The usual holiday decorations in Tia Vasquez's home -- the tree adorned with candy canes, the cookies, the brightly wrapped presents -- belie what an unusual Christmas this will be for Vasquez, her 11-year-old daughter, Mia, and her newly adopted 15-year-old, Brianna.
For Tia, it culminates a dream of having one birth child and one adopted child, though a dream made with a husband who didn't live to share it. For Mia, it's a Christmas in which she is now the younger sister, not the only child. And for Brianna, it's a celebration she thought might never happen after being abused at age 4 and moved through a dozen foster home placements over the past decade.
"I thought I would never get adopted," she said. "I've been told at my age that it's rare."
A refocus by state and county child welfare officials on finding parents for the toughest kids to adopt -- teens, siblings and foster children with behavior problems -- has brought many blended families together in time for the holidays. The state so far this year has finalized 376 adoptions -- including Brianna's on June 26. While that is a decline in adoptions from 2011, it still reflects progress for the state, which over the past decade has cut the number of kids awaiting adoption from around 1,200 to 428.
"Any waiting children is too many," said Erin Sullivan Sutton, an assistant commissioner for the Minnesota Department of Human Services, who directs the state's foster care and adoptions.
Some of the state's progress has to do with its diversion programs, which keep families intact and children out of foster care. But state officials believe the adoption process is quicker and more aggressive as well. In two years, the state has halved the number of kids seeking adoptions who reach age 18 without parents. And over the past decade, the state has reduced the time it takes to move children from state guardianships to finalized adoptions from 24 months to 16 months.
County workers now ask older foster children about influential relatives, teachers or other adults in their past and follow up with those adults to see if they'd consider adoption. Private agencies, hired by the state, assist counties in finding matches for adoptive children, and recruiting families even if they had stopped pursuing adoption. Pre-adoption classes emphasize the needs of teens and dispel myths that they don't benefit from adoption as much.
"What kids will tell you is their sense of belonging and security is so much greater having been adopted," Sullivan Sutton said. "It's not always easy, but knowing somebody is going to stick with them through it all is extremely powerful."
Vasquez and her husband, a pastor, had talked about adopting -- perhaps an infant from his native Belize, or Guatemala. But after her husband died of a rare brain disorder in 2006, plans changed. Rules in other countries made adoption challenging for a single mother. And then after a class on foster care adoption, Vasquez decided that a teenager would be right for her.
"You know, Momma," Mia later told her, "I would like to have an older sister."
They hadn't met or seen a picture of Brianna when they decided she was the one.
Her online profile was heartbreaking. Abused as a toddler, she was placed in foster care by age 4. She was adopted at age 7, but those parents abused her as well and forced her to do extreme sit-ups and running as punishment for her outbursts. Brianna had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, and her traumatic upbringing left her angry and aggressive. She was placed in residential care and returned to foster care.
Tia and Mia met her at a park in Shakopee -- a midpoint between their home in Inver Grove Heights and her final foster home in Le Sueur -- in July 2011. A month later, they packed her stuff and moved her in.
"We weren't even out of Le Sueur when she said, 'Can I call you Mom now?'" Tia said.
The concern with any state increase in adoptions is that children might be pushed into homes that aren't right for them. About 3 percent of the adoptions in Minnesota result in children returning to foster care -- often because their behaviors were more difficult to deal with than parents expected. That rate hasn't changed in recent years, though.
Tia expected challenges -- that Brianna might lash out to see if she would reject her like other adults had. The transition to a large high school was particularly stressful, and Brianna passed her stress right onto Tia. Frustration often got so intense that Tia decided she would need to retreat to her room and listen to music -- hoping to set a calm, positive example for Brianna in tense situations.
"When she was in that residential treatment center, she would act out in a physical manner," Tia said. "So they had to do lockdowns and they had to work with her to use words when she was angry. So, she uses words now when she's angry. Now, I need to take it a step further and make sure she doesn't use hurtful words."
Over time, Brianna made friends and grew comfortable at Simley High School. She joined a traveling volleyball team and became a star server. Her grades rose to all As and Bs.
The state needs to do more to support families such as the Vasquezes through that early turbulence by maintaining counseling and support services, Sullivan Sutton said. She also favors legislation to raise adoption payments for families so they at least equal what foster parents receive.
"We just don't want to have adoptions finalized and then everybody walks away" from the families, she said.
Months into their new life, the Vasquez girls have a familiarity that gives Tia confidence. She bought them kittens -- one blond to match Brianna's hair, one black to match Mia's hair -- and they entered them together in a pet owner look-alike contest at Inver Grove Heights Days. (They finished third.)
And of course they fight, but not like strangers. Like sisters.
"I want my own laptop" for Christmas, said Brianna, turning slowly and glaring at her sister one afternoon. "So no one else can touch it ... ever."
This Christmas is the first since the adoption, but not their first together. Last year was special because it was new. This year is all about creating traditions for the new family.
Tia hung candy canes on the tree, because Brianna mentioned how she had liked them on a tree in one of her foster homes. It was a rare positive memory from her past, so Tia seized on it. The only problem is that Brianna keeps eating them.
Tia also bought an ornament with their names on it last year, and bought another this year. Brianna wanted one with three bears -- one for each family member. Mia wanted an ornament with three monkeys. So Tia bought one with penguins.
"I didn't want to make one of them mad at me because I chose the one the other wanted," Tia said. "I have to keep the peace!"
Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744