A Place to Call Home
104,000 children in the U.S. foster-care system are waiting for permanent homes. Could you be the perfect parent to one of them?
In the more than 25 years I’ve worked in the child welfare system, including two as National Project Director of AdoptUsKids, I’ve truly come to believe that almost any family can adopt a child from U.S. foster care. As our PSA says, you don’t have to be perfect to be a perfect parent.
The number of adoptions from foster care has risen slightly in recent years, but many more adults consider this route without taking action, due to skepticism about the process. With a little education, I’ve seen many of them become, yes, perfect parents to children in need of “forever families.” This November, in honor of National Adoption Month, AdoptUsKids and AF hope to demystify the process of adoption from foster care with these answers to common questions.
What's the process like? Are there any general guidelines?
I can explain the process in general terms, but each state has its own adoption laws and policies, and the steps involved vary from state to state. It’s wise to learn about your state’s laws at the outset (look them up at adoptuskids.org/resourcecenter). If you contact AdoptUsKids by phone (888-200-4005) or online (adoptuskids.org), you’ll be put in touch with a public agency (or contracted private provider) in your state.
Foster Care & Adoption: by the numbers
Estimated number of children in U.S. foster care: 408,000
waiting to be adopted: 107,000
average age: 8.1 years
younger than two: 12%
white: 39%; black: 29%; Hispanic: 22%
Estimated number of children adopted from foster care in 2010: 52,891
Adopted by foster parents: 53%
Adopted by relatives: 32%
Adopted by parents who had not previously cared for them: 15%
Adopted by single-parent families: 31%
Children receiving an ongoing financial subsidy: 90%
SOURCE: AFCARS Preliminary FY 2010 Estimates
Prospective adoptive families don’t have to have a lot of money or own their own home. In all but a few states, parents can be married or single. (Single-parent families accounted for 31 percent of all adoptions from foster care in 2010, according to data from the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System, or AFCARS.) A prospective adoptive family must demonstrate that they can provide a permanent home for a child or sibling group, and that they can provide a safe environment and support the health, mental health, educational, and social needs the child has.
How long does it take to adopt from foster care?
The freeing of a child for adoption through the termination of parental rights and the legal process to adopt are complex procedures. Families who are just beginning to explore whether or not adoption from foster care is right for them should plan on spending between nine and 18 months, on average, to complete the inquiry, orientation, preparation classes (typically 24 to 30 hours over the course of several weeks), and homestudy requirements. In 2009, the average length of stay in foster care for children who were ultimately adopted was 30 months.
How much does it cost to adopt a child from foster care?
Families who work directly with a public agency typically incur no costs. Families who use a private agency, which will, in turn, work with the public agency in their state or county, may have some out-of-pocket expenses. Families can typically recoup most or all of these expenses after finalization through the federal adoption tax credit.
What's an adoption subsidy?
Ninety percent of the children adopted from foster care in 2010 qualified to receive an ongoing subsidy (in 2003, the monthly average was $462) because they met their state’s definition for “special needs.” The purpose of adoption subsidies is to remove the financial barriers which may prevent a family from adopting from foster care, and to assure that a child’s special needs are met until he becomes an adult, between the ages of 18 and 22, depending on the state.
How does a child's legal status affect the adoption process?
Many states now offer a dual foster/adoption licensing process, because a child is considered a foster child until his adoption is finalized. While states have different laws regarding the termination of parental rights (TPR), no adoption can be finalized until the child’s birthparents have been identified, notified of their legal rights, given an opportunity to participate in the court process, and the TPR process is completed. Although many changes have been made in recent years to streamline the TPR process, this can take many months.
From the child’s point of view, it is better to be in a foster-to-adopt (or “concurrent”) home earlier in his or her stay in foster care. Then, if a child does not reunify with his birth family, he is already with the family who can adopt him. Most states give top priority to relatives and current foster parents when a child becomes legally freed for adoption. In 2010, 85 percent of children adopted from foster care were adopted by relatives or by non-relative foster parents.
Is it possible to adopt a child who lives in another state?
Yes! You can look on adoptuskids.org to see children from across the country who are waiting for permanent families. Adopting across state lines means families must familiarize themselves with the laws and practices of both their own state and the child’s state, and they need to be sure from the outset that their home study agency will help them do an interstate adoption.
