An orphan no more — foster kid finds mom: Woman, 40, adopted in Contra Costa by the mother she was denied 30 years ago

Regina Louise Ollison was 40 years old with a 17-year-old son of her own when she became, after a lifetime as an orphan, somebody’s child.

“Everybody needs a mother, and it doesn’t matter when you get her,” she said.

In an unusual Contra Costa County court proceeding, Regina was adopted by the woman who had been denied the opportunity three decades ago. The two had fallen in love with each other when Regina Louise was a headstrong 11-year-old bouncing from one foster home to another. Jeannie Kerr was a young counselor at the Contra Costa children’s shelter where Regina returned after each failed placement.

But back then, the courts and the social workers refused to place black children with white parents. Both were devastated. Jeannie ended up marrying a military man, having a son and moving to the South. Regina was never adopted and left foster care at age 18. When she attended San Francisco State on scholarship, she had no name to offer when asked for an emergency contact. She had no place to go when the dorms closed for school breaks. There was not a single person in the world who claimed her as family.

“You need somebody to show up for you,” Regina said, talking over quesadillas at a little Mexican place on Fourth Street in Berkeley. She sat next to Jeannie, holding tight to her adoptive mother’s hand in a way that seemed somehow theatrical as much as it was clearly emotional, as if she had watched other mothers and daughters for so many years and now wanted everybody to see her with her own mother.

“You need that flat mirroring from somebody who loves you unconditionally and who is so proud of you,” Regina said.

Her story, and her need even at age 40 to reconnect with the long-lost woman she now calls mom, reinforces the growing realization that every foster kid needs an adult who will be there well beyond childhood — not just because it makes sense for the adolescent but because it makes sense for society.

The average American child lives at home, at least part time, until age 26. Yet the foster system tosses kids into the world alone at 18. “Older kids haven’t been looked at as a group that needs a home,” said Mardi Louisell, consultant for California Permanency for Youth Project. “The system is set up to consider kids over 11 not adoptable, so social workers often don’t go about finding an extended family that will be there for them beyond the age of 18.”

According to the California Department of Social Services, about 25 percent of the kids emancipating from foster care become homeless, 30 percent end up on welfare, 33 percent land in jail, 45 percent have no jobs and 50 percent fail to finish high school. Those numbers drop when kids have adults in their lives who provide love and safe harbor.

And some visionary social workers are realizing that these adults do not have to be foster or adoptive parents. They can be anybody who has an emotional, permanent commitment to the child: a coach, a teacher, a counselor, the parent of a friend. This kind of thinking is something of a revolution in foster care.

“It’s about coming at it from a relational perspective rather than a bureaucratic one,” said Anthony Barrows, a former foster kid from Massachusetts who spoke at a national conference about foster-care “permanency” last week in San Francisco. “You have to ask the kids: ‘Who’s important to you?’ And then help facilitate that connection so it becomes something permanent in the kid’s life.”

On paper, Regina is a foster-care success story, but it didn’t feel that way to her. When she left San Francisco State, there was no one to advise her about getting a car loan or an apartment. There was no one to share the exciting news about opening her first hair salon or about the birth of her son or about landing a two-book contract from Warner Books to write a memoir of life in the foster system.

She never stopped missing Jeannie Kerr, the only person who ever called her “Pumpkin” and “Sweetheart” and who told her she was smart and capable of anything. Regina spent years trying to find Jeannie through former counselors and the Internet. A letter sent to an old address came back “Addressee Unknown. ” Last June, she gave up.

“I waited for 40 years for somebody to claim me, and I decided it was never going to happen,” Regina said.

But soon after her first book, “Somebody’s Someone,” was published last summer, Jeannie — whose last name is now Taylor — heard about it and sent an e-mail through Regina’s Web site.

“I am so proud of you, Sweetheart,” the subject line read. Jeannie left her phone number in Alabama.

When Regina called and heard Jeannie’s voice, she couldn’t speak. “Is this my baby? Is this my baby girl?” Jeannie asked. They both cried. They reunited days later, meeting up at LaGuardia Airport in New York during a stop on Regina’s book tour.

“She was so polished and refined,” Jeannie recalled.

“When I saw her gray hair, I flipped,” Regina said. “Last time I saw her she had dark curly hair.”

She gave Regina a photo album filled with pictures from their time together so many years before. “It took my breath away because I had no pictures of myself as a child,” Regina said. For the cover of her book, Warner Books had to use a stock photo of a skinny little girl, her face covered by an umbrella.

Jeannie asked why Regina had used “Regina Louise” on her book jacket instead of her full name, Regina Louise Ollison. Regina said Ollison was the name of neither her biological mother nor father. It was the name of a random boyfriend of her mother when she had her first baby, given to the child so no one would know the baby was the product of incest. When Regina came along five years later, her biological mother gave her the same meaningless last name to keep things simple.

“The name wasn’t mine,” Regina said.

With her son grown, Jeannie and her husband moved back to the Bay Area. On Nov. 20, 2003, in the same Martinez courtroom where their adoption petition had been rejected 25 years earlier, Jeannie and Regina became mother and daughter. Regina changed her name legally to Regina Louise Kerr-Taylor.

“To have this happen was like seeing Jesus resurrected on Easter,” Regina said.

Mother and daughter now live a block away from each other in Walnut Creek, where Jeannie works as a computer software instructor.

“We all need to feel as though we belong,” Regina said, kissing her mother goodbye before returning to her hair salon across the street. “We all need somebody to hear us when we say, ‘I’m out here by myself. I’m scared. What am I going to do?’ ”

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