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Instead she found that for the first time in her peripatetic life, she felt at home. Karla and Dale "didn't seem fake," she says. "Usually when I'd act up, my [other] foster parents would just send me away, but they didn't. They stuck in there with me." Even when Vonda's date wrecked Karla's brand-new Durango on prom night, Vonda remembers fondly that Karla was worried more about whether Vonda was hurt than about the car. In fact, for the first several months, things went so well that one evening Vonda sat Karla and Dale down in the living room and asked whether they would adopt her even though she was about to turn 18. "I wanted a place to always come home to," she says. "In a foster home, once you're 18, you're out." Recalls Dale, a sculptor: "She said she wanted a family that would always be there for her and for somebody to walk her down the aisle when she got married. Her approach was very sincere."
Vonda's adoption was finalized three weeks before her 18th birthday, but she's still waiting for her happy ending. At 13 she received a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. She never stayed on the prescribed medications but did get hooked on the painkiller Oxycontin. ("I forget my problems. I forget everything," she says of her addiction.) When Karla, now 47, and Dale, 53, tried to intervene, Vonda resisted. Karla, a therapist, says Vonda once agreed to enroll in a rehab program and then checked herself out just three hours after she arrived. She was arrested in 2002 for breaking into a house to steal money for drugs and has been in and out of jail since then on charges including theft, identity theft and intoxication in a public place.
A 2005 study by Casey Family Programs, a foster-care foundation, and Harvard Medical School found that 54% of young adults formerly in foster care as adolescents (including those who later got adopted, aged out or were reunited with their birth family) have mental-health problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. "A big part of our counseling is telling parents how to ride this roller coaster," says Kathy Boyd, supervisor of post-adoption services in Chester County, Pa. No matter how rocky things get, Boyd advises parents never to cut off communication. "Even if the child is rejecting you 100%, call, write, keep that door open so a big chasm doesn't occur and that kid is never willing to open that door again." But she also tells parents to "take care of themselves and to accept that they cannot do everything. We're careful not to lay more guilt on the parents." Karla and Dale say their home is open to Vonda as long as she stays clean. But they have also come to accept that their daughter will make the ultimate choice about how to lead her life. "All we can do is be there for her and be supportive when she's going down the right direction and try to redirect her when she's going the wrong way," says Dale. That kind of commitment is what being a parent--to any child--is all about.
ABC News takes on foster care this week with its series A Call to Action: Saving Our Children, airing on Primetime Thursday June 1 and on other ABC News shows through June 3