Fourteen-year-old Dequarius had faith that he would get adopted someday, but didn’t know his new home would be two states away.
Dequarius, who goes by “DQ,” and his siblings, Shermon, 12, and Deanna’Marie, 16, of Cleveland, are now living in New York with parents Lisa Johnson and Greg Myers.
Shermon and DQ lived together in a foster home before meeting their new parents, while Deanna’Marie was separated from her brothers.
“When our sister left and we heard that she couldn’t stay with us anymore, we were very sad,” DQ says.
After being in foster care for several years, DQ says his sister was the first to tell him about a couple interested in meeting the siblings.
They seemed like they were pretty cool,” DQ says about the introduction to his adoptive parents.
However, he did feel nervous about them and the fact they wanted to adopt kids from a different state.
Johnson says she and her husband, Myers, simply found themselves at a point in life where they had room and love to spare.
“I had three (kids), my husband had two (kids),” Johnson says. “For us, our kids were getting older, moving out of the house and we realized we weren’t done yet. We still had love to give. I guess you could say, I found the cure for the empty nest.”
The couple took the required training and classes, and also did respite services for other foster parents. During that experience, they found out that they wanted older children, not babies.
“We ended up realizing our life is set up for older kids,” Johnson says. “We are not afraid of the challenges (teens might bring). We don’t believe there is such a thing as a bad child, just ones who haven’t had the opportunity to be successful.”
She says at the time they were ready to adopt, New York didn’t have any available teens that fit their family, so the couple decided to look in cities like Cleveland and Pittsburgh.
As most foster or adoptive parents do, they did an online search and saw countless faces of kids who were seeking homes.
Johnson says when she and Myers found DQ and his siblings, they just fell in love with them and wanted to meet.
They worked with a recruiter from Wendy’s Wonderful Kids, a program of the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption that helps find permanent homes for youth in foster care, and Cuyahoga County Children and Family Services to connect with DQ and his siblings.
Kids in Care
It is not uncommon for older children to be in foster care.
In fact, Beverly Torres, senior manager of permanency support for Cuyahoga County Division of Children and Family Services, says they currently have more than 800 children between the ages of 13 and 18 that are in the custody of the county agency.
According to Summit County Children Services, as of Oct. 9, 161 children ages 13 and older were in the agency’s custody and, as of September, 142 teens were in permanent custody.
Staffers across all the agencies say the main factors for kids to enter into foster care are abuse, neglect or mental health issues that interfere with parenting and family concerns. Issues like drug abuse also play a role.
“The opioid epidemic continues to have an impact on the child welfare system as well,” Torres says.
Ann Ream, department director of community relations and foster care for Summit County Children Services, says teen adoption is important.
“There is a strong need to create awareness and bring attention to the need for permanent families for children and youth on a national, state and local level,” she says. “The hope is that all children, regardless of age, have established connections and relationships that are life-long.”
A Chance for Teens and their Siblings
Tony Siracusa and his wife, Cindy, of Eastlake, have five adopted children with ages ranging from 11 to 18; three out of those five children are siblings.
Siracusa says the oldest of the siblings was 16 when they adopted him.
“Teens deserve a chance, too; that’s why we didn’t hesitate,” he says. “We weren’t actively looking to foster three kids at the time, but we weren’t going to break up a family. It’s important not just for teens, but also the younger ones. They can’t be jumping from family to family.”
When it comes to adopting a teen, he says it’s harder on the teen than on the adult.
“Teenagers can come with a lot of baggage and not-so-good behavior,” he says. “That’s why it’s important to get them the right help, understand their needs as a teen and have an outlet for any pent-up feelings or anger.”
To help their teen with the transition, Siracusa says communication is the key.
“Just talking to each other,” he says, “about his feelings, what happened with him and letting him know it’s perfectly normal (to feel this way). You have to realize, they are going to be angry at the world for their situation. You have to direct them as best you can. Let them know it wasn’t their fault and why it happened; give them love even when they don’t want it.”
Foster and adoptive parents also need someone to lean on.
