By Ellen Barry
August 22, 2007
Fifteen-year-old Jean strode into the Queens Center mall yesterday ready to make an impression. He had insisted on wearing a navy blue blazer, though it was so oversize it created a three-inch tent on each shoulder. When a camera pointed in his direction, he flashed a profusion of teeth.
He was there, he said, looking for a family. Over the four and a half years he has spent in foster care, he has dreamed that the family might live in Manhattan, where “everywhere you go is a story,” but he could offer no criteria. They would be people who “just treat me like a son,” Jean said. He listed some qualities that might attract a family: He is a good speller, for example.
“I just want to jump into their heart and stay there,” he said.
Jean piled into a van with four other teenagers from group homes yesterday for a day of strange celebrity sponsored by Heart Gallery NYC, a nonprofit group that aims to find homes for foster children who are hard to place because of age or disability. At the mall, in a space between Banana Republic and H & M, all five sat still while beauticians daubed their faces with exfoliating masks and, for the girls, pearlescent eye shadow. Then they posed for Rod Goodman, a photographer who specializes in head shots for actors.
For the next month, their pictures will remain on display at the mall, in the hope that someone will walk by and be moved to adopt them.
“I’ll do what I got to do to get a family,” said Rey, a grave 14-year-old who during 11 years in foster care has been placed in seven homes. By now, it takes him only a few days to tell if the family “just wants the money.” But he isn’t quitting, he said, without a trace of a smile.
“Over time, something eventually will happen,” he said. “I’m going to be there when it happens.”
The Heart Gallery was founded six years ago by New Mexico’s Children, Youth and Families Department, which enlisted 40 portrait photographers to help promote older children whose chances of being adopted were melting away. Agencies in 45 states have now picked up the program, which uses the tools of the marketing business to appeal to potential parents. It is a technique that can compel people, feeding into the “mating dance that goes on between parents and children,” said Al Wasserman, 54, who volunteers with Heart Gallery NYC.
For years, he said, adults interested in adopting would find themselves with glazed eyes poring through the multivolume catalog produced by New York State that displays thousands of children available for adoption. The head shots in the book, he said, “made no effort to bring out the humanity” of the children. “I wouldn’t even say that the people who took them were photographers,” he said.
Heart Gallery strives to offer a vivid alternative, said Laurie Sherman Graff, founder of the organization’s New York City chapter. The photographs are also online at heartgallerynyc.org and will be displayed at the Brooklyn Business Library in Brooklyn Heights and at La Guardia Airport.
“It’s the glamour-of-adoption recruitment,” she said. “If that’s what it takes to get people to notice, who cares?”
Yesterday, after the makeovers were finished, Mr. Goodman arranged a strobe umbrella and reflector and beckoned Starshemia, 16. She was wearing a furry white vest, and her face was all heart-shaped curves. She said she had been separated from her family, then placed in a group home “for a little bit of time, maybe a couple of months.” Asked why she had come to the session, she nearly breathed it: “To find a mom.”
“That would mean everything to me,” she said.
In truth, nothing about the adoption process is impulsive. Adults who walk away interested will have to contact the city’s Administration for Children’s Services, undergo a 10-week training process and submit to a home study, a process that generally takes about a year, Ms. Graff said. And by the time a person contacts the agency, he or she has typically thought about it for two years or so, said Carolyn Rabolt, who does parent recruitment for the agency.
“We’re not trying to force-feed adoption or foster parenting,” she said. “We’re not talking about a soda. We’re talking about a child. There’s something about the pictures that we’re hoping will touch someone.”