Families in Western Pennsylvania grow a bit larger
Decked out in khaki pants, a navy blue blazer, white shirt and neatly knotted tie Saturday morning, Dustin Schrader was all business.
At 6 feet 3 inches, the towering 15-year-old honor student threaded his way across the crowded rotunda in Pittsburgh's Family Court building with his new father, Wilbert Schrader and younger brothers Zachary, 7, and Jacob, 3, for the National Adoption Day ceremony that would cement his status as a member of the family.
"When I woke up this morning, I couldn't believe it was the day I'd finally become a Schrader," Dustin said softly, keeping a careful eye on the single father and two young boys who had welcomed him into their Port Vue home first as a guest and later as a foster child.
"He's an awesome kid," Wilbert Schrader said. "It's been a heck of an experience for both of us. People said, 'he's so lucky.' But I'm just as lucky that I've had an opportunity to be his father. He really loves being an older brother, and the kids adore him."
Dustin, who had been in a group home prior to meeting the Schraders, may have been the tallest adoptee in the balloon-festooned rotunda, but he wasn't alone. In all, 50 foster children, ranging from 10 months to 16 years joined permanent families Saturday morning during ceremonies in Family Court here. Similar celebrations took place across the nation.
Last year, more than 4,800 adoptions were finalized in National Adoption Day ceremonies in 50 states, intended to celebrate families who adopt and to raise awareness of some 114,000 children in foster care awaiting adoptive families.
The festivities Downtown were a departure from the weekday routine there where judges struggle with life-changing decisions for families torn by domestic disputes, substance abuse and violence.
"This is clearly the most joyous day of the year in the family division," said Family Court Administrative Judge David Wecht. "It's great to recognize that the court can be a mechanism to make lives better."
Christine and Chris Wolski of Jefferson Hills became foster parents last fall. They fostered a newborn briefly and then a toddler. Both of them went home quickly. Then, in January on the way home from work, Christine got the call that a week-old infant needed a home.
Unlike their first two foster children, Jacob stayed. And stayed. In May, the couple learned Jacob was eligible for adoption, and the hard work began.
"He's just an angel. He babbles all the time, and he's starting to walk," Christine said, beaming at the little boy decked out in a newsboy cap, white shirt, vest and matching pants.
Unlike private or foreign adoptions that can come with fees of $10,000-$30,000, Christine said there were no fees involved in Jacob's adoption. The Wolskis had been setting aside the $20-a-day, foster-care subsidy they received for Jacob in a special account.
"As soon as the paperwork is done, we're going to set up an actual college fund in his name and deposit the money in it," Christine said.
Although subsidies to foster families usually end with adoption, they continue for special-needs children, who are also covered by Medicaid, said Marc Cherna, Allegheny County director of Human Services. Counseling and post-adoptive services are provided for adoptive families.
Cherna said the county spends about $20,000 per year to keep a child in foster care.
Family reunification has always been the primary goal for children are placed in foster homes. For years, many jurisdictions excluded foster families from adopting their wards, and children who "aged out" of foster care were often left to fend for themselves upon turning 18.
The Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 finally gave foster families standing to adopt and eased the way for kinship adoptions or permanent kinship guardianships.
"When I came in 1996, we had a backlog of 1,600 waiting kids in foster care. We worked to eliminate that. Today it's under 100," said Cherna.
Renee Terney, of Sheraden first made the jump from foster parent to adoptive parent in 2001 when she learned that the courts were preparing to break up three siblings she'd fostered to make them "more adoptable." She and her partner Nancy Burns stepped up and adopted Tony, Nikkole and Mashell, now 16, 18 and 19. They later adopted Mikal, now 11, who came to them when he was 3 1/2 months old.
Yesterday, the family gathered at the courthouse to formally adopt Aleesha, 4, beaming in a pink dress and matching shoes for her special day.
Last month, Gov. Ed Rendell signed an open adoption law that allows older children, who may be reluctant to sever ties with their biological parents, to maintain contact with them after being adopted.
"There is no question with respect to some children that open adoption is an assist to begin to be able to timely achieve permanency," Wecht said.