As with anything else, the path to parenthood, whether biologically or through adoption, looks different for every family. There is no one-size-fits-all manual for any of it. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? With our first child, it was purely God. There is no other explanation, because we got our home study complete, waited five short months for a match, and had a successful domestic infant adoption. I knew and felt very blessed then, but seven years later, I know how rare and guided that journey was.
Imagine my surprise when a couple of years later, and many thousands of miles and moving, we had a failed placement that nearly ripped our hearts out, and then absolute radio silence. We didn’t know what to do, but we had a completed home study. Eventually, I decided to return to the workforce. I landed a job with our county’s health and human services division where I worked for a few years.
I’m an open person. A sharer. Sometimes this can be stupid, I admit, but it’s how I’m made, so I own it. Many times, my openness has been an asset to many others, as well as myself. This was no different. I asked questions about adoption, agencies in the area, and many, many times was asked if I would consider doing foster care. No. Plain and simple. No. And with that, we waited a couple more years. Why no? Fear. I had seen friends adopting from foster care, and they entered really, really hard lifestyles. That was not my vision of parenting. I wanted babies. Not toddlers. Not a 7-year-old. Selfish? Yes. But it was where my heart was.
Finally, one day in desperation and panic, we changed our no to yes and decided to investigate adopting from foster care. Imagine our distress and frustration when we were told by our county (my coworkers) that they don’t encourage using foster care as an adoption tool. Are you kidding me? For years, this same group of people has been pushing foster care when I’ve spoken of adoption, and now we are here.
We were already licensed for domestic adoption through an outside agency and decided to ask our questions there. They encouraged us and had us do the additional training and paperwork for adopting from foster care. Before our license arrived in the mail, we had our first potential match. We were terrified. We had the training and did the reading. But we had so far been parenting one tiny little boy whom we brought home from the hospital. We didn’t know much, but we knew that foster care and developmental trauma was real and very different than parenting our neurotypical son. Add in that we would have been going from one 3-year-old to four kids 3 and under in a matter of days with four of them comprising two sets of twins, we eventually said no. That was not an easy decision, but truthfully, it was the best we could do at that point in time.
Soon, we were presented with information about a soon-to-be 2-year-old boy. I read about him. I said no. No, I did not want a 2-year-old. Until I saw his photo and then I knew unequivocally that I really, really wanted him. Oh yes, I did. And we adopted him a mere nine months later. Was it easy? No. