brunch and from there, to the rest of their lives together. From here on out, anything could happen.
From American Public Media, this is an American RadioWorks documentary. I'm Stephen Smith.
This was a rare day. Teenagers don't get adopted very often. Foster kids who don't get adopted before they turn 18 face a grim future. Often, they wind up on the streets. They get too old to stay in foster care, and they have nowhere to go. So, there's a growing national movement to try to find permanent homes for kids, even when they're on the brink of adulthood. Producers Ellen Guettler and Catherine Winter have been following a pair of teenagers for more than a year. They're a brother and sister, Chris and Amanda. They're looking for parents to adopt them - they want to be together. But time is running out as Chris' 18th birthday approaches. Their story shows how challenging adopting teenagers can be. Over the coming hour, Catherine Winter tells the story of Chris and Amanda.
Catherine Winter: It's a spring afternoon, and school's out for the day. Chris and Amanda are out at the pizza pub in a little town in central Minnesota. Chris is 16 and Amanda's 15. They're out with Jen Braun. She's an adoption recruiter. She's trying to help them find a family willing to adopt them. Today she's brought them a draft of a brochure she made - kind of an ad for Chris and Amanda.
Jen Braun: So what I did is I just put some stuff in here about you two, you wonderful, wonderful kids.
Chris and Amanda: God bless you.
Braun: Read it out loud please and then we can make changes as we go.
Chris: Okay. Chris is a friendly, talkative guy with a great sense of humor. He likes to hang out with his many friends and play sports of all kinds.
Amanda: Amanda is a bright, insightful teen who absolutely loves writing poetry and participating in debate and speech at school. She's hilarious. She won an award at a talent show for her standup comedy act.
The brochure also says Chris and Amanda want to be together, and that they'd like to have a dog. Once the kids approve it, Jen Braun will make copies of the brochure for people who are looking into adoption.
Braun: What do you think of the brochure?
Amanda: It's cool.
Chris: I'm loving it.
Amanda: I don't like that picture.
Braun: I can take that picture out.
Chris: I like that picture so keep it in.
Braun: So one likes it, one doesn't.
Amanda: No, it's fine, it's fine. I like it.
Chris and Amanda are horsing around at the table. Chris blows on his sister with his straw and swipes her copy of the brochure.
Amanda: Gimme my brochure!
The brochure shows two dark-haired teenagers. Chris is short and muscular. Amanda has a round face; she's got braces and piercings all the way up her ears. Chris and Amanda have been looking for parents for years. They've been in foster care since they were 10 and 11.
Amanda: We were pretty much abandoned by our mom. She was a truck driver and she'd come back like every weekend, and then once in awhile, just every two weeks, every other week, and then once a month. And then one day, it was just not at all.
Their mom's boyfriend took Chris and Amanda to their grandmother. They love their grandma, but she has diabetes and MS and uses a wheelchair. She couldn't keep them. So they went into foster care. They say for a long time, all they had was each other. They live in separate foster homes now, but they still have lunch together every day at school. Jen Braun is trying to find them a home where they can be together. She's looking for a permanent home for them, because most kids can't stay with their foster parents after they turn 18.
Braun: If you turn 18 here and you age out of foster care, if you need help with rent or groceries, is there someone you can fall back on?
Chris: Take a million dollar loan out, I'll be good for a couple of years.
Amanda: Like they'd really give that to you.
Braun: So my point is. And just what I want you to think about is that if you had an adoptive family, that those would be folks you could fall back on.
Chris and Amanda say they're not worried about turning 18 and losing their foster homes. They say they'll just live together. Chris says they'll have a house with a pool and underwater tunnels.
Amanda: I want a small organized house and he wants a pimped-out house. Okay!
Chris: I'm gonna get a go-cart track in my house instead of stairs.
Amanda: And what are you going to be doing, Chris?
Chris: I don't know. Playing on the computer.
Amanda: To earn your go-cart track and your underwater tunnels.
Chris: I'm gonna be a lawyer.
Chris: I am.
Chris and Amanda help Jen Braun with their brochure - but not very much. Today they're not so psyched about the adoption thing. They go back and forth about it. They're a little gun-shy. They haven't had great experiences with parents - like their mom and their stepfather and their first foster parents.
Amanda: Well 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. That, you set your standards pretty high after that. After your heart's broken once or twice, it's pretty hard to want to go in a family a third time.
Three years ago, a woman wanted to adopt them, and Amanda was tempted. But Chris wasn't so sure.
Amanda: Obviously, Chris seen something I didn't. I looked at the fact of somebody actually wanting to adopt me and Chris looked at the big picture of well, can she handle it, can she handle us. Can she give us love, can she give us good care and stuff?
