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By tracking down distant relatives, 'extreme team' places teens in forever homes

The Kansas City Star

Tom Prudden jotted the name in his notebook almost as an afterthought. "Uncle Tony." The odds weren't good, but maybe. Maybe this was the relative who would step up and take Charlie, almost 16 and so lost and vulnerable, into his home, ending years in foster care. Though the goal in Charlie's case always was adoption, his chances were slipping away. Many kids who linger in the foster system into their teens "age out" without ever being adopted. When they turn 18, they find themselves on their own without family or much support. If they have developmental delays and disabilities, they can land in group homes.

Charlie would come with acronyms and diagnoses: ADHD. PTSD from early child abuse. Autism. Mental disabilities. A foster care teen for at least four years, he hadn't even learned to throw a ball.

Sorting through his extended family to find a loving relative to save him would no doubt be tough.

Prudden turned to his computer keyboard and typed the name: Tony Barnes.

"I didn't know if I'd ever find his Uncle Tony," Prudden said. And if he did, would Barnes be willing to care for Charlie?

This case would be one of Prudden's first at the Midwest Foster Care and Adoption Association. For 25 years he had worked for the Kansas City Police Department, investigating everything from vice and property crimes to asset forfeitures and robberies. Ready to retire, he one day saw an ad online.

Investigator needed for Extreme Recruitment.

He looked into it and found a program inspired by a reality TV show. Extreme Recruitment dedicates massive resources in a short period of time, 12 to 20 weeks, to find forever homes for longtime foster kids often 12 or older or large sibling groups who remain in the system.

These are children who have been abused and neglected and who have bounced from foster home to foster home. Often they're damaged from time away from family or years in a residential facility.

The staffers at Midwest Foster Care and Adoption, Prudden discovered, were passionate about these children and finding them a permanent home as quickly as possible.

"It's insane that kids are in care that long," said Liz Ross, youth programs supervisor with the association in Independence. "Children are removed from their homes and we promise them we'll get them a better family and we've failed."

No one wanted any more failures for Charlie.

Prudden started by going to Charlie's grandmother and biological mom, whose parental rights were terminated years ago. Even though another investigator had already spoken with them, Prudden hoped to get more.

"I'm a people finder," he explained to the two. "We're going to expand your family tree."

He asked for names of siblings, uncles and cousins. He wrote down some that hadn't come up before, including Uncle Tony's. Maybe someone on the list would be willing to adopt Charlie, he told them.

"Do whatever you have to do," Charlie's mom told Prudden, "because when he turns 18 he'll come back to us. He'll find us."

So many foster children referred for Extreme Recruitment share a story similar to Charlie's.

They have been in foster care more than two years some as many as seven or eight with no potential adoptive parents in the picture. The biological mom or dad's parental rights have been terminated. Going to live with some family members wouldn't be safe.

But these children still hope for that forever home.

Their own room. Family dinners. A mom or dad to always have in their life. When they get to college, a home base for breaks and holidays.

They recently worked with a 16-year-old girl whose father was in prison. They asked: Whom did his daughter connect with? Who was important to her?

"Nikki really liked her," the dad said of an ex-girlfriend.

They went to the ex-girlfriend. Though she wasn't able to offer the girl a home, she said her sister and her husband might.

The teen connected with that couple. The adoption soon will be finalized.

In its first two years in Kansas City, Extreme Recruitment has served 74 kids. There is currently a waiting list as Prudden and the two recruiters have full loads. Money for the program comes from grants and the state.

The team has found permanent homes for 59 of the children. Adoptions have been finalized for 14, with two more scheduled this spring.

That doesn't mean the Extreme team always finds a home for kids referred from the Children's Division of the Missouri Department of Social Services. Sometimes it might only be a family connection, someone who calls a child on his or her birthday or brings a present or is there to lean on when times are tough.

Take one teenage girl. She is in the hospital and permanency isn't an option right now. Doctors say she is suicidal and if she is released, she could take her own life.

Before the Extreme Recruitment team got involved, she was alone. She had been adopted years ago, but her adoptive mother died in a car crash. The girl had no one else.

Now, after the team researched her family tree and interviewed relatives, the girl has two family members and a close friend who talk to her and support her while she is in the hospital. She is no longer alone.

The team tells family members up front of all the struggles and challenges a child has.

"I'm not trying to sell these kids to anybody," Ross said. "I'm honest with them. I say, 'When he lights your closet on fire, this is what you can do.' We want to tell them everything. We say, 'When this happens in your house, we'll help you handle it.' We don't say, "If this happens.'"

That's one piece of child welfare that has changed, said Joe Beck of the Midwest Foster Care and Adoption Association.

"The thought was nobody is going to take these kids 16 and older unless you shine them up."

Prudden's online search yielded two hits on Barnes' name. One looked likely. But there was no phone number, just an address.

