Foster Care: Extreme Edition

An innovative program in St. Louis is making big strides in matching hard-to-place kids with adoptive families, on a fast track

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Daniel Shea for TIME

Claire, right, with her adoptive mother Stephanie on their front stoop

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Regularly, Lopez and Suderwalla, who work together often, must apologize to family members who feel they have been failed by the foster-care system and quite possibly believe that the child ended up in foster care against their will. In one instance, a great-aunt berated Lopez and Suderwalla for three hours before she was willing to divulge any family information. "She had to grieve," Suderwalla says.

Despite the challenges, Suderwalla and Lopez both say they love their jobs. A former juvenile detective, Lopez was accustomed to encountering kids, often the same ones over and over, when they were in trouble and being unable to truly address the underlying problems in their lives. Now, he says, he can make a difference.

It was by knocking on doors that Lopez found Stephanie, 31, whose ex-husband is Claire's cousin. When Claire's file came to the coalition, it contained the names of six relatives. Claire's Extreme Recruitment team managed to find over 80 more, one of whom was Stephanie. (Claire is still a ward of the state, and Claire and Stephanie are not their real names, though they are pseudonyms the two picked for themselves.)

A police officer who was recently promoted to detective and a divorced mother of three, Stephanie hadn't seen Claire for close to a decade but remembered her well. "She used to come around, and she was the cutest little girl," Stephanie says. "She always had these long beautiful ponytails."

When Lopez appeared out of the blue and told Stephanie the coalition was gathering information about Claire's family, Stephanie immediately wanted to know more. After a series of conversations with a coalition social worker and extensive prayer — "I'm a woman of the faith," Stephanie says — she decided she wanted to become Claire's adoptive mother. "She's family," Stephanie says. "And I feel like I have the resources. Why not?"

In early August, shortly after her 15th birthday, Claire moved into Stephanie's rental town house, sharing a room with Stephanie's 8-year-old daughter. The plan is that after the required six-month period, Stephanie will legally adopt Claire. Though Claire is related by blood to Stephanie's children, Claire and Stephanie are not biologically related. But they both say this makes no difference. Stephanie maintains a friendly relationship with her ex-husband and several of her former in-laws and is eager for Claire to see them frequently. And one of these days, Claire will get to meet Stephanie's brother, who works in New York City as a lawyer — the profession Claire hopes to pursue.

Although they reconnected less than a year ago, it's hard to pinpoint the differences between Stephanie and Claire and other mother-daughter duos. Stephanie brags about Claire's 3.875 grade-point average, chides her for something she posted on Facebook (which neither of them, despite much pleading, would divulge to a reporter) and shares Claire's fondness for reading the Bible. Claire was quiet as a little girl, Stephanie recalls, but "she's very outspoken now. I love that, though, 'cause she's just like me."

Not all Extreme Recruitment cases unfold as smoothly as Claire's: 50% of the planned first matches don't pan out, leading the team to look for a second, third or fourth match. "It's not magic," Scheetz says. "You've got to keep trying." In some cases, the team simply can't find any appropriate family members willing to consider adoption, though a nonfamily adoption isn't deemed a failure. Ideally, the child still develops relationships with family members without living with them and receives the family's blessing for a nonkinship adoption, thereby surmounting the uneasiness about disloyalty that can cause teens in particular to claim they don't want to be adopted.

Even in Claire's case, there are many unknowns. But the evidence so far suggests that Stephanie is exactly the sort of family gem whose existence Extreme Recruitment is built on and who gives credence to Scheetz's belief that many more such gems are out there waiting to be discovered by those willing to search. The program is being watched closely — and in some cases copied — by family-service professionals across the country. Using investigators is "a stroke of genius," says Rana O'Connor, who works for the Maine division of Casey Family Services, which serves 4,000 children in seven states annually. "Detectives have access to information or skills that social workers don't necessarily have." O'Connor plans to hire three full-time private investigators this year and mirror the intense focus and compressed timetable that Extreme Recruitment has developed. All of which means that this big program from a small agency could not only change the way foster care works in America but could also do so very quickly — and if it does, well, won't that be fitting?

Sittenfeld is the author of the novels Prep and American Wife (Random House)

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