Seeking a Permanent Home

‘I know I deserve a family,’ teen in Virginia’s foster care system still waiting after dozens of moves

By K. BURNELL EVANS • Richmond Times-Dispatch October 27, 2017

Dymond doesn’t unpack.

After 36 moves in five years, the 16-year-old has learned not to hang up her clothes or tuck them into the drawers of the place she’ll leave next. She moved four times over a two-week period this fall. She feels numb, and misunderstood.

“It’s the unknown,” she said of what eats away at her. “You don’t know where you’re going next. You don’t know where you’re going.”

Dymond and hundreds of other teens in Virginia’s foster care system hoping to find a permanent home last year faced tough odds.

Parents looking to adopt often have younger children in mind. The median age of the 747 children adopted last year was about 7, according to state data for the fiscal year that ended June 30. Sixteen-year-olds accounted for only 21 of those, or about 3 percent of overall adoptions.

Although the number of teens entering foster care declined 10 percent between the 2015 and 2017 fiscal years, from 887 to 798, Virginia recently has ranked the worst in the country for the percent of children who turn 18 and age out of the foster care system without being adopted.

Dymond was among the 80 percent of eligible 16-year-olds who did not find a family last year. Krista Watson has been working to change that from the moment she walked into Dymond’s bedroom at an area group home nearly a year ago.

“She can read people really fast,” said Watson, a grant-funded worker at the Children’s Home Society of Virginia who specializes in picking the right family for older children and children with special needs.

Watson’s approach is child-focused and begins with interviews, a daylong review of her client’s file, and the question, “Who in your life makes you feel loved?”

It’s an intensive approach that leads her to track down former teachers, coaches, childhood friends and extended family members with whom a child feels a connection.

Watson, one of three Wendy’s Wonderful Kids recruiters the Dave Thomas Foundation sponsors in Virginia, came to the Children’s Home Society in August 2009. In that time, her work has resulted in 79 successful adoptions.

Her first meeting with Dymond was full of long silences. Now, the teen said she counts Watson among the two people in her life who make her feel loved. The other is a social worker.

Dymond knows she deserves more: someone to watch “Law & Order” with; someone who will join in her irrepressible fits of laughter; someone who won’t try to change her and, most importantly, someone who will keep her safe.

“I’m loving, I’m loyal, I stand up for myself,” she said. “I know what is and what isn’t.”

She wants to be a mother one day in a way the woman who gave her life and left her with post-traumatic stress disorder never was.

Dymond said the abuse, born of alcoholism, began when she was 5 and ended at 12.

“I had to raise myself,” Dymond said. “At 9, I knew. They said something along the lines of, ‘We can hurt you, but no one else can,’ and (I decided) … I’m not going to let nobody else run over me.” The

Times-Dispatch agreed not to use Dymond’s last name or locality of residence to protect her privacy. Dymond agreed to share her story to combat misconceptions about teens in foster care and to raise awareness ahead of November, which is National Adoption Month.

One out of five kids in Virginia’s foster care system turns 18 and ages out of the system without being adopted, according to the Children’s Home Society of Virginia, a statewide organization with offices in Richmond and Fredericksburg.

Those teens who are not adopted face an uncertain future, according to the agency, which estimates 25 percent will become involved with the justice system in two years; 42 percent will drop out of high school; and 20 percent will become homeless after age 18.

Those challenges compound prior trauma that children entering Virginia’s foster care system typically face.

Neglect was the most common reason children were removed from their homes across the state in the fiscal year that ended June 30, followed by a rising number of cases involving a parent’s drug or alcohol abuse, according to data provided by the Virginia Department of Social Services.

Many of the 2,641 cases reported include more than one reason for removal. Physical or sexual abuse was a factor in a combined 487 cases, and inadequate housing contributed in 434, the agency said.

People “think we’re all troublemakers, that we’re uncontrollable,” Dymond said. Many foster care youth struggle with feelings that they are to blame for their circumstances, she added.

Dymond has learned to advocate for herself in situations where she feels out of place or unsafe, telling social workers, lawyers and judges what she is and is not willing to put up with. She said she has defended herself in six instances that ended in assault and battery charges against her.

“Those were about me protecting myself,” she said. “People put their hands on me, pushed me. When I responded, I took it too far; my senses are heightened because of what I’ve been through.”

She is working through it. The last time a woman grabbed Dymond’s arm, she walked away; out of the group home and into the world, until she found herself in a church whose leaders encouraged her to return to the residence. She did.

Prospective adoptive families who work with Watson and the Children’s Home Society of Virginia take classes to prepare for the life experiences teens will be bringing through their doors, and have follow-up care and resources available after children come home.

No class can fully prepare you for what a child has been through, said Kim Spencer, an adoptive mother of two children in foster care who are now 23 and 15.

“You can’t go into it expecting the relationship to be, ‘You’re my mom and I love you,’ ” Spencer said. “The main thing to remember in working with teens is that you need to meet them where they are, accept that your world is going to change and pick your battles — allow them to have some control.”

She learned the latter lesson when she and her husband, Jim, went to pick up their first child, Aubry, then 14½. The three had spent time together leading up to that day, but Aubry ran when it was time to go home, which then was her general response when things became overwhelming, Spencer said.

“She took off, and we asked when we found her: ‘What would it take for you to come home with us?’ She said she wanted to say goodbye to her friends,” Spencer said. “So we said, ‘OK, we’ll come back (in a few days),’ and it worked.”

Aubry had already moved 10 times, Spencer said. A child in the foster care system will enter an average of 2.5 homes before being adopted, according to the state.

“You have to come into this with your eyes wide open because it’s not for everyone,” Spencer said of adopting older children. “But it’s so, so worth it.”

She laughed, recalling a friend’s admonition against adopting a child over age 10 before even Aubry had entered their lives. The couple are thinking of adopting a third teen from the foster care system.

There were nearly 800 teens in foster care, including Dymond, as of this summer. The number of those who were available for adoption was not immediately available.

The wait takes its toll.

“Eventually, you feel like giving up,” Dymond said. “I’ve been told so many times, ‘You’re going to find a home; we’re going to find you a family.’ ”

“I know I deserve a family.”

In bad moments, she blocks out her feelings and, in good moments, she waits for the bad ones to return. In between, she writes poems, reads James Patterson, and listens to hip-hop and R&B.

Dymond doesn’t share her writing, but she did share her dreams for the future: a strong support network, three children — including a pair of boy-and-girl twins, and a job in government, helping people.

“Maybe a corrections officer,” she said. “When I was locked up, I didn’t have anyone to talk to. Maybe I can be that person for someone else.”

For now, she will continue to keep her clothes in a suitcase where they shouldn’t belong.