Foster Care Adoption: Truth and “Truthiness”

posted by Dr. James G. Hood
Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Foster Care Adoption: America’s Waiting Children

Rita L. Soronen
Executive Director
Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption

One Family’s Story

Pam and Joe Kaehler didn’t always plan to have children. They led busy lives in Morgantown, WV, where Pam is a health care administrator, Joe manages a community theatre and both serve on the boards of local nonprofits. They had not thought much about raising a family; as Pam put it, “Kids? I don’t think so. No time, money, energy, confidence or square footage.”

Yet they always felt a deep sense of responsibility for helping and serving others. In 2002, Pam was accepted into a civic and leadership development program which included a social services session that exposed the class to a variety of issues, including child abuse and neglect. The subject touched Pam’s heart, and she contacted the department of health and human resources (known in many locales as child protective services) for information. Nine months and many classes, inspections and interviews later, the Kaehlers were certified as foster/adoptive parents and matched with 6-year-old Patrick. The parental rights of his birthmother were under appeal, and he needed immediate placement. The Kaehlers welcomed Patrick into their home as a foster and possibly adoptive placement in August 2004.

“Quite simply, parenting Patrick challenged, strengthened and softened us unimaginably,” Pam notes. “So when we were called in November 2005 about an unrelated pair of beautiful siblings—Zack and Alexzandra, ages 8 and 10—we were apprehensive, but we could not say no.” Zack and Alex were placed in the home in December, and Patrick’s adoption was finalized in January. Pam adds, “So we went from zero to three in just over a year’s time!”

Left to right: Zack, Joe, Alex, Pam and Patrick on the set for a video promoting their local United Way

Dave Thomas, founder of Wendy’s and a recognizable national icon, was adopted. As a successful businessman with a deep personal commitment to give back to the community, he created the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption in 1992 to dramatically increase adoptions of children from foster care. He frequently noted, “These children are not someone else’s responsibility. They are our responsibility.” The Kaehlers responded to his call to action. But 123,000 children continue to wait for a family like the Kaehlers to step forward and adopt.

America’s Waiting Children

When children are permanently removed from their families, we make what should be an unbreakable promise—that we will quickly find an adoptive family for them. Embedded in that promise is that we will find a family that cherishes their childhood, recognizes the challenges that have coincided with their movement into foster care and responds appropriately to their developmental needs. This is critical so that children can grow and thrive while obtaining their birthright—a safe and secure family of their own.

Yet each year in this country, more children in the foster care system are freed for adoption than leave it to adoptive families. In 2008, while 55,000 children were adopted from public child welfare systems, another 75,000 were legally freed but not adopted. (For sources of all adoption statistics, see “Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System” in the Resources sidebar.) And even with decades of groundbreaking federal and state legislation and an increase in adoption incentives awarded to states, challenges within the very systems created to move children into homes often keep them in transient care.

Children in foster care waiting to be adopted have been there an average of 24 months after their parents’ rights are legally terminated, and that is in addition to the months leading up to that point. Many children wait five years or more. Too many are separated from their siblings, and 20%—last year more than 20,000 children—experience their 18th birthday while in foster care and then leave the system without a family of their own. The consequences of youth aging out of care are well documented. According to the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative (See Resources sidebar):

  • While 13% of the general population neither graduate from high school nor receive a GED by age 21, that figure is 25% for youth aging out of foster care.
  • 71% of females aging out of foster care become pregnant at least once before age 21, while this is true for only 34% of the general population.
  • Males in foster care are four times more likely to have been arrested than a comparison group, while females are nearly ten times as likely to have been arrested.

The differences in outcomes result in costs to individuals and to society related to welfare, Medicaid, incarceration and lost wages, among others. The Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative estimates that “the outcome differences between youth aging out of [foster care] and the general population is nearly $5,700,000,000 for each annual cohort of youth leaving care.”

