A Discussion about Adopting a Foster Child

Jim Roberts, CEO
November, 1, 2016 -

In the U.S., 397,122 children are living without permanent families in the foster care system. Of these children, 101,666 are eligible for adoption, but nearly 32% of them will wait over three years in care before being adopted. So, come on folks--there are kids who need you! But not so quick—this is a decision which needs thorough research, careful deliberation and thoughtful decision making.

Over the past three decades, there has been a dominant trend for parents wanting to adopt: they look overseas. But this trend has drastically changed for several reasons. First, many countries are discouraging or forbidding foreign adoption, preferring to have their own indigenous people adopt. And in many cases, this system is the best thing for those children. Second, overseas adoption can be a costly, unpredictable and painful experience. Unfortunately, a high percentage of these adoptions don’t turn out very successful, and there is not much in the way of support for children adopted from out of the US. Anecdotally, working in the child welfare system for five decades, I have seen too many of these children or youth rejected and cast into the foster care system.

Consequently, more and more individuals and families are now looking to the foster care system to adopt. This shift is a good thing – but it absolutely has to be a thoroughly vetted and contemplated decision. This due diligence is essential for the wellbeing of the foster child as well as the adopting family.

According to the most recent research, 15-25% of adoptions out of foster care disrupt or fail. Contributing to this stat is that often difficulties occur during adolescence or when the adopted child reaches adulthood. Personally, I have known many adoptive families over the years who have had their hearts seriously broken. For this reason alone, one should be as knowledgeable as one can be when going into the Foster-Adoption process.

The number one factor resulting in a failed or disrupted adoption is emotional, mental health or behavioral problems which are a result of trauma that the child (or children) experienced prior to coming into the system or perinatal exposure to substances. There exist overwhelming evidence that both of these factors negatively alter a child’s brain. This change is not irreversible, but does require effective trauma-informed intervention both professionally and by the parent. (For those interested in learning more, please explore the research by Dr. Bruce Perry and read the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) research.)

Let me stress – my comments are not designed to discourage people from pursuing a foster care adoption, but, rather, to encourage people to enter into such a decision with full knowledge and understanding of what it means!

Here are five tips to successfully foster/adopting an American child in need:

  • First, have Realistic Expectations. There is no such thing as a “perfect child,” every parent knows this all too well. Every child is a challenge in his or her own way; and even infants born to healthy parents come with no guarantees. Infants and young children available for foster/adoption often are medically fragile. They may have been born premature or with drug exposure. And the children in the foster care system who most desperately need parents are older: 12 to 17 years of age. Many of these youth have suffered physical or sexual abuse, most have been neglected, and all have experienced some level of trauma which can lead to emotional and behavioral problems. 
  • Second, plan to first Be a Foster Parent. Foster parents gain a wealth of experience and learn to support children as they overcome difficult personal or family issues. You may want to foster several children before deciding that adoption is the right thing for your family. This also gives you the opportunity to learn the skills necessary to be a “trauma-informed,” effective parent, and will greatly enhance your ability to help your child heal and be successful.
  • Third, consider What the Impact will be on your immediate and extended family. Having worked in the foster care industry for so many years, introducing a foster child into your life can be a disrupting factor. Foster parents may spend more time with their foster child which can create jealousy with their birth children, and there will be sibling rivalry just like any family. Extended family members may and can look down upon you or have a very negative opinion about “foster children.” There is a long list of considerations you should think through in regards to the impact of adopting. Being a foster parent prior to adopting is a great way to “test the waters” and inform your decision making.
  • Four, be Ready and Prepared for Testing and Trials! Children in general test and try us, sometimes to the limit. But a foster child who has experienced trauma, usually at the hand of biological parents or other family members, may be very suspicious of any adult, even to the point of rejecting any expressions of love and comfort. Additionally, older foster children seem to always feel ambivalent, having a sense of allegiance to their abusive parent or relative. It is not uncommon for foster children to set up rejection and failure by acting out. These examples are a just some of why being well-trained, educated and skilled is critical to maneuver through these trials. The good news – you can navigate these challenges, and with great success!
  • Five, be Well Supported! One of the substantial advantages of adopting a child from the foster care system is the amazing amount of support available to make the adoption successful. There are post adoption services, support groups galore, 24/7 resources, and tons of parenting education, guidance and skill building opportunities.

It goes without saying – we need more individuals and families willing to adopt children and youth from the foster care system. It is a huge blessing to these children and youth, and to the family who welcomes them, especially if the decision is well-planned and the family is well supported.

[A note of thanks to Barbara Grunow, director of adoption for Youth Villages for her insights.]