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Hope for Kids in Foster Care

Thanks to changes in the law, more parents are taking another look at foster adoption. By Madelyn Freundlich

It is 1995, and four-year-old Timmy has been in foster care most of his life. He was removed from his mother’s care when he was only a few months old, after she had left him alone in their apartment for almost two days. Over the past four years, Timmy has been in three different foster homes, while his mother has been trying to resolve her problems. Even though his current foster parents want very much to adopt him, the agency’s goal is to reunite Timmy with his mother. When that might happen is not clear.

Fast forward to 2001. Another little boy named Timmy has entered care as a baby. His mother has continued to have employment, housing, and mental health problems, despite efforts to help her over the last year and a half. Unlike the other Timmy, who continued to wait as the agency attempted to help his mother, this Timmy will most likely be placed in a permanent home with a family who wants to adopt him.

How is it that, in 2001, Timmy’s chances are so different than they would have been in 1995? Since 1997, with the enactment of a new federal law, The Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA), adoption has become a possibility for thousands of children. This represents a radical change.

A New Approach
In the 1970s, the emphasis was on removing children from unsafe families and protecting them through placement in foster care. But at the same time, there was a general reluctance to free children for adoption. Although adoption came to be viewed more favorably by the late 1980s and early 1990s, the commitment to freeing children for adoption was replaced by a philosophy that families should be kept together. Reunification was the desired outcome, even if it took years to achieve. Adoption was often perceived as a “failure” because it denied the reuniting of a child and his biological family.

By the mid-1990s, it had become apparent that children were remaining in foster care far too long and that, in many cases, efforts to reunify children with their parents were to little or no avail. Criticism of the emphasis on family preservation began to mount. Increasingly, attention focused on the negative consequences for children who remained in foster care for indefinite periods of time. The ASFA made a number of significant changes, and among the most important were requirements that children in foster care either be returned to their families or freed for adoption within a relatively short period of time. Additionally, ASFA addressed the financial disincentives to states in moving children from foster care to adoption. The new law gives states incentive payments based on numbers of finalized adoptions of children in foster care.

Since the ASFA was enacted, far more children in foster care are being adopted. In 1999, 46,000 children in foster care were adopted, compared to 17,000 children in 1990. Currently, some 134,000 children of varying ages, races, and ethnicity are free to be adopted.

Though freeing children for adoption is a positive step, it is only a first step. More needs to be done to alert prospective families to these children and to inform them of the processes involved in adoption. Some agencies have moved on their own to provide such services; others have been forced to do so through external pressures, such as lawsuits brought on behalf of children by organizations like Children’s Rights Inc.

In fact, such a lawsuit has been brought against the state of Tennessee by Children’s Rights Inc., on behalf of children like Denise, who spent eight years in foster care before her foster mom, Pearle, was allowed to adopt her (see “How We Became a Family,” following). Because of ASFA, the lawsuit, and Pearle’s determination, Denise now has the love of a permanent family.

The opportunities for bringing children and families together through adoption now exist—the challenge is to fulfill the promise of a family for each waiting child in foster care.

Madelyn Freundlich, a lawyer and social worker, is policy director for Children’s Rights Inc. in New York City.

  • What does it cost to adopt a child in foster care?
    Typically, it costs nothing or only a nominal amount.

  • How long does it take to adopt a child from foster care? It varies, but it usually takes between 4 and 18 months.

  • How do families learn about children in foster care waiting to be adopted? Information is available through your local child welfare agency; through photolistings maintained by each state; and on a number of Web sites that feature waiting children, such as Faces of Adoption, maintained by the National Adoption Center (

  • How We Became A Family: Three Families Describe Their Foster Adoptions
    I’ve always had a soft spot for kids. I used to send money to Save the Children all the time, but one day I looked around my home town of Memphis and said to myself, there are a lot of children who need help right here. I’d give food and clothing that my own kids had outgrown to little kids in my neighborhood. One day I heard about foster care on television and decided to check into it. I knew I had enough love and time to help children. But when I got the information, it looked like too much work. Then I got a call asking me why I didn’t fill out the paperwork. Because of an emergency situation, I could get a one-week-old baby girl, even before I attended the mandatory preparation class. So I said yes, attended the class and graduated. That was 12 years ago.

