Life for Trina and Forest Anders used to be so quiet. Their adult children were grown and gone, their youngest daughter was well behaved and mellow.
Then a friend sized up their love of parenting and their generally steady demeanor, and told them they ought to give foster parenting a try. That was about eight years ago.
"We're not too uptight. We don't take things personally. We're pretty even-keeled," said Trina, taking a breather at her kitchen table — while a little mountain climber started scaling the cabinet behind her. "Not that we don't stress and scream sometimes," she added.
Today the Anders home on Northeast 50th Avenue in Vancouver is a something like a carnival of kids — from preschoolers to older teenagers. Some are wards of the state who are staying here temporarily while their parents earn back the right to keep them; one is on his way to a legal adoption just ahead of legal adulthood; and four are children whom Trina and Forest have already adopted as their own.
They include 12-year-old René, 10-year-old Uriel and 7-year-old Eddie. The Anders family welcomed the three brothers as a group.
"I really like getting sibling groups," Forest Anders said. "The last thing we want is to see these kids split up. Keeping them together is so important.
There is a tremendous need for people to foster and adopt sibling groups."
And there's a tremendous need for those families not to give up when things get tough — as they're guaranteed to do, according to Julie Pettit, a social worker and adoption specialist with the Department of Social and Health Services.
"They are pretty amazing," she said of the Anders family. "They get the issues that kids come to us with, the neglect and abuse. These are not easy kids."
Now imagine adopting a whole bunch of them at once. It's a daunting prospect.
"Anytime we get sibling groups of three or more, it's difficult to find a home that has the capacity and is willing to take all of them," Pettit said. "Right now I've got a pair of two. One is 13 and one is 4 years old. The foster parents only want the four-year-old."
Why? Because parents have an idea that the younger they are, the more "moldable" they are, Pettit said. It's not always the case, she said. A little child can be just as damaged as an older one.
"Regardless of age, it can be very difficult, when you think about what they've been through," she said. Breaking up the sibling group may just compound the trauma, she said. "The siblings may be the only stable relationship they've had in their lives. When they lose that, they are losing so much more than their parents."
There are nearly half a million foster children in the United States and nearly 10,000 in Washington state. The average length of stay in foster care is 17 months. The average age of a foster child waiting to be adopted is eight years old nationally, and some wait many more years than that. In fiscal 2010, approximately 28,000 children "aged out" of the foster system -- that is, attained legal adulthood and were on their own without ever having found a permanent family.
National Adoption Day, the third Saturday (or thereabouts) in November, kicked off in 2000 to encourage legal adoptions and avoid anybody aging out of the system without finding a family. According to the National Adoption Day Coalition, more than 40,000 adoptions have been finalized by the courts on that day over the past 11 years nationwide. In Washington State, 168 children were adopted during 18 Adoption Day events in 2011.
Throughout fiscal 2011, 1,676 children were legally adopted from foster care in Washington State. But a nearly equivalent number remained legally separated from their parents and waiting for adoption. Hundreds really see no prospects for adoption at all.
Toughest to place are children who are considered to have special needs. That can mean attributes as simple as minority status or "advanced age" (teenagers for example), as well as disabilities, physical and mental problems — including the results of neglect and abuse — or even just being in a sibling group that ought to stay together.
A wink and a bond
It took about six months of fostering the trio of brothers before Trina realized she'd been completely won over by René — who was, in a way, her toughest customer. He was the one with major anger and behavior issues -- the one who screamed and pounded the walls. Some foster parents would back away from a child like that, but not Trina.
"About six months in, I knew he was mine," she said. "It probably seems crazy, because he had a lot of struggles, but he was sweet, too. He was the underdog I needed to fight for. I felt like I could break through his shell. It's easy to love a kid like that."
Ditto for Deven, who came aboard later and definitely displayed an armored exterior — except for the occasional friendly little wink. When Deven started sharing those sly winks, Trina realized, some sort of bond had been established. It wasn't much, but it was a beginning. Now, Deven is an adopted member of the family.
"It's OK," is Deven's rave review — but he also stuck up for Mom's excellent cooking and never once left the room during an hourlong Columbian interview with his parents. Most of the rest of the kids were bouncing all over the house.
Another foster child, who's nearly 18 years old, is also on the way to becoming an official Anders. Forest said he gingerly brought up the topic while taking the child to the dentist, and received a cool teenaged assent; when Foster stepped outside to call DSHS, he discovered the teenager had already excitedly texted the social worker before even hitting the dentist's chair.
"You see so many older children who have no one," said Trina. "They just want to be loved. They want someplace to be able to come home to."
'Bring on the village'
It all adds up to some interesting family dynamics.
For example, the expanded Anders family includes what you might call a rainbow of colors. "Why are we Mexican?" is the way young Uriel phrased the question after noticing that his white parents look different than his brown-skinned brothers and himself; years later, when African-American sibling Devon came into the family, the complexion-curious Uriel came back with another puzzle: "Now am I a quarter black?"
Some of the family's humorous patter about skin color probably wouldn't fly in polite society, Trina and Foster said.
And then there's Shelby, the Anders' third biological child, now 12 and surrounded by a family that went from quiet to anything but. (The oldest two Anders children are both in their 20s).
"I have four extra brothers," she said. You can't miss the grudging tone -- but you can't miss the love, either. None of which is any different than it would be in a natural family, Trina pointed out -- the love and loyalty, the stress and screaming.
The big brood sure elicits some funny looks -- especially when they're being herded here and there. Football, basketball, soccer, volleyball, rock climbing and roller skating are just some of the ways the kids stay busy when not attending Gaiser Middle School. Meanwhile, Trina and Foster both work full-time in retail management. Their grown children often help with outings and rides. Plus, the next-door neighbor is a child care provider. The Boys and Girls Club has been a huge help. DSHS gets good grades for parental support; volunteer Court Appointed Special Advocates get great grades for chaperoning foster children as they move though the court system.
Trina said she used to dismiss the idea that raising children requires not just two parents but a proverbial village of support. Not anymore.
"I used to laugh at 'the village,'" Trina said. "Now I say, 'Bring on the village.'"