Anthony and Iris Thorpe adopted their first child nearly 16 years ago, a 6-week-old girl whose mother had been given a diagnosis of HIV-positive. With two other children of their own, the couple figured that the infant made their family circle complete.
Since then, the circle has ballooned, with 48 foster children, five adoptions and one foster child whose adoption is in the works. The Thorpes, of Port Deposit, have opened their arms to infants and toddlers from Baltimore who make up some of city's most disheartening child statistics: the offspring of drug-afflicted, HIV-infected parents.
That has meant nearly 16 years of coping with drug withdrawals, developmental delays, HIV-related ailments, even the death of a 3-year-old boy the Thorpes cared for as their own. Still, the couple, originally from the Washington area, continue to embrace each child.
Today, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will present the Thorpes with this year's Adoption Excellence Award, which honors families, organizations, agencies and businesses that help place foster children in permanent homes.
The Thorpes have fostered and adopted children from the Children's Permanency Project at Family and Children's Services of Central Maryland. All of the children they've adopted are classified by the agency as medically challenged, meaning that they require a higher level of care than a typical foster child.
"The kids have flourished with them," said Stan Levi, executive director of Family and Children's Services, "and that's what this program is all about, bringing permanency and hope to kids."
Iris Thorpe said she hopes the publicity surrounding the award will prompt more families to learn about being a foster parent. She's a stay-at-home mom, while her husband works in Aberdeen Proving Ground's testing division.
"There's so much publicity for bad foster parents," she said. "It's about time someone acknowledged some of the good, and then people can say, 'Maybe I'll consider doing that.' "
She spoke in the family room of their home as the children wandered in and out, wanting everything from a hot snack to a warm hug. There are six children in their home, five adopted and the one they are trying to adopt.
Iris' older son, Maurice Thorpe, 25, of Pylesville, said that growing up his home was loving and caring but orderly and disciplined. Now a hotel supervisor, Thorpe said he and younger brother Eric welcomed a house full of younger siblings. Their parents had asked their permission to begin adopting and fostering others, and told them that the infants and toddlers would often be very ill and that some might die young.
Their first adopted child, Shanice, is now 16 and entering 11th grade. While her mother was HIV-positive, Shanice tested negative. She says that sometimes being in a house full of kids "can be stressful, but other times I just love being around kids."
The first child the Thorpes brought in with only the intention of fostering was a 5-month-old girl named Maurisha, who had been diagnosed HIV-positive. They subsequently adopted her. Iris Thorpe said doctors told her that the girl wouldn't live more than a few years. Now Maurisha is a 14-year-old high school sophomore and walks with the aid of leg braces.
Her adoptive parents have endured much in welcoming the children, often knowing little or nothing about their problems until they've opened their doors.
Recently the Thorpes fostered a 7-year old who tried several times to set their house on fire. A 4-year-old was blind, mentally impaired and hadn't been potty trained.
The second child they fostered, a 2-year-old named Omar, came to them with full-blown AIDS and died six months later. After Omar's death Iris got counseling for the entire family, particularly her sons. Maurice and Eric Thorpe were 11 and 10 at the time, and, seeing how draining it was on their mother, they asked her to temporarily refrain from fostering.
"That was a really tough time. Omar was a great kid," said Maurice Thorpe. "Our grandmother had also just passed away. We just didn't want to go through it for a while."
But eventually the boys agreed to more foster siblings.
For now, Iris is eager to adopt the youngest child in the home, a 2-year-old. Last week, she and Anthony mailed in the adoption letter of intent."My family supports me," she said, "and they always ask, 'How many kids you have now?' "