In an effort to find permanent homes for every child in foster care at a faster pace, Fairfax County's Department of Family Services has partnered with Kidsave International, a local non-profit organization, to help advocate adoption for older and typically harder to place children in its system.
"We are really thrilled to have the opportunity to introduce these children to the community," said Terry Baugh, president and CEO, Kidsave International. "Many local kids in foster care are hidden from the community's view."
Although Kidsave International — first created to assist in international adoptions — and the county's Department of Family Services have been planning this partnership, called Kidsave Fairfax Weekend Miracles, for more than six months, the first of many children are finally ready to be placed with weekend host families.
"Both boys are very much wanting to be in a permanent families," said Beverly Howard, program coordinator Kidsave Fairfax Weekend Miracles with the department of family services.
Howard explained the two boys, Roosevelt, 12 and John, 15, have been living in a foster home and rehabilitation facility, respectively, and after working with staff to prepare for the program, will be the two "pilot" children of the program.
"Roosevelt enjoys homework and has been working with a tutor," said Howard. "He plays basketball with a team in the community and likes to have money in his pocket — like most kids his age — to be able to buy things like video games, so he helps his foster dad with jobs around the house like cutting the grass."
Howard went on to say Roosevelt, although still very innocent in his adolescence, has wisdom above his years and is very aware of his situation.
"He wants to have a different future," she said. "He clearly knows his choices and what is good versus what is bad."
Howard said John, like Roosevelt, has a deeper understanding of his situation because of his age, and takes more time to open-up to adults.
"John is shy and because he has experienced loss, he is cautious but very much wants a family," she said adding he loves basketball and enjoys bowling. "He really wants permanency in his life, he's seen others around him have it and he wants it."
Howard explained because the county has no residential facilities for children who have not been adopted or for whom a temporary home has not been found, John is currently living in a facility in Richmond.
But, because his 16-year old sister has been adopted and is living in Fairfax County, they are able to visit often.
"These kids need somebody who is willing to take time," said Howard. "They need to let them be teenagers for a bit."
IN FAIRFAX COUNTY, roughly 475 children do not have a home.
After foster care, approximately 30 children a year leave the system without a family, and because they cannot be returned safely to their birth families, they have to wait for adoption, which, for many, never happens.
"One reason why we are so excited about this project," said Carolyn Fowler, Fairfax County program manager for foster care and adoption with the Department of Family Services, "is because it's going to offer additional opportunities for people in the community to get to know the children."
In addition to working with organizations such as the Northern Virginia Urban League, NAACP Fairfax County and Alexandria Branches, United Negro College Fund Alumni Chapter and other local groups, Kidsave Fairfax Weekend Miracles has partnered with the Connection Newspapers to run a "Kidsave" column each week.
"Children in our locality who tend to wait the longest are generally 9 [years old] or older and usually a child of color," said Fowler about the need for advocacy on behalf of the children.
As of June 30, 2004, the largest racial demographic of children who were up for adoption in Fairfax County was African-American at 69 percent with the second largest group being Caucasian at 16 percent.
Because no local statistics are available for foster children once they leave the county's system, Kidsave International gave national numbers.
Nationwide, of the children who are not adopted, 66 percent have not graduated from high school, 33 percent will go on welfare and 25 percent will end up on the streets.
"We would like more community groups to give a forum to talk about the children," said Baugh about the potential growth of Kidsave Fairfax Weekend Miracles. "We need more volunteers to recruit, we're looking for members for the leadership board to take an active part in the outreach on behalf of the children."
In addition to needing adoptive parents, host families — required to commit to a minimum of three months for regular weekend visits — are needed along with advocates, mentors and volunteers.
Through the program children ages six through 17 years old are first paired with mentors who become friends and supporters.
Next they are matched with local host families where they will spend weekends and school breaks together in relaxed, nurturing home environments.
"The boys are looking at spring break and are excited to spend time with their host families," said Howard about Roosevelt and John. "They're interested to see what the host family has to offer, and we have talked to the host family about what they like to do."
The hope is, through this process, the children will be introduced to friends and associates who in turn will help the children identify potential permanent families within a three-month period.
"This is an overwhelming experience for all of us," said Howard about the program. "These children are receptive to being adopted and want to be a part of this process."
Baugh reiterated the children's partnership is imperative to the success of the program.
"The children, in general, appreciate that someone believes in them so much that they're going to take such efforts for them," said Fowler.
UNNIA PETTUS, manager community and partnership development Kidsave International, said initial publicity about the partnership generated some interest, but more volunteers are needed.
"We have eight or nine mentors and host families in training," she said. "It's quite exciting to watch the families bloom."
Fowler added the concept behind Kidsave Fairfax Weekend Miracles is different from other adoption practices.
"Many families come forward to adopt before they have met children," she said explaining common adoption practices. "When children are introduced it's 'this is the family who is adopting you.' Through this program people get to interact with the children ... the pressure of 'this is your family,' isn't there."
Fowler added that because 20 to 30 children are released each year from the system who cannot be returned to their birth family and who do not have a permanent home, the need for Kidsave Fairfax Weekend Miracles is apparent.
"We're trying to reduce the number of moves for the children," she said. "All the children in the program have been deemed appropriate for placement in a family and all children cannot be returned to the home of their birth families."
Because children only spend the weekends with host families, Baugh said through the training families and advocates are already creating networking strategies to help the children.
"We are hoping, in three-months, that we will find a home for a child," said Baugh explaining the first month is spent getting to know the child and the second and third are spent advocating. "Having that sense of time really helps move that process along."
Anyone interested in becoming involved, at any stage of the process, is encouraged go online to www.kidsave.org to learn more or call Hiliary Jenkins at Kidsave International, 703-683-KIDS.