MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WBTW) — Once she entered the foster care system at 15, Alexis Ragan assumed she was too old to get adopted.

“I thought I was going to age out, because it is shown that nobody really wants a teenager,” Ragan said. 

Ragan, now 18, was adopted on July 1 at the age of 17. Her adoption, which was expected to be finalized in April, was, like many this year, pushed back months due to the COVID-19 pandemic delaying court dates, a trend expected to extend into 2021.

Families delayed

The pandemic had delayed many adoptions this year, with significantly fewer being finalized in 2020 compared to 2019. There have been 355 adoptions finalized this year, as of the beginning of November, compared to a historical high of 576 last year and 462 adoptions in 2018, according to data from the South Carolina Department of Social Services.

There have been 19 adoptions this year in Horry County, seven in Darlington County, two in Florence County and one in Dillon County. There have been no adoptions this year in Marion or Marlboro counties. 

In 2019, there were 32 adoptions in Horry County, 25 in Darlington County, six in Florence County, four in Marion County, three in Dillon County. There were no adoptions in Marlboro County.

About 83.1% of the adoptions finalized this year took more than 24 months to be completed and about 5.26% of them took between six and eight months.

Court dates to finalize adoptions were put on hold in March, as the pandemic prioritized emergency hearings  — such as those required to take place within 72 hours of a child being removed from an unsafe home — before switching to online hearings for non-emergency matters. Adoption finalization hearings were on the tail end of the transition, according to Dawn Barton, the director of permanency management for the South Carolina Department of Social Services.

“I imagine that we will have some of those that will be delayed into next year,” Barton said. 

November usually sees a surge of adoptions because courts will set aside a judge to only do adoptions one day as part of National Adoption Month. That’s been canceled this year due to the pandemic.

Giving kids a chance

While the pandemic has led to delays in finalizations, the state has set its focus on finding permanent families for teenagers and sibling groups.

Of the children adopted this year, 73.68% were under the age of six, and only 10.53% were between the ages of 13 and 17, according to data from the South Carolina Department of Social Services. More than 95% of the 154 children in the state waiting for adoption are over the age of 8 years old. 

Ragan, who was adopted in Horry County and now lives in Darlington County, said most teenagers go unadopted because potential families look at their criminal histories or their patterns of acting out in school.

She missed 56 days of school in the seventh grade, was held back, got in a lot of fights, let off a stink bomb in class, lashed out against male authority figures and would cuss her teachers out.

“I was very much trying to get everyone’s attention,” she said. 

Acting out, she said was a way to try to get adults to start asking questions about what was happening at home.

Ragan said her childhood included abuse, drug addictions around her and that she was being sexually groomed and was then assaulted a few days before she was placed in foster care. She was questioned by her school and police about her home life after the boy she was dating told her guidance counselor that she was assaulted.

They couldn’t find a foster family willing to take in a teenager, and so Ragan ended up in a group home. 

“I was scared, mostly because I didn’t know if I was going to be put back in that home, and I didn’t know what was going to happen to my sister,” she said. 

Ten months later, she met a family while she was working as a stagehand in a play. They asked if she could move in with them, and within days, she did. 

They talked about adoption almost instantly. 

But Ragan said it wasn’t just her past history that convinced her that a family wouldn’t want to adopt her, but her own self image issues. If she didn’t want herself, she said, then she didn’t think anyone else would want to, either.

She had no plans for what she’d do after aging out of the system.

“I didn’t think I was going to make it to this,” she said. “I was very suicidal at that point. It was really hard to understand what was fully going on, especially at the age of 15. You are finding out who you are as a person and what you want to be.”

Now, her entire life is different.

“I am a straight A student,” she said. “I take nursing classes. I am more involved with my school, and I even have a job now.”

(Courtesy: Alexis Ragan) Alexis Ragan celebrates with her family after being adopted on July 1, 2020. Left to right: Liam, Ben, Alexis, Rachel and Selah Ragan.

But most teenagers, she said, don’t get that same chance because prospective families look at teens’ histories and assume that they’re dangerous. She encourages families to meet the children, instead of just looking at a bio.

“Don’t judge the book by its cover,” she said. “You actually need to get to know the person and give them a shot, because if you don’t give them a shot, you won’t know what you lost.”

Barton said the state isn’t currently accepting applications for those looking to adopt children under the age of six because of the length of the waiting list for that age group. Instead, they’re pouring recruitment efforts into matching teenagers and sibling groups with those looking to adopt.

“Teenagers are amazing,” Barton said. “I know people who at first thought it would be scary, but they are amazing human beings and they deserve families just like any other young child. They need someone to give them a chance.”

Teens can choose to sign themselves out of foster care when they turn 18. If they stay, they are able to get governmental help for living costs, can receive assistance with pursuing postsecondary education and get help gaining life skills and financial education. 

Of those who sign themselves out, Barton said many become homeless. Those who are adopted typically enter their adult years with better outcomes. 

Barton said the teens didn’t create the circumstances that caused them to end up in foster care and that potential poor behavior is a reaction to trauma.

“There is a sense of rejection, abandonment and all of those feelings for those kids,” she said. 

Children who have had multiple placements in the foster care system will act out to see if they’ll get rejected again. 

Barton said they’ve hosted events to bring together teens with families who were looking to adopt younger children. By having them mingle in social atmospheres, like a bowling night, the state has been able to shift perspectives. Those events have also led to adoptions. Those events, however, have been halted due to the pandemic.

Barton said the teens are more than the unsafe homes they came from.

“Sometimes, you read about a young person on paper, and it may scare families to death, but I think that people have to open their minds and their heart to actually meeting some of these young people in our system,” she said. “They are amazing, and they need a family. They need a connection — a lifelong connection — that will help them achieve all their hopes and dreams, and living in foster care is not going to get you there.”