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Adopting Through Foster Care Is Harder Than It Should Be

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Parents who adopt their children are used to judgmental questions. One of the most popular: “Why don’t you adopt a child out of foster care? Those kids need homes, too.”


For everyone who has ever asked that question or wondered about it, I’ll share my experience, and the experience of my friend, Sheila.


Here’s what happened to me:


I wanted a baby. I wanted to rock my baby to sleep and hear my baby’s first words. So I wanted to adopt a baby, not a school-age child. I first tried international adoption. That became a morass, so my husband and I turned to domestic. We hired an attorney, and we checked out adopting from foster care.


Years ago, my colleague adopted a baby from foster care, so I knew it was possible. I called our local foster care office, but I could not get even basic questions answered. I was transferred to several agencies and each person ratcheted up the age of the youngest child I could hope to be matched with. I was first told I might get a seven-year-old; then I was told, no, an eight-year-old was probably the youngest. The last woman I spoke with said no way would I get a child that young. “Ten years old is about the youngest we see,” she said. She explained that the goal was to reunite kids in foster care with their mothers or other relatives, and children were only available for adoption after every attempt at reunification failed.


A friend forwarded me a flier about a foster-to-adopt information session in a neighboring county.


When we arrived, there were tables set up with photos of school-age children, presumably available for adoption. Most appeared at least ten years old. They were smiling in their school portraits. The sparse crowd of about twenty gathered to hear a panel of speakers.


The first speaker was head of foster care in that county. She said parents looking to adopt should not be working through foster care. “We’re a child protection agency,” she said. “If you want to adopt, there are private agencies that can help you with that.”


Next, she told about a woman who applied to be a foster parent because she was infertile. “Within a week of having a child placed in her care, she was abusing the child,” the woman said. She added that not all infertile women are too damaged for foster parenting, but that foster kids are damaged already and foster parents need to prove to her that they have “no issues.”


Next, she said there were only forty-five foster families in the mega-suburban county. Most of the county’s 1,500 foster children lived in group homes.


The next few speakers emphasized the fact that foster kids were not “cute, blonde-haired girls with pigtails.”


I scribbled on a comment card that billing the event as a foster-to-adopt information session was misleading. We left.


I sobbed in the car. If you’re too damaged to adopt a foster kid, what are the chances you’ll ever be a mom?


In hindsight, I appreciate the woman’s honesty.


Because something worse happened to Sheila, a friend I met through the China adoption process. Sheila lives in a different county, and when she inquired about foster care, she got a more positive response. She and her husband signed up for an intensive training course.


They met some foster parents, one of whom had adopted an infant. They were led to believe there were babies and young children in the system in need of care, and some might be adoptable. Sheila was happy to be a foster mom without the promise of adoption. She just wanted children in her home.


It never happened. A revolving door of caseworkers. Changes in leadership. Endless stalling. Eventually, a caseworker finished her home study. But then a supervisor delayed approving her, skeptical of why she wanted to be a foster parent. Finally, Sheila and her husband were approved, but they never got a placement. Their caseworker told them about various sibling groups, some with as many as five children. But things never worked out.


Then, Sheila began a national search for foster children in need of a home. School-age children. Any age children. Sibling groups. Bring them on. Again, there were many inquiries, but nothing panned out.


My brush with foster care happened last year. Sheila’s happened earlier this year. Flash forward a few months, and we are both moms. Our happy, beautiful, healthy babies are only three weeks apart. They were both adopted privately.


Next time you see a couple beaming as they introduce their child adopted from China or domestically through a private attorney or agency, don’t assume they shunned kids in the U.S. foster system. We wanted to work with the system, but the system is complicated, broken, and didn’t want us.


I’m aware of several foster-to-adopt success stories, so I wouldn’t want my story to discourage anyone from trying. Policies and practices vary state to state, county to county.


A middle school teacher came to my adoption support group having just found out she was infertile. Two months later, she and her husband had decided to adopt older children through foster care. They had contacts in the system and were swiftly approved. She was going to be a mom through foster care even more quickly than if she had gotten pregnant, and she was overjoyed.


I was happy for her, and humbled by her willingness to sacrifice the baby years to adopt kids who badly needed parents.


I wish there were a better way to match children in need of families with couples who want to be parents. And I wish people would lay off adoptive parents and the choices we make to build our families. My friend has a great retort: “Just curious, how many kids have you adopted from foster care?”

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