Chris: Cause she like took us to Twins games and Wild Mountain and all these places you don't go very many times in a summer, you know, and I felt like she wanted it too bad to look at it and see if she was ready for it.
Amanda: But I was actually really excited about it because by that time we were so close and I thought she was - she reminded me of my mom but only like flawless compared to her. The way she talked, she had a little southern drawl like my mom did. Her jokes. We started to set everything up, and I'm like yeah, I wanted to like let's go. I'm like okay let's do it like tomorrow!
Amanda was 12 and Chris was 13. They had to make a decision that would affect the rest of their lives. Chris said no. But Amanda said yes. She moved in with the woman who reminded her of her mother. Amanda blames herself for what happened next. She says she behaved badly. She was defiant and mouthy. She stole money from the woman's purse. Maybe she was testing her new mom. If she was, the woman failed the test.
Amanda: So I went with her for I think it was three months that I was living with her and then things started to fall apart. And we went down for family therapy together. And then (crying) she left. And 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.
The adoption that fell through was three years ago. It was before the kids started working with Jen Braun, their adoption recruiter. Jen wants to make sure they don't get rejected again. She's trying to find a family that will agree to stick with them no matter how they behave.
Braun: The families that we work with, we wanna make sure they understand that you can't give these kids back. If that teen does something dumb, that they wind up in JDC, if they start using chemicals and wind up in CD treatment, then you're a family with a kid who's in CD treatment. That doesn't mean that you get to walk away and give them back to the system.
Jen Braun says there are families that will promise to keep a kid forever, even if that means they might wind up visiting their child in lockup. The project she works for has been around for four years, and it's placed 30 teenagers in permanent homes. That's a third of the kids they're working with. It's called the Homecoming Project. It got a federal grant to try to prove that you can find people willing to adopt teenagers.
Jen Braun is constantly looking for more families.
Braun: I ask my dentist, I ask people at the checkout line. Almost everyone I meet I'm asking them, "Might you be interested in adopting a teenager?"
Jen Braun has to sell the idea of adopting teenagers to social workers, too. Until quite recently, kids over 12 were largely assumed to be unadoptable. Jen Braun says she recently went to talk to a teenager in a group home about adoption. One of the workers there said to her, "He's 17. Why bother?"
Braun: That makes me so angry, and I said to her, "Let me ask you something. Do you still have family that you talk to and see even if it's not regularly, several times a year? Is there someone that you can call in your family if you have a problem, or someone that you need to bounce an idea off of?" "Well, sure. Yeah." "So you say to me, 'He's 17, why bother?' and I say to you, 'Because he is only 17. He's got a lot of life left.'"
Jen Braun says she has to persuade the teenagers that they should bother, too. A lot of kids are reluctant to be adopted. Jen Braun says many kids are attached to their foster families. They're scared to start over with a new family.
Braun: 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?
In fact, Chris and Amanda have rejected two families she found for them. The kids said the parents didn't seem like they'd have enough time for them. Jen Braun tells them it's okay to say no. She'll keep looking.
She gets Chris and Amanda to do a TV spot. A local station does regular profiles of kids who are looking for homes. To liven things up, the station tapes them shooting hoops with a famous basketball player.
TV host: These kids still hope to find a family.
Chris: Yes, because we need somewhere to feel secure and to have someone to talk to not worrying about moving and they'll always be there for us.
TV host: If you would like to adopt Amanda and Chris or any of Minnesota's waiting children, please call 612-861-115 or log on to kstp.com.
Chris and Amanda also talk to groups of prospective parents. The people at the Homecoming Project keep a video of their presentation:
Michelle Chalmers: Even if you're sitting here tonight thinking oh, I'm so excited for the bouncing baby who's going to be joining my family, I would really encourage you to take the time to take a look at the information on some of our older kids. And without further ado, I would like to introduce Chris and Amanda.
Chris urges the group to adopt teenagers because older kids don't need to be potty trained. (laughter) Amanda says teenagers aren't much trouble. They'll just hang out in their rooms and listen to music.
The push to find adoptive homes for teenagers is partly fueled by some new research. Studies show that kids who don't have permanent families face grim futures. When the state stops paying for their foster care, they have to leave. Some young people return to the very families they were taken from to begin with - the people who abused and neglected them. Some wind up on the street.
It's called "aging out" of foster care. Twenty-four-thousand kids in the United States age out of foster care every year. In most states, they age out when they turn 18.
Mark Courtney: Normal parents do not wash their hands of responsibility for their children at the age of 18.
Mark Courtney's a professor at the University of Washington. He studies kids who age out of foster care, and he says on average, they don't do very well. The young women are twice as likely as their peers to get pregnant. The young men are more likely to go to jail than to go to college.
Courtney: Bottom line is that, compared to their peers at 19 or so, between 19 and 20, these young people are less likely to be enrolled in school. More likely to have been physically victimized, just generally less well-off than other young people during the transition to adulthood.