Challenge: The Agency and Court Process

The stages of the child welfare system—from entry to termination of parental rights (TPR) and adoption—make up a complex legal and social services route through which children and families must navigate. At every stage, child welfare agencies and the courts work in tandem for the best interests of the children through hearings, service provision, appeals, termination of parental rights and adoption finalization. The chart below highlights the key steps in the foster care adoption process:

Chart adapted from Foster Care Adoption in the United States: A State by State Analysis of Barriers and Promising Practices;
November 2004; Urban Institute, commissioned by the National Adoption Day Collaborative.

Barriers and challenges, even in the most efficient of agencies or courts, can delay moving a child through each stage from foster care to adoptive home. In many states, for example, courts are reluctant to terminate parental rights until a family resource is identified and must exhaust all legal appeals prior to termination. Additionally, in most jurisdictions across the nation, agencies are challenged to find families willing to adopt special needs children (that is, children in sibling groups, older children and children with emotional/physical challenges or disabilities). It can also be difficult to find homes that reflect the diversity of the children waiting. Additionally, many families are reluctant to tackle the complicated systems inherent in the process. Particularly as state budgets are radically diminished, agencies struggle with administrative issues of staff training and turnover, caseload management and accountable recordkeeping.

Challenge: Recruitment Myths and Misperceptions

Adding to the system challenges are the myriad myths and misperceptions that surround children and the systems in which they reside, resulting in a child welfare landscape that may cause potential adoptive families to self-select out of the process—or keep adoption professionals from actively matching some children with families. Some common misperceptions about foster care adoption include:

  1. It is too expensive to adopt. In reality, foster care adoption is not expensive—typically averaging $0 to $1,500—and financial support is available to families who adopt from foster care. Subsidies follow most of the children in foster care until they are 18 years old; many employers provide adoption benefits; federal and state tax credits are available; and assistance for college expenses of older youth is available.
  2. Children in foster care are juvenile delinquents. Nothing could be further from the truth. Children enter the foster care system through no fault of their own and as a result of abuse, neglect or abandonment. More than half of the children waiting in foster care for adoptive homes are age 7 or older, and nearly 30% are age 12 or older. Unfortunately, each year about 20% of the children waiting to be adopted turn 18 and leave the system without a family. These new adults are at risk of falling into poverty, homelessness or even the criminal justice system without the supports needed to thrive.
  3. The biological parents can fight to have the children returned. Once a child has been made legally free for adoption, birthparents cannot claim a child or petition for their return. Foster care adoption is permanent. The adoptive parents may decide to maintain contact with the child’s extended biological family, based on what is best for the child, but that is a choice of the adoptive family.
  4. Single individuals cannot adopt. Unmarried individuals are legally able to adopt in all 50 states. Nearly 30% of the children adopted from foster care last year were adopted by single parents.

Source: National Foster Care Adoption Attitudes Survey, November 2007;
Harris Interactive, commissioned by the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption

CASA Volunteers Are Key When Parental Rights Must Be Terminated

As children make their journey through the foster care adoption system, CASA volunteers can provide a consistent, knowledgeable and indefatigable voice on their behalf. Termination of parental rights does not end the need for CASA advocacy but rather elevates its importance in ensuring permanence for children.

Zack and Alex had been in foster care for almost two years when the Kaehlers met them. Their experience as foster children was both typical and turbulent, with multiple placements and long periods of sibling separation.

“They were very fortunate to have been assigned a CASA volunteer,” Pam says. “This relationship provided a loving continuity throughout ‘being foster’ that was largely absent otherwise.”

The Kaehlers note that Anne Christopher, who volunteers with the CASA for Kids program in Morgantown, visited the children regularly regardless of the geography of their placement. “Anne remembered their school concerts and their birthdays, and it was obvious that the best interests of the children were her utmost concern,” says Joe. “She was always professional but warmly personal as well.” As foster/adoptive parents, the Kaehlers were impressed that Anne took the time to get to know the children, their histories, their foster families and the professionals involved in their care and treatment. They feel that this is what made her a credible advocate in her communications to the court.

