I've been working for a year now for a foster care agency, facilitating adoptions by foster parents. Lately a number of people have asked me about adopting through foster care.
This is a really interesting field, I think, whether or not you're planning on adopting. Prior to this job, my experience of adoption was mostly seeing middle class people adopt babies, some domestically and some internationally. Since I've been very involved in lesbian and gay parenting since the mid-1980s and since lots of gay men and some lesbians do adopt I have been exposed to lots and lots of adoptive families, but most of them through private routes. Foster care adoption is a whole 'nother thing, as my kids would say.
Here's some of what I've learned in the past years and answers to some FAQs. First some background:
All kinds of kids come into foster care - from infancy to late teens, healthy and not, onlies and sibling groups. But they always come into care because there was a problem - a problem deemed severe enough to remove them from their parents' care. So there is generally some sort of trauma and it's not clear what the long term effects will be. And they all come into care with a goal of "Return to Parent."
The foster parents' job is to care for and nurture and truly love the child - and then give the child back when the parents are ready to handle parenting, ready as deemed by the agency. The foster parents might not agree; they might feel the child is better off with them. The agency staff might - often does - think the foster parents are better parents than the ones the child is being returned to, but that doesn't matter. The state cannot take your children away just because they think someone is a better parent. If the bio parents are adequate, if they're able to demonstrate that the problem that caused their child to be removed has been fixed, then they get their kid back. If the bio parents cannot or will not fix that problem, if they don't do what they've been told they need to, then their rights are terminated and the child is freed for adoption. Alternately, if the bio parents agree that the child would be better off with the foster parents, they can sign a surrender and avoid court. This happens fairly often. Surrender is quick - once the bio parent decides to surrender and signs, it's over. Termination of Parental Rights (TPR) can often take years.
Most children in foster care come from families in poverty and most of the reasons the kids are taken away are those that are associated with or even directly result from poverty: inadequate shelter or food, inadequate guardianship, substance abuse, domestic violence. The latter two are pretty common among people of means, too, but they mask it better and pay other people to care for their kids when they can't and generally avoid the scrutiny the poor have.
Most foster parents are also poor. Many have very complicated lives, including history of criminal activity and substance abuse. All kinds of people can be foster parents and many of them are "kinship foster parents" - relatives of the children who were removed. Kin are looked to first and if they cannot be found, the next preference is someone who is from the same neighborhood and ethnic group. All of this is to facilitate return to the parent - keeping the children in the same community. I'm often struck by how similar the lives of our foster/adoptive parents are to the children's bio parents - only the foster parents have managed to overcome some of the same issues and live more stable lives.
Still, foster parents are wanted from every class, race, ethnicity. If you want to care for children and you're willing to put in the effort to be trained and certified, you can be a foster parent. And we do have some from more middle class backgrounds.
It's a hard thing we ask of foster parents - to offer children love and stability while not knowing if you'll be allowed to give them permanency. But it's also a lovely, wonderful thing and kids really do thrive in loving homes with the supports they need. Agencies like the one I work for provide a lot of support to foster parents. Social workers visit the home regularly and arrange for services. We have doctors and nurses on staff and psychologists. Assistance is given in finding appropriate educational settings for the kids and supportive services for those who need some form of educational assistance.
Now the FAQs:
Q. How intrusive and difficult is the process of becoming a foster parent?
A. It's not so difficult, but it is intrusive. You need to take a course, then have a background check and home study. The course in New York State is called MAPP - Model Approaches to Partnership in Parenting. The partnership referred to is between you as the foster parent and the children's parents, to whom you are trying to return them. It's not always much of a partnership but that is the goal. The background check includes criminal history and any possible reports made to the State Central Registry on child abuse or neglect. The home study will require not only someone visiting your home but asking you lots of personal questions about your upbringing, relationships (romantic and otherwise), reasons for foster parenting, etc.
Once you're certified as a foster parent, you need to have your license renewed annually, which includes annual training. Kinship foster parents have a streamlined process - a quicker training, a provisional license while the checks are done.
Q: What does it cost to become a foster parent? What about adopting through foster care?
A: It costs nothing to you. You will get financial support for the child while s/he is placed with you. This money does not count as income for income tax purposes and is meant to be used to provide for the child. If the child is deemed "hard to place", you also are eligible for free legal assistance throughout the adoption process and for adoption subsidy (monthly payments, equal to the foster care payments, that will continue until the child is 21).
Q. What kind of child or children will be placed with me?
A: They can be of any age, ethnicity, condition. You will be asked to take in a child or children, who will be described to you, and you can say yes or no. Some foster parents can't handle teenagers, some only take teenagers. It's up to you what kinds of kids you take into your home and how many. Kids with greater medical, emotional, and educational needs are funded at a higher level (both for foster care and adoption subsidy), to cover the higher costs of meeting those needs.
Q: Who places the kids in the foster homes?