Mark Courtney found that within a year of aging out, one in seven young people had been homeless. He points out that, these days, most Americans get support from their parents until well into their 20s - and many still live at home. He says the state is supposed to be the parent for foster children. And parents don't cut kids off when they turn 18.
Courtney: If I had a friend - you know, I'm a parent. If I had a friend who was a parent who behaved that way toward their 18-year-old, I would be horrified, and I would tell my friend that I was horrified.
On a spring day, Jen Braun gives Amanda a ride to her foster home. Amanda and her brother Chris live in separate foster homes. His is in town. Hers is in the country.
Braun: So how've things been going this last month Amanda?
Amanda: Good. I was - I'm planning on getting a job this summer. So I'll either make ice cream blizzards, stock shelves or give people greasy hamburgers. (laughs) I don't know which one. they're all tempting. (laughter)
They drive past a farm and turn down a dirt road, into the woods. The little house is in a clearing with a swing set and a dog kennel. Inside, Amanda's foster parents, Brenda and Tom Engh, are getting ready to go to a school concert with their daughters. The girls are 11 and 13. All four of the Enghs say they adore Amanda. Brenda and Tom say they've gotten attached in their three years together.
Brenda Engh: She's just a joy. She's just a great person
Tom Engh: She's funny, she's a, she fits in perfectly or we all fit in perfectly with her life I guess perfectly together. It's a, she likes to travel we like to travel, and camp, and fish, and do things together. And she enjoys those kind of things and we just have a great time all the time as a family.
Amanda: Not to say I don't have my days. (laughter)
Tom Engh: We all do.
Brenda Engh: Well, and we have our days. ... Well, when Amanda first came to us -- do you mind if I talk about it now.
Brenda Engh: She was a very different kid. She had issues with cutting and stealing and all kinds of unpleasant behaviors. We had nothing to do -- Amanda's done all the hard work.
Tom Engh: Yes
Brenda Engh: My opinion is when she accepted the Lord and it was like complete change. You know, she's a great kid.
The Enghs have had hundreds of foster kids - some for a few days, and some for months or years, like Amanda. But Amanda is the first foster child they've thought about adopting.
Brenda Engh: Honestly we've loved all the kids we've had it's just she's really been a really neat part of our family.
Tom Engh: In the past, most of the kids that we've had they weren't really up for adoption. Because I think if we go back about three or four years, the teenage kids didn't really get adopted out.
Brenda Engh: And it wasn't, I don't think was ever even asked.
The push for teen adoption is still new. And there are still laws that discourage foster families from adoption. If the Enghs adopt Amanda, they can still get some help from the state for her care - but it'll be less than half the money they're getting now.
Tom Engh: (sighs) Well we have, I, we've talked about this in length. Yeah, we have thought about adopting, but we're kind of committed to foster care and we don't know. We're praying about it. And right now I think Amanda, working with her counselors, family counselors, individual counselors, seems that right now that's the best fit for her in her life at this time.
So the Enghs aren't going to adopt Amanda. If another family comes forward willing to take her, and she wants to go, they'll let her go. If not, when she turns 18, she'll have to leave.
In early summer, Chris runs away from his foster family. The first time we met Chris, he told us he had anger issues. He was laughing when he said it, but his temper gets him in trouble. Once, he smashed the window of his foster brother's car. When he got out of lockup for doing that, his foster family took him back. They've stuck by him through a lot of unpleasant behavior. He says he says he loves them, and he believes they love him. But sometimes he and his foster mom get in angry arguments. And sometimes, he runs away.
This time, when he comes back, he has a meeting with all the adults who make decisions about him. His foster mom. His social worker. His therapist. His court-appointed guardian. Jen Braun from the Homecoming Project. Chris' case manager is Mary Rinden. She goes over Chris' treatment plan with him:
Mary Rinden: Would you read objective number two, it's very short, right in the middle there?
Chris: Uh, Chris will remain in placement without running when angry.
Rinden: I don't want you to be sleeping anywhere but where we know you are. Safe, cared for. Now, is that a doable goal?
Rinden: Okay. So that means, the next time you get mad, what are you going to do?
Chris: Um. Talk to Margie about it? Or Steven?
Rinden: Yes. Yes.
Margie and Steven are Chris's foster parents. Margie tells Chris she worries about him when he runs. She can't sleep. The group has Chris sign an agreement not to run for the next 30 days.
Chris: Am I done?
Rinden: You are done, Chris. Thank you.
Chris: Bye, everybody. Thanks for coming.
