Fairfax County At 54 years old, Julie wanted to be an adoptive parent for over a decade. But it wasn't until last year that she finally brought a child home.
Single, she had recently left her federal government position and felt like she was ready. In May, she welcomed her 17-year-old foster son into her McLean home.
"For me I was never a parent before," said Julie. "So I had to run fast and catch up."
Growing up, her foster son had never celebrated a birthday or Christmas, and only could escape the grips of his parents when he went to school. At 17, he decided that he could not live that life anymore and filed a complaint to school authorities. He was soon removed from his home and began living under Julie's care.
"Nobody's perfect, and I think a lot of people think that kids just come with so much stuff they can't overcome," said Julie. "Each kid is different."
According to the Virginia Department of Social Service's most recent data, there are 4,993 children in Virginia's foster care system this year, and about 25 percent of those children come from Northern Virginia. Every year thousands of foster children continue to wait for adoption, oftentime even aging out of the system with no where to go once they're out.
AT 17, Julie's foster son was among over 24 percent of Virginia's foster children who are between the ages of 16 through 18 — the state's largest age group in need of homes.
A pastor at Julie's Methodist church connected her to the United Methodist Family Services, a local non-profit private child-placement agency that helped match her with her foster son.
UMFS is one of the 300 private child-placing agencies in Virginia, and each month recruits about 16 new potential foster families into its program.
"I think that people within the Commonwealth would be surprised to know that there are children in their own back yards who are in the foster care system" said Mary Miller UMFS' resource parent recruiter.
"Foster care impacts every zip code in Virginia, so no community is immune to child abuse and neglect."
The Department of Health and Human Services Children's Bureau's most recent statistics between 2003 to 2012 ranked Virginia as the 24th state in the country with the highest number of children in foster care who are waiting to be adopted.
But although Virginia has one of the lowest numbers of children in foster care in the U.S., it is still one of the top states in the country where children age out of the foster care system.
SANDRA BELL, Virginia's Local Department of Social Service's resource family program consultant for Northern Virginia, says that although there are many eligible foster families in the state who are ready to take in children, many of these families only want younger children.
"Very often foster parents come in with their own idea about what foster care is," said Bell. "And they sometimes want the child that they were not able to have on their own, they want a child who is zero to two-years-old who doesn't have any issues, and that's almost impossible."
Most children who enter Virginia's foster care system were neglected, have behavioral problems or grew up in environments where their parents used drugs or physically abused them.
"Our job is to find homes for our children, not children for other people's homes and people don't realize that," said Bell.
Gene and Shelley, a Springfield couple who recently fostered the twin brother of their adopted daughter, say that potential foster parents need to have open minds.
In 2006, the couple adopted their daughter at age 12, who had already been in and out of foster homes and had a history of emotional trauma.
Although the couple's daughter had a twin brother, the state suggested that the siblings live separately.
"It's children who are older, siblings groups, children who have special needs ... they need people to step up to the plate for them, and not everyone is as flexible," said Shelley.
For years, Gene and Shelley pressed the state to let them foster their daughter's twin brother. And finally in 2011, the couple was able to bring their daughter's 17-year-old twin brother home.
The couple says that they will continue to devote their lives to their children. Their foster son who had a history of behavioral problems has kept out of trouble and is wrapping up high school then going off to college this fall. While their daughter who once had attachment issues, she has worked through these issues and is now a freshman in college.
BUT Leslie Perez, UMFS' family systems coordinator, says that not all foster children, especially older foster children are as lucky as Julie's, Gene and Shelley's. Many foster children who age out of the system with nowhere to go end up homeless, unemployed, or incarcerated.
"Kids don't maintain those connections always," said Perez. "They don't have a home to go back to."
Julie, Gene and Shelley all agree that even though their foster children are old enough to leave their homes — that the door will always be open.
Last May, then Gov. Bob McDonnell launched the "Virginia Adopts - Campaign 1,000," a statewide initiative to find permanent placement for at least 1,000 children in the foster care system by December 2013. During the campaign, local DSS offices tried to find permanent homes for the 100 longest waiting children in foster care, many of whom are teenagers.
As of 2014, Necole Simmonds, the director of public affairs at the state's DSS, says that 667 adoptions have been finalized from the 1,041 adoption matches made since the campaign.
"Adoptions can take years to become final," said Simmonds.