Beth, Almond and Penny Clendineng giggle together like most sisters, but before their adoption by Bill and Kathy Clendineng a year ago, there was little to be amused about in their young lives.
The sisters needed a family. They had been given up for adoption by their biological mother when Penny, the youngest, was 7 months old. She is now 3, Almond is 4 and Beth, 7.
Being of mixed races, in addition to being a sibling group, lessened the girls' chances of being adopted. Their biological mother was Caucasian; Beth's biological father was Vietnamese, Almond's was Hispanic and Penny's was Native American.
Eventually, the girls' case was taken over by The Villages Inc., a not-for-profit organization founded in Topeka by Dr. Karl Menninger that provides foster homes and adoption services to children through contract services with Kansas' Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services (SRS).
THEIR ADOPTION by the Clendinengs, now in the final stages, is one local example of a minority adoption handled by The Villages, which recently has launched a campaign to recruit more adoptive couples of minority races.
Toiane Harris, minority adoption specialist for The Villages and the person in charge of the campaign, said the new effort is "something we hope we can continue."
"It (recruitment of minority adoptive couples) hasn't received a lot of attention in this area."
The Villages has three homes in Lawrence and five in Topeka and, according to Barbara Stodgell, SRS family services specialist, is the only agency that contracts with the state for adoption services that also provides residential care to children.
THE VILLAGES' Ms. Harris said there were more minority children like the Clendineng girls available for adoption, and she noted one particular child she was working with who "prays every night to be adopted."
"These kids did not ask to be born into these situations," she said.
Ms. Stodgell said finding adoptive parents of the same race as the child's was a long-standing preference with the state, and additional efforts by The Villages always were welcome.
"We can't do it all by ourselves," she said.
Mrs. Clendineng said when she and her husband, who is pastor at Friends Church, first contacted The Villages in the fall of 1989, they had in mind a particular boy with whom she had become acquainted as a substitute teacher. By April 1990, though, when their application had been processed and their training completed, that child had been placed with another family.
THE COUPLE felt committed by then, though, and requested only that children being considered for placement with them be younger than their youngest biological child, Matthew, who is 11. Their other biological child, Sarah, is 16.
Once their application was processed, the couple said, they were surprised at how quickly the adoption occurred.
"They called us in July of 1990 and asked if we would consider adopting a sibling group of three," Mrs. Clendineng said.
"It seemed like a tall order at the time," her husband recalled.
They decided to go ahead, though, and after being informed of "all the good and the bad," actually made the decision to adopt before ever seeing the girls.
Their first meeting was in September last year at a foster home in Wichita, and within a month the children had moved to the Clendinengs' Lawrence home.
BEFORE BEING adopted, Pastor Clendineng said, the girls spent about a year and a half in foster homes Beth lived in five, and Almond and Penny lived in four.
After the girls arrived, Mrs. Clendineng said, it took everyone about six months to adjust to the new family arrangement.
"There were times I'd ask myself, `Mercy, what have I done?'" Mrs. Clendineng said, noting her own mother's response to the adoption news was, "Do you realize you're almost 42?"
The most obvious thing about the girls is that they are mixed race, Pastor Clendineng said, "but that hasn't been an issue so far."
Mrs. Clendineng added that with unity in the family, they would be able to deal with any racial situations that might arise.
Her husband said they were working on the girls' life books, which SRS advises be made to help adoptive children understand their personal histories. They have photographs of some of the girls' biological relatives and keep one of their biological mother displayed in the living room.
THERE IS, however, no personal contact between the children and their biological parents.
Villages' staffers helped smooth the Clendinengs' transition with support group meetings and visits from an adoption worker, the family said.
"That was really good," Mrs. Clendineng said. "There are always things that come up. You wonder how to handle them."
Sarah said the adoption worker always talked to them as a group and individually to help sort out any problems, and her mother added they learned to sit down as a family too, share their feelings and discuss what they could do to make life easier on each other.
Matt said he struggled with being the only boy among four girls. Both he and Sarah gave up their bedrooms for their new sisters, moving to the basement, which Sarah noted wasn't too bad a deal because they ended up with more space.
MRS. CLENDINENG said she and her husband soon learned there was no way they could give the three new girls enough time, with all the losses they'd endured in their lives, and at the same time, they knew Sarah and Matthew were giving up time with them.
"We'd say," Mrs. Clendineng recalled, "we're all going through this time of adjustment and we'll make sure everybody gets some time."
Pastor Clendineng noted that when the life of any child is disrupted, there will be an emotional toll. Beth, he said, was angry, Almond fearful and Penny unattached "she had never learned how to bond."
The anger and fear are subsiding, he and his wife said, and a couple of months ago, Penny started to show some separation anxiety at preschool.
Pastor Clendineng said when they agreed to adopt the girls, "We decided this was a lifetime commitment."
"Once you have done something like this," his wife added, "you just have such a joy as they become part of the family. It's something you do want to do again."
THE VILLAGES' Harris said such a sibling group of mixed-race children fell into the category of a "special needs" adoption, both because the girls were presented for adoption as a group and because they were of minority races. Other "special needs" children may have emotional or physical disabilities or learning disabilities.
Often, she said, a special needs child will fit more than one of those categories as well.
Ideally, Ms. Harris noted, children should be placed with a family of the same race, but cultural sensitivity can make the difference in transracial adoptions like the Clendinengs'.
Judges have ruled that a permanent family is paramount to a same-race family, she said, adding that being able to love someone else's child "as your own" is the true test for any adoptive couple.