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Adopting from Foster Care--with Help

It wasn't easy to adopt an American child. Actually, the process was quite simple, but finding out how to do it was the hard part.

by Nia Vardalos

My New Year's resolution list usually starts with the desire to lose between 10 and 3,000 pounds. In the middle, I list career goals and coveted shoes. Somewhere near the end, I'll add something about donating more often to charity and reducing my carbon footprint.

I start out with good intentions, but by mid-January, the list will be stuck to my cheek because I napped on it as I watched fit people exercise on cable TV. By the end of January, I detest the list and avoid it, all crunched up at the bottom of my purse. By February, I've bought a new purse.

This year, I got to put something different on my list. I wrote just one thing: I resolved to be a good mother. I got to write this first-time resolution because, early last year, my husband, Ian Gomez, and I adopted a little girl.

Not because an adopted child seems to be the latest Hollywood must-have accessory. But because, after 10 years of banging my head against the brick wall of infertility, I accepted the fact that there would have to be another plan for me. And (cue music swell) motherhood turned out to be the most meaningful thing I've ever done with my life. Really.

I tried many routes that fell through or didn't work out. Then I waited on many lists. The phone didn't ring. I didn't know what to do. So, I kept asking questions. Don't we have orphanages in the States? I found out that, no, we don't. But we do have 500,000 kids in foster care, and 129,000 of them are legally free for adoption and waiting for a family. I was stunned.



Watch Nia Vardalos
in "The Room Live"
answering questions
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I realized there was simply no reason not to adopt an older child. In a white-hot moment, I knew this was what I had been waiting for.

I want to write that it was really easy. But it wasn't. The next phase took a while because the information on how to adopt from foster care just isn't out there. Not sure whom to approach, I went directly to the State and said I was open to any sex, age, and ethnic background. Oh, goodie, they exclaimed, because they could place an at-risk, multiple-sibling set in my house on a trial basis, and an adoption might come out of it if the parental rights were terminated in court after a few years.

My mouth went dry. Like, just-licked-a-pumice-stone dry. That sounded complicated. But I really, really wanted to be a parent. So, I said, "OK!"

I did ask about the children who were already legally free. I was told there was a process, and that I had to be patient. I thought I would be connected with a child who was waiting for a home. Again, they explained, I had to trust their procedures. I now felt apprehensive, thinking I might get lost in yet another situation that wouldn't resolve in a positive way.

I was sent away with a thick packet of fingerprinting forms and a daunting homestudy kit. As I sorted through the mounds of paperwork, I found out about (cue lightbulb click) FFA's.

That's when things finally accelerated.

An FFA--foster family agency--helps individuals navigate the state system. The people (I call them super-pretty angels) at the FFA we worked with were helpful, compassionate, and organized. They assisted with the paperwork, explained and set up the homestudy, and did a nationwide search for a legally free child they felt we could be good parents to. Nine months later, through their various connections, we were matched with our daughter. We finalized our adoption within a year. [Editors' note: Many states' Department of Social Services contract with private agencies, sometimes called foster family agencies, to train foster and adoptive families. To find one near you, call AdoptUSKids at 888-200-4005 or go to adoptuskids.org.]

And, yes, she is perfect. She is four now, and to say she's adapted well would be a huge understatement. The experience of transitioning this child was astonishing. We kept it quiet for almost a year, to protect her privacy and give her time to adjust.

Last November, my husband and I thought about the 129,000 kids waiting for a family and decided to announce our daughter's adoption to raise awareness of National Adoption Month. That is why I'm writing about this now. Maybe there are other people out there who want to adopt from foster care.

I will tell you this much: You will meet amazing people, who are committed to helping children achieve a fresh start. One of these groups, The Alliance for Children's Rights, invited me to be part of a fantastic event called National Adoption Day. On November 15, 2008, in over 300 cities, 4,000 children were adopted. Several hundred lawyers and judges worked to assist in the finalization of these applications, so parents who were not able to afford lawyers and court fees could adopt a child.

I met amazing people that day--single mothers who adopted older children, gay couples who were adopting again, families who had biological children and adopted others, older couples who fulfilled children's dreams of finding a family. It was a day so filled with love and joy, I felt like there were cartoon bluebirds chirping above those kids' heads. I cried like someone's crazy aunt at a graduation.

So, if you're interested...let's discuss adoption.

There seems to be the impression that it's difficult to adopt in the U.S. Having been through the system, I want to tell people how to do it: Just find a foster family agency. An FFA will help you navigate the system--will walk you through the paperwork, the necessary and thorough background screening process, and the procedure of adopting from foster care in the U.S.

I would never disparage anyone who goes outside their own country to adopt--every child deserves a home. I do want to point out that the U.S. foster adoption route includes a child's full medical and health record. In terms of your child's lifelong medical care, full disclosure helps.

U.S. foster adoption welcomes families of all income levels, and, unlike private adoption, it is virtually cost-free. The system doesn't discriminate--single parents, older couples, gays and lesbians, all may apply. A family is a family, and there are 129,000 kids waiting for one. Our daughter came to live with us, and turned our house into a home. 

Nia Vardalos is an Academy Award- and Golden Globe-nominated screenwriter and actress. Her next films are the romantic comedies My Life in Ruins, and I Hate Valentine's Day, which she wrote and directed.

This piece was originally published in the Huffington Post. Reprinted with permission from Nia Vardalos.

AF Talks to Nia Vardalos

Tell us how you decided to adopt through foster care.
We had been on a few paths that fell through, including several failed U.S. newborn placements. As heartbreaking as it is for adoptive parents, the law says that the woman who gives birth gets to change her mind, and that makes sense. We were also on waiting lists for China and Greece.

I hadn't realized that children in foster care were available for adoption. But once I learned about these kids, I knew it was right for us. We chose to consider only children who were legally free, because I was not up to fighting someone in court.

How did your social workers help you get through the process?
We worked with a foster family agency. It's a free service (paid for by the government) that anyone can use, and they helped us with the paperwork and homestudy. You look online at photos of children, with a few lines of information, and if there's one you feel a connection to, your social worker goes to a social worker in that state and finds out more about the child. Perhaps that child is more suited for a home with siblings, or doesn't want to relocate from her home state.

The social workers were a well of compassion. I spent hours on the phone with ours, saying that I didn't understand why we couldn't be matched overnight. She said that there's a process, and it was going to happen. Ironically, it was nine months from the time we first met with the social workers until our daughter walked in the door.

How did your family handle the transition?
Some things happened very quickly, and some took more time. It was different from adopting a newborn, because our daughter was a fully formed personality. We followed our instincts, and realized the best thing we could do is tell her the truth. She didn't have a lot of words when she came to live with us, but we spoke with her as if she comprehended everything: "This is your room…this is Manny the dog…if you need us, we're right down the hall." Eventually, she would nod in understanding. At first, she was waking up every hour and checking her surroundings--her anxiety wouldn't let her sleep, which was understandable. We slept in her room and went to a sleep clinic, and now she sleeps from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. Everything can be worked through.
 
What's life like for your family now?
I'm with my daughter all the time, and it's clear that I'm supposed to be her parent. We really know each other, and we laugh all the time. It's the most amazing experience.

I've realized that the reason it took me so long to be a parent, and the reason I had such incredible success with My Big Fat Greek Wedding, was so that I could use my big mouth to talk about foster care. I'm a spokesperson for several organizations, and for this year's National Adoption Day. 

All in all, it's been such a lovely process that I told my social worker not to lose my number--we'd definitely do it again.


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