A: In NYC it's generally private agencies who have contracts with the city and state who do it. The city agency - ACS - removes children from their homes and assigns them to the private agencies to place and monitor.
Q: Do most kids in foster care get adopted?
A: No, not here anyway. In New York State, 16% of children/youth in foster care who are discharged are adopted, and that includes kinship adoptions. Most are returned to their parents (54%)or discharged to other relatives (11%). Another 11% are released to their own responsibility, either because they signed themselves out of care (which they can do any time after they turn 18) or because they aged out (at age 21).
Q: How do I know if I'll be able to adopt the child who is placed with me?
A: You don't, unless that child has already been freed for adoption through Termination of Parental Rights (TPR) or surrender. You might have an idea based on the history of the family - e.g. if a mother has abandoned a baby at birth and her whereabouts are unknown and she has done this before and the children were adopted, your chances are good. Still she might turn up.
A couple at my agency last year "won the baby lottery." They brought their foster son home when he was 8 days old; although his mother was drug addicted and using while pregnant, he was fine, and they finalized the adoption before his second birthday. This is pretty unusual but it's not unheard of. The thing is, though, they took the chance all along it wouldn't work out like that - his mother might have taken him back, he might have had sequelae from being born drug addicted, they might have had a long, drawn out process to TPR.
Q: What if I only want to foster a child I can adopt?
A: You can say so. You can limit your fostering to children who are already freed and there are agencies and places to find out specifically about kids who are freed and who don't have pre-adoptive placements. However, if you are only willing to take a child who is already freed then your options are pretty limited and you will likely have a child who is not only older but with severe issues of one kind or another.
Foster care functions as a sort of sieve - the more functional kids are the ones who either go home to their families or are adopted by their foster families. Kids who are freed and looking for homes are the kids left in the sieve, the ones with significant issues that make it hard for them to function in a family. They generally have had multiple placements, often have had multiple psychiatric hospitalizations, have experienced huge trauma. Many of them will do splendidly in the right family, but it's no cake walk.
Q: Why aren't there more freed kids who don't have those kinds of issues?
A: It used to be that lots of foster parents only had kids short term. But now recruitment efforts are focused on people who would adopt if the child becomes free for adoption (so as to minimize disruption to the kids by putting them in a foster home for a couple of years and then a new home once they're freed) so there's that sieve effect.
Q: When a child is in foster care and available for adoption, about how long does the process take?
A: Once the child is freed for adoption, if s/he is already in a pre-adoptive foster home, it generally takes 6 months to a year to finalize, depending on the complications of the case. When it looks like a child is going to be freed, some of the work can be done ahead of time to make it quicker. But if you look at from the point where the child comes into care to adoption, it would be unusual for it to take less than two years and common to take more than that.
Q: Is it possible to be placed with a young child (as in, under age 3) and then adopt?
A: Yes, absolutely. However at the time you took the baby/child in you could not be sure that you'd end up adopting.
Q: Is it possible to adopt an emotionally, mentally, and physically healthy child (again, let's say under age 3)?
A: Parenting is a crap shoot however you look at it. A child may be emotionally, mentally, and physically healthy at age 3 and have all manner of problems 10 years later. The reverse is also true. Lots of kids adopted from foster care are doing splendidly and are in wonderful, happy homes. Some are in wonderful homes and still have lots of problems. But that's also true of kids adopted privately, kids adopted internationally, and kids who were born into those families. That said, a child's chances are much, much better with loving parent(s) and a stable home. I've seen kids with trauma histories that make me cry my eyes out to read about absolutely flourishing in the right home.
Q: I know adopting sibling sets is often a goal for agencies for understandable reasons, but did you see frequent single-child adoptions?
A: Most of our adoptions are single children. There is an attempt to keep siblings together, but often siblings don't come into care together. A mother may have a child who goes into care, she gives birth to another 3 years later, etc. We do have some sibling group adoptions but we have more single child placements, even when there are siblings. If siblings are fostered in different homes, there is an attempt to have regular visits and families are encouraged to maintain contact post-adoption.
Q: I believe the state/city provides follow-up services for foster care-adoptive families - in your opinion, are these strong and effective?
A: There are a lot of services provided while you're fostering. After adoption is another story. The state has slashed post-adoption services funding and it's very hard to find programs specifically for families that adopted. You'd be eligible, of course, for all the supports that other families get, from evaluations to special ed to therapy, etc. but the specific services for post-adoption foster families have pretty much all been defunded. On the plus side, if you adopted a "hard to place" child or children (almost all the children my agency fosters are deemed hard to place) you do get adoption subsidy (about $500 a month at the basic rate, more if the child has special medical, psychological, or educational needs) to help with costs for those private services you might need and that goes through to age 21. And by being a foster parent you kind of learn what's out there and how to navigate the system so you've got a leg up in finding supportive services when you need them.
So that's my somewhat opinionated view after watching all this close up for the past year.