Adopting Teens: A Delayed Blessing
By Mary Martin Mason
A year ago, when Larnell was 16, he sat in a support group for foster youth awaiting adoption. Stone faced, he was listening to a guest speaker describe an opportunity for youth like himself to make public appearances and tell their stories. "You've got 30 seconds to make your case," he told the startled guest speaker. Larnell never took his eyes off the clock, and true to his word, timed the presentation.
Although he still reserves some teenaged skepticism of adults, since gaining a family his trust level has increased as much as his smile. On January 25, 2003, seventeen-year-old Larnell was adopted by Bereatha Jasper, one of many former foster care providers; "too many to count" in his estimation. Reminded of some challenging past behaviors, he laughs. "I was more reckless back then. I don't know if that is a good thing or a bad thing. I didn't show much emotion. I thought like an adult. Most of the time I was very serious."
Recruiters who find homes for older youth find that they are likely to be adopted by people who already know them, a fact that wasn't lost to Larnell who asked his social worker to return him to the foster home he had once shared with one of his younger siblings; only this time, he wanted Bereatha to adopt him. He explains, "When I was in this house, I was going through a lot of emotions and I couldn't wait to get out of here. But once I got out and went to other places, I realized how good I had it here. This is a family where all my brothers were happy, and if anything happens they can still call here. Me and Mom kept contact when I was out of here."
Larnell's fears that Bereatha might not want to adopt him were heightened when she needed some time to consider the prospect. She explains her initial hesitancy as, "It's more that you're bringing in a teenager, not necessarily that it was him. He was going through that ‘I want what I want when I want it. Forget the world' thinking. And you have to think about the clash of personalities. As teenagers, we thought we knew everything. Everyone who adopts teens goes through that even though I wouldn't trade this experience for anything. God brought this person back into my life for a reason. I'm glad He did."
Bereatha's resolve to adopt was heightened by her childhood experiences. "One of the things I learned growing up was that we always seemed to have someone staying with us. I thank my mother for that. She taught us to help the next person out because down the road it might be our child that needed that same help."
Create Opportunities for Bonding
When he first came to live with Bereatha, she took him camping. In hindsight, Larnell refers to the adventure as "forced bonding. I didn't know that was her strategy. I just thought she was taking us to God knows where. It did work because I was scared up there. You see those movies in the woods like Blair Witch Project or where people are ambushed by bats. Out there you have to go to your parent and you have to ask questions because they're the ones who have been up there before."
Larnell recognizes that the camping trip was his mom's way to remove television, video games, and other distractions so that he was forced to interact with her family. "My mom says that overnight you can't get to know one person completely. You need to spend time with that person to see if that's who you want to adopt you."
Today, Larnell feels especially close to his mom and to his new brother Jarvis. "We're a real family here. Mom knows how to be like a teenager because she knows what she did. You can't pull anything on her because she already did that when she was a teenager and that makes it funnier. When we're in trouble, we know it! She can be like a teenager at times and she can be like an adult. She knows certain times to play."
Stay the Course with Discipline
Larnell appreciated the discipline that had been missing in some of his former placements. "Here it's a good kind of intimidation," he explains, "like when you mess up in school you get a consequence. The others weren't very persistent like Mom is. It was like, ‘Oh you messed up at school, well whatever. He's not my kid. Just let him do whatever he wants.' Now if I get in trouble, I sit in school and I don't want to go home. When you get home and she's sitting at the table, you know you're in trouble."
"School is not an area I play around with," says Bereatha. "That's your job, so you have to treat it like it's your 9 to 5. It's very important for African-American males to get an education, so I don't accept blame or excuses."
Enjoy Differing Points of View
Summing up the fears of adopting teens, Larnell says, "Parents are thinking just one thing...that rebellious stage. We're going to challenge you some because we tend to think we're new school. We know the technology and we find the easy way out instead of using your parent's way."
Larnell says that an advantage in adopting older kids is "you have more fun. Most parents get joy from a young child because they bring them up the way they want them to be, but when you have a teenager who has already been brought up, there is still leeway to change that child. Every day will be interesting because there will always be something new."
Expect Positive Changes as Trust Increases
"The key advantage is a teenager can actually communicate with the adult," says Larnell. "The only time a child talks to an adult is when he or she is in trouble. But by the time you're a teenager, you basically know all the stuff so you can sit down and play in a way."
Maintain Contact with Siblings
As the oldest of four brothers, Larnell feels a responsibility that occasional contact helps him fulfill. "Your brothers are your life," he says. "That's keeping your life, the bond with your brothers. If I lose touch with my brothers I feel like I didn't do my job as a big brother. Being with your brothers is one of the most important things in adoption. I need to be there for my younger brothers. I kind of keep order between them."
Expect Long Term Results
Bereatha says, "You can truly say, I've got x number of years that I'm going to have to be responsible. Just because they turn 18, your job's not through. It's no different from having your own child. Seeing this child succeed has to be one of the best gifts that life can give. When you know that you took that extra step to help someone out, there's a blessing that money can't buy. I absolutely wouldn't trade this experience for anything."
Reprinted with kind permission of MN ASAP Family Voices, a newsletter produced through the collaboration of the Minnesota Adoption Resources Network (MARN) and the North American Council on Adoptable Children (NACAC).