He knocked on the door at 1:30 on a fall afternoon in 2012.

Barnes had been taking a nap. He was still a little groggy, listening to the words. But little was sinking in. Not yet.

I'm Tom Prudden with Midwest Foster Care and Adoption Association. ... His name is Charlie. ... He's a relative on your father's side. ... We're hoping to find him a home.

"How'd you find me?" said Barnes, a blunt, cut-to-the chase kind of guy. In his early 40s, Barnes had worked his way up to corporate management in the restaurant industry and planned to retire in a couple of years. Then he would think about starting a family. Barnes figured he wanted four children.

Standing and talking with Barnes, Prudden could tell this was a private man. A little uneasy about a stranger showing up at his house talking about his family. For a while they just stood at the door.

Some relatives approached through Extreme Recruitment can be skeptical, at least at first. Sometimes they won't even answer the door or stay on the phone long enough to hear all the details. All they know is they don't want to get involved with "that side of the family."

Other times it gets emotional.

"People see the picture and they're crying," Ross said. "They're so excited that someone contacted them about this child and they've been waiting so long and didn't know who to contact."

Often, potential adopters of children in state care live in humble surroundings. They struggle to pay bills and feed their immediate family, much less take on care and support of a child who inevitably comes with challenges.

Barnes was different in that regard. He was a business professional, nice house, no kids. But was the timing right? Would he take this on?

Prudden told him more about Charlie, showed him a picture. Told of how the teen had been in foster care for many years and had developmental delays and disabilities.

And Charlie didn't have a forever home.

That hit Barnes.

How could a member of my family not have a home, blood relatives to support him?

He thought back to his own parents, who had long since passed away. When Barnes was little, his mother, grandmother and two aunts would help Charlie's grandmother clean the house and do other chores. Years ago, they would make sure her light bill was paid and bring food when the family needed it.

Barnes recalled visiting with Charlie's grandmother and mother but had seen the teen only once, as a newborn. Barnes had no idea the boy had been in foster care.

And now the teen faced an uncertain future, possibly life in a group home.

Taking in all the information about Extreme Recruitment and his distant cousin, Barnes told Prudden he'd be in touch.

The guy's not sold, Prudden thought as he climbed in his car and headed back to the office. He might not want to get involved.

Maybe he'd call. Maybe he wouldn't.

Maybe there was still someone out there to provide Charlie with that loving home, Prudden thought.

"I knew I wasn't going to stop."

As recruiters start working an Extreme case, interviews with children are critical. Their words help guide the team.

"We ask them, 'What adults are important to you?'" Ross said. "'Who has made you feel special? If you are sad, who would you go to? If you're happy, who would you want to tell?' "

The children may name a sixth-grade teacher or a great-grandma. One child said a former neighbor but couldn't recall the neighbor's name. All he could remember was a few details about a house near 39th Street.

"Tom and I drove around basically looking for a blue house and white door," Ross said.

For three brothers 11 to 15, the questions brought up memories from their past and their desire to have a better life.

What kind of home environment do you want to live in?

They had been in foster care for about four years. They were taken from their mother after her boyfriend severely beat the oldest, Carlos. He had begun to worry about his future and what it meant to be 15 and not have a real family.

"You didn't know that when you'd wake up in the morning if they'd be sending you somewhere else," Carlos said. "I was scared. I didn't have a connection with any family. ... If I went to college, there'd be no one to help support me."

Added Eladio, the middle brother: "We didn't know what family was. We had never ever had one. All we had was each other. Us three. That's it."

Living with different foster parents, in different placements eight for two of them, a ninth for the middle brother wasn't easy. They could never relax, be themselves.

And then the Extreme Recruitment team was ready to open their family tree, see if someone would be willing to give them that home all three wanted.

Who makes you feel safe?

Eladio thought of the couple first. He remembered get-togethers at their house. Laughing. That last Christmas before foster care, the aunt and uncle gave them small gifts and when they saw the uncle's Air Jordan shoes, he laughed and said: "You can have a pair of those next Christmas."

The middle brother knew who made them feel safe.

Jesus and Sara.

Carlos and younger brother Kaleb agreed.

Initially, the couple got a letter in the mail about Extreme Recruitment. Then came a phone call.

"I felt so bad. We were under the impression their mother was doing the most she could to get them back," said Sara Acuna. "We thought they were with an aunt on the mother's side."

Then the recruiter told her the boys had said they felt safe with her and her husband and wanted to live with them.

"She started to cry," Jesus Acuna said, "and handed the phone to me."

Kaleb, who will soon be 13, remembers when he and his brothers learned they would have a family: "I actually was jumping around."

On their first overnight with their aunt and uncle, they brought half their belongings. They were ready to be home.

And Eladio had a question, one that related to a time five years before. He turned to his uncle, now his dad.