Pam says that Anne “was as much a resource and support to Joe and me, as new and oftentimes overwhelmed parents, as she was to Zack, Alex and yes, Patrick. She helped us understand complex behaviors and educated us about legal procedures.”

The admiration and respect are mutual. “The Kaehlers provided these children with exactly what they needed,” says Anne. “Joe and Pam had empathy for all that these young children had been through, and they showed them consistent, unconditional love. But at the same time, they held the children accountable for their actions and taught them about respecting others. Consistency—in love and discipline—was something that calmed the fears that their previously chaotic lives had created.”

Before arriving at the Kaehler household, the siblings were living separately. “But I knew in my heart—based upon all of the information I had gathered about them and all the time I had spent with them—that these children needed to be together,” says Anne. “So we had to look for a home that was best for both of them.”

As is sometimes the case for CASA/GAL volunteers, one challenge for Anne was negotiating between what the children said they wanted and what was in their best interest. “What’s best may not necessarily be what they ask for at the time,” notes Anne. “You have to look down the road and try to envision what will be right for them in the future. Those are never easy decisions. Every time you move a child, you do something to a child. I wanted to make sure that this move was the best and last move for these children, and it was.”

The Result

Today, the Kaehler family includes Alex (15), Zack (13), Patrick (11) and Miah (10). Miah joined the family in May 2009 as an adoptive placement; the Kaehlers expect to finalize her adoption in February 2010. The Kaehlers’ experience of the foster care adoption process, even with the challenges and barriers encountered, provides an example useful to adoption professionals, potential adoptive parents and CASA volunteers.

“Adopting through foster care is one of the most amazing, gratifying ways to bring about positive change in the world,” says Pam. As she sees it, children who come into foster care are overflowing with needs, many of them quite basic. “We discovered that our willingness and our training provided most of what we needed to know. The rest we figured out through old fashioned trial and error or learned from the many support systems surrounding us.” These systems included the children’s social workers, adoptive “home finder” and of course their CASA volunteer. “We have felt many things along the journey, but we’ve never felt alone,” adds Pam.

Joe feels that foster care adoption brings to parents deep and lasting personal change. “Helping children find meaning in their journey and developing our own compassion for their troubled biological families—these have been significant emotional and spiritual challenges that have changed us immeasurably for the better,” he says.

All but the youngest children in care bring memories and life experience to the table. Older children will refer to their biological parents and have strong recall of past events. Rather than finding this threatening, Pam says, “We find it fascinating to weave the past with the present to the true benefit of the whole family. We have always reinforced to our children that their past has no bearing on their capacity to love those in their present or future.”

Joe is gratified when the children tell him about the “best parts” of being in the family. “They say, ‘The fact that you know there is no chance of ever having to be moved from home to home again,’ ‘Being with a family that has pets and loves me,’ and ‘Knowing that I won’t be thrown around anymore, they love me, and I’m safe.’ What can be better than that?”

With a smile in her voice, Pam Kaehler emphasizes, “Our schedules are hectic, the laundry is endless, and we certainly have our day-to-day challenges, but, as I write this, Joe is singing hit 1980s rock songs badly and loudly, and the kids are in hysterics, begging him to stop. Certainly, we still do not have ‘enough’ money, time, energy, confidence or square footage—who does? But we can and do make it happen for our fantastic family.”

(Article Courtesy of “Cover Story-National CASA – CASA for Children.” National CASA – Court Appointed Special Advocate Association – CASA for Children: Advocating for Abused and Neglected Children. Web. 25 May 2010.

2 Responses to “Foster Care Adoption: Truth and “Truthiness””

  1. Basic Treatment Wholesale says:

    Although there are many children in foster care in the United States, the majority of them are scheduled to be returned to their families of origin.

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