Richmond- area families reflect on adopting teens
Alston Matthews was filled with nervous energy as he sat at Bruster’s Ice Cream waiting to meet his future adoptive father. His hair hadn’t been cut for months. His clothes were either too small or three sizes too big.
Then, Pat Matthews pulled up in a two-seat red Jaguar convertible. Alston’s jaw dropped, but the more he and his soon-to-be father talked, the more he relaxed.
As the two met, nearly 2½ years ago, Pat Matthews’ wife, Ruth, was off to the hospital to be with their biological daughter as she went into labor, giving birth to the second Matthews grandchild.
The Matthewses, with two grown children, had put adoption on their back burner for years. But after their son and daughter graduated from college and began to establish their lives, their home felt empty. They finally took the plunge with the Children’s Home Society of Virginia, an organization that focuses on adoptions of older children.
“What I always say to people [is], you know we went in thinking we were going to bless the child, but he’s blessed our entire family,”
Ruth Matthews said.
Virginia ranks last in the nation for children aging out of foster care without being adopted, according to the most recent data from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. For the current year, 594 children have aged out through October. In 2019 and 2018 those numbers were 624 and 629, respectively. In 2017, 446 children aged out, according to the Virginia Department of Social Services.
“The average age of the kids we serve now is 14 years old and that is because people who want to adopt want babies. The need is for the older kids, because it’s challenging to find families who want older children,” Nadine Marsh-Carter, CEO of Children’s Home Society, said in an interview.
Alston officially became part of the Matthews family in June 2019, after six stops in foster homes. In 2018, 35% of all Virginia children in foster care had already lived in two home or more, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
The trio worked to build trust. It took time. “It’s just so important to take it slow,” said Ruth Matthews.
Alston had a history of acting out in school as he struggled academically, performing at a second- or third-grade learning level instead of eighth-grade. He was small for his age and exhibited immature behavior, said Pat Matthews.
Pat Matthews recalled asking Alston’s pediatrician about his son’s size, to which the doctor said, “this is because of trauma. And he said, you know, once he feels loved, and secure his body will kick in and everything will be fine.”
Now a sophomore at Goochland High School, Alston was tutored outside of school during eighth and ninth grades. His confidence soared and as his studies improved, so did his behavior.
“There was this turning point where he realized that we were for real and he started to trust us,” said Pat Matthews. “He started to feel secure with us and he started to call us mom and dad.”
Trauma, which many youth in foster care carry with them, “can complicate normally healthy development and delay typical milestones,” including getting a driver’s license, graduating from high school, being hired for a first job and attending college, according to the Juvenile Law Center, a public interest law firm that advocates for youth in child welfare and justice systems.
In the past few years, Alston, 16, not only has found a home but has friends, is a Boy Scout, and summers at the family beach house in North Carolina, where he also works at a restaurant. Back home he works at a garden nursery. He enjoys playing video games too, like “Call of Duty” and “Minecraft.”
Alston-wants to help out foster kids who are still waiting for a permanent family. Still in the preliminary stages, Alston has ideas to donate some of his paycheck to foster kids and plans to ask his church, Mount Vernon Baptist, for assistance.
For Alston, being adopted was “the happiest day of my life because I finally had a family to go to. It was just the best day of my life knowing I would never have to search for a family again.”
Children’s Home Society of Virginia, established in 1900, has placed nearly 13,500 children into permanent homes over the past 120 years. A contract agency through the Virginia Department of Social Services, the organization works with specific counties to place the children with their new families. The society does not coordinate newborn or infant adoptions, rather adoptions of older children, with most being teenagers.
While the coronavirus pandemic has presented challenges in the adoption process, the society got creative with meetings between potential families and children outdoors, virtual meeting sessions and virtual training programs.
“The uncertainty of foster care really looms on kids,” Marsh-Carter said. “The positive impact of being adopted during these unprecedented times is greater than ever before.”
An attorney by practice, Marsh-Carter’s journey with the organization began with helping families navigate the legalities of adoption. Then, one day, Marsh-Carter found herself sitting in the society’s lobby with an empty car seat waiting to bring her daughter home. Two years later she received a call that her daughter’s newborn brother also needed a home.
“I went from being an attorney for clients to becoming a client myself,” said Marsh-Carter, who first served on the board of directors before becoming CEO in 2006.
Most of the children the group places with a new family are in the foster care system, who “have significant trauma in their lives,” making the focus of the society to not find children for families but to find families who can meet the needs of the children, Marsh-Carter said.
However, not all children get adopted and eventually age out of foster care, leaving them to start their adult lives alone.
“One of the primary challenges children who age out face is they lack a permanent adult connection for guidance and support,” Marsh-Carter said.
Skills such as doing laundry, grocery shopping and saving money are lost, along with having access to quality health care and education. Through the program My Path Forward, children are provided housing, access to education or vocational training, transportation and mentors to help them navigate adulthood and health care access.
Nearly two years ago at a Children’s Home adoption event at Launch trampoline park in Chesterfield County, the Steele family met Caylin, who would become their daughter.
Caylin spied them in a sea of adults, immediately thinking, “Whoa, these are my people.” Margaret Steele sported fun hair and tattoos. Bill Steele was wearing a Marlboro shirt.
The Steeles watched Caylin take initiative when a vending machine ate her money. She excused herself for a moment, saying she had to handle the situation with the manager. Margaret turned to Bill and said, “That’s our kid, that’s our kid right there.”
Caylin, now 17, joined the Steele household where she quickly filled the role of big sister with the Steeles’ three biological children, 11-year-old twins, a boy and a girl; and 12-year-old son.
“They [the kids] never batted an eye. In their minds she’s their older sister period,” Bill Steele said.
Caylin, who enjoys writing poetry, painting and video games, is a senior at Thomas Dale High School in Chesterfield, where her favorite subjects are history and government.
She has learned impulse control, how to channel anger that used to overtake her quickly, and responsibility by doing chores around the house. Since she became part of the family, the Steele household has been filled with more laughter, screenings of horror movies and cooking new recipes.
“It’s been a really wonderful process to get to know her, to get to know what she needed from us,” including acquiring a learner’s permit for driving, finding a job and even standing up for Caylin with a teacher, Margaret Steele said.
In the initial meeting with the Children’s Society, Margaret Steele remembers being told that they didn’t specialize in adoptions of younger children, which she said wasn’t an issue for her.
“I said, ‘Neither do I. That’s great, we’re not here for that,’” she recalled with a laugh.
For Margaret Steele, she sees that a large portion of the job of being a parent happens when children are technically grown, “because you always need an adult no matter how adult you are.”