"Do we still get our Jordans?"

The idea for this type of adoption recruitment came on a Sunday night in 2008 in a living room across the state.

Melanie Scheetz, executive director of the Foster and Adoptive Care Coalition in St. Louis, has told the story many times. Yet she's still struck by the inspiration behind an adoption method that finds homes for hard-to-place foster kids in Missouri's two largest cities, a town in Canada and the state of Virginia.

"I was waiting for 'Desperate Housewives' to come on," Scheetz said. And there on the TV was another ABC hit at the time, "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition."

She watched the designers, volunteers and construction workers pitch in and complete several jobs at once. They all worked toward the same goal: completing a home makeover in a week.

"What if we could do this?" Scheetz thought. "They are getting this thing that takes a long time done really fast. What if we could do it all at one time?"

In child welfare, finding an adoptive home for a child lingering in care is often linear, one process at a time. Because of that, recruiting families and finding a fit for a teenager or a child with mental disabilities or behavior problems can take two or more years.

"That's entirely too long," Scheetz said.

Soon after that Sunday night epiphany, she said, Extreme Recruitment started to take shape in the St. Louis area. Her agency hired a private investigator.

Workers in St. Louis admit they encountered some skepticism during the early days. Was it worth the time, energy and money? Scheetz estimates it can cost $5,000 per child.

"There's always been fear when you open up what's considered a can of worms a child's family tree," said Gayle Flavin, a former Extreme Recruiter in St. Louis who now trains other agencies. "We have slowly won people over."

Still, finding the right family member isn't always easy, said investigator Carlos Lopez in St. Louis.

"The shocking part is how many family members don't want to get involved," he said. "They are quite frank with you. ... But you always know when you meet that one relative who will step forward to help out."

Charlie finishes the last of his fried potatoes and green beans and fidgets in his chair. He's got something to say and can't wait to share it.

"Can I take you on a tour?" he asks a visitor. "You want to see my room?"

Already in his pajamas and a thick bathrobe, Charlie has been home sick all day. Now he's feeling better and excited to have company.

And he's proud. Proud to live in a home with a framed picture of Barnes and his inspiration, Barbara Mandrell, a big couch for movie nights, a backyard pool and his own bedroom. Uncle Tony painted those walls and hung posters and, with partner James Grimsley, stocked shelves and boxes with toys.

Barnes gently tells Charlie he needs to finish dinner before there's any tour.

Every night at 6, the family sits down in the dining room for a full meal. With the three are another teenage boy and a 3-year-old girl, foster children unrelated to Barnes' family.

A few days after Prudden came to the home in the fall of 2012, Barnes called the investigator and said he wanted to meet Charlie.

That came after prayer and thought and long discussions with Grimsley.

"It was very overwhelming," Grimsley, a network analyst, says now. "We didn't know how to do the medications, the IEP (Individualized Education Plan) at school. It's all complex. We wanted to do our research. ... We didn't want to fail him."

In the end, one thing prevailed for the two.

"He was family," Barnes says. "This little guy never had a chance. I thought, the right thing to do is I take care of him, help him, because he is a part of my family."

The adoption became final last May.

"All you have to do is one thing: Not think about yourself," Barnes says. "As long as I make my mom proud in heaven and these kids are happy, that's all I want."

Charlie, now 17, leans in and looks at his Uncle Tony: "You love your mom so much."

Upstairs, in Charlie's room, the bed is made. Two finished superhero puzzles lie on a table with another under construction. Dinosaurs line a shelf. Framed certificates of Charlie's accomplishments fill one wall.

When Charlie came to live here, he didn't know how to tie his shoes. Now he does. Before, he didn't play outside much. Now he likes to help with yard work and has learned to throw a ball. He's in Special Olympics.

"It's about giving him the tools," Barnes said, "and making him think he can do anything in the world."

Before, his grades were below average. Now there are three A's and four B-pluses. Every night he brings home a stack of worksheets, and Barnes and Grimsley go over what Charlie has missed, sometimes for hours.

Charlie is happy here.

"I like pizza night because it's a-mazing," Charlie says, raising his hands above his head in the shape of a wide

V. He smiles wide.

Four different times he says he feels safe. "I wasn't safe before," he says.

"Tony tried to save my life. ... I love him with all my heart."

All it took was for someone to find Barnes.

"One of the things Tony said is he always saw himself as a parent; it was just a matter of when and what it would look like," said Amanda Johnson of Extreme Recruitment. "I think when Tom knocked on his door, that's when he had the realization that it's time, time for me to be a parent."

If no one had looked for him, he never would have been found. And Charlie might never have had a permanent family.

"I am Tony's son," Charlie says and turns to Barnes. "Right?"

Barnes smiles back. "Yes. Yes, you are."

(c)2014 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)

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