KANSAS CITY, Mo. —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.
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.