After Chris leaves the meeting, the adults discuss what to do with him. Jen Braun tells the group that a woman is interested in adopting him and Amanda. Chris's case manager, Mary Rinden, isn't sure that's a good idea
Rinden: I really don't know that for him to look at the adoption track is best for his mental health. I'll be honest. I just don't. He's got so many struggles and he's struggling to maintain a long relationship with Steve and Margie. I mean, four years…
Braun: My concern with Chris is where is he gonna be when he emancipates from the foster care system?
Jen Braun says if Chris isn't adopted, he'll have nowhere to go if he turns 18.
Braun: What's he gonna do? He's a year and a half away from that.
Mary Rinden responds that she's sure his foster family would let Chris come home for Christmas and Easter. Jen asks what he's supposed to do the rest of the year.
Braun: And where will he move?
Rinden: And I get all that. I think the thing we have to - and I know we all care about is finding a match so that if they're going to be adopted that it's successful, that it's a permanent, that it doesn't disrupt.
This is a concern that Jen Braun hears often. People worry that kids will get hurt if they move into an adoptive home and it doesn't work out. It's too much disruption, they say. But advocates for teen adoption ague that if a kid like Chris isn't placed for adoption, he faces certain disruption. His foster family won't keep him after he ages out. An adoptive family might. Jen Braun doesn't buy the argument that adoption is too risky.
Braun: For most of the kids we work with, the worst day of their life has already happened. So what are we protecting them from?
And then it turns out that the bond between Chris and his foster parents isn't that strong, after all. Soon after he comes back from running away, Chris does something at his foster home. He won't talk to us about it. But it's something so serious that the foster family sends him away. He has to go to a locked treatment center. He sends them a letter saying he's sorry. But they never write back. They won't be having him to visit at Christmas and Easter after he ages out. They won't talk to him at all. His chance of finding an adoptive family seems slimmer than ever - and now he doesn't even have a foster family.
Smith: This is Stephen Smith. You're listening to an American RadioWorks documentary. To learn more about teen adoption and to see pictures of Chris and Amanda, visit our Web site at American RadioWorks.org. Our program continues in just a moment, from American Public Media.
Smith: You're listening to an American RadioWorks documentary. I'm Stephen Smith. In this hour, we're following the story of Chris and Amanda, two teenagers looking for someone to adopt them.
Adoptions of foster children have been rising over the past decade. That's partly because of a change in federal law. A decade ago, a lot of kids spent years in foster care while authorities tried again and again to reunite them with their biological families. In 1997, Congress called on states to cut off parents' rights faster and move more kids to adoptive homes.
More kids are getting adopted today, but most of them aren't teenagers. Nationally, only about a tenth of the foster kids who find adoptive homes are teenagers. So the odds are against Chris and Amanda.
And time is running out. Chris will be 18 in a year and a half. If he hasn't been adopted before he ages out of foster care, he'll have nowhere to go. Catherine Winter continues our story.
Winter: On a summer day, adoption recruiter Jen Braun drives out from Minneapolis to the little town where Amanda lives. She's got a meeting with Amanda and Amanda's social worker, Kelly Schaaf. The three of them swing by A&W for onion rings and ice cream and head out to a city park.
Braun: So how you doing kiddo?
Amanda: Good. Pretty good.
Braun: So-so good.
Amanda's worried about her brother Chris. His foster family recently kicked him out. It's not entirely clear what he did. His records are sealed because he's a juvenile. But it was serious enough that his foster parents don't want him back. He's been sent to a juvenile treatment center, and he doesn't know where he'll go when he gets out. Amanda says her foster dad drove her out to see him last weekend.
Amanda: I just had a visit with him on Sunday. We talked for a good hour, hour and a half.
Braun: Do you think this is pretty serious?
Amanda: Yeah, but I'm excited that it's getting taken care of.
Braun: That he's getting treatment.
Chris will get therapy at the treatment center. He's supposed to work on managing his anger. But Kelly and Jen don't just want to talk to Amanda about her brother. They want to find out whether she's still interested in being adopted. Jen has found two more families interested in the kids. The families wrote letters to Chris and Amanda to introduce themselves. Kelly got the letters to Amanda a week ago.
Kelly Schaaf: So Amanda we chatted a little last week after you had the opportunity to read the letters that were written to you and Chris from a couple families.
Amanda: There was one family I liked, the Eric and …
Amanda: Yeah. I like them a lot. I told Chris that he'll probably like them too.
Schaaf: What was it that you liked about them?
Amanda: Just how open the kids were. In the letters what they wrote. Corbin, I think, wrote that he's somewhat of a comedian too. He's like, so I hope that I can meet you and find out for myself. I'm like, oh. They're just really nice and really hoping to meet us.
Schaaf: Do you have questions for us that we can try and help answer so you can learn a little bit more about them as a family?
Amanda: I don't know if it said it in the letter, but I was wondering about how much space they had, like as far as their house. How many bedrooms and stuff.
