When a child has been removed from his or her biological parents’ care due to neglect, abuse, mental health, addiction, or other risk factors, the U.S. foster care system seeks to provide one of two paths of permanency for that child—family reunification or adoption.
It’s important to know that reunification is the priority in foster care, and 51 percent of foster children are ultimately reunified with their biological parents, according to the Foster Care Statistics 2015 report from Child Welfare Information Gateway. Another six percent exit foster care to live with another relative. But what happens when reunification isn’t possible, or isn’t deemed to be in the child’s best interest?
Right now, according to the most recent data from AFCARS Report #23 from the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System of the Children’s Bureau, at the end of fiscal year 2015, there were approximately 427,910 children in the U.S. foster system; 111,820 of these children were classified as “waiting to be adopted,” including 62,378 for whom parental rights have been terminated.
How do you connect with one of these children? How do you take the first step of becoming a parent through foster adoption?
Since 2003, AdoptUSKids has been recruiting, educating, and preparing families to adopt from the foster care system—all for free.
Perhaps you’re already familiar with the organization, a project of the U.S. Children’s Bureau, from their national radio, television, and Internet campaign, “You don’t have to be perfect to be a perfect parent.”
These lighthearted PSAs have been quite successful in raising the public’s awareness about foster care adoption—and the profile of this multi-faceted, federally funded program. Here’s how they help.
A first-line, personalized resource. Prospective parents can gain a solid overview of the foster adoption process from their website, AdoptUSKids.org. But the organization goes further to serve as a responsive, hands-on resource. AdoptUSKids’ staff includes seven well-informed and well-educated foster care and adoption resource specialists who are standing by, right now, ready to answer prospective parents’ questions, connect them to local agencies and resources, and provide support throughout the entire foster-to-adopt process—and beyond.
“Our specialists respond daily to hundreds of questions about foster care and adoption,” says Kathy Ledesma, AdoptUSKids’ national project director. You can reach an AdoptUSKids specialist by calling 888-200-4005 (877-236-7831 en español), emailing [email protected] ([email protected] en español) or chatting through the website (M-F, 10am-4pm ET).
If you reach out to a specialist, in your first conversation, he or she will help you evaluate if foster-to-adopt is right for you. There are two critical points that every hopeful adoptive parent needs to understand:
- Every child in the foster care system must be fostered first before being adopted.
- Every single child in the system has suffered some sort of trauma.
“Hopeful adoptive parents need to embrace these vital truths,” says Ledesma. “That’s why we encourage them to become foster parents, even if they are only interested in adoption. When reunification isn’t possible, a child will still need to be in foster care. What’s more, some states will only terminate a biological parent’s rights after an adoptive placement has been identified.”
In regards to the importance of understanding the effects of trauma and knowing how and where to get appropriate support, Ledesma explains, “Being taken away from biological family, friends, all a child knows, and entering foster care is a traumatic experience in and of itself, and that removal is often the result of traumatic abuse or neglect.”
Specialists are trained to keep communication alive with prospective parents, and will check back in after that first contact to make sure you’ve received the information you needed. For a list of common questions people ask AdoptUSKids specialists, and their answers, soo “FAQs About Foster Adoption,” below. If you’re ready to move forward, your specialist can explain the rest of the process and connect you with specific caseworkers, therapists, respite care, parent support groups, and other family resources near you to provide short- and long-term assistance.
Each specialist is assigned a specific set of states, making them keenly aware of those states’ rules and regulations regarding foster care and adoption. “This way we cover the entire country,” says Ledesma. “Every state has different laws, and a different model of state agencies and private agencies they work with. So if a state changes a law, or an agency goes out of business, our specialists know about it and can provide the appropriate next steps.”
Connecting families to children and their caseworkers. AdoptUSKids is not an adoption agency. They don’t process adoptions, but they will put you in touch with a public or private agency in your state that can do so. The organization does help with the initial matching, however, by maintaining the only federally funded photolisting of waiting children.
“The children on our website are either legally free for adoption, or adoption is their permanency plan,” says Ledesma. “Since 2003, more than 54,000 children have been photolisted on the AdoptUSKids site, and 23,000 have been adopted.”
Right now, there are 5,500 waiting children photolisted, 2,600 home-study approved families, and 1,500 agencies registered on AdoptUSKids.org. In order to search, prospective parents must verify they have:
- Agency approval
- An up-to-date home study
“Children are matched with families in two ways,” explains Ledesma. “Families can search and connect with a caseworker of a child who is listed, or a child’s caseworker can seek out registered families who they think would make a great match. And, of course, our specialists are always on hand to lend guidance and help.”
“We’ve taken it upon ourselves to educate and assist families,” says Ledesma. “We want them to know that AdoptUSKids serves families at any time in the foster-to-adopt process, pre- and post-adoption. We’re not going anywhere.”
Adopting from the foster care system can feel like watching a poorly directed Shakespearian play—you find yourself on a larger-than-life quest, full of drama, complicated side plots, and a cast of many. Foster, biological, and pre-adoptive families frequently complain of an overburdened child welfare system; undereducated caseworkers; an unclear family-child matching process; and a lack of pre- and post-adoption training and services. Then there’s the whole “it’s like they’re speaking another language” thing—from DHS to TPR—which can further make for a confusing and frustrating experience. But when your first stop is AdoptUSKids, you have a guide and an interpreter to help minimize the drama through the moment you leave the theater, your new child in hand.
FAQs About Foster Adoption, from AdoptUSKids
How much does it cost to adopt from foster care?
Most adoptions from U.S. foster care are free. The minimal costs that can be associated with them are often reimbursable.
Do I need to be married to adopt?
No, you do not need to be married! Many single people are successful foster and adoptive parents.
Are there income or education requirements? Do I need to own my own home?
You don’t need to own your own home, be wealthy, have children already, have a college degree, or be a stay-at-home parent to adopt. However, you do need to demonstrate that you can support yourself without any additional income, such as adoption assistance.
Are there age restrictions on adopting from foster care?
In most states, adults of all ages can adopt. There are typically no upper age limits.
Why are children in foster care?
Children and youth enter foster care through no fault of their own, because they have been abused, neglected, or abandoned by the people who were supposed to care for them.
While the majority of children come into care due to neglect, all children in foster care have experienced loss and trauma.
I have heard that many children in foster care have “special needs.” What does that mean?
The term “special needs” simply refers to children who qualify for adoption assistance due to specific factors or conditions such as:
- Being an older child
- Having a particular racial or ethnic background
- Being part of a sibling group needing to be placed together as one unit
- Medical conditions
- Physical, mental, or emotional disabilities
A child with special needs should not be confused with a child who requires special education.
How long does it usually take to become licensed to adopt?
That is a difficult question! Unfortunately there is not a specific timeframe. On average, the process can take from four to 12 months from your first contact with your selected agency.