Siracusa talked about a support system of trainers from Lake County Department of Job and Family Services, along with Lake County Foster-Adoptive Parent Association, a group that provides activities, training and other events for parents.
It varies among agencies how long teens are in foster care.
Lori O’Brien, administrator for Children & Adult Services at Lake County Job and Family Services, says teens who are ages 12-14 tend to stay in the system longer than those children ages 15 or older.
“The reality of that statistic is that the older the child is, the more able they are to protect themselves,” O’Brien says. “Over the last nine years of data evaluated, the younger teenagers’ time in agency custody averaged to be 12 months versus the older teenagers, who averaged 6.5 months.”
While Cuyahoga County doesn’t have specific data on teens, Torres says the average length of stay for any child, including teens, in the agency’s custody is a little over 17 months.
Teens who do stay in the foster care system after age 12 have an option to choose to be adopted or not.
O’Brien provides the law as follows: “Ohio Revised Code 3107.06 states that the minor, if more than 12 years of age, must provide written consent to the adoption unless the court finds that it is in the best interest of the minor and determines that the minor’s consent is not required.”
Adoption can be difficult to process for kids.
“Children who are adopted in their teenage years often lived with their parents long enough to have built a strong bond,” O’Brien says. “Those bonds may not have been healthy but by nature, children tend to love their parents regardless of the way they were treated. Loyalty issues emerge for the child, which causes emotional conflict where the child feels as though they are betraying their family by consenting to the adoption process.”
Torres says there are some children who say they do not want to be adopted, and it is the staff’s job as trained adoption assessors to “unpack that ‘no’” to work through what that “no” means specifically for that child.
“We also work with the adoptive families to support them when the child with whom they are adopting has struggles,” she says.
Siracusa’s son, at age 16, had an option like many older foster kids in Ohio to be adopted or not. He chose to be with the Siracusa family, which also helped him experience freedoms that weren’t available in foster care. Currently, at age 18, he has moved out on his own. Like most parents, Tony says he and his wife will be there when he needs them.
“It’s important these kids know they are loved, have a safe place and safe people to talk to and lean on if they come upon hard times,” Siracusa says. “They have a place to go and will not be thrown away on the street somewhere.”
Enjoying New Freedoms
After a year of going back and forth between Ohio and New York, Johnson and Myers adopted the three siblings.
DQ says he felt happy that someone wanted to adopt them after years in foster care. He and his siblings are adjusting to their new life together.
“I can walk down the street without getting hurt or something happening,” DQ says. “(Me and my siblings) are trusting each other more and giving each other personal space. When we first moved here, we didn’t know how to respect each other.”
He also is enjoying freedoms of academics, sports, hanging out with friends, social media and learning life skills.
DQ says while it was challenging to live in a new state and move in with his siblings, along with dealing with the issues of being adopted, he advises to keep fighting.
“You can’t turn your back now,” he says. “You have to keep fighting.”
As far as the changes in his life, he says he has more freedoms than when he was in foster care.
“I can continue my life and don’t have to depend on just myself,” he says, adding Johnson and Myers are teaching him the important aspects of life — how to be respectful and how to be a man.
“They talk to me a lot, comfort me, and help with some challenging things,” DQ says.
Johnson says the siblings are now thinking about the future.
“When they came here, they were focused on only what happened that day,” she says. “Now they’re dreaming (of what’s ahead).”
The Future for Older Teens
For some teens, as they begin to age out of the system, agencies work with them to weigh future options.
“Some teens remain in agency custody and placement until they finish school, others may emancipate from custody and move to an independent living setting,” Ream says.
The agencies hope to find permanent homes for kids, but that is not always something the teens want.
“If a teenager is in a home and adoption is an option, it is vital that (the teen is) supportive of being adopted,” O’Brien says. “Without the child’s buy in and consent, the chances of the adoption being successful in the long run is greatly reduced. It is important that the child has a permanent plan, whether or not that includes being adopted. A permanent plan allows for a sense of family and continued support into adulthood.”