Schaaf: They're actually doing remodeling. And you would have your own bedroom. (Amanda chuckles)
In the past, Jen Braun has found other families interested in adopting Chris and Amanda, but the kids have always said no. This time, Amanda tells Kelly and Jen she's willing to think about being adopted by this family. Even though it would mean moving an hour away, and leaving the foster parents she loves, leaving her school and all her friends.
Amanda: Um, probably because each year that goes by, it's more and more of a reminder that I don't have a permanent family. It's just foster. And, I don't know, like I don't want to meet 'em like tomorrow.
Amanda: But like I mean, probably I'll write them a letter
Amanda: And then we'll see.
Amanda says last time she thought she was going to meet a family interested in her, she was so nervous that she got sick. Jen and Kelly tell her she can have all the time she needs. That she's brave to even consider it.
It's a brave thing for the family, too. They had to agree to adopt these kids, sight unseen. They don't get to meet the kids and then change their minds. That would be too hard on the kids. So this family has agreed to adopt two teenagers they've never even spoken with. And they know these kids may not be easy to live with.
Jen Braun says she always tries to tell families the good things about kids, but she warns them, too.
Braun: And I say to them, look around your house. What could you not stand having be 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.
Shannon: Did you feed the dogs?
Sean: Yes I did.
Eric and Shannon live outside Minneapolis with their three kids. It's not quite the suburbs, not quite the country. It's a nice house, bigger than the one Amanda lives in now. There's a bright, open kitchen. (laughter)
It's late August. The end of a workday. The family's having takeout Subway sandwiches. One of the first things you notice about them is that they like to laugh. Their 16-year-old, Kierstin, gets them all giggling with stories about her summer job at the State Fair. She sells deep-fried pickles.
Kierstin: It's got like crust around it like chicken nugget crust almost and it's just warm and soggy and the texture's like - ugh!
Kierstin has long hair and a Mr.Yuk T-shirt. The boys are blonder. They're 11 and 12. There's a big yellow dog and a little white dog.
Sean: Are the cookies ready?
The kids say it's okay with them if their parents adopt a new brother and sister. Kierstin thinks it's a good idea.
Kierstin: I think our family could definitely handle this because we're so good with each other and we're so good with communicating. We're so good at understanding each other. Since we're doing so good, we need to help somebody else do good. Mom said, "Here's these two. Read about them." I really liked what I read about Chris and Amanda. I said, "Yeah, these two are the ones." So, we're waiting for them to say, "I like these people." (laughter)
Chris and Amanda haven't answered the family's letters yet. But Eric and Shannon are proceeding as if the answer will be yes. They've started remodeling their house to add two bedrooms in the basement.
Shannon: This is Amanda's room.
Eric: That will be Chris's room. I've got to put an egress window in there.
Eric is a carpenter. Shannon's a bookkeeper. They're in their late 30s. They've been thinking about adoption for several years.
Eric: Well I think part of who we are is our faith and we had come to a point in our life where we were pretty comfortable. We both had really good jobs, nice house, two nice cars.
But Eric says it was hard for him to live a comfortable life when so many people are not comfortable.
Eric: So we just wanted to make a difference.
They were thinking of a younger child, but during their adoption class they saw one of the teen panels put together by the Homecoming Project. They got interested in Chris and Amanda. By the time Chris got into trouble, they were already committed to adopting the kids. And Shannon says they still are.
Shannon: I told - cause I think it was Kelly I talked to last week, she asked, wanted to find out, are you still wanting to pursue Chris, and I said, "Oh, yeah." We haven't wavered on that at all. And I told her, I said, "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 children, child, or whatever, then that's what we have to do."
Eric: We've gone through scenarios, Shannon and I. And let's say a worst-case scenario, if somebody gets hurt in the house by this child…
Eric: Physically hurt. It would be the same for anybody. If I were to hurt somebody in this house, if Shannon were to hurt somebody, they would have to be removed from the house. And we've talked about this. But that does not deter our parenting. If they have to go out and get treatment or help, we would be right there with them. They just wouldn't be in the house for…
Shannon: For a period of time…
Eric: For a period of time, yeah.
But Eric and Shannon say they're not focusing on worst case scenarios. They're looking forward to good times. They want to take the all the kids tubing down the river in their back yard. They want to go camping together.
Eric: We're not there to bring 'em in to our house and we're gonna rescue you and be your big savior blah blah blah. These kids are gonna come in and bless us with their laughter and their accomplishments.
The family's gotten word that both Chris and Amanda liked what they said in their letters. The kids want to keep exchanging letters and email.
Shannon: I'm excited about it. Like, when we finally get to meet them would be great. We've gone through it and I said, "Can I hug her?" And Eric's like, "Just shake her hand. I'm like, "Shake her hand? Are you kidding me? Shake her hand?"
