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Adoptions of Teens and Older Kids on the Rise

  • Chana Joffe-Walt

Most families who want to adopt a child look for babies and toddlers. Older children are usually much harder to place, and many never become part of a permanent family. But the number of teenagers adopted out of foster care is growing.

As soon as Tim and Helen Riggins decided to adopt, they started discussing how old a child to look for. The couple was nearing 50 and didn't think they had the energy for a baby. Still, they wanted to bring children into their small cabin on Washington's Shaw Island. A database search of adoptable foster kids in the region brought them to a picture of 13-year-old Tory.

Tim Riggins recalls, "I looked and I saw the picture and before I even looked at her name, I just knew that was her. I knew, that's my daughter."

The Riggins hadn't wanted an adolescent. They thought it would be too difficult. But they chose Tory anyway. Tory had been living with a foster mother after being pulled from an abusive home. She remembers the day her caseworker told her there was a couple interested in meeting her. "She came in and said, 'if you want you can go and stay with Tim and Helen, they live on Shaw Island. And you could go and stay the weekend.' And I said 'Sure.' And then here I am two years later," she laughs, adding that she had never even heard about them before that day.

The scene in the Riggins household on a recent Sunday afternoon couldn't be more ordinary. Tory leans over a bowl of vegetable soup across the table from her new parents, surrounded by drawing and knitting projects. Tory admits she still hasn't found her English paper. "Did you find your watch?" her dad asks her, confiding, "we have a daughter who loses things under her bed…"

Puget Sound's Shaw Island - population 200 - is not the kind of place most teenagers dream about. But Tory likes the quiet and open space and family time. When it comes to entertainment, she has her parents and now, a younger brother TJ, who's 11. After they took Tory in, the Riggins learned she had a biological brother who'd been placed in a separate foster home. They adopted him too.

Tory was ambivalent about making room for TJ. "I don't know, I didn't really feel like I wanted to be with my brother. I love him but he can be really annoying at times. But he's my brother." And that means they fight sometimes. As Tory shows a reporter around the cabin, TJ yells, "You are not allowed to interview in my room! Don't show my room!" Which is exactly what Tory proceeds to do. "It's full of toys," she points out. "It's cleaner than yours!" he retorts.

Ten years ago, a teenager like Tory may have been seen as un-adoptable. Now, the number of teens adopted out of the foster care system is growing. A survey by a child welfare organization shows that in 2003, more than 10,000 teens were adopted. That's a 66% increase from just 5 years earlier. It's the result of a concerted effort by adoption advocates who have set up websites featuring pictures and profiles of teenagers, and encouraged prospective parents to consider older children.

But it's a complicated process. Adoption counselor Barbara Pearson says they have to find parents interested in adopting adolescents… and they have to convince the teenagers they actually want parents. "Teens inherently are not looking for this family," she explains. "Part of our job as teenagers in life is to push away from biological family and become independent. So we've got kids who really desperately need family and the security of family, at the very same time their biological clock is saying 'Uh, but I want to be independent.'"

Each year, 20,000 foster kids in the United States turn 18 and - as adults - are no longer part of the foster care system. Many are unprepared for life on their own. About half of them leave the system with no high school diploma and end up unemployed. One quarter experience homelessness.

But new dad Tim Riggins sees a better future for Tory. "We hope she finishes high school, goes to college, finds someone to love and raises her own family and the influences we're able to give her now will carry on throughout her life and she won't have the problems with her kids that she grew up with." He adds, fondly, she'll have a home to come back to anytime she wants and her children will have grandparents.

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