with Heart Gallery Alabama
Published: December 29, 2014
By: Lori Chandler Pruitt Associate Editor
Foster parents Karen and Timothy Pridgen of Enterprise have opened their home to many children since 2010. All along, though, they watched the Heart Gallery Alabama website for photos and videos of children who were eligible for adoption.
“We were open to adopt a child of any age,” Karen says. “Then some foster teens came to our home to live with us for a while, and we enjoyed it. We already knew that by the time a foster child is 11 to 12 years old, they are taught to stop hoping for adoption.”
They kept coming back to the videos of two sisters, in foster care for at least seven years, who wanted to stay together. After going through the adoption process, in September 2013 they became mom and dad to Kimberly, 16, and Brittany, 15.
“The Heart Gallery is great because you can watch the videos and see photos of the children who are eligible for adoption, and get to know them,” Karen says. “They become real kids. So many people are scared to adopt older children because they think they are more broken. But no, kids are kids and they need rules, a home and a family. We found it was easier to adopt older children because they’ve been through the system, they’ve had counseling and they have worked through the issues that got them here. They are ready for a family.”
About 5,000 children are currently in foster care in Alabama, and about a fourth of them will not be able to return to their biological families, nor be adopted by their foster families. According to Heart Gallery Alabama (HGA), more than 500 children statewide are legally available for adoption, and the organization’s job is to help as many of them find their “forever family” as possible.
Since 2005, the non-profit HGA has photographed close to 900 children, and 70 percent of those children have been placed in permanent, loving families. HGA recruits professional photographers to take meaningful portraits that capture the unique spirit of each child, along with a video interview. These portraits are shown on the website and in gallery exhibits across the state where prospective adoptive parents can learn more about them.
“The kids we feature have to be willing to put themselves out there, and all they want is a safe, loving family,” says Michelle Bearman-Wolnek, executive director. “They’re not looking for palaces; they’re looking for a stable, quiet home and not have to move again. Many of these children are age 8 and up, and as they get older, it is harder for them to be adopted.”
The website is full of fresh-faced, smiling children in photographs, with descriptions and videos that give prospective parents a peek into their personality. “Our goal is that families who are interested in adoption can get all the support they need in the adoption process and they won’t feel rushed,” says Joycelyn Haywood , HGA communications and marketing manager. “The videos and photos help them get a better idea of the best match.”
A family who is interested in adoption first goes through training and home studies. HGA partners with other agencies in the adoption process, Andrews says. All families, foster or adoptive, go through 30 hours of training that prepares them for bringing a child into their home. Home studies also are conducted that are free to families who are interested in adopting a child eight or older. “The home studies make sure the child will have a permanent space in the home, that it’s safe and provides a good environment,” Haywood says. “We also do background and health checks on parents. We’re not looking for perfect people, but we do want to make sure that there is a good situation and that someone will be able to take care of the child.” During the studies, the families also are asked what age child would best fit their needs. After the family has completed all classes and studies, they can then consider the children who are available for adoption.
“There’s a right child out there for the right family,” Haywood says. “And for many families, they realize they are going to make a difference in the life of a child.” After a child is placed in the home, there is a three- to six-month waiting period to ensure that the child and family is a good match.
Children who are not adopted “age out” of the foster care system at the age of 21, and without the support of a family, their outlook is grim. Nearly 3,000 Alabama children age out of the foster care system each year. According to HGA, a fourth will not receive a high school diploma or GED; fewer than 3 percent will earn a college degree, although 70 percent want to attend college; one in four will be incarcerated within the first two years after leaving the system and one in five will become homeless.
As for the Pridgens, who are still foster parents to other children, their daughters are doing well in school, active in church, have friends and enjoy their new home. “Kids are in foster care through no fault of their own,” Karen says. “I just ask that people who want to adopt consider an older child. These kids need a family who will love them and give them a future.”
Bearman-Wolnek agrees. “The need for a home doesn’t go away.”
For more information or to find a Heart Gallery of Alabama exhibit, go to www.HeartGalleryAlabama.com.
Lori Chandler Pruitt is associate editor of Birmingham Parent.