The term “forever family” is almost ubiquitous in the world of adoption. It is the dream of many children available for adoption to find a forever family, with parents to love and care for them. In the world of foster care adoption, the term “forever family” is used to stress the permanence and stability that comes from finding a family, once a child is adopted.
Children are placed in foster care when their parents or guardians—for whatever reason—cannot take care of them. Sometimes this occurs because of the death of the parent (or parents). Other times, it happens when children are removed from their home as the result of abuse or neglect. Children may also be voluntarily committed to foster care by their parents when the family is experiencing unmanageable hardship.
In most cases, foster care is meant to be a temporary placement while children wait to return to their original guardians or biological parents. Parents who voluntarily committed their children to foster care often do so with the intention of taking their children back into their home as soon as the situation improves. When children have been removed from a home because of abuse or neglect, the parents are often given multiple chances to create a safe household for their children. Once parents can prove they are able to care for their children again, the children are returned.
Unfortunately, some parents are unable to create an appropriate living situation for their children. In this case, the court must order the termination of parental rights (TPR). One the parental rights have been terminated, a child may be legally placed for adoption.
Many children live in foster care for years before the TPR is ordered. During this time, it is not uncommon for a child to have multiple foster care placements. Often children are first placed in short-term foster care while a long-term foster care placement is arranged. Many foster care parents are not fully prepared for the challenges they face opening their home to a foster child, and many foster care children arrive shaken and traumatized. These circumstances make finding a successful foster care placement very difficult. By the time that a foster care child has been freed for adoption, he or she may have been in many homes over many years, with many families.
Adoption from foster care can occur in many different ways. Sometimes a placement in a foster family can last for many years, and when the TPR is ordered, foster parents make the decision to adopt their long-time foster children. Other times, children are adopted by outside families that have been determined to be an appropriate fit for that child. Sometimes children find a forever family in the very city—or even neighborhood—where they have been living with their foster family. Other times children may be adopted by families from out of the city, or even out of the state.
All foster care adoptions involve a lot of paperwork, bureaucracy and time. When a child is placed under foster care, that child is assigned to a case worker. The child’s case worker represents that child’s interests as the child moves through the foster care system. Case workers that represent children available for adoption exchange information with case workers who represent families looking for children to adopt, and this is often how connections are made and adoptions are initiated.
Families that seek a child to adopt a child from foster care must align themselves with an adoption agency in their city, and the agency will assign that family to a case worker. Parents are required to take classes that will prepare them for the challenges they will face as adoptive parents to foster care children. Years of loss, instability, uncertainty, frustration, fear and disappointment are scarring to children in foster care. The required classes teach parents how to advocate for their children, how to handle sensitive emotional issues and how to manage the day to day issues that children in foster care must overcome. These classes are arranged by the agency and are among the requirements for adoption.
Once parents have successfully completed the classes and have undergone extensive checks for eligibility, a homestudy must be written. A homestudy is a comprehensive document about a family that wishes to adopt a child. A homestudy can take as long as a month to write, can be as long as 50 pages or more, and will include nearly everything that can be put into words about that family and its home life. The homestudy is written by a qualified caseworker who conducts exhaustive interviews of every member of the household, checks references, and collects documents like paychecks and tax returns. When it is complete, the homestudy will include the history of each family member, personality and character descriptions, a full description of the home where the family lives, parental work history and educational background, and household income. The homestudy can seem invasive and questions can be difficult to answer at times, but the homestudy plays a crucial role in placing the right child with the right family. It is important for every member of the family to be open and honest during this process.
Once the homestudy has been completed, a copy of the homestudy is released to the family. The homestudy is to an adoptive family what a resume is to a job seeker. Prospective adoptive parents are allowed to send their homestudy to case workers that represent children available for adoption. Lists of children who are currently available for adoption may be found online—with pictures, limited descriptions of their backgrounds, and their caseworker’s contact information. While the prospective parents send their homestudy to different case workers locally and out of state, the prospective parents’ caseworker may also sending their homestudy to other case workers who represent children waiting to be adopted.
Many children who are available for adoption are considered to be “special needs”. Special needs children are children who are difficult to place either because they have an emotional or physical impairment, or (often) because they are of an older age than what most prospective parents are seeking. In many cases, children who are of school age, regardless of their physical or emotional health, are considered special needs. Many parents seeking children for adoption would like to adopt babies or toddlers. Unfortunately, many children in foster care waited for years for the termination of parental rights, and are over five years old. Families that are flexible in their expectations for adoption—who are open to adopting a special needs child—are more likely to have a fast and successful placement.
Once a potential match has been identified, it is arranged for the prospective parents and children to meet. If the match seems to be successful, visitations begin, and soon the child is placed in the care of the prospective parents. This process can take days, weeks or months. After the child is placed permanently in the prospective parents’ home, the final steps are taken for the legal adoption to occur.
Once a child is placed in the home of an adoptive family, the family goes through something that is often referred to as a “honeymoon period”. During this time, children and parents both present their best sides and life seems unrealistically perfect. The length and severity of the honeymoon period will depend on the specific circumstances of each placement. Parents may feel unprepared when the honeymoon ends and the child begins to show the anger and sadness that has naturally been building in the child for the last several years. These feelings can manifest themselves with unexpected behaviors, making the transition difficult. Although many placements proceed to adoption even through all the difficulties, adoptive placements have been known to fall apart at all stages of adoption. Only when the final proceedings have taken place, and the final adoption papers are signed, are the children secure in their placement with their forever family.
To handle the adoptive proceedings, a lawyer may be assigned to the family by the agency, or the family may seek their own counsel. In the US, foster care adoption is subsidized by the government, and this process is often free or nearly free. In many cases, families that adopt from foster care also collect a monthly subsidy check from the government once the adoption has been finalized, with severe special needs cases warranting larger subsidy amounts. Whether a subsidy is granted, and the amount of the subsidy, is determined state by state and case by case. This money is meant to ensure that the child will receive the services he or she needs to grow up happy and healthy.
The process of adopting a child from foster care, while ultimately a rewarding process, takes fortitude, strength of character and persistence. The foster care system is a large and often discouraging bureaucracy. There is no easy road to foster care adoption, and even the most successful placements require more work and determination than any parent can prepare for. Parents who seek to adopt a child from foster care are very special people indeed.