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Wednesday, Oct 02 2013 06:55 PM

Foster care to adoption -- all you need is love

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    William and Connie Harris with their foster children, from left, Aaliyah, 10, Justin, 7, and Tamia, 9. The Harrises are in the process of adopting the children, who are brother and sisters.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Connie Harris with outgoing 7-year-old Justin on her lap. Justin and his sisters, Aaliyah, 10 and Tamia, 9, are adjusting well to life in the Harris family.

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BY STEVE LEVIN Californian staff writer slevin@bakersfield.com

Connie and William Harris already have raised eight children between them, all now between the ages of 21 and 33.

Five days a week -- on a 24-hour basis, if needed -- the couple operate Connie's Little Tots Day Care out of their southwestern Bakersfield home.

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The Sixth Annual Heart Gallery Gala will be Thursday, 4-7 p.m., at the Junior League of Bakersfield Community Center, 1928 19th St.

It is hosted by the Kern County Department of Human Services and Heart Gallery -- A Gallery of Hope, a nationwide program that displays photographic portraits of foster children hoping to be adopted.

Representatives from Aspiranet, ChildNet, Kern Bridges Youth Homes and Koinonia will be available to answer questions.

And since marrying in 2011 they've taken numerous foster kids into their home.

Now, they're adopting three siblings -- ages 7, 9 and 10 -- from the Kern County Department of Human Services.

Thursday, as part of the Sixth Annual Heart Gallery Gala, the Harrises will be at the Junior League of Bakersfield Community Center to answer questions about adoption and fostering.

They say it can all be summed up in a single word: love.

While it will take another nine months before their adoption of Justin, Tamia and Aaliyah is finalized, the five of them are well on their way toward building the bonds and bridges of family.

"I am excited," said Connie, 47. "I'm excited to give them an opportunity to be loved."

So are the kids.

They all met for the first time over Christmas, when the Harrises served as "respite" foster parents for the siblings while their then-foster parents went out of town.

They visited family, went bowling and stayed in a hotel, something the kids were still relishing nearly 10 months later. There were presents -- "They put in a few orders, toy-wise," said William, 50 -- and different types of food such as lasagna and enchiladas.

By the end of the 2 1/2 weeks, the kids were asking, "Can we stay here?" and the Harrises were marveling at the chemistry the five of them shared.

A week later, the Harrises found out the siblings were coming up for adoption.

Connie's biggest concern about adoption was coping with teenagers again. William's was about being able to provide for all the kids' needs.

"We prayed a lot," said Connie. "We just really tried to think of the positive and not the negative and find a solution.

"We thought it was the right time to get these kids. We really wanted to get them."

Aaliyah, 10, Tamia, 9, and Justin, 7, have been living with the Harrises since March 1. It's either their fifth or sixth home -- they can't remember. They have daily chores -- making beds, wiping the table after dinner, cleaning up the day care room -- but they like school and enjoy going to Rising Star Baptist Church twice a week, even though it means being dressed and leaving the house by 7:30 a.m. every Sunday.

The Kern County Department of Human Services has almost 1,800 foster children. There are also private foster care agencies in Bakersfield and Kern County.

More than 200 children from infants to age 18 were adopted from the Department of Human Services between June 2012 and July 2013, while another 139 went into legal guardianships with either relatives or nonrelatives.

While the department's primary focus is to reunify families, adoption "is a wonderful option," said Antanette Reed, assistant director of the department's child protective services.

"It is an extension of the other family," she said. "If they can't be reunified with their biological family, they may have new parents but they're connected and bonded."

Besides love, the Harrises believe people looking to adopt need patience, as the process can take 18 months.

"They really need to want to be there for the long haul," Connie said. "It's the same thing with birth kids. You just have to be willing to love a child, provide for them and give them a stable environment."

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