Roger's Christmas storyby Catherine Winter, Minnesota Public Radio
This is a Christmas story about a boy named Roger. Roger was put into foster care when he was 11 years old, and spent several years bouncing around various homes. He wanted to be adopted, and never gave up hope that he would find a family.
St. Paul, Minn. — Roger has had some tough Christmases. When he was a little boy, his parents "were doing things they shouldn't," as he puts it. Eventually, county workers took Roger and his siblings from their home. Roger went into foster care when he was 11.
Then came a series of Christmases in foster homes and relatives' homes and group homes.
HE REALLY WANTED A FAMILY
Two years ago, when he was 15, Roger was living in Holcomb House, a group home in St. Paul. He spent Christmas Eve lounging around with the other kids, watching videos. They had nothing else to do, and no one else to do it with.
The next day, Christmas Day, an adoption recruiter took Roger home to spend the day with her family. He had nowhere else to go.
An adoption recruiter is someone who looks for an adoptive home for a child. Most foster kids don't have an adoption recruiter. But Roger was part of a pilot program trying to find adoptive homes for teenagers.
He really wanted a family.
"It's just something I would really like," he said. "Somebody or someone to call mom or dad, and be able to go to them when I need help."
And he wanted a permanent home. He was tired of bouncing from place to place.
Roger said he wasn't particular about what kind of people the new family would be --- married or single, gay or straight.
"I'm really open," he said.
TEENAGE ADOPTIONS ARE UNUSUAL
Roger's adoption recruiter, Jen Braun, said it's unusual for a teenager to be so sure about adoption. Most of the teenagers she works with don't know whether they want to be adopted --- and a lot of kids say no, at least initially.
"I think kids think of it as a huge risk, which it is for them," Braun said. "Can you imagine being them? I cannot imagine living through what the kids I work with have lived through, and still having faith in humanity. And still believing that a family might want them."
Most teenagers in foster care never get adopted. When they turn 18, most foster kids "age out" of the system. They're on their own. As a group, kids who age out don't tend to do very well. One study found that by the time they were 19, one in seven young people who'd aged out of foster care had been homeless.
So Jen Braun wanted Roger to have a permanent home. She found a family willing to adopt him. But Roger turned them down.
"It just wasn't a good connection," Roger said. "It wasn't really comfortable. It just didn't seem right."
Jen Braun says she always tells kids it's OK to say no to a family. She wants it to be a good fit. She tells them she'll keep looking.
And Roger held out faith that there would be another family for him.
But by the time he turned 16, he was still in the group home.
Roger was sent to Holcomb House because he was having angry outbursts. That's hard to imagine when you meet him. He's a soft-spoken, thoughtful guy.
Roger loves games and puzzles and the night sky. He knew the names of all the kinds of fish in the aquarium at the group home. He planted a garden on the grounds the summer he was 16 and tended it fondly.
He said he learned about gardening when he was growing up.
"I spent my time at one foster home most of the day during the summer weeding gardens," he said. "I have now come to love it, but then I didn't like it."
That same summer, he worked a garden at Jen Braun's house, too. He was spending a lot of time at her house.
Jen and her partner Joanie had offered to adopt Roger. And Roger had said yes.
"THIS IS MY KID"
"I'd already known Jen for awhile and we were really comfortable," he said. "We could have a conversation about anything, and it kind of seemed like, 'Why not?'"
Jen Braun says she and Joanie wanted to be parents, and there was something about Roger that said to her, "This is my kid."
So Roger started visiting Jen and Joanie at home.
"The first time I saw the house, the first thing I liked was the downstairs bathroom, which is pink," Roger said. "But now I like my bedroom. I painted my room Cheerful Morn and Manhattan Red. Every other wall is Cheerful Morn and Manhattan Red."
He showed the paint chips. He kept them in his room at Holcomb House.
In July of 2006, Jen Braun came by Roger's group home and helped pack up some of his stuff.
Roger's part of his shared dorm room was pretty well cleared out. But there was still a calendar on the wall. The day he was scheduled to leave was marked with bright colors and exclamation points and the words "move home forever!"
Roger was delighted that he would have two dogs, and that the family would travel. They had a trip to South Dakota planned. He wanted to see everything and do everything.
LOOKING FORWARD TO A FAMILY CHRISTMAS
It was only July, but Roger was already looking forward to spending Christmas with Joanie's family again. This time he would be part of the family and not just a visitor.
Roger says when he went there two years ago with Jen, the family gave him a scarf and a Jenga game.
"It was fun," he said. "I really liked it. And afterwards I asked, 'Could I come back next year for Christmas?' and I guess I am going to."
That was 18 months ago. Last Christmas, Roger gave Joanie a mug with a hen on it and the word "Mother." He got games and candy and a planetarium.
The day after Christmas, he played Apples to Apples with his new cousins, Jake and Leah.
Jake said it was as though Roger had always been part of the family.
"It's like he's been here forever," Jake said. "He doesn't seem new anymore."
Sometimes teen adoptions don't work out. But it seems that for Roger, the last year and a half has gone remarkably smoothly.
Since he moved in with Jen and Joanie, he's gone to zoo camp and cooking classes -- and to prom. He's doing well in school. He likes hanging out with his new cousins and aunts and uncles.
Two weeks ago, some of them came over for a Wizard of Oz theme party.
A Christmas tree glittered in one corner of the living room. In the dining room, 17 people crowded around the table. One aunt was dressed as Dorothy. One uncle, for some reason, wore a chicken outfit.
The party was partly in celebration of Dexter the dog's 13th birthday. Dexter wore a nametag that said Toto for the occasion.
Roger was dressed as the tin man. Roger's 4-year-old cousin Henry was the cowardly lion. Asked about Roger, he said,
"Mmmm. He's a pretty good cousin."
And what makes Roger a good cousin?
"He's really tall?" Henry gestured to show how high Roger stands.
Roger is the tallest cousin. And the oldest. He's 17 now.
"SEEMS LIKE HE JUST GOT HOME"
Roger says sometimes he and Jen and Joanie joke that they've always been together.
Joanie and Jen often say they wish that were true. They wish they could have protected Roger from what he went through before they knew him. Joanie says they wish they could have known him then.
"I was massaging his feet one day, and they're these big size -- whatever," Joanie says.
"Eleven," Roger puts in.
"Size 11s," Joanie says. "And it was one of those moments where I was imagining him as a tiny baby with feet that are two inches long, and how I wished I would have been able to squeeze his feet."
But they are glad for the time they have now. Roger starts college in a year, but he doesn't want to move out then, and his parents don't want him to.
"It seems like he just got home," Joanie says.
Roger says this time of year still stirs up memories for him. His biological mother was born on Christmas, and he thinks about her.
But mostly he's excited. He'll visit Jen and Joanie's families again this year.
And on Christmas Eve, Roger and Jen and Joanie will make the meal they made last year -- stuffed pork chops and mashed potatoes and pistachio pudding.
It's a tradition in their family.