    Since then, I have been a foster parent to 80 children, and I have adopted four of them—Teasha, 11, Denise, 9, Othello, 9, and Enequa, 6. I signed up for children who had problems. Denise, for example, came to me when she was four days old. She was born addicted to drugs, and they had affected her nervous system. She also had trouble breathing, due to asthma. When Denise started school, she developed behavior problems (she had a very short attention span), but I couldn’t get her professional help because my hands were tied. I was not her legal guardian. I wanted to adopt her, but she did not have a social worker (the one who originally brought Denise to me quit the next day). Denise had no social worker for six years. The state kept telling me to hold on, to just give them time. I didn’t give up, and I was finally able to adopt Denise. I took her to a doctor, who put her on medication to calm her down. She went from a D student to being on the honor roll. We are such a happy family now!

    To parent a child who was in foster care, you need a lot of patience and a willingness to give of yourself. A child needs more than only her basic needs met. A child needs love, commitment, and exposure to the world. But the most important thing is love and understanding.
    —Pearle Cash, Memphis, TN

    It was not our intention to be foster parents and then to adopt, but it did turn out that way. We took our son into our home when he was just a little over five months old, after he had been in three good foster homes. We were technically considered foster parents and were even paid a monthly stipend until we signed the Adoptive Agreement Placement. However, we considered ourselves his parents from the start.

    We chose this method because we had unsatisfactory experiences with two private adoptions. The agency we used was not very supportive. When we settled in San Diego, we checked out the county adoptions and were impressed in what they offered. They stressed open adoptions (but were not dogmatic about it), and offered classes for adoptive parents. We had a good feeling that we would end up with a baby, no matter how long it took. We had spent a lot of money with the private agency before this but did not receive the services promised. Private adoption and overseas adoption seemed too expensive.

    It is important to trust your gut. We’d had anxieties about the private agency and found them to be justified. But the County of San Diego played straight with us. We really trusted them because they were thorough and realistic. It took about two and a half years after the first paperwork was filed to get our son. Other people we know gave gotten children sooner. In our case, Michael (now four and a half) was definitely worth the wait!
    — Ed and Karen Kennedy, San Diego, CA

    We had three birthchildren—Caleb, 12; Lucas, 10; and Morgan, 7—and wanted to expand our family. You hear horror stories about children in foster care, but those are the rare cases. Yes, they may be a little different to manage. They need love but are sometimes reluctant to receive it—it just takes a little time. My heart was already with these “lost” children because I had been a foster care coordinator, so it was a natural for us to welcome a child into our home permanently. We adopted Max from the Pennsylvania foster care system, and it did not cost us anything, except for the finalization legal expenses, which amounted to a few hundred dollars.

    We learned that you may not get exactly what you want. Initially we wanted a little girl, but we ended up with Max, who was almost five. He was the one for us. We were told he had some problems, wasn’t potty trained, couldn’t talk. We worked together with his foster parents to make the adjustment easy for him. We adopted Max in December 1999, but if you saw him now, you’d think he’d always been part of our family. He was potty trained, and learned his colors and shapes in no time. He gets speech therapy (free through our school system) and is improving every day. Everybody tell us how lucky he is to have been placed in such a good family. We see it just the opposite. We feel blessed, for he makes us appreciate life’s simple pleasures every day.

    —Tracy and Jimmy Pillow, Pittsburgh, PA

    ©Copyright 2002 Adoptive Families magazine. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited. Subscribe to Adoptive Families online at or via toll-free phone 800-372-3300.

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