It's hard to know how to greet a stranger who might become your daughter. But it will be awhile before they have to face that meeting. Amanda's still not sure she wants to meet, and Chris still isn't free to go.
It's a rainy morning in early fall. The trees are starting to go gold and crimson on the grounds of the treatment center where Chris is living. The place looks a little like a private school with classrooms on the main floor. Chris lives in an upstairs dormitory.
Chris: This is our living area. There's two bunks on each side of the wall, um, to accommodate four guys. Um, I have my adoptive family hanging up on the wall.
Tacked above Chris's bunk are pictures of Shannon and Eric and their kids. He takes them down.
Chris: This is my adoptive family. Shawn, Corbin, Eric, Shannon, Kierstin. Um these are the animals. Two dogs and rabbit. I got pictures of their house, their yard. They have a river in back, so I'm gonna dam that up and make a Jacuzzi.
Chris hasn't met them, but he's already calling them his adoptive family. This is a change of heart. Before he was sent to treatment, he had said he didn't want to be adopted.
Chris: Now that I'm here, I guess I'm opened up to it because, you know, I don't know where I'm going after this, so it's like, why not have another option?
In the past, Chris has rejected families that were interested in him. He didn't trust people who seemed to want to buy his affection. But so far, he likes this family.
Chris: 'Cause they're like, they're not spoiling us. They send me a whole bunch of letters that saying they care, whatever, and that they're thinking about me. They aren't taking me to Twins games and spoiling a whole bunch of money on us. They're being a real family.
A week ago, Amanda agreed to meet this family. She was so nervous that day that she got sick to her stomach and had to leave school. But later, she told Chris that once she got to Eric and Shannon's house, they hit it off right away.
Chris: I was like, I was talking to Amanda, I was like, Manda, did you hug 'em? She's like, "Yeah?" I was like, "How'd you decide that?" She's like, "I dunno. I just winged it and hugged 'em." She said she really liked 'em or whatever. I was like, "Okay, I'll meet 'em." You know, Amanda likes 'em. I'll try.
Two days later, Eric and Shannon take time off work. They take their kids out of school. And the family drives to a restaurant near Chris's treatment center. An ice cream and burgers place. They get a big table and wait for Chris.
Eric: There he is.
Chris's adoption recruiter, Jen Braun, comes in with Chris. He's grinning.
Chris: I'm gonna give you a hug.
Eric: Nice to meet you.
Shannon: Hi Chris.
Chris hugs them all, and then it's sort of awkward for a few minutes. But after awhile, everyone is laughing and joking and telling funny stories. (laughing) Chris tells about the time he and Amanda were about six and seven and found some matches. They started some leaves on fire and the fire got too big.
Chris: You know I'm sitting here going, "Oh, my God." So, I take my shoe and start trying to step on it. (thumping) Amanda walks over with this hose. She's like, "Why'd you stick your feet in the fire?" I'm like, "Why didn't you tell me you had a hose?" (laughter)
Things are going well until Shannon mentions that they don't allow TV on school nights. Chris looks startled. But then Shannon says that can be negotiable. And Chris says he's not that into TV anyway.
After they've eaten lunch, Shannon takes out a gift bag.
Shannon: Chris, I got you something, just, from us to you to kind of have.
She passes it down the long table to Chris. There's a screaming yellow t-shirt in the bag.
Shannon: So we don't lose ya. (laughter)
Braun: Safety yellow!
Under the t-shirt, Chris finds a fleece blanket. Shannon says later that she wanted him to have something from them to take back to the treatment center; she didn't like to think of him all alone there. Chris's mouth opens a little, but he doesn't say anything. He pulls the blanket out, and then he touches it to his face. For awhile, he doesn't say anything at all.
The family spends almost two hours with Chris. The restaurant has pretty well emptied out by the time they say goodbye.
When Chris is gone, the kids say they like him. So do Eric and Shannon. Out in the parking lot, Chris climbs into Jen's car. He flashes her a grin and a thumbs up. Later, he phones Jen's boss and tells her to give Jen a raise for finding him this family.
What follows is almost like a courtship, with letters and phone calls. Amanda starts spending weekends with the family. They all visit Chris together. Eric and Shannon put thousands of miles on their car.
Just before Homecoming weekend, Jen and Kelly visit Amanda at school. They want to find out whether she thinks she might like to move in with this family.
Amanda is giddy like a girl in love. She says when she's not with Shannon and Eric, they're sending each other text messages.
Amanda: I call them brother, sister, Mom, Dad, now. Every time I text them, I'm "from daughter," then he's "from Dad." Then last night, he's like, "We love you and goodnight, have sweet dreams, from your last family." I'm like, "No, my first family." Then he's like, "Sniffle, sniffle." I'm like, "Eric!" (laughter) It was awesome! It's crazy.
