A Rare Foster Care Success Story

At any given time, 115,000 kids live in the foster-care system. Only a small fraction of those will be adopted. Tony Jones is one of the lucky few, adopted by his mother, Jackie, when he was only four. Farai Chideya talks with them about the foster-care system.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

For most kids, 18 is an exciting birthday. But for those who age out of foster care it can be terrifying. Eighteen in most states means the government and foster homes don't have to take care of you anymore. That leaves too many teens with no home, no family, and no idea where the next meal is coming from.

At any given time there are 115,000 kids in foster care, one-third are African-American. Today we bring you two very different and personal stories. Later, we'll hear from a young man who turned 18 and left the system with nothing, but now he's thriving.

But first we'll take a look at the kids who get adopted from foster care -that's only 18 percent. One of those lucky few is Tony Jones. His mother, Jackie, told me about the first time she got to observe Tony, part of the adoption process. Tony was four and Christmas shopping with his social worker.

Ms. JACKIE JONES (Foster Mother): He was watching the train in a display, you know, looking to go visit Santa Claus. And then he got a sandwich. And so we sat at a table nearby and listened to him. And the thing I remember was they asked him, his social worker asked him, what he'd been for Halloween. And he said he was a devil.

And then he had a little knot on his head, and Mr. Jankora(ph) said, well, what happened? He said I was running, and I was running, and I was running down the steps and then I hit the wall.

And I just thought that was so funny. I mean he was just full of energy and just kind of, you know, this happy-go-lucky kid. And he was cute as a button, so I just instantly fell in love. So they said, well, you know, take some time to think about whether you want to follow up with this kid and it was like, nah, I don't like to wait, we can start.

CHIDEYA: Did you have any concerns at the time or did the issue come up of parental rights, of whether or not he had family that might try to claim him while you were going through this process?

Ms. JONES: They had waited as long as they could to see if he could be returned to his family. And that they had already had what they call a goodbye conference, where the family understood that he wouldn't be coming back and that he was going to be placed for adoption. So the courts had only made him eligible for adoption maybe a couple of months before I met him.

So the whole time, from the time he was taken from his mother until I met him, he was pretty much in foster care and under the court's supervision. And then once they decided there wasn't an opportunity for him to go back to his biological family, then they made him eligible for adoption.

But there was some concern that maybe the family would come and look for him, and they asked me if I would be willing to be contacted by them if they want to visit or something like that. And we had talked about that, but…

CHIDEYA: What did you think?

Ms. JONES: I was fine with it. I thought that, you know, he was old enough to understand something was going on, that there was an adoption process. I think he knew that I obviously wasn't his birth mother, so I thought it would be OK.

When I first adopted him I put him in a nursery school and his older sister was there. She had been adopted by another woman who lived not far from me. And they recognized each other and they told the other kids in the daycare that they were brother and sister. And one day of the kids said, well, if you all are brother and sister, how come you all got different mommies?

And so Angela's mom and I got on the phone and exchanged, you know, we exchanged numbers and tried to work out something where we would have them spend some time together. But before that could happen, Angela was returned to the agency and her adoptive mom cancelled the adoption. And so Tony didn't meet Angela again until they were adults.

CHIDEYA: I remember you, Tony, saying that you had an easier road than your sister because your mom was really committed to you, even at times when you might have had some issues about acting out. Tell me about what it is that you went through, you know, how you felt about the whole process of having to learn someone, new rules, and how your mother expressed love and all of those things that come with being part of a family.

Mr. TONY JONES: I think that the acting out part of it has a lot more to do with me, personally, before the adoption took place than anything that had to do with my mother. It took me a couple of years to really get used to the idea of being adopted but I mean, you know, once I got used to it, I got used to it because, you know, that was the only mother that I ever knew.

I think the issues that I have when I was growing up were, you know, feeling insecure about a lot of things, asking my mother, like, okay, are you going to be my mother tomorrow? Are you going to be my mother the next day? And, you know, she'd have to constantly like reassure me, like, yeah, I'm always going to be here. You know, as she stuck by me and as I can see that her love for me was unconditional, then my mind eased up and I was able to, you know, see her as the mother that she is.

CHIDEYA: Jackie, it sounds like, you know, you really cultivated a relationship with your son while he was feeling like he didn't know whether or not to trust you.

Ms. JONES: I can't say that I was a perfect mom. You know, there were times when I would kind of lose it and yell at him and that kind of stuff. But, you know, I would tell him, I'm the mom you got, you know, I'm the one who's here everyday.

You know, one day he got really mad at me, he said, you're not my mom - you're not my real mother, that's what he said. And I said - I said, oh, I'm real all right. I said I'm the real one who puts breakfast on the table everyday. I'm the real one who comforts you when you're sick. I'm the real one who washes your clothes and takes you to school. And if that's not real enough for you, I'm sorry, but I'm the mom you got and I'm the one you've got to live with.

