When Janise’s mother got locked up, so began her own journey through the system. From the age of 2 she moved around, living with relatives and then at the age of 5 was removed from the home. After leaving, she was placed in about five homes. But it was her placement in September 2009 with Denna Zenmon, of the Hill District, that  changed her life for the better. Now, 7 years old, Janise has been legally adopted and now has a permanent family and home that she can call her own.

NEW FAMILY—Janise Zenmon,7, stands with Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge John McVay and her legal mother, Denna Zenmon, at the county’s National Adoption Day Celebration at Children’s Court. (Photo by Margaret Stanley, Allegheny County photographer)

“I wouldn’t say I chose adoption, it chose me. I’ve been a foster parent for 12 years and looked at my home as a good place. When I met Janise two years ago her goal was adoption. I felt she needed a permanent home and to be surrounded by support,” said Zenmon the week before the adoption. “I am excited. This will be new for me because I am not a biological parent. She’s (Janise) been apart of my family unit for two years. I don’t think a lot will change, except legally I’ll be her mother. She views my relatives as her relatives.”

Janise’s story is just one of those being celebrated during the Allegheny County’s Department of Human Services’ National Adoption Day celebration on Nov. 19, where Janise’s and many other adoptions were finalized. November is National Adoption Month.

“It is important for children to have a permanent place they can call home and a permanent set of caregivers who can provide a safe, loving home. Adopted children are no different than any other child,” said Marcia Sturdivant, PhD, Deputy Director of the Allegheny County Department of Human Services Office of Children, Youth and Families. She added that this day not only recognizes those who have opened their homes but the children too.

While Janise’s story has a happy ending, far too many children are still waiting for theirs. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families website, at the end of the fiscal year in 2010, which was Sept. 30, only 53,000 children were adopted and approximately 107,000 are still waiting to be adopted. The statistics exclude children 16 and older and who have a goal of emancipation. Nationally 29 percent are Black, 39 percent White, 22 percent Hispanic and 10 percent other.

“There are 324 children in Allegheny County with the goal of adoption,” said Lindsay Totten, Director of Development and Communication at Three Rivers Adoption Council. “Statistics are disturbingly high for children of color who are looking to be adopted.”

Jacqueline Wilson, CEO of TRAC agreed and said in Pennsylvania 54 percent of children waiting to be adopted are African-American and in Allegheny County the number is approximately 80 percent. “We need more Black families. We know the statistics for those who age out, so we focus on getting a family and some permanence.” TRAC is a local innovative family focused adoption service agency that emphasizes the adoption of older children, African-Americans and children with special needs, whether it’s emotionally, behaviorally or mentally. Wilson said that their clients (parents looking for children) must have a goal of adoption and be willing to open their home to older children; they do not assist in infant adoptions. The average age of children they find homes for are 9 years old.

Although TRAC works with children in the system whose parents have lost their parental rights and who relatives either are not available or do not meet the requirements for safe placement, they, along with the county, do prefer, when its suitable and safe, for the children to be reunited with a parent or biological relatives.

Totten said that while babies of any race are easier to place than older kids, TRAC emphasizes African-American adoptions because of the vast majority of children still waiting for a family.

Wilson said that it typically takes an average of 9 months longer for African-American children to be adopted than their White counterparts, and that’s why there is a greater need for more African-American families to adopt.

Not only does someone need to have a want to be an adoptive parent, they also have to be willing to go through a process that can be tedious and at times complicated.

While TRAC works to find homes for kids up to age 18 and in special cases beyond, sometimes there just is no luck. Children who turn 18 and are still in the system are considered to have aged-out and are likely to face hardships afterwards. According to Totten, children who age out of the system have a 44 percent chance of being homeless within a year; 33 percent will exchange a place in the child welfare for a prison cell; and 52 percent are likely to dropout of high school.

Sturdivant agrees that it’s harder to place African-American children, but said historically and culturally she thinks the African-American community has always cared for people who need a home. But adds that we, as a community, “need to look at why so many Black kids are coming into the system in the first place.”

For more information on adoption, call Three Rivers Adoption Council at 412-471-8722.

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