Schaaf: Do you get nervous thinking about living with Chris again?
Amanda: Yes. I don't think that mentally he's able to be adopted.
Schaaf: And why not?
Amanda: Because his anger's so strong. If one thing happens…
Schaaf: You think that he'll sabotage it, you mean?
Amanda tells Kelly she's worried Chris will sabotage her chance to be adopted, too. As she's talking, she gets a text message on her cell phone. She fishes it out of her pants pocket.
Amanda: It's Shannon. (laughs) "Hi, have an especially great evening Supergirl. Hugs from future mother, hugs." Yeah.
Amanda's going to the Homecoming Dance this evening. Amanda has lots of friends here. She just got elected to Student Council. So it's hard to leave. But just before her 16th birthday, she says goodbye to her friends and her foster family. She and Eric load her things into the van and she moves to their house.
A few months later, Chris is visiting the family. He's playing foosball with his three new siblings - Corbin, Sean, and Kierstin. Amanda's curled up on the couch watching.
Korbin: If you hadn'ta moved yer buttocks!
Chris is still living in a residential treatment center two hours away. Eric drove down to get him this morning. Then they all visited Chris and Amanda's grandmother. (cheering and giggling)
Chris says he's surprised to find that he likes having younger brothers.
Chris: It's fun, it's a blast. It's fun playing with them, 'cause then it gives me another excuse to be a little kid.
The kids say they're getting on well, too. Sixteen-year-old Kierstin says she and Amanda are attached at the hip
Kierstin: She's just like one of my best friends. This is my homegirl. We paint our nails. We go shopping. We tease Dad. We drive to the mall together and try to find our way back home together. We get lost together. (laughs) All that jazz.
Amanda says she loves living here, even though her new parents have some strict rules. Amanda has to leave her bedroom door open during the day. She has to let Eric and Shannon see her cell phone text messages.
Shannon: We told her, we were very up front with her that our house is a bubble. And we reserve the right as parents to review any literature coming into the house, any music coming into the house, any media at all.
In fact, they made Amanda throw away about 30 of her CDs; they said the music had hateful messages. When Chris heard about that, he was alarmed. He and his new parents sat down with a therapist to come up with rules they could agree to for when he moves in. Eric and Shannon agreed to relax the no-TV-on-school-nights rule.
Chris: 'Cause I watch football or basketball and if there's games I wanna watch I just ask Mom or Dad and they said they wouldn't have any problem with me watching like a Monday football game, so yeah.
Amanda says overall, living here is more laid-back than living in foster care was. And even though she hasn't known them nearly as long, she feels much more attached to Eric and Shannon than she did to her foster parents.
Amanda: There, I didn't call Tom and Brenda "Mom" and "Dad," and I didn't call my foster sisters my sisters. I call Shannon and Eric "Mom" and "Dad" and Corbin, Sean, Kierstin, and Chris brothers and sisters. Because there, you knew it wasn't going to be permanent, so you never got in too close, too deep in the relationship because it wasn't going to be like that forever.
But Amanda says this feels like forever to her. She trusts Eric and Shannon to stick by her, no matter what happens. She's ready to get the formalities over, sign on the dotted line, and be their daughter.
In April, Chris is finally released from his treatment center. He decrees a pajama day for his first day home. Everyone has to wear pajamas all day and just be home together.
A few weeks later, it's Mother's Day. Chris says all the kids got up early and pitched in to make Shannon a bagel and eggs.
Chris: And so we cooked breakfast for Mother, and I went back to bed after we watched her eat. (laughter)
The kids made cards for Shannon. Amanda wrote Shannon a poem
Chris: And I typed it!
Shannon: And, yes, Chris did the typing.
Shannon reads from the card:
Shannon: I'm not of your flesh, but I'm no less your own
You gave me your love your heart and your home
You're always there to lend me a hand
You picked me up when I couldn't stand
I no longer have to worry when my blue skies turn to gray
For I know you'll always be there to chase those clouds away
Happy Mother's Day, Mom
Chris is in the kitchen with Shannon and Eric, playing with his new pet. It's a snake he named Jess. He lets Jess slither on the kitchen counter. He's wanted a snake for a long time. Eric and Shannon agreed to let him get one if he wrote a research paper on caring for snakes.
Chris: I was telling Mom that - I go, I think over half our family's adopted. She goes, "Just you and Amanda." I go, "Well, Dorey's adopted, Jess is adopted, me and Amanda."
Dorey is one of the dogs. There's another dog, Sunny. But they explain that Sunny wasn't adopted. They bought her. (laughing)
Thing seem to be going so well. And then one day, two months later, Shannon tells us she and Eric got into a dispute with Chris. They wanted to take a video game away from him to punish him for some misbehavior. Chris wouldn't give it to them. When Eric took it from him, Chris got up and shoved Eric.
