With the holiday season quickly approaching, people far and wide have begun to gather energies, recipes and vacation days to unite with family, immediate or extended, or take part in a “Friendsgiving” celebration.
But for Annie and her wife, Gail, the holidays are especially poignant: Surrounded by their four young children brimming with energy, love and chatter, the mothers are reminded how they built their family in the nontraditional way, by fostering to adopt through Five Acres, a child- and family-services agency based in Altadena.
Annie reminisces about how each child came into the family fold. Some were easier to adopt than others, while some of the adoptions were filled with nausea and nerves and sleepless nights ahead of court battles.
“I compare the adoption process to me giving birth — as painful as it could be, as soon as it was over and they were ours I was ready to do it all over again,” said Annie, who requested that her last name be withheld to protect her children. “We’ve been so blessed. My kids are just amazing. People are constantly telling me, ‘Wow, those kids are so lucky,’ and I’m like ‘Are you kidding? I’m the lucky one here.’ Five Acres gave us the alternative way to help in the community and build our own family at the same time.”
Throughout November, Five Acres is highlighting National Adoption Month, a time to raise awareness about the urgent need for adoptive families for children and youth in foster care. With more than 22,000 foster children in Los Angeles County living without a permanent family, the highest rate in the country, the importance of finding new adoptive or foster families is taking on greater urgency.
Established as an orphanage in downtown Los Angeles in 1888, Five Acres serves more than 10,000 children and families annually across six counties to help secure their safety, well-being and permanency. The nonprofit is committed to strengthening children and families and empowering them within their communities, offering a full continuum of care that includes community-based counseling and support services, intensive residential care, a therapeutic school for special-needs students, and foster care and adoption services. It strives for permanency: an enduring, loving family for every child in its care.
Out of all the children Five Acres serves, 81% achieve a permanent home, a rate that is 50% higher than the state of California’s average rate.
Five Acres CEO Chanel Boutakidis has worked hard to improve that rate, with passion and level-headed planning. Together, she and Chief Advancement Officer Jennifer Berger sat down recently to discuss the nonprofit and its mission to place more foster kids in adoptive homes.
“In my time at Five Acres, I’ve seen children come in angry and lost … through no fault of their own, they enter a system that is overwhelmed. These are children that deserve an opportunity. If they can survive abuse and a chaotic system, they are resilient,” Boutakidis said. “Imagine their potential if they have the right supports of a loving and safe family and community.”
She emphasized that only about 1,000 children get adopted each year in the county, and then those families often drop off the list to adopt again.
“Once you have a family that successfully adopts, they fall out of the pipeline. So you constantly have to recruit. That’s a big deal — where do you invest and how do you attract new families? Because we know there’s a slew of children out there that we know we could help if we have more families,” she said.
For Boutakidis and most of the 200 staff members who work at the Altadena campus, the mission to help foster children is fiercely personal. Boutakidis began her first “real” job at Five Acres in 1999 as a therapist for pre-adolescent girls.
“I fell in love with the population … so many of them have this great fight, if they just knew how to channel that in the right way,” she said, adding that over time, she became frustrated with the system because “There’s only so much therapy you can give them. They need so much more than that.”
Turning to the administrative side, Boutakidis left Five Acres for some years, but returned to help start implementing the permanency-focused programs, which she still feels offer the best way to help the children. They remain her priority, even after she’s spent eight years as CEO: Five Acres houses 78 children on its expansive collection of cottages in Altadena, and six teenage boys in another group home nearby.
“In California, and in L.A. County specifically, we are the highest producers of foster children in the nation. We produce as many foster children as the state of New York. It’s just miserable for them. So just serving foster children really isn’t the solution. We need to get them out of the foster care system instead of getting them in there.”
Berger added that Five Acres’ alumni have gone on to become successful professionals and advocates for other foster children. The nonprofit also has a mentoring system for children who reside on campus.
“Sometimes, it can be just that one person out there who supports you and believes in you who can really make that difference. They can come out successful on the other side with the right support,” Berger said.
Five Acres has brought along many community supporters over the years, including local residents Scott and Jillian Shriner, who adopted their second son through the nonprofit.
Speaking in a video created by Five Acres for its 2017 annual Golf Classic Tournament, Jill and Scott — bassist for the rock band Weezer — recalled how they were searching for a little brother for their elder son, whom they previously adopted internationally. They both spoke about the beauty in creating an unconventional family.
“We were very moved by how dire the situation is and how badly they need foster families in Los Angeles,” Jill Shriner explained. “I think there are so many misconceptions and just fear around fostering and I really want to tell our story, because it’s wonderful. And there are just so many kids that need homes, and I know a lot of people that want to have families, and however it happens is great.”
Scott Shriner added: “The first time we met Jovi, it was a bit overwhelming. … I just saw this little guy and he was so grown up and so small at the same time. We just fell in love with him. I just had that instinct that was my son. I feel like our family was out there and it’s not your typical way of making a family, maybe, but you couldn’t make up a better one — we were all so meant to be together. It’s just undeniable.”
Annie also attested to how her love for her children has grown.Five Acres has helped her every step of the way, she noted, from support with her first foster baby all the way through the adoption process and even now, with continued therapies for the children.
“Five Acres is doing everything in their power to make sure these kids can reach permanency, saying we’re going to make sure this kid’s life is better in some way,” Annie said. “And they are in it for the long haul; they’ve been with us every step of the way and they have been our best advocate. They’ve been invaluable to me becoming a better parent and allowing me to love my children in a way that they need. What they’ve done for us to help us navigate this process and help us build our family, I can never repay them.”
To learn more about fostering to adopt, volunteering or donating to Five Acres and its mission to help foster children, visit its website at 5Acres.org.