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Adoption Process for Older Kids

About 2 1/2 years ago, Regina and John Saunders started thinking about adopting. Regina says it's something she's wanted since she was eight years old. But it was actually John who brought up the idea.

John Saunders: Me and my sister, if it weren't for my grandmother, we would have been a child of the state, we would have been fostered or adopted or something. So I felt like I wanted to give something back.

At an adoption carnival last year, Regina spotted 13-year-old NeNe. She was shooting baskets, alone.

Regina Saunders: I went over and threw a basketball around with her and she had the most gorgeous smile, and she had just a real genuine, sweet spirit.

NeNe isn't her real name. The Saunders are still in the process of adopting her, and as long as she is under Cuyahoga County's care, her name can't be revealed. NeNe says her experience in foster care was okay, but she got tired of moving around and decided she wanted to be adopted. She liked the Saunders right away, she says, but wasn't sure what they would think of her.

NeNe: A sweet little girl, or a bad little girl?

She needn't have worried. After a short visit with John, Regina, their biological daughter, Alex, and NeNe it's clear that finalizing this adoption will merely put an official stamp on a bond that's there already, and strong. John Saunders says NeNe blended into the family right away.

John Saunders: She would come in and watch TV, get her something to eat, go to the cupboard get a snack.

Regina Saunders: Throw her wrappers around!

John Saunders: Yeah, she just felt like she was at home. That was what I wanted. 'This is your house.' I told her she ain't got to worry about going nowhere.

It may sound like the Saunders have had an easy time of it, but Regina says it's been a struggle. After they met NeNe, they faced a barrage of interviews, training, paperwork, and inspections. Visits with their daughter-to-be evolved from brief get-togethers at a restaurant to hour-long weekly visits to regular sleep-overs. Ken Crookston is NeNe's caseworker at the Cuyahoga County Department of Children and Family Services. He says CFS just wants to ensure that each family it certifies for foster care or adoption can provide a good home.

Ken Crookston: They want to make sure they get the, for lack of a better word, the cream of the crop. They want the best foster and adoptive families they can possibly have. So that's why it's such a rigorous process.

Tami Lorkovich: It really isn't about weeding families out. It's about ensuring long-term safety for the kids.

That's Tami Lorkovich, program director of Adopt Cuyahoga's Kids, an initiative launched back in January. Lorkovich says its purpose is to streamline adoptions of area foster kids - in part by pairing prospective adoptive families with experienced adoptive parents who can help them navigate the system.

The program also trains social workers in a more child-centered approach to their work. Lorkovich says the idea is simple: Ask kids what they want and pay attention to what they say. It's a sentiment echoed by 23-year-old Gregory Curtis, who entered foster care as a teen and aged out of the system - meaning, he turned 18 without being adopted. He's now in college, and feeling optimistic about his future. But when he first left his grandmother's home, he wasn't so upbeat.

Gregory Curtis: I was just very destroyed. I was like, "Man, they split me and my brothers up. My family don't want me." And so I was very rebellious.

Experts say stories like this one aren't uncommon. After all, kids don't generally go from well-functioning homes into foster care. Many have long histories of abuse and/or neglect. Lorkovich acknowledges this is one reason adopting older children is frightening to some prospective parents. The answer, she says, is lots of information and preparation for families before they adopt, and continuing support after they adopt. Regina Saunders says she sometimes wondered whether hearing about NeNe's difficult past was really necessary.

Regina Saunders: Aren't they supposed to tell us all the good stuff? And I guess not, because they need to let us know this child has been through lots of things, and if she does behave this way, you need to know why she's doing it.

So far, the Saunders say, NeNe hasn't acted out in negative ways. Indeed, the whole family appears happy and thriving. It's just the kind of result Tami Lorkovich hopes to see more of. But all too often, Lorkovich says, foster teens age out of the system without getting permanent homes. Three- to four-hundred do so each year in Cuyahoga County alone. It's not only sad for them, it's costly for everyone, she says, because they are at high risk for incarceration, homelessness, and out-of-wedlock pregnancies. Of course, some kids who age out do just fine. Gregory Curtis says he has - through the force of his own will.

Gregory Curtis: It's like sometimes you just get fed up with yourself. You like, "Man will you get up and do something better?!" And I made myself do better.

If Lorkovich has her way, though, fewer area foster teens will have to rely just on their own internal resources to succeed. They'll have families, and along with them, the tangible and intangible supports most of us take for granted.

Cindi Deutschman-Ruiz, 90.3.