At 'match events,' looking for a new family

Yanerie says she’s unsure of her future. Her siblings are scattered — three living with her mother, one with her father, two in foster care

Fourteen-year-old Yanerie, a girl of incandescent energy and intelligence, bursts through the gates of the Philadelphia Zoo in search of something more elusive than a rare animal - a family she can call her own.

On her sweatshirt is a sparkly, embroidered princess crown, on her face a hopeful smile.

Two years ago, her parents' inability to care for her thrust her into the child-welfare system. Now Yanerie lives in a group home. She hopes that at the zoo, at a gathering of 26 adoptable children and 29 prospective parents, she may find a match.

Is she nervous?

"Kind of," Yanerie says.

Why is having a family important to her?

"They'll be able to tell me they love me," she says, "and I'll have my own home."

In adoption circles, these get-togethers are called "match events," held at bowling alleys, roller-skating rinks, and churches in Philadelphia and across the country.

It's a benign name for an endeavor fraught with potential heartache for children who already have suffered plenty. And one that offers older kids - those at the zoo are 12 to 19 - what may be a last chance and hope for a stable, loving home.

The hard reality, adoption specialists say, is teenagers are among the toughest to place. In America, married couples dream of having a baby. They don't dream of having a 17-year-old. But once teens age out of the system, they face higher likelihood of homelessness, unemployment, mental-health issues, substance abuse, early pregnancy, and jail.

The zoo event - run by the Philadelphia-based National Adoption Center and SWAN, the Statewide Adoption and Permanency Network - runs on the idea that every child deserves a family.

Match events achieve that, at least for some kids. Adults who might reject a child on paper can feel different after meeting face to face in a friendly setting.

Potential parents come to the zoo searching for a spark, a connection, a sign - which can be difficult to discern in the midst of two dozen children, all in need and all deserving.

"How do you make such a decision?" asks Andy Burgess, who traveled from Uniontown with his wife, Valerie. "What is 'right'?"

When the day ends, almost all the children will draw interest from one or more families. And almost all of those initial expressions will come to nothing.

A year from now, if three or four of the kids have been adopted, that's considered success.

"They do it because it works," said Adam Pertman, president of the National Center on Adoption and Permanency. "You fall in love with people you meet."

Two western lowland gorillas look on from behind the glass walls of their Primate Reserve enclosure, as Kathleen Holt Whyte calls the children together. The head of Success Strategies in Yardley tells them how the day will proceed:

They'll start with a game, where the children wear the name of an animal taped to their backs, and must try to guess its identity based on clues given by the adults and kids.

There will be a scavenger hunt, a hot-dog-and-burger buffet lunch, and a chance to roam the zoo and see the animals. The last matters. Some of the children have never been to a zoo.

They come from towns across Pennsylvania, accompanied by social workers. It's the children's choice to attend. A couple of kids have mild developmental delays. Some have been harmed by people who were supposed to care for them. Others struggle with the constant uncertainty.

"I've been in the system for seven or eight years. It's rough," said Jabriel, 14, whose surname, like those of the other children, is being withheld because of adoption center concerns about the sensitivity of the youths' status and future in the child-welfare system.

As Holt Whyte talks, she reminds the children not to expect to be packing a suitcase tonight. The process takes time.

And, she promises, no one will be called to a microphone to promote themselves - which she later says occurred at a different event, as if it were a talent show.

"Today," Holt Whyte tells the youths, "I work for you."

That means working for 13-year-old Grace, who stands at the rear of the crowd, her back against the glass that confines the gorillas. She and her 14-year-old sister live in East Berlin, a community of 1,500 near York.

Her sister is being adopted by their foster family. Grace is not.

That's OK, she says. "I'm looking for a family. But if I can't find one, I'll just stay there."

Grace, an honors student, says she feels no burden to be the best and brightest child at the zoo. She's counting on her unknown family-to-be to look beyond the surface and sense her worth.

"If they don't like me," she says, "I wouldn't want to be with them."

The kids visiting the zoo live in group-care settings or foster homes. So do many others.

In the United States, about 415,000 children - a population the size of Miami - are in foster care, according to Children's Rights, a New York advocacy group.

Their parents may be afflicted by mental illness, drugs, alcohol, unemployment. Some simply can't cope with raising a child. Some are neglectful or abusive, their children surrendered or removed from the home.

For most, the goal is reunification with their biological parents, although in 2014 more than 60,000 were waiting to be adopted and 22,000 aged out of the system.

The costs to kids who leave the system are painful and obvious. The costs to society are enormous and unseen - at least $8 billion a year in remedial services, public assistance, and lost productivity and taxes, according to a study by the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative in Baltimore.

The National Adoption Center battles poor outcomes by championing available children on TV, radio, and Internet, and in newspapers. They scour the region, and the children's social networks of teachers and counselors, for possible matches.

"Nobody stops needing a family because they're an older teenager," said Gloria Hochman, the center spokeswoman.

Years ago, match events were controversial, criticized as child-shopping, said Pertman, of the permanency center. Today, advocates are more adept at preparing children and adults, ensuring they grasp the process and possible outcomes.

"Is it a first choice to place children in this way? It's not," Pertman said. "You'd like to do it more methodically, more individually. . . . We do it in the way that works."

Most of the couples at the zoo are middle-aged, people who never had children or whose kids are grown. They want to parent, but maybe aren't up to chasing a toddler. Or they're good with teenagers. Or they simply envision an older child when they think of family.

The kids are white, black, and Hispanic. The potential parents are mostly white, but open to having a child of any race.

Brady Alexander and his wife, Glendora, of Philadelphia, have spent years searching for a child. They have a 9-year-old son at home, and have been foster parents, but now are thinking of adopting a girl, for the good it would bring her and them.

Joe and Donna Michon, childless, came to the zoo from Bethlehem. At 65, Joe is 15 years older than his wife, and considering how she'll fare once he's gone. He thinks his wife and an older child could help each other.

"There are kids that are depending on us," says Donna Michon, a business consultant. "What's our life really about in the end? Do we really need another house or party?"

There's a reason it's called Peacock Pavilion.

The birds' screams cut through the huge, tentlike structure where, near the end of the day, Holt Whyte calls the kids into "the sacred circle," the adults seated nearby.

What do you think when you hear the word family? she asks.

"Vacations," says Dom, 18. "People who care about you and love you."

Jabriel speaks: "People who love you even though you make mistakes."

Then Grace: "People who love me no matter what I say or do."

If they could change something in the world, what would it be?

End gun violence, one child says. Get rid of Donald Trump, says another. End disease. End rape, says a girl. End sexual violence, says another.

Yanerie says she wants to be an actress.

She's unsure of her future, she says in an interview, with her siblings scattered - three living with her mom, one with her dad, two in foster care. At the zoo she's tried to meet as many prospective parents as possible.

"I feel like I should be myself," she says. "I don't have to be anybody else to find a family."

jgammage@phillynews.com

215-854-4906 @JeffGammage