Karen Bankhead is the mom in a family of performers living in Los Angeles, where it is a way of life for people to improvise and go with the flow.
As a writer and actor, Bankhead has developed her own characters as well as landing acting roles on TV shows such as “Will and Grace” and “Gilmore Girls.”
Her daughter, 16, who goes by Tiger around the house, plays electric bass, and in addition to planning for college, is considering a career in music.
“When I met her, I thought, here was this really great little girl,” Bankhead said. “She just needed somebody to give her some attention. I didn't analyze it too much.”
And despite not having any parenting experience, being single, and living in the city, Bankhead was able to nail the role of being a mom. What she found along the way is that parenting is something everybody learns by doing.
“You do what is necessary,” she said. “Your child has needs, you are going to meet them, and you figure it out as you go along.”
Deciding to become a foster parent
The idea of becoming a foster parent, and then adopting, struck her while she was living in Venice Beach.
“It has a fun and carefree lifestyle, the weather is beautiful most of the time,” she said. “I would go for a walk and see people with strollers. I thought it would be a cool place to raise a child.”
She came across a notice in the Los Angeles Times about a foster parent training class starting the next day. It piqued her interest. She started the class that week and decided to be a foster parent.
Deciding to adopt
Raised in a military family, Bankhead was born in California, moved around the United States, and then returned to Southern California to attend UCLA. She works a day job as a paralegal at a law practice that specializes in dog bite cases.
Although it was a life-changing experience, the decision to adopt after becoming a foster parent did not include an inordinate amount of soul-searching.
“For me, I guess I fell into it, I saw the need,” she said.
Tiger was 6 when she was placed with Bankhead. At first Bankhead thought she would be best matched with an older child. However, when she was introduced to Tiger after being contacted by a caseworker, she saw something special in the little girl.
“My daughter was independent and strong minded from the day I met her, so our teenage years have actually been quite pleasant - she hasn't changed!” Bankhead said. “But she's spectacularly talented, sweet, smart, and tenacious.”
In order to find a home with more space, Bankhead moved to West Hollywood, which gives them access to the culture and diversity of Los Angeles, but at a slower pace.
“It's in the city, but not crazy-in-the-city.”
The adoption was finalized when Tiger was 9.
Advocating for adoption from foster care
Lately, Bankhead has been following AdoptUSKids on Twitter, and advocating for foster care and adoption with her friends.
“Maybe somebody will catch their eye,” she said. “Maybe they will be like me, a single woman, or man, and think, 'That might be cool for me to take in a kid.'”
For Bankhead, she wouldn't be as happy without Tiger.
“I can't imagine a better gift than my daughter,” she said, noting that she has played with the idea of fostering or adopting again. “If I found a husband in the meantime, we'd all be set!”
Once given a chance, children will amaze you
Part of the light she saw in Tiger was something that had been missed by other adults.
Tiger's first-grade teacher had her ranked at the bottom of the class compared to other students, and Bankhead remembers being told, “Every child is not an A student.”
“I thought that wasn't cool,” Bankhead said.
Now Tiger's position has been reversed. She attends an arts-focused high school, is in the honors program, and will be attending college. Her days are long and start early, waking up at 6:30. She gets out of school at 4 p.m.
Instead of the stress of living her childhood without permanency, Tiger focuses on school and also has developed a penchant for fashion.
“She is very conscious of her wardrobe,” Bankhead said.
Tiger hasn't been itching to start driving a car, though. They live close to school, and Bankhead said she has noticed the same low interest among Tiger's peers.
“They aren't really hankering to get their driver's licenses,” she said.
Bankhead said children in foster care often get an unfair stigma. But what she has seen in her own family is that once given a chance, children will amaze you.
“I don't believe I'm all that, but I know that by her having one person who truly loves and cares for her, and who pushes her in the right direction, the whole world is her sushi bar,” Bankhead said. “She loves sushi!”
Bankhead said that this is the message people should hear about children living in the foster care system. What matters isn't what happened before, it’s what happens now.
“It matters if somebody works with them, is devoted to them,” she said. “You don't know what they will end up doing.”
AdoptUSKids is a service of the U.S. Children’s Bureau and has been in operation since 2002 by the Adoption Exchange Association under a cooperative agreement (grant #90CQ0003). The mission of AdoptUSKids is two-fold: to raise public awareness about the need for foster and adoptive families for children in the public child welfare system; and to assist U.S. States, Territories, and Tribes to recruit and retain foster and adoptive families and connect them with children.