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In the Beginning: First of a family's six-part saga on older child fost/adoption

In part one of our family's adoption odyssey, we make our way through our state's Fost/Adopt program and find that things don't always go according to plan. But sometimes, that's for the best.by Kathryn Reiss and Tom Strychacz



"Wait—you already HAVE three children!" some of our friends exclaimed, baffled, when they learned we were planning to adopt. Others, more positive, were interested themselves in the idea of adoption. Yet "are you out of your minds?" seemed to be everyone's thought when they understood the details of our plan. Adopting a baby was one thing, they reasoned. But—adopting an older child from our state's Fost/Adopt program? Surely such a child would have been damaged by neglect or abuse. And what if our family's wonderful dynamic were ruined?

Still, we were undaunted. Kathryn had always secretly wished she'd been born a hundred years earlier, when big families were the norm. She wanted a pack of kids. That wasn't the case with Tom, who found three plenty. But by 2002, our eldest child, Nicholas, was moving away to college, and Tom's entire family—mother, father, and younger sister—had died. Families, it seemed, were not only what you were given, but also what you created. We knew we had energy for further parenting, and since we had already raised three babies, we didn't feel a need to start again with an infant.

Choosing Fost/Adopt

Fost/Adopt seemed the way to go. One of the program's strengths is that it introduces a new child to a family gradually—particularly important in our case, as our birth children had mixed reactions to the idea. Isabel, 8, our youngest, was wholly thumbs-up, but, perhaps, missed the point ("Adopt someone for me to play with!"). Nicholas, 19, living away from home much of the year, wondered whether this new child would ever feel like a real sibling. Daniel, 14, said cautiously that he wouldn't mind …"but," he added firmly, "I love our family just as it is, and I don't want anything to wreck it." We reassured him that we also loved our family very much and, of course, would never wreck it.

The beauty of Fost/Adopt, we explained to them, is that it encourages all parties to take things slowly, allowing newly expanded families time to bond, to fall in love. That makes sense. The new child comes to your home neither quite foster child nor guest, nor yet fully a family member. She lacks the shared memories and customs of the family. The new family is committed to an adoption—everyone wants it to work—yet nothing is cast in stone. We told our birth kids we would never finalize an adoption if they were miserable; likewise, we would never force an adoption on a child who was reluctant. When the time is right to sign those final papers, you are a thriving, committed family—or else you don't sign.

After locating an agency in town, we took a course to become licensed as foster parents, learned CPR, and had our fingerprints taken. We filled out thick questionnaires about our lives, our marriage, childhoods, parenting styles, and finances. Friends wrote us letters of recommendation. Kathryn and Isabel made a photo storybook, with pictures of our family, our pets, and our home, for adoption coordinators in other counties. And we paid $1,000 for our homestudy, a fee that was fully refunded after the adoption was finalized.

Once licensed to adopt, we were free to drop in at our agency as often as we liked to search through the binders, updated each month, listing all of the children available for adoption in our state. So many children! We sat reading page after sad page of family troubles that had led to the children's being removed from their birth families. We wished we could adopt every one. Even excluding those with medical problems we didn't feel able to cope with, we were still left with a huge pool of available children. How to choose? Was one meant to become our own? Kathryn prayed for signs from God. Meanwhile, our adoption coordinator was sending out our homestudy report so that social workers throughout the state could consider our family as a "match" for children on their caseload.

The stuff of legends

Our children all love the story of how we found our new daughters. In fact, the story is quickly taking on the patina of legend—or fairy tale, happy ending included. It goes like this:

Since we were looking to adopt one girl, younger than our youngest, we resolutely paged past all the boys, older kids, and sibling groups. We had our small folder of "possibilities," but the process felt vague and random. Then one day, several months into our search, Kathryn went alone to the agency to check on new listings. She came upon a picture of two sisters, ages 12 and 10. Drawn to the photo, she read the details. They sounded wonderful—but she put the page aside, shaking her head. They were too old! She continued looking at other new listings in the binders, but found herself going back and reading about those two sisters again. Angie and Alexandra. Something about them…. But no, there were two of them!

Then it was time to leave with the few new listings she'd added to the folder. She headed for the door—then something made her go back and pull the page for Angie and Alexandra. They were older, yes, and there were two of them…but there was just something about those girls.

She brought the listings home to show Tom. He read them all and handed back one page. "This is the only one that really grabs me," he said.

Angie and Alexandra!

We sat down and talked. We decided to phone our adoption coordinator and ask for more information about these girls. "Get out of town!" our coordinator shrieked over the phone. "Believe it or not, I just had a phone call from their adoption coordinator! He said he'd read your homestudy and thought you'd be a great match for these girls!" She paused. "But I told him it wouldn't work; they're too old. And there are two of them."

"Please call him back right away," we urged. "And tell him that we've changed our minds."

We marveled at the coincidence: Out of all the hundreds of listings, we had chosen those two children at the very same time their social worker matched us to them. Further developments seemed like signs to us, all pointing to Alexandra and Angie as the right children for us, and to us as the right family for them. We spoke to people who knew them—foster parents, teachers, social workers, court-appointed special advocates (CASAs), until we were convinced it was time to meet the girls in person.

We drove two hours in the pouring rain to their foster home. Incredibly, just as we arrived, the clouds parted, the rain stopped, and a rainbow arched across the sky, ending right at the mobile home park we were heading toward. "You see that?" asked Tom. "There you go!" We all gaped out of the car windows. It seemed too schmaltzy to be true, yet here was still another sign that our girls were the gold at the end of the rainbow.

And so they have turned out to be.

Yet this was just the start of an exciting, intense period in which we gradually got to know our girls. The hard work of becoming a family was just beginning.

See the next five issues for the rest of this six-part series.

Kathryn Reiss is an award-winning author of suspense novels for children and teens. Tom Strychacz writes books and articles on American literature. They both teach at Mills College in northern California, and are the parents of five incredible kids.

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