Latricia is a 17-year-old who has been in the foster care system since she was 14. She does well in school and may want to become a nurse because she likes science. Cosmetology is a passion, and she experiments on a mannequin she bought on Amazon.
At first, Latricia said she was not sure if she wanted to be adopted, but by the time she was a sophomore, she decided she wanted to be a part of a permanent family.
“It is about the simple things,” she said. “It would be nice to come back (from college) and have people to spend time with and be together during the holidays. I don’t care if it is one parent or two. I don’t really have a picture of what my family will look like, but when I meet them, I will know.”
Latricia is one of the more than 13,000 children in the Texas foster care system waiting to be adopted and also one of the 1,300 who will turn 18 and be released from their foster home this year.
It is children like Latricia who inspired two local women to found The Way Home Adoption, an organization that focuses on youth age 11-17 who are at risk of being emancipated with no stable home environment. Started in 2013, it is the only agency in Texas focusing exclusively on that age group.
For Garden Oaks resident Ashley Fields, The Way Home Adoption is her full-time job. Oak Forest resident Kendall Monroe is the organization’s part-time development director.
There are also two part-time social workers, and a part time controller.
“Kendall and I met working at a social services agency 13 years ago,” Fields said. “My first job out of college was for Child Protective Services.”
Later, Fields supervised group homes for kids in foster care.
Fields and Monroe knew older children in foster care are the hardest group to place into permanent homes. They also are aware that when leaving foster care at age 18, these teens are more likely to be reading on a seventh-grade level, to become homeless or to become victims of human trafficking, and have a higher likelihood to end up in the criminal justice system, among other grim statistics.
“These issues are not new,” Fields said. “We thought about what we could do to help.”
The answer? Adoption.
“We found that in the research over and over,” Fields said.
The agency works with youth that are referred based on specific criteria. The referrals come from Child Protective Services (CPS), Harris County judges, emergency shelters, Child Advocates (CASA) programs, and child placement agencies (CPAs). All the children come from Houston and the 12 surrounding counties.
The first step Fields and Monroe describe as their “cold case unit.” They look through a child’s biographical information to find a family member or an individual in the community with whom the child is already connected.
“Thirty percent of the time they achieve permanency with someone they already knew,” Fields said.
Such was the case with 17-year-old Dai-Ren — in foster care since he was in early elementary school — who a few years back suggested his band instructor at Kashmere High School, Ellis Williams.
“He was new to the school and really enjoyed my class,” Williams said. “I was already the go-to person for a lot of my students. I thought I was ready. How can you say no to the opportunity to change the life of a child?”
For those children who cannot be matched through an existing contact, Monroe said they have a physical board as well as an online one of hearts who need homes. These feature photos and testimonials from the kids in their own words. The children also speak at churches and community gatherings to explain why adoption is important to them.
“If they are not comfortable speaking in person, we will make a video of them,” Monroe said.
Then, interested adults are encouraged to volunteer at monthly enrichment events where kids learn golf or cooking, or some other activity they might not be exposed to otherwise. Williams participated in some of these with Dai-Ren so they could get to know one another outside of school.
“It is not an adoption fair,” said Fields, who added that during the COVID-19 pandemic the events are happening virtually. “It is a neutral context for getting to know each other.”
Added Monroe: “There might be that moment where someone says, ‘This is me. I could do this.’ I love what we do. It’s so different.”
Williams, who will be a single parent, is close to the end of the adoption road with Dai-Ren and they have been living together for some time. Williams said his son is full of energy and very creative. Right now, the focus is on graduation and then they will figure out college together.
“He has come a long way,” Williams said. “He would shut down but now he expresses himself. I see the growth in him.”
Monroe said their referrals are up 300 percent and as a nonprofit, they are dependent on the generosity of donors to continue their work. Currently they are serving about 50 kids and their success rate is 55 percent compared to the national average of 22 percent.
“(This agency) is a beacon of opportunity,” Monroe said. “Working here is more fulfilling than draining. Our only barrier (to serving more children) is income.”
Added Fields: “People ask, ‘Is it really too late (to adopt)?’ But you can make a lot of difference. With kids, trauma can be healed. Science has proved it, but we also know it anecdotally.”
Fourteen-year-old Tr’Aron wants a family to take a chance on him. He makes good grades and likes to draw and play with Legos. There is not a sport he does not like. Tr’Aron has been in foster care since he was 5.
“I want a very nice family who wants to help,” he said. “I see them as fun and caring and someone to go camping with. I already know how to put up a tent. I would like to go to Disneyland, too.”
For more information, visit https://www.thewayhomeadoption.org/.