Shannon: And then Amanda went to grab Chris and he turned and elbowed her in the neck so then Eric grabbed him from the back and Amanda was kind of in the front so there was kind of this threesome that were struggling together. And that's when I said that I was going to call the police.
So Shannon called the police. And, Amanda says, Chris exploded.
Amanda: He just started screaming F you, you guys don't F-ing care. This is B.S., and he's been saying that every time he gets angry he'd say something like that. Then Chris started throwing things around, breaking things. He broke my stereo in two, in half, he put that hole in the wall right there. And then he took all the pictures of him like out of my room his school picture and another picture of him out of my room. He took all the picture frames that he was in he took the pictures out of them. And then he tried to pack up his things and waited for the cops to come.
Eric and Shannon went to see Chris in court the next day. They hugged him. They told him they loved him. And then the police took him away. He's back in residential treatment now.
Eric and Shannon say they still want to adopt him. But that doesn't necessarily mean they'll let him come back to live with them:
Eric: Well, he's gotta earn his way back in the house. There's gonna be some guarantees and even an aggressive action or word is not gonna be tolerated. Because as much as Shannon and I will sacrifice to a point our safety, we won't do it for our kids. We won't sacrifice that.
Chris has told the family he doesn't want to come back. He doesn't want to be adopted. We wanted to ask him what happened, but he didn't want to talk to us. Amanda is heartbroken. She says she feels torn between Chris and her new family.
Amanda: For the first I don't know how long he was gone, I either couldn't fall asleep or I'd cry myself to sleep, because he's my brother.
Shannon passes Amanda a box of Kleenex. Shannon and Eric have wept, too. But they say they don't regret taking these kids in.
Shannon: I think our capacity to love has grown immeasurably. I think the world needs families to step up to the plate and practice what they preach about loving others and having unconditional love.
Eric: They have given so much into our lives, the love and the good times and the laughter, I mean they always outweigh what we're going through with this. We have a lot of high hopes for Chris and Amanda and it's my dream that that will be realized.
Amanda's eyes fill with tears again when she sees Eric cry. She says she's still in love with this family. She still wants to be adopted. But the joy is bittersweet because she'll have to go ahead without her brother.
Amanda: But I am happy. I won't be labeled a foster kid or a ward of the state anymore.
Amanda's frustrated because the court date for her adoption keeps getting delayed keeps getting delayed. Amanda says they're just going to go ahead and have a party anyway. She cheers up when she talks about it. She jokes around with her brother Sean. She's calling the party a not-so-baby baby shower.
Amanda: Because we tried to use the court date thing as something to look forward to but after like five months, we need a new plan.
Sean: Uh, will there be cake at this party?
Sean: Then I'm in!
Two months later, the paperwork is all finally in order. It's a spectacular fall day. The family gathers at a small town courthouse. Shannon and Eric. All their kids. Shannon's parents. Chris and Amanda's social worker and their court-appointed guardian. Jen Braun and her boss from the Homecoming Project. And Amanda. And Chris. Chris has been talking with the family, and he wanted to come to Amanda's adoption. Chris and Amanda wrap their arms around each other and hug for a long time.
In the courtroom, Amanda sits between Eric and Shannon in front of the judge. Chris sits out in the audience, between two social workers. He looks down at his hands in his lap.
The judge asks Eric and Shannon if they're sure. They say they are. He asks Amanda how she feels. She tells him she's happy. She is grinning.
The kids' adoption recruiter, Jen Braun, leans over and whispers something to Chris, and he breaks into a smile, too.
Amanda's still grinning as the family assembles on the courthouse lawn for pictures. She's clutching a little bunch of flowers someone gave her. Every little thing makes her laugh. The whole group piles into cars and they all head off for a celebration brunch.
Soon after, the family gets a call from Chris. He's changed his mind.
What Jen Braun said to him in the courtroom was, "That will be you someday." And Chris wants it to be him. He's told the family he wants to be adopted, too, if they still want to have him. And they do still want him. As soon as they can get the paperwork done, they'll make it official. They'll be his family forever, his and Amanda's, no matter what happens.
Smith: Wanted: Parents was produced by Catherine Winter and Ellen Guettler. The editor was Mary Beth Kirchner. The American RadioWorks team includes Sasha Aslanian, Ochen Kaylan, Laurie Stern, Craig Thorson, Denise Nichols and Emily Torgrimson. At American Public Media, Dave Sonderegger and Melinda Driscoll. I'm Stephen Smith.
To hear more stories about teenagers looking for homes - and the families who adopt them, visit our Web site at AmericanRadioWorks.org. There, you can download this and other American RadioWorks documentaries at AmericanRadioWorks.org. Major funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
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