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Foster Homes to Fashion Shows 

Too many children in Mecklenburg County have no permanent family.

So adoption recruiters have taken to putting kids on the catwalk.

click to enlarge Foster children up for adoption take one more walk in front of the people who could become their parents - CATALINA KULCZAR
  • Catalina Kulczar
  • Foster children up for adoption take one more walk in front of the people who could become their parents

The man in the pew behind me at the Briar Creek Baptist Church is clapping so loudly my ears hurt. But we aren't here to witness an especially rousing sermon. We're partway through a fashion show featuring foster kids up for adoption. Aaron, a ninth-grader at Independence High School, is hamming it up. Wearing a gray, flannel Old Navy sweatshirt, he does a cartwheel up the aisle of the east Charlotte sanctuary.

"Lots of energy," says Amy Ciceron, an adoption recruiter for the Mecklenburg County Department of Social Services. She's narrating the event from a podium at the side of the stage, encouraging the kids as they stand before an audience ready to impress.

Upon reaching the altar, Aaron's up on his heels and sparring in the air like a latter-day Muhammad Ali. "Put that in a bottle and sell it," Ciceron says.

Outside, it's a beautiful, cloudless autumn day, perfect for playing catch with Dad or having a family picnic. But these kids are anxiously awaiting their turn to perform, and hoping to meet their future parents. The audience -- racially mixed, with the majority being black and female -- watches as the children, ages 4 to 17, step through a pair of double doors at the right side of the sanctuary. Ciceron estimates that slightly more than half of the attendees are already foster parents; others are folks interested in adopting. All are urged to wear plastic leis with tags bearing the day's theme: "It's Hot to Adopt!"

The kids, with dozens of eyes following their every step, walk down the aisle, across the front of the altar and then back toward the entrance as Ciceron calls out a blur of information about them. Five-year-old William is shy and likes SpongeBob SquarePants. Fifteen-year-old Cierra, a tenth grader at West Mecklenburg High School, hopes to be a chef or maybe an investigator. Four-year-old Justin wants to learn to ride dirt bikes.

click to enlarge Some children have an adult walk with them for support - CATALINA KULCZAR

About 1,000 children in Mecklenburg County are in foster care at any time; statewide, more than 10,000 kids are in the same boat. A third of them up for adoption, but the supply of parents doesn't meet the demand. Last year, only 1,371 foster children were adopted in North Carolina. The problem prompted Mecklenburg County to try an adoption show seven years ago, and it's become an annual event. Similar shows across the country have drawn criticism from some child advocates, even as other social-service workers say the shows are a necessary marketing method.

For many of the 33 children participating in today's event, it's their first -- and hopefully only -- fashion show strut. The younger children grin at the applause and at Ciceron's empathetic words. One 4-year-old in a suit eats up the adulation as he makes his way forth. But several of the older kids are careful not to make eye contact, either staring down at their feet or determinedly straight ahead in the vicinity of a banner reading, "Children of the World, God Loves You!"

Michelle, a 13-year-old with a red nose, appears on the verge of tearing up as we're told she likes shopping and babysitting. It's impossible, at least to this outsider, to tell how much of the emotion is normal adolescent discomfort and how much might be the nerve-racking fear of a kid wondering if she'll ever have a mom and dad.

Foster children awaiting adoption live in limbo. They lack the sense of permanence other children take for granted. Seventeen-year-old Darius, whom we're told wants to be a model, later tells me what it's like for a high schooler not to have "real" parents.

"Sometimes it's embarrassing," he says. "You're not regular. You're different."

The number of children in need of parents isn't likely drop sharply anytime soon. "It's harsh to say, but there will always be families who need support and aren't able to parent adequately," says Beverley Smith, director of NC Kids Adoption and Foster Care Network, a state agency that places children with temporary and permanent parents.

Fashion shows aren't the only marketing tool the county Department of Social Services uses to find homes for kids. Just like all North Carolina foster children available for adoption, the local kids have online profiles at the NC Kids Web site (www.adoptuskids.org/states/nc). The county also holds rallies, photography exhibits and public adoption court proceedings. The photo exhibit has rotated among several public library branches.

The idea is to get the children's faces out there, Ciceron says. "When people see the children, it demystifies the [image] of what foster children might be like: 'Wow, they're on the honor roll.' Or, 'Wow, they're just like my children,'" Ciceron says.

click to enlarge Four-year-old Justin leads the way - CATALINA KULCZAR
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