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A Year of Adoptions

A year after its inception, Fairfax County takes over adoption program.

Bowling parties, cooking lessons, trips to Hershey Park, the Kennedy Center, the MCI Center, the Air and Space Museum and meeting the mayor of Alexandria.

Fairfax County children in need of permanent homes have done a lot in the last year to meet prospective parents through the county-run Fairfax Weekend Visits.

Most importantly, five children are on the road to being adopted because of the program.

"We've had a very exciting year," said Beverly Howard, foster care and adoption coordinator for the county's department of family services.

"We feel that we are sustainable on our own," she said. "We can go off with our kids and families in the area and do a program that fits our needs."

Formerly known as the Fairfax Weekend Miracles, the program began as a partnership between the county's department of family services and Kidsave International.

Kidsave is a non-profit organization based in Washington, D.C. that advocates for the adoption of older orphans. The organization assists international orphans from Kazakhstan, Russia and Colombia through its Summer Miracles program. During the summer, orphans stay with host families in the United States for six weeks on what they believe is a vacation. But, the host families are either prospective adoptive parents, or advocates working on behalf of the international children to find them a permanent home.

Because the Kidsave Summer Miracles program has been successful, representatives from Fairfax County's department of family services partnered with Kidsave president Terry Baugh to create a similar program for the county.

"We took about one-and-a-half years to work on the structure of the program before it began," Baugh said. "We exchanged thoughts on how to do it right, while still keeping the best interest of the children first."

After a year of operating in cooperation with Kidsave, the county program has branched off and is moving forward on its own.

SINCE ITS FIRST event, held in March, 2005, 19 Fairfax County children have participated in the weekend activities.

Of those 19 children, 12 were in need of adoption, while seven were in need of mentors.

Not every child participating in the program is in need of a new home, said Marilyn Durbin, adoption supervisor for the county's department of family services.

Some children are removed from homes temporarily until they are safe for them to return, she said. While these children are not up for adoption, they still need positive adult role models.

Through the weekend visits program children are able to creating meaningful relationships with people who have been identified as mentors. The mentors participate in the weekend group events with the children, take them to basketball games, movies or do other activities with the children to build a positive relationship, Howard said.

Advocates and mentors are also identified for children needing a permanent home. Advocates use their contacts in the community to try and find the children a future home.

The county group has altered the program to fit the overall needs of the community and the children.

Through the Fairfax-run program the children actively participate in the search for new parents, a significant change from the Kidsave model.

"The biggest change is the kids are empowered to be a part of the process," said Howard. "They are making choices about families, mentors and the events that they participate in. Our children are viewed as team members and they utilize that power."

IN 2005 ROUGHLY 475 children did not have a home in Fairfax County. After foster care, approximately 30 children a year leave the system without a family, according to the county.

Because they cannot be returned safely to their birth families, they have to wait for adoption, which, for many, never happens. This is an emotional time for the children who range in age from 10 to 17 years old.

Because these children are cognizant of the significance of the weekend events, county staff work with the children to prepare them before they enter the program, Durbin said.

"As the kids get together they really bond together," she said. "They get to talk about what is happening with themselves. "

While the children are enrolled in school and have friends through various extracurricular activities, this program allows the children to make friends with peers in the same living situation.

"We certainly have noticed significant changes," said Howard. "As these kids get out in the public forums they have become more aware of who they are and they are able to say what they want."

For many what they want is a permanent home, and through the program that is slowly happening.

"The adoption process is a long process," Howard said. "Right now we have five children going through the process."

In the next year the county will further personalize the weekend visits program, while digging deeper into the community to find businesses and individuals willing to work on behalf of the children to place them in permanent homes, Durbin said.

"The community has a responsibility for our children," Howard said. "We do not want our children to grow up without these adult connections."