'To Be in a Family Who Loves Me'

In a Fairfax County Family Services meeting room, Joe, left, and Deonte, both 13, play chess. Finding homes for older foster children is sometimes difficult.
In a Fairfax County Family Services meeting room, Joe, left, and Deonte, both 13, play chess. Finding homes for older foster children is sometimes difficult. (Photos By James M. Thresher -- The Washington Post)
By Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 18, 2007

They have the dreams -- sometimes modest, sometimes bold -- that any 13- or 14-year-old might have. One wants to be a Marine. Another, an entertainer. For a third, studying oceanography, if the military doesn't beckon first.

There is, along with those thoughts, something basic that these youths yearn for more. It is a persistent ache.

"Just to be in a family who loves me," said Shanice, 14, who is in foster care with the Fairfax County Department of Family Services. "A real family, where I know I'll be able to stay."

In the matter-of-fact language of a young teen, this is no cry for sympathy. Just a simple expression of a dream.

Shanice and two other children in the care of Fairfax are making the request not only through quiet conversation but by participating in a very public display of their private lives. Their portraits, taken by a professional photographer, will be on display this month with photos of other Washington area youths amid the busy confines of the county's Government Center as part of a nationwide effort to find adoptive families for older foster children.

Known as the Heart Gallery, the project is designed to place foster children, ages 11 and older, in the public domain, with the hope of raising awareness among communities about their children's circumstances.

Often the lives of young people in foster care are shrouded in secrecy to protect their privacy. And older children can be more difficult to place. Many prospective parents are reluctant to take on the budding complexities of adolescence -- particularly if children have come from broken homes. The Heart Gallery initiative takes an upfront approach, giving young people a way to tell their stories through pictures and words. Next to each intimate close-up is a short biography with each child's interests, hobbies and goals.

"The trend now is to put the kids' lives in the community, engage them with the public and let them have a hand in recruiting the people who may want to adopt them," said Marilyn Durbin, an adoption supervisor for the county's family services department, which helped coordinate the exhibition. "It helps them to get involved in their own process and stops them from potentially sitting back and saying 'Nobody wants me.' "

So, on a recent afternoon, two of the youths who will be featured in the gallery -- which opens Jan. 29 -- talked about how revealing their experiences to the world is part of their effort to take control of their lives. They were joined by three other youths in foster care, who, while not participating in the gallery, have opened up their lives in other ways, including by appearing in short spots on a local television station to inform the community about their efforts to find permanent homes.

"I probably wouldn't have done this two years ago," said Devante, who wants a career in entertainment. A thoughtful 14-year-old with a broad and easy smile, he added: "I feel more comfortable now, about talking to people about who I am. But it also feels good to know that someone is interested in me, in us, and what we've gone through."

Shanice, the budding oceanographer, in her soft spoken manner, agreed. She spoke of how, after dealing with a series of tough situations, she realized that it was time for her to step out and see if she could play a role in her own future.

"After some of the things that happened, I said, 'It's time for me to take responsibility,' " she said.

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