Is it possible to adopt a baby from foster care?
Nearly all children in foster care have been removed from their families of origin because of alleged abuse or neglect. In general, the primary goal is to remediate the conditions that brought the child into care so that he may return home. Only after such efforts have failed are parental rights terminated. In most cases, once a child is freed for adoption, he’s adopted by relatives or by the non-relative foster parents who have been caring for him. Thus, if you’re able to foster before adopting, it is possible to adopt a baby. But infants who are in foster care are generally not available to be adopted by families who do not have an existing relationship with them.
Can adoptive parents specify preferences about the child they are seeking to adopt?
An important part of the family preparation and homestudy phase is working with a social worker to identify the characteristics of the child(ren) you feel interested in and equipped to adopt. These may include age, gender, race, physical and mental health, and what connections to the child’s birth family are in his best interests to preserve. In many states, older children (ranging from 10 to 14 years, depending on your state) must consent to their own adoptions.
What does "special needs" mean as it relates to children in foster care?
Each state defines “special needs” differently. In general, however, a child may be considered to have special needs if he: is age five or older, is a member of a minority group, has one or more ongoing physical, mental, or emotional health issues, or is part of a sibling group that needs to be placed together.
Can parents use a private agency or social worker?
States differ in how they work with private adoption agencies and whether they will accept a homestudy prepared by a social worker who is not affiliated with a public or private agency. It is important to ask at the very beginning of your journey to adoption about your state’s policies.
Is it necessary to involve an attorney in the process?
In most states, it is not required to involve an attorney in an adoption from foster care. Some families choose to do so because it gives them greater confidence in the legal process. In most states, children are represented by attorneys in the process, but if the adoptive parents want legal representation, they must use a different attorney.
What does a caseworker do?
Each child has his or her own caseworker. The caseworker is a key player in the process, charged with assuring that the child’s needs and rights to safety, permanency, and well-being are met. The child’s caseworker is rarely the sole decider as to who will adopt a child, but is likely the person with whom the family will communicate, either directly or through their adoption social worker, until the adoption is finalized.
Are adoptions from foster care generally successful?
More than 98 percent of legally completed adoptions remain intact. Adoptions appear to be more stable when parents have flexible and realistic hopes and expectations for their children and when post-adoption supports are available and used. It it important for families to ask about the availability of adoption support services when a particular child has been identified for adoption.
KATHY LEDESMA, MSW, has been National Project Director of AdoptUsKids (adoptuskids.org) since 2008.
PHOTO: Courtesy of the family; Katie and Jackie (6 and 5), adopted from U.S. foster care; uploaded to adoptivefamiliescircle.com.
Fostering Understanding: Join a group for families adopting or parenting a child from foster care at adoptivefamiliescircle.com/groups.
We asked readers who adopted from foster care how they chose this route, what surprised them about the process, and what advice they would give to others.
“After being emotionally and financially spent from fertility treatments, we saw this as an affordable way of becoming parents. I’m not sure what we expected when we began, but it’s been amazing. We have adopted five children, and have helped reunite many other foster kids with their biological families.”
“One thing that is frustrating about adoption from foster care is how much the process differs by state, and even by county. It’s often difficult to know what the next step will be. We were fortunate to find an agency where the social workers held small caseloads, so we got individual attention.”
“I first adopted internationally, and later from foster care, and I found the latter route refreshing. I felt better supported throughout the process, and was made to feel that our family is special and worthy to adopt.”
“When I was matched with a 16-month-old with severe medical needs who had been through several placements, I feared he had too many ‘issues’ for me to adopt him as a single parent. He arrived at my home at 5 p.m.—and by 7 the next morning, I knew he was my son. Today, my three-year-old is happy, healthy, handsome, bright, and the joy of my life.”
AdoptUsKids is a project of the U.S. Children’s Bureau. Its purpose is to raise awareness of the need for foster and adoptive families for children in the U.S. foster care system, and to assist states in recruiting these families. Since AdoptUsKids began operation, in 2002, more than 14,000 photolisted children have been adopted.
More than 4,500 children waiting for families can be seen right now at adoptuskids.org. AdoptUsKids staff can answer general questions made online or by phone (888-200-4005) about adoption from foster care and connect you with professionals in your state.
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