"I was worried that I would never be adopted because I was older and had anger issues," recounts Kimmy, a 14-year-old who lives in Columbia City with her new parents, Joe and Sue Helensky.
A petite girl with a bobbing brown ponytail, Kimmy's lilting voice bubbles with optimism as she talks about her future, but takes a more somber tone when speaking sketchily about her difficult past, including more than a dozen foster care placements and a failed adoption. She is well aware that the odds are stacked against teens looking for foster and adoptive parents because many people prefer to start with a younger child. In fact, a child 12 or older at the time of entry into the foster care system has only a 2 percent chance of being adopted, according to the Northwest Adoption Exchange.
The adoption exchange, along with the state's Children's Administration and the federally-funded AdoptUSKids project, has launched a public awareness campaign to recruit more foster and adoptive parents, especially for young people ages 11 to 17. Radio and television spots featuring local families take a gently humorous approach to the joys and challenges of foster parenting. The bottom line: "You don't have to be perfect to be a perfect parent."
"I've raised my voice a few times," Joe Helensky says seriously.
The Helenskys were married in their early forties and always planned to build a family by fostering a child they intended to adopt. Part of the desire came from his experience of being adopted from an orphanage as a baby.
"We were thinking of a child 3 or 4 years old at first, but then we heard of the huge population of teens who didn't have a chance," he says. "Everyone is gearing toward the younger kids. We soul-searched and thought, ‘We don't need a baby.'"
In 2011 they began foster parenting a teen girl named Tia, who lived at the Ryther Child Center in north Seattle. The center provides behavioral health services to young people who are dealing with the effects of trauma, mental health issues or substance abuse. To their great sorrow, Tia's needs turned out to be greater than they had the training to handle, and adoption was not possible. "We are still a part of Tia's life, like an aunt and uncle," Helensky says.
Tia and Kimmy, friends at Ryther, had the same state social worker, Katherine Graff, who thought the Helenskys might be perfect parents for Kimmy. "When we heard about Kimmy, we thought about her every day," Sue Helensky told Graff.
Photo courtesy of the Helensky family
To Kimmy, the exact dates of her growing relationship with the Helenskys are very important and are on the tip of her tongue. "I met them in the summer of 2011 when they were sitting with Tia. Then my social worker said she wanted me to meet them, and I went to their house on Christmas 2011 and stayed one night. On Dec. 12, 2012 I knew they'd be my adoptive family. In January 2013 I moved to a temporary foster home in Tacoma to get me ready for adoption. I moved in with Joe and Sue Feb. 5, 2013. On Nov. 9 I was officially adopted." After nine months, the counselor at Ryther did not think Kimmy needed her any more.
Kimmy doesn't want to talk about or dwell on past traumas. "I'm afraid of the dark; I need to be tucked in at night, which I know most kids my age don't need," she says. "Dad tells me I'm stronger every day," she says, checking with him for affirmation. "People should get trained to be foster parents," she declares. "They should totally do it if they think they might want another child in their home."
Joe Helensky speaks frankly about the issues of fostering and adopting a teen. "The good times far outnumber the bad," he says. "Many of the older kids (in foster care) have been through so many placements. It's great when they realize, ‘These guys (foster/adoptive parents) mean business.' The trust builds up."
However, a parent taking in an older child does not start with a clean slate. "Kimmy had a life before us. Some parents might find that threatening, but it's fine with us. We are her parents, but we aren't her only family." They are on close terms with the local family who adopted her birth brother, Kyler, and Kimmy spent part of spring break with them.
"Some of the challenges are around the age," he adds. "These older children have been in so many places, it's harder for them to break into the social cliques at school where other kids have been friends for years. They're used to temporary friendships; they have more alone time; they rely on family more than other kids might. There are also challenges in education because of lack of continuity."
"Older kids in foster care have had significant traumas. Our question is always, can we separate the trauma from the drama of ordinary teen issues?"
"Our lives have been so richly rewarded (by fostering and adopting)," Helensky says. "Even more so because we chose older children."