JEFFERSON CITY — It was on her second birthday that Jamila Gray received a quilt. But Jamila, now 15, was not turning two years old.
She was celebrating her March 7 birthday, the birthday she now shares with her adoptive mother. It was also the day she officially became a Gray. Her adoptive grandmother sewed Jamila a quilt with her first name and her new last name.
Seeing her new name on a quilt meant a lot to Jamila. A previous birthday was spent with her guardian ad litem — a lawyer appointed to serve as a kid's guardian, she explained, just another one of the many legal terms surrounding foster children that is a regular part of her vocabulary.
Jamila was one of the children in Missouri's foster care system — a system that can have more than 9,000 children in it at any one time. The number constantly fluctuates as kids are moved in and out of their biological relatives homes.
Jamila was brought to Sarah Gray's house in Columbia on an emergency basis after leaving a relative's house.
"I was happy to leave there," she said. "It was a bad situation."
Sarah, who has been a foster parent for five years, had a full house at the time, but agreed to let Jamila stay for the weekend.
"But then that Monday came, and I told her case worker, 'She's just getting comfortable, so she can stay for another 30 days,' but then the 30 days was up, and I said 'Well, she can stay until her father's rights are terminated,'" Sarah said. That took a while. But when he did, Jamila's case worker came to Sarah asking what type of family would be best for Jamila. Sarah said, "Well, this one."
Before a child can be adopted, the parental rights of the biological parents must be terminated.
Sometimes parents will do this voluntarily. Other times, in cases of involuntary termination, it takes longer. A child may move in and out of their parents' home several times before either being reunified with their family or the state terminating the parents' rights and putting the child up for adoption. While the number of foster children may run into the thousands, as of Dec. 1, there are only 1,590 children up for adoption in Missouri.
Constantly moving in and out of foster care takes time, and for some children this can be detrimental. Older children have a harder time getting adopted.
Amy Martin, a unit manager in the Children's Division of the Department of Social Services, cites emotional problems as one reason. "Kids who have been in the system a long time have already lost hope of being reunited with their families. That's a lot to deal with," Martin said.
Sarah's oldest child Neka was 16 when she first came to live with the family and acknowledges she came in with a wall up. "Most people in foster care do have issues, but they just don't know how to express themselves," Neka, now 18, said.
Rather than seeking adoption, Neka chose to leave the system through a process called emancipation. She has legally been considered an adult since she was 17. Even with her rebellious teenage tendencies, she experienced a tremendous bond with the family. Although at one point she thought Sarah was "the meanest person in the world," Neka eventually realized that discipline was a form of love. "When you get a real parent and a real mentor, it can change your life and change who you are. When you find out they really do love you, it's the best feeling in the world."
The love doesn't stop there. "When you truly love a child in your home, they learn to express that," Neka said.
As a foster parent, Sarah has seen her children get adopted, return to their families or just age out of the system. "It was bittersweet," Sarah said of watching one of her foster children reunited with his family.
"I cried when he left," said Tyler, Sarah's biological son. He paused for a moment before adding, "But he got to go home, so that was really cool. He still comes over a lot on the weekend, and we play video games."
Sarah said she did have some reservations about adopting Jamila as an older child. But because Jamila was 13 years old at the time, Sarah said she adopted her just in time to guide her before the turbulent teen years.
For children not adopted by their foster parents, the process is different.
Once parental rights are terminated, either voluntarily or by the state, the child's case worker will write up a profile on the child and try to match this up with profiles written on families after a case worker has observed them in their home. Once a case worker thinks they have found a good match, the family and the child will have several visitations.
After both the family and the child agree that it is a good fit, the child is placed in the home for a minimum of six months before the adoption is finalized.
During this six-month period, case workers go into the home and talk to the child and adoptive family independently, making reports from both sides. This monitoring over the six-month period is why most placements are successful, said Martin.
The actual process, though, does not lend itself to permanency. "Your case worker changes all the time. You can change your foster parents in the blink of an eye," Neka said. Getting a supportive family may just be a matter of chance. "If you get a good family that's willing to build you up and make you a better person, it makes all the difference," she said.
Jamila said she was grateful not to have to go through this process. "If I hadn't been adopted by my family, I don't think I would want to be adopted. If I had to meet new people I might have fears," she said. Besides, she added, "I already knew what I wanted." And that was to stay where she was.
Anytime a new child enters the home, it is an adjustment for the Gray family. Sarah said she only takes foster boys younger than Tyler, who is 11 years old. "I always make sure he's the oldest boy so that his role doesn't get displaced," Sarah said. With girls it is different because Tyler "is used to having his big sisters around," Neka said.
Sarah said having foster children in the house has made her son very empathetic and mature.
"I do mind sharing my room sometimes though," Tyler said, but added that he did enjoy sharing his room with one of their current foster children.
Of course, coming to a new house is an adjustment for the foster children too. "When I first got there I would cry all the time. I didn't let them see me, but I was in this strange place, and I don't know these people. It's a lot," Neka said.
Sarah said that her original plan with fostering was not to adopt, but rather to provide a safe haven for children, work that corresponds nicely with her job as a counselor. Despite that, Sarah said with Jamila, "it just felt right," especially after she had been living with the family for two years.
Jamila said Sarah was the one that brought up the subject of adoption. "She brought it up, but when they talked about adoption it was only a big deal because it was permanent. But I already felt permanent," Jamila said. "It was only the paper that changed it."
Now Jamila has been living with her family for four years and is looking forward to another set of birthdays. This year's combined sweet sixteen will lead Jamila and her mom to New York City. Jamila has never been there, and it is, after all, the place she wants to go to college and law school. Maybe, she said, so she can be another child's guardian ad litem.
For those interested in becoming a parent in the foster care system, go to www.dss.mo.gov/cd/adopt or call 1-800-554-2222.