By Rita Soronen
More than thirty years ago, Dave Thomas, the founder of The Wendy’s Company and the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, a national non-profit public charity, began to speak about his personal experience as an adopted child. In doing so, he helped to ignite a national conversation about foster care adoption, a critical discussion that continues today. The need then, and now, endures as a growing number of vulnerable children in the United States wait for a family and a home.
Unfortunately, the myths, misperceptions, and realities of foster care and foster care adoption can give pause to those who are exploring engaging with the public child welfare system. However, with accurate information, real-time access to appropriate resources and a supportive network, providing a safe and nurturing home through foster care or adoption can be a viable and joyful option for families.
Children in the United States enter foster care, or a substitute family placement, through no fault of their own. They are referred in because of allegations of abuse or neglect or abandonment; they stay in care until they can either safely return home, which is the primary goal of the child welfare system or are legally freed for adoption. More than 430,000 children and youth are in foster care in the United States. 
And today, 123,000 of those children have been permanently separated from their family origin and are waiting for someone to step forward and adopt. They range in age from birth to 18, may be in a sibling group or have special needs; all have experienced the trauma of abuse or neglect and continue to wrestle with issues of grief and loss. There is an increasing over-representation of minority, older and LGBTQ children in foster care. For these populations of children, the trauma of abuse and separation is compounded by mistreatment and rejection, because of their culture, race, age, sexual orientation or gender identity.
The hard reality is that too many of these children linger in care for years, and leave at age 18 without the adoptive family promised to them; last year more than 20,000 children left foster care without a permanent family. Research shows that these youth are at an elevated risk of negative outcomes – homelessness, unemployment, early parenting, substance abuse or incarceration – because they lack the safety net of a family and the support of a community to help guide them through early adulthood.
Foster Care and Foster Care Adoption 101
Individuals can help these children in two significant ways – as a foster parent or an adoptive one. Foster parents provide temporary placement and support for individual children or sibling groups. They assure the child’s day-to-day needs are met, including providing a safe home, managing their educational and health care needs and keeping them connected to essential services. Depending on the foster parent’s wishes and training, a child may be placed on a temporary emergency basis, or they may stay for weeks, months or even years. Foster parents are reimbursed for basic expenses and are provided intensive training and support from the agency with which they work.
Foster parents may wish to be just that – a temporary placement. Or they may choose to also become an adoptive parent for a child who has been freed for adoption.
There are four kinds of legal adoption – domestic infant adoption, managed through private agencies and attorneys; international adoption, similarly handled by private adoption agencies; step-parent adoption; and public foster care adoption. Given the various routes, there are many reasons to consider foster care adoption. The 2017 Adoption Attitudes Survey revealed that nearly 80% of adults who said they are considering adoption from foster care are doing so because they want to help a child or youth in need. Additionally, for families interested in children older than infants or sibling groups, foster care provides many options.
As a first step, whether as a foster parent or an adoptive one, it is important to ask a number of questions: Am I willing to learn about the dynamics of abuse and neglect and understand the kind of trauma a child experiences before moving into foster care, and often, after? Am I able to commit to a child while they are in the child welfare system, knowing, as a foster parent, the goal is to have them return home? Or, if I am choosing to be an adoptive parent, am I willing to commit to a child permanently? What kind of supportive networks do I have or am willing to find?
Each state handles foster care and adoption differently, but one of two venues are used by potential foster or adoptive parents: the public child welfare agency, typically the Department of Children’s Services (or a similar name); or a private agency that contracts with the public department to provide foster care and adoptive services. All agencies will require completing an application to foster or adopt.
Additionally, all foster and adoptive parents are required to complete pre-service training provided by the agency, covering topics like understanding the dynamics of abuse and neglect, separation and loss, cultural sensitivity, attachment and trust and behavior management. Next, a home study will be completed. It includes interviews with family members, a background check, health statements, a history of education and employment, a review of the family’s financial situation, daily life and overall home and neighborhood environment, all to ensure a safe placement for vulnerable children. A home study can take three to six months to complete and may have a nominal, but typically reimbursable fee.
Once the application, training and home study are successfully completed, families will be available for placements. It can be a demanding job, and it can be emotionally difficult to return a child to a parent, after bonds are formed. But a foster parent provides a critical and hopeful link in a child’s journey through the child welfare system.
For those who train as foster-to- adopt parents, it may be that a child who is placed for foster care, then is freed for adoption, can remain with the family and move towards adoption. For those who train simply as adoptive parents, the agency will work to identify the right family for each child. Most states require a six-month placement period with the family before the adoption moves toward finalization in the courts. Adoption is a legal process, that when finalized, gives the adoptive parents the same legal rights as if the child had been born to them.
