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Safe and Loved: A Virginia Teen’s Adoption Story

Desiree and Lena Wolfe, and Johnny Weldon, Desiree's finance
Desiree and Lena Wolfe, and Johnny Weldon, Desiree's finance, pictured during a party to celebrate Lena's adoption. Dan Montgomery Lutheran Family Services

About 1400 youth in Virginia’s foster care system have a goal of adoption. More than 200 of them are older teens, who are less likely than other age groups to find permanent homes. Virginia Currents Producer Catherine Komp recently witnessed the rare adoption between a foster mom and a 17-year-old and brings you their story.

Learn More: Find out about more about foster care and parenting through the Virginia Department of Social Services, Lutheran Family Services, Faces of Virginia Families and Adopt Us Kids. See statistics about foster care and adoption at Virginia Performs and the Kids Count Data Center.

Transcript:

Outside a Henrico District Court room, Desiree Wolfe sits on a bench holding a bouquet of pink and yellow flowers.

Desiree Wolfe: I’m nervous, I got a lump in my throat. I just wanted everything to go smoothly.

Surrounded by friends, supporters, and social workers, Wolfe’s here to formally adopt 17-year-old Makayla. To mark these new beginnings, Makayla is changing her name; from this day forward she’ll be Lena Nicole Bryant Wolfe.

Lena Wolfe: It’s here, it’s finally happening...

(Ambient: All Rise…)

Judge Gary Hicks opens the proceedings by describing them as a celebration. And it does feel festive. Colorful gift bags and shiny happy birthday balloons, courtesy of the Judge, fill a table in the center of the room.

Judge Gary Hicks: Thank you all for allowing the court to be a part of this special day...

After short speeches from those present, he invites mother and daughter to sign the adoption orders themselves.

Judge Gary Hicks: Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like you to warmly welcome with me Lena Nicole Bryant Wolfe (applause).

Desiree Wolfe has fostered 20 youth, nearly all teens, since 2004. When she met Lena, during a short respite stay in the summer of 2013, there was an immediate connection.

Desiree Wolfe: I loved her right away, I really did. Actually, it was Friday when you came so Saturday morning I was upstairs sleeping, but I could smell something cooking. So I come downstairs, and I go through the hall and I just look. My oldest daughter, she had own apartment not too far from here, and I’m like, “What are you doing here?” because I thought it was my oldest daughter. It threw me back, I saw my daughter standing there making pancakes.

Lena also felt a strong connection. They stayed up all night talking. She wanted Desiree to get to know her as a person, not as a case file.

Lena Wolfe: I got so comfortable, I knew I wanted to stay so I had to let her know who I was without looking at the file.

Lena’s biological mother also experienced the foster care system and passed away when Lena a toddler. Her biological father was often absent, and Lena had been living with relatives who eventually relinquished custody. Lena’s first foster family wasn’t a good match, but Desiree and advocates at Lutheran Family Services fought to bring her into the Wolfe’s home.

Lena Wolfe: She doesn’t treat me different at all, I never felt like I was a foster child. She never called me a foster child and that was good. I felt like I was hers. I wanted a mom and that’s what I got.

Lena’s adoption is cause for celebration, but it’s also uncommon. Just 8% of sixteen to twenty year olds in Virginia’s child welfare system were adopted in 2012, according to state data compiled by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. And hundreds of teens in Virginia “age out” of foster care each year.

Nina Marino: These statistics and kids aging out of foster care is something that all of us should be concerned about.

Nina Marino is Director of Treatment Foster Care & Adoption at Lutheran Family Services.

Marino: This is our community, this is our next generation and it impacts all of us how kids are doing now. So when we have kids aging out of the foster care system, we are not setting up the next generation to be successful.

Youth who age out of foster care are less likely to graduate from high school and go to college. With a life experience that already includes trauma, many become homeless, get caught up in the legal system and develop substance abuse problems. But finding a loving home and support system - even temporarily - can change these outcomes, says Marino.

Marino: People that get into this work feel thankful to be able to be a part of it and to be able to help kids and even if that is helping them to get to another place, back with their birth family, placed with a relative, it’s still incredibly important to do that. I think that is as honorable as even being an adoptive parent because we know kids do best when they can be with their families.

Virginia has the lowest rate of children in foster care in the U.S., falling from nearly 7500 in 2004 to about 4600 in 2014. But the state isn’t doing so well in other areas. Each year, 20-25% of youth age out of the system, the worst rate in the country. Virginia also ranks poorly when it comes to the amount of time children spend in foster care. Families pursuing adoption have to wait longer than most other states - an average of 16 months - to finalize the process.

Marino: Our policies have to change and our priorities have to change in terms of initiatives to encourage kids to move through the system faster and that encouragement really has to happen on the professional side.

In Virginia, each locality administers their own foster care services and resources vary widely depending on where someone lives. Marino says the state does offer some grants to private providers to help localities speed up the process.

Marino: For some folks that might be a one stop show, they do child protective services, they do foster care cases and they do adoption, it’s really hard to get the adoption stuff to move forward when they are doing an emergency removal or they are dealing with a crisis situation or they have to be in court all day for a foster care review. So it’s looking at how we allocate resources and making sure we’re actually allocating those in a way to try to meet our goals.

Lutheran Family Services holds monthly orientations on becoming a foster parent. Marino says many people consider fostering for years before determining it might be the right time to take the next step.

Marino: For folks who have parented kids, maybe they’re kind of empty nesters or they’ve been down that road before, a teenager can be a really good fit because they’re not starting from scratch, they can have a conservation and a dialogue.

Desiree Wolfe: I just wanted to make a difference in somebody’s life, I wanted to make a difference.

Lena Wolfe: The kids just as well as parents have to want to make stuff work, they have to try, you both have to be trying. And let somebody love you because if you shut down, they might shut down as well.

Desiree and Lena Wolfe want to share their story to inspire others and provide hope to teens waiting to find a permanent home.

Desiree Wolfe: We need more foster parents, we need more people that are committed to these children but that are genuine about it.

Lena Wolfe: When I was losing it, it was push time for me to still have hope and when I kept hope, it happened, it was good. I’m happy, I’m safe, I’m secure, I’m good. I’m loved, like really really really loved by everybody, my whole family here, that’s all I wanted and I have it.

For Virginia Currents, this is Catherine Komp, WCVE News.

(All photos courtesy of Dan Montgomery and Lutheran Family Services)