And so, you know, that will go back and forth. But most of the time Tony was worried about whether somebody was going to come and take him away. He would always worry when - especially when he was little. He'd always say, what if somebody steals me? And I'd say nobody's going to take you. I got you. Don't worry about that.

Or he worried about who he looked like. And after the first couple of years he really seemed to kind of settle in pretty well, and then, you know, puberty hit and it was just kind of buck wild for a while. And so I found out that there was stuff that the agency had withheld from me. He had been a failure to thrive baby. And those…

CHIDEYA: And failure to thrive is when kids who are often, you know, neglected just don't gain enough weight and don't progress. And so…

Ms. JONES: Right, they're not fed enough, they're not held enough. And so they have had, you know, it's sort of deep-seeded abandonment issues that they aren't even really aware of because they've been neglected.

CHIDEYA: Tony, did you ever feel like you were testing your mom throughout all this? I mean, obviously, when you were younger and you were asking her those questions, you know, are you going to be my mom tomorrow? But when you were older, did you feel like you were trying to test her and see how far her love went?

Mr. JONES: I was so self conscious of it I did it constantly. To this day in some of my relationships with other people, I test them. You know, seeing how much they really care for me, I think that - I think that's a whole bi-product of, you know, what I went through. And it's weird to sit here and analyze myself and not being able to totally quell it. When I was young I mean I could test my mom. But there's only so much you can do. But, you know, when you are a teenager, I mean, you know, you're upward, you're mobile.

CHIDEYA: The sky is the limit.

Mr. JONES: It's funny because a lot of people say, oh, your teenage years are your best years and this and that, and I thought that my teenage years were the worst years of my life, from about the time I was about 14 to about the time I was about 22, 23.

CHIDEYA: Well, you got out of college, so, hey, you know, you got to give yourself some credit. But, Tony, let me ask you this, you're a father now.

Mr. JONES: Yes.

CHIDEYA: You're a sportswriter; you've got a good life. What have you learned about love and parenting from your mom, and how do you bring that into your life today?

Mr. JONES: I mean I try to pattern myself as a parent after my mother. I think that's the best compliment that I could give my mom is to raise Kelsey(ph) in the manner that she raised me. You know, I constantly let her know that I'm there for her, constantly. I mean even if she is two, you know, hopefully that works.

CHIDEYA: I'm sure it will. And, Jackie, you know, listening to Tony, I mean that's one of the best tributes I mean if not the best tribute I think a parent can probably get. But, you know, considering that there are so many African-American kids in foster care, considering that so many of them will age out at 18: First off, if you had it to do over, would you go for being a single mother by choice, you know, adopting a child out of foster care? And second, what advice could you give to people who were thinking about this?

Ms. JONES: You know, I go back and forth. And Tony and I have talked about this, you know, that there were moments when somebody would come and say oh, I'm thinking about adopting, you know, would you do it again? And I'd say oh, no. It's too crazy. I couldn't do it by myself. This is insane.

And then at other times when I say absolutely, you know. I think if I had to do it again, I would plan it a little more carefully. I probably would have gone into intense counseling sooner, you know, like as soon as I got him. Just to kind of get some sense of what was going through his 4-year-old mind and kind of how he was feeling.

I would definitely tell people to find out as much background as they can. I would get the child in at least play therapy, at the very least. Maybe more counseling just to kind of get a sense that, you know, you're in the right space as you start out.

And then, you know, you just kind of do the best you can. You know, you love them a lot. You reassure them that they're loved, and you do what every other parent does. You know, you try to give your child the best education you can. You spend - you have to spend a lot of time with them, you have to reinforce a lot of things.

You know, when I got Tony, they told me that at best he would be, you know, an average student that - you know, there were low expectations for him from the agency coming in, and I just never accepted that. And I said oh, this is a smart kid. I'm sure he'll do fine. And I took him to the museum and had him repeat the names of the most complicated dinosaurs I could find. We started working on learning to read before he got to kindergarten and all of those things.

And once I realized he could to that, I said all this stuff that they were throwing at me is garbage, you know, because he's a smart kid. He just didn't get a lot of the opportunities that, you know, a lot of people, especially a lot of the middle-class people give their kids when they're starting out. But given the opportunity to catch up, he did.

And so I think you have to set your own agenda for what your expectations are for you and your family, you know. And you just have to be able to trust your own judgment.

CHIDEYA: Well, Jackie, that is so much needed advice. I'm sure there are lot of people who are thinking about this, and I really appreciate your words. And, Tony, I appreciate your words as well.

Mr. JONES: Thank you very much for having me.

Ms. JONES: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Jackie Jones is an adoptive mother, journalist and founder of Jones Coaching LLC. She joined us from NPR's Washington, D.C. headquarters. And her son, Tony, is a sportswriter for the Daytona Beach News-Journal.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: Coming up, a Muslim congressman wants to be sworn in on the Koran, and the U.S. citizenship test just got harder.

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