Lea Wait, here, writing about a subject many of you know is close to my heart.
November, the month when many of us gather with our families to celebrate the joys of eating too much turkey, stuffing and varied traditional vegetable dishes and pies, is also, perhaps ironically, National Adoption Month. The month when adoption and foster care agencies throughout the United States make a special effort to find homes for children who don’t have forever families to call their own.
On Friday nights when I was in my mid-twenties I volunteered at the New York Foundling Hospital on one special floor: the place children aged six to twelve were brought (usually by the police) in emergency situations. Usually their parents had been arrested, the children had been abused, neglected or left on their own and needed medical help or had special medical or psychological needs, and there were no appropriate foster homes available. Emergency placements. Usually about twenty children were on the floor. Some stayed a day or two. Some stayed months. Volunteers were instructed not to ask questions about their scars or their families.
One Friday night I bathed a seven-year-old girl who’d just arrived. She was scared and dirty, and she talked non-stop. I didn’t ask her questions. But she told me she and her big brother had hidden under the bed “like usual” when her daddy yelled, but this time her daddy shot her mommy dead and then her brother hit her daddy and there was lots of blood and people came and took her daddy and her mommy and her brother away and she wanted to know where her brother was now? I told her I didn’t know. I gave her a Teddy Bear. She was gone the next Friday when I came to volunteer.
Another girl, Wanda, became a special friend of mine, and came to stay with me at my apartment several weekends: a privilege for both of us. She was twelve, and learning English. She’d lived in New York City all her life, but had never left her apartment – nor had any of her seven younger brothers and sisters – until she came to the Hospital. They were all born there, and her father never let them or her mother out. He was afraid of New York, she said. Then one of her brothers became very ill, and her mother had found a way to go to a neighbor in their apartment building to ask for help. The neighbor had called 911. Her brother was in the Hospital in another wing, dying of leukemia. Wanda visited him every day. Her other brothers and sisters were in foster care. Her parents had disappeared. After her brother died Wanda was placed in foster care in the Bronx. I never saw her again.
Jeremy was another favorite of mine who spent several months at the Hospital. He was six, black, and very active. Sometimes in the summer one of the other volunteers, a man about my age, and I got permission to take Jeremy and two or three of the other kids the several blocks west to Central Park for an hour or so before their bedtime. If we had time and money we’d buy them ice cream: a very special treat. Jeremy talked nonstop, and always held my hand as we walked on the long crosstown streets to the park. He often asked if I’d adopt him – something impossible. To begin with, legally, he had a family. And in those days, the fact that I was white and he was black made adoption an impossibility. One night as we were on our way back to the hospital, stopped at a corner for a red light, Jeremy holding my hand as usual, we ran into an executive from my office. I introduced Jeremy, and he, quickly assessing the situation, looked up at me sweetly and said, in his loudest voice, “Mommy, is this nice man a friend of yours?” I assured him the man … who had just taken two steps backward … was. And we walked on across the street. My fellow volunteer, who’d witnessed the whole scene, doubled over with laughter. Jeremy just grinned. I loved that kid.
Children like Jeremy and Wanda and the others like them convinced me that I should adopt older children, and I did, four times. I’ve also written about adoption in my Shadows Antique Print Mystery series, where my protagonist, Maggie Summer, is considering older child adoption. Private adoption is a theme in Shadows on the Coast of Maine; giving up a child for adoption is part of Shadows on the Ivy; older child adoption is a critical part of Shadows at the Spring Show. More about Maggie’s decision to adopt will be in Shadows on a Cape Cod Wedding, due out next spring.
When I was most involved with adoption there were over 500,000 American children waiting for homes in foster care, group homes and institutions. Thanks to many legal reforms, tax reforms, and improvements in adoption facilitation, that number is much lower now. But there are still over 100,000 children waiting.
Many of those under the age of ten have medical challenges. Those older are waiting because of their age, their color, or because they want to be placed with one or more brothers or sisters. Or because their life has been a hard one, and so they come with “issues.” But they also come with love. If you’d like to see who they are, you can. http://www.adoptuskids.org/meet-the-children/search Pay special attention to those over the age of 12. Those are the ones who are “aging out of the system.” Most of them don’t have any problems except the most important one. They need a family to stand by them through their teen years and be there to cheer them on as they go out into the world as strong adults.
Imagine not having a family to go home to for Thanksgiving. Not having a mother to call when you get engaged. Not having a dad to call for advice about your first job. Not having a grandmother or grandfather for your children.
Look at the faces of those young people. Read their stories. Maybe one of them is waiting for — you. Or for a family you know. A family where they can be safe. A family that is theirs. Forever.
A family they can be thankful for.