5 Myths About Foster Care and Adoption
- Children end up in foster care because of their own juvenile delinquency. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Children and youth enter the foster care system due to parental abuse or neglect, not through any fault of their own.
- Foster/adoptive parents need to be heterosexual, married couples. Families who adopt are as unique and diverse as the children in their care. Adoptive parents can be single, in a same-sex relationship, non-home-owners, or extended family members. These children simply need loving individuals in their lives who are willing to meet the challenges of parenting and make a lifetime commitment to a child.
- It is expensive to adopt. Foster care adoption is not expensive. In fact, it can cost little to nothing. Foster care adoption costs can range from $0 to $2,500. While you do need to be financially stable to adopt, you do not need to be wealthy. Subsidies are often available when adopting, and many employers also offer adoption benefits.
- A child’s family of origin can “reclaim” them. Once a child is legally freed for adoption, the family of origin cannot fight to regain custody. Adoptive parents have the same rights, responsibilities, and protections as parents whose children were born to them. This also means children who have been adopted have all the emotional, social, legal, and familial benefits of biological children.
- Foster/adoptive parents need to be under 50 years old. There is no ideal age to become a foster or adoptive parent. Almost one in four adopted children live with a parent who is 55 years or older.
Challenges in the System
Children in foster care are in the custody of government systems, which can pose challenges for well-intentioned foster and adoptive parents. Delays, changes in staffing and potentially non-responsive and overworked staff can be frustrating for potential parents stepping into this unfamiliar territory.
For LGBTQ adults and youth, there may be added layers of perceived or real discrimination and rejection. Reporting from the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau shows that five to ten percent of the youth, ages 10 – 18, in the foster care system are self-identified as LGBTQ.  In addition to being overrepresented in the system, many of these children have come into care after experiencing family rejection or abuse, simply because of their expressed gender identity or sexual orientation.
Once in care, research also shows that these children and youth too often experience the added stress of having more placements than their peers and are more likely to be placed in a group or congregate care setting, typically the result of bias and/or the harassment received from other children in care. It comes as no surprise that these children and youth run away from their placements in alarming numbers and engage in potentially dangerous survival behaviors.
With the increase of children entering the complex child welfare system, it is essential to maximize every avenue to find permanency and stability for these children. And yet, as states work to increase the rosters of potential foster and adoptive parents, they are struggling with how to balance religious beliefs of private licensing agencies with the need for an adequate pipeline of diverse families to meet the needs of waiting children.
In many states, variations of laws have passed that permit state-licensed foster and adoptive agencies to decline to facilitate child placements that conflict with their religious beliefs. As a result, religious organizations can refuse to place a child in a foster or adoptive home because of the marital status, gender or sexual identity, or religious faith of the prospective family. The ability of private agencies to limit the types of otherwise qualified families they will license has wide-ranging implications for both the youth in desperate need of family and those interested in foster care placement and adoption. Consider these strategies:
- Research and advocate. Work with national organizations that have identified agencies that do not discriminate. The All Children All Families project of the Humans Rights Campaign identifies and recognizes agencies across the U.S. who demonstrate inclusion practices. The Family Equity Council works tirelessly to fight against LGBTQ discrimination through its Every Child Deserves a Family campaign.
- Interview multiple agencies. LGBTQ individuals interested in fostering or adopting should interview multiple agencies to find out which agency provides the best support for the individual and to gauge the agency’s comfort level in dealing with LGBTQ licensing and placements.
- Talk to others who have been there. Connect with local foster parent associations, adoption support groups, and your local LGBTQ community to get experiences from other LGBTQ foster and adoptive parents. These experienced parents could provide invaluable feedback on the agency culture that could aid in the selection of the agency best positioned to support an LGBTQ individual in their quest to build a family.
Every qualified adult who takes on the responsibility to become a foster or adoptive parent deserves the training and support they need to assume these critical community roles. The child welfare system can be fraught with roadblocks, delays and attempts to deny access. There are 437,000 reasons to consider being a foster parent and 123,000 reasons to consider adopting from foster care. A child’s best interest is to have a safe, loving, and permanent home and to have someone to step forward, to celebrate them, to love them and to be their forever family. We owe it to waiting children to break through barriers to give them every chance of being with a family who best meets their individual needs.
Rita Soronen is President & CEO of the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption. This article was originally published by the Family Equality Council, as part of a series of articles spotlighting issues and stories related to adoption. U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services. The AFCARS Report, Preliminary 2017 Estimates as of August 10, 2018 – No.25.  U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau. Affirming and Supporting LGBTQ Children and Youth in Child Welfare