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From Catwalk to Courthouse 

Adoption show fashions new families

The past week had been a heady rush for Chris and Matt, two teenage brothers in Charlotte. They had made friends and eaten cookies at a neighborhood party attended by dozens of kids. They'd swum nearly round-the-clock some days, roller bladed on others and played chess with a man they hope will become their father.

This was their new life as foster children who have, after years of moving from house-to-house, found what they, their adoptive parents, and social service workers hope will be their permanent home. Sunburnt and hair-tousled, the brothers have moved into a two-story house in a suburban subdivision with a mom and a dad, a neighborhood pool, and -- this is important -- their own bedrooms. "It's great," said Chris, 17. "I don't have to keep waking up every time people are turning the light off and on, coming in the bedroom, slamming the door.

"I feel like I'm home."

Six months ago, Creative Loafing wrote about Mecklenburg County children in foster care who had agreed to take part in a fashion show. They would get new clothes and -- hopefully -- one of the adults in the audience would want to take them home. Was the show damaging? Did it trample on the already fragile self-images of a very vulnerable group of children? Clearly, from the reddened, tear-streaked face of a 13-year-old girl to the wistful words of a 17-year-old boy who was facing the very real likelihood that he may "age out" of the system alone, these kids felt the weight on their shoulders. But others appeared to enjoy themselves. It wasn't as if the children weren't aware they were up for adoption. Wasn't that weight always there?

Amy Ciceron, an adoption recruiter for the Mecklenburg County Department of Social Services (DSS), knows the doubts many have about the show and believes that, on balance, the show is a valuable way to highlight the need for adoptive parents. With about 100 foster children available for adoption through DSS at any time, any way she can get people to see the value of these children is worth it.

"We have always gotten positive feedback," Ciceron said. "Even those who are skeptical about children being in a fashion show to find a family, even they change their minds."

Six months after that sunny Saturday at Briar Creek Road Baptist Church, Creative Loafing wanted to find out what had happened to these children. Were families awaiting them? It seemed unthinkable that they, like many other children, were growing up without the sense of permanency children need and that so many adults have taken for granted.

Of the 29 children who were in the fashion show, four already are living in the homes of their prospective parents, according to DSS. Six more have found potential families.

Chris and Matt -- two of the four already in residence -- clearly were excited about their new circumstances. They had lots of plans for the weeks and years ahead: Getting a dog (maybe later), spending more time at the pool and -- they hope -- getting another brother, 13-year-old John, to come live with them. (A fourth brother has already been adopted elsewhere.)

Their prospective parents, Don and Janeanne, wanted all those things too. A nonprofit manager and a courts administrator, respectively, they have raised two twentysomething sons who live in the area. The married couple said they've worked with children throughout their lives and, now that their children are older, wanted to give a stable home to older foster children who might be overlooked by families favoring babies or young children.

They approached DSS a year ago about becoming foster parents or adopting children. A recruiter told them about some brothers available for adoption, knowing the couple wanted to work with teenagers. Years of working with teens -- including gangs in Boston and in south Orange County, CA -- had shown them the difficulty older children face in getting adopted.

"We feel strongly that in order to change the way that society was, we'd have to be able to pitch in ourselves," said Janeanne.

And too, they simply preferred older children. "I would not be excited to change diapers," said Don, a former aerospace executive. "I like the fact that these guys are old enough to do things with -- I can play chess with them, which I've done with each of them. I can have an adult conversation. I'm not going back to ground zero."

They are not, Don said, adopting to fill a void.

"We certainly have, we think, the physical and -- we hope -- the mental capability right now to handle these guys," Don said, chuckling. "And we're looking forward to making them feel that this is truly their home."

Janeanne and Don knew what they wanted to do right away. But other prospective parents often take longer, Ciceron said. Often, two years pass between the time adults first express interest and the time they make a commitment. So someone who learned about adoption at the fashion show last fall might not make a firm decision for months, even years, down the road. Darrell Cunningham, DSS spokesman, said the department currently doesn't formally track where an adoptive parent first hears about a child. That day, nearly 40 families said they were interested in adopting or fostering children.

A judge probably won't finalize the adoption of Matt and Chris for at least six to eight months, Cunningham said. Brother John will take longer. In the interim, social workers will visit with the brothers and other social workers will visit with Don and Janeanne. If the two boys decided it's a no-go, their word is respected.

The other two children from the fashion show who are living with prospective parents, Cierra and Donald, will go through a similar process. Cierra found her family when she was featured in a "heart gallery" -- a showing of paintings or photos of foster children at a public place, such as a library. As for the 14 who are neither living with potential families nor matched with possible ones, social services will continue to search for homes for them.

Meanwhile, Matt and Chris are adjusting to living together again. Reunited for only a week of shared space after many years of separate foster homes, they have settled into familiar sibling ribbing.

"It drives me crazy sometimes," Chris said about Matt's obsession with the Adam Sandler movie Little Nicky. "He watches it over and over. Why don't you watch something else?"

He continues: "Wait until John gets home -- then I'll be going psycho. You won't see me. I will be outside most of the day. John will drive you crazy. He will follow you wherever you go and bug you, bug you, bug you."

Janeanne laughs at the quick familiarity they have assumed. "Last Friday, it was 'cool.' And now, they're brothers."

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