Once there was the idea of a child. Now there is Frenice: a middle-schooler who steeled her way through 14 foster homes before moving last summer to a comfortable Prince George's County neighborhood, where Sharon and Michael Rollins embraced her as their daughter.
There were family dinners. Tuesday evenings at church. Homework after school. Cousins and summer camps and a 13th birthday party.
A year into her new life, Frenice's adoption was made final Friday morning in an Upper Marlboro courtroom — amid happy tears and quiet celebration — as the Rollins family became another example of a growing interest in adopting foster children, which many hope will extend to older youths, who are the hardest to place.
The trend comes amid a sharp decline in overseas adoptions, which have fallen by more than 40 percent since 2005 as many countries tightened regulations, or stopped foreign adoptions altogether and the recession put the cost beyond the reach of some prospective parents. Meanwhile, in this country, 123,000 foster kids are waiting to be adopted.
The willingness of more people to consider foster children is visible at the Joint Council on International Children's Services. Three years ago, just 30 percent of the group's 158 adoption services providers offered domestic and foster placements, says council President Tom DiFilipo. Now 85 percent do. "Families are looking for every option they can," he says.
The most recent national numbers, from 2008, show a 7 percent increase in adoptions of foster children. The overwhelming majority of those are by foster parents or relatives, but DiFilipo and others say they've seen a discernable rise in interest by nonrelatives.
So far, 20 children have been matched or placed — a small percentage of total adoptions at Barker, a nonprofit group that has been doing Washington area adoptions for 65 years. But applications and interest are up this year, says project director Bev Clarke. The Rollins family adopted 13-year-old Frenice through a Barker Foundation program called Project Wait No Longer, which matches adoptive parents with foster children 6 and older.
Some parents fear they won't be effective with children who may have been neglected or abused, she says. Not all are suited, but "we try to educate our families that what the kids need are stable homes where they can be safe, and to have people who . . . will be consistent, who will stick with them regardless of the challenges along the way."
Eager to Adopt
For Sharon and Michael Rollins, both 43, the leap of faith was not hard to make. Sharon, a real estate appraiser, was adopted as a baby and decided long ago that she, too, would adopt. She and Michael, a management specialist for Verizon, wed 12 years ago, and he shared her views about "the tremendous need," he says.
They were open to a child — or siblings — ages 6 to 16. "We did not have any reservations about age whatsoever," Sharon says. "To look for the perfect child, or someone to be a mirror image of the parent, that is not realistic."
Frenice's arrival followed a lengthy process of home studies, recommendations, medical exams, financial reports and background checks. At one point, the couple switched agencies. Twice, they had letdowns when children they selected were adopted by their foster families, who get priority.
In 2008, Sharon gave up. "I'm done," she recalls thinking.
Then a social worker e-mailed Michael a video clip of a curly-haired girl of 11 living in Colorado. What came through was her spirited personality. In the clip, Frenice told her interviewer that she had no idea what her stuffed bear was saying into his cellphone: "It's none of my business."
"My heart was already there," Michael says.
Sharon watched and knew deep inside: This was the child.
In Colorado, Frenice saw photos of Sharon and Michael, who met two of her criteria: They were also African American and lived out of state. She took the chance, but years of moving through foster care made her wary.
"The first couple families weren't really that bad, but as it goes and goes and goes, it just feels like nobody wants you," she says. "After the first six homes, it became, 'Okay, I'm moving again, who cares?' "
The way her parents see it, she suffered greatly in foster care and was separated from a younger sister along the way. "I've kind of developed a thing where if I say I'm not going to get connected, I don't," Frenice acknowledges.
After getting to know her by phone, Sharon and Michael flew to Colorado. Then Frenice came to Maryland. On June 30, 2009, she returned with Sharon, and as far as the Rollinses were concerned, the three became a family.
Challenges and Change
Frenice is sitting beside her mother on a couch in their colonial-style home, reliving a year that changed her life. She lays her head on her mother's knee. Her mother gently strokes her hair, pulled back in a ponytail.
Frenice was sent to seventh grade at Grace Brethren Christian School in Clinton, which her parents sought for its structure and academics. But they say their emphasis on education came as a culture shock for their daughter.
Now her parents monitor her grades and her assignments. They limit television. They insist she read and write over the summer."No one ever asked me about my homework before," Frenice volunteers.
But they also urge her to tell them about what she loves or wants to try. At school, Frenice excelled at hurdles on the track team. She was a cheerleader. This summer, she went to fashion camp and now debate camp, where she is honing her oratory.
"She keeps saying she's gonna debate me," Michael says with a laugh.
Recently, her parents bought Frenice a set of paints, which she'd always wanted. "She's a very creative child," Sharon says.
Michael takes Frenice to ride roller coasters at Six Flags, and they volunteer together at a nursing home in Arlington County. As a family, they like go-karts, karaoke and watching movies side-by-side, sharing popcorn.
Mother and daughter shop together, which can create conflict. "Wednesday we had our first successful shopping trip," Sharon says, teasing.
Frenice rolls her eyes. They have been picking out clothes together for a year — always at odds about what is appropriate for a girl her age.
"I'm picking up some of your habits," Frenice tells her mother.
Every week, they go to First Baptist Church of Glenarden, where Michael is part of a Christian men's group, Sharon belongs to a ministry for the deaf and Frenice participates in a youth ministry.
Family life has made Frenice part of a larger circle, with extended family in Ohio and Michigan. She now has more than 50 cousins. Her new grandparents are positively doting. "Frenice is perfect for them [Sharon and Michael], challenges and all," says Virgie Rollins, her grandmother.
Life with an adolescent also meant a transition for Sharon and Michael, who received parent training at Barker and go to a support group. They also have met with social workers and take Frenice to her required therapy.
Frenice was not used to being challenged about her behavior, her parents say. She was not used to letting other people decide what her best interests were."It's been a journey," says Sharon, and not always a smooth one.
She tested them.
"Frenice just had to believe that, at the first sight of something going wrong, they weren't going to leave her," says Celeste Owens, a psychologist and close friend who admires how Michael and Sharon talk things out with their teenager.
One difficult day, Sharon told Frenice not to wear a pair of special shoes to school. The teen promised but snuck them to school anyway. Her parents found out and told her how serious it was to violate their trust, to go back on her word.
Frenice angrily told them she wanted to go back to Colorado. Her parents discussed it all in detail, told her how much they loved her and let her know that they would not force her to stay. The adoption was up to her, too.
A few months later, Frenice approached Sharon about donating her luggage to a charity.
Sharon asked why.
"I want to give it away," she said. "I'm never going to leave."