Paris Weissman is a shy but well-spoken 17-year-old who looks at home sitting on the couch, joking with her mother, Helaine Weissman.
On the surface, the mother-daughter pair are an odd couple. But Paris, a quiet teen raised in a dysfunctional household, finds stability in the outspoken smiles of 46-year-old Helaine, who has been her mother — officially — since July 2011.
At their home in Fairfax, the Weissman family is setting new domestic routines and traditions. And with the holiday season approaching, mother and daughter joke about their newest family holiday: Chrismukkah, a combination of Christmas and Hanukkah.
“The Christmas tree was new for me,” Helaine said. “We had our Christmas tree up last year and we put a yarmulke up [where other households usually place a star or angel].”
Paris is at home, but said it is a stark contrast from the life she left around the holidays at age 11.
“I was with my day care provider. I’d put my sister to bed and it was a school day, like a Wednesday or Thursday and — for some reason — I just started pouring everything out,” Paris said. “I remember telling her that if something didn’t change I was going to take my sister and run away or kill myself.”
Paris explained that her birth mother, who then was a member of the military stationed at Fort Belvoir, was physically and verbally abusive to her and her younger sister, Dayha, who is five years Paris’ junior. Paris has not met her biological father. At the time, her mother was in a relationship with Dayha’s father, who raped Paris from ages 6 to 8. He later was sentenced to seven years in prison and now is a registered sex offender living in Pennsylvania.
Paris and Dayha’s day care provider reported their mother’s abuse to the military police. The girls were transferred into the county’s custody. Paris said she is not sure what punishment the military enacted against her birth mother, but believes she was removed from duty.
In the four years that followed, Paris had nine home placements: three group homes, three foster homes and three stints in a residential facility, which usually are centers for those believed to be suffering from mental distress.
“I always got the answer [I was placed in a residential facility] because they had nowhere else to put me,” Paris said.
While Paris was looking for a stable home, Helaine Weissman was looking to start a family of her own. This is their treaty, a joint goal toward being a family.
“I always thought I’d have kids and then all of a sudden I was in my 40s. I didn’t want a baby because I didn’t want to do that by myself,” said Helaine, who is a partner in a Fairfax-based certified public accounting firm. She said adoption was an easy decision for her.
Unlike Paris’ rough start, Helaine said she has been very lucky in life.
Helaine began her child search online, visiting the Fairfax Families 4 Kids website.
“There were pictures of Paris and her story and I really liked her. Paris would tell you I started to stalk her,” Helaine joked. She attended an open house event on adoption held by the county, and then began volunteering with Families 4 Kids as she fulfilled the pre-adoption requirements.
Parents looking to adopt are assigned a social worker who conducts home visits and studies, asking probing questions, Helaine said, about personal habits and lifestyle. Helaine also was required to get a physical, pass a tuberculosis test, fill out questionnaires and write about herself, submit three letters of recommendation, get fingerprinted and have four background checks — local, state, federal and Child Protective Services.
“Probing questions aside, I didn’t think they asked anything of me that was unreasonable,” Helaine said.
Common myths about adoption are that parents have to be married or one parent must be a stay-at-home spouse, that there are income and homeownership requirements, it is expensive, and that it takes years to adopt. Helaine — who owns her home and has a full-time job — said the adoption cost her nothing but the time she put in. Paris moved in with Helaine in late August 2010. The adoption was finalized a year later.
Paris and Helaine’s domestic routine is normal. Helaine cooks, Paris cleans. The pair enjoys going to rock concerts — like seeing Pat Benatar at the Celebrate Fairfax music festival in June — and recently the musical “Jekyll and Hyde.”
“It’s hard being a parent of a teenager period, let alone having a child who comes to you as a teenager,” said Helaine’s mother and Paris’ grandmother, Phyllis Weissman, 71. “I told Helaine this is going to be the struggle of your life, but it will be worth it.”
Phyllis said she and her husband Stephen Weissman were proud of Helaine’s decision to adopt, and have tried to add to Paris’ support network, helping with homework and giving hugs.
“Right now, Paris is in a great situation where she has a lot of people in her corner,” she said. “She has more going for her than she ever thought she could.”
Paris, who is a senior at Fairfax High School, plans on attending Northern Virginia Community College next year, with the goal of enrolling in the college’s Pathway to the Baccalaureate Program, a two-year college to university agreement between NVCC and George Mason University.
Stories of success
Paris said she likes to think of life with Helaine as not a happy ending, but a new beginning.
The Weissman story is one the Department of Family Services is hoping to draw attention to during November, which is National Adoption Awareness Month.
Currently, the county has 18 children — ages 3 to 17 — in need of adoptive homes. Last year, 21 children were adopted through the Fairfax County Department of Family Services.
“Typically [children] come into our system because of abuse or neglect,” said Michelle Cover, a supervisor in the county’s Foster Care and Adoption Program. Children are removed from their parent or parents’ custody by the juvenile courts. “Children need a lifelong commitment from adults. … A happy ending for them is having a permanent connection for them when they are going to college, when they are struggling, then they need help on homework. … Someone they can call at night when they need support.”
Children like Paris are placed with their potential adoptive parents for up to six months as a trial period. During this time, a social worker makes monthly visits to the home to talk to parent and child about how they are adapting.
“I think we’ve seen a lot of successes when we place older children for adoption. … But that success doesn’t come without some challenges,” said Stephanie Pegues, a supervisor in the county’s Foster Care and Adoption Program. “We’re looking for families that can be part of a team, because we have a host of people [social workers, therapists and counselors] who work with these kids.
“[Paris’ story] gives us hope that we’re doing the right thing for our kids.”
Life for both Paris and Helaine has changed for the better, the pair said.
“Nothing really prepares you until the human being is in your home,” Helaine said. “[My life has] changed a lot. I have another person here that I’m responsible for.”
Paris jokes that life has changed for Helaine.
“She has to buy more food,” she said. “I’m kind of spoiled now. Just a little bit. I’m kind of used to handling things myself and doing things myself even if it’s not the right way. I pretty much raised [my sister] when we were growing up and when we were in foster care.”
To learn more about adoption in Fairfax County, visit www.fairfaxcounty.gov/dfs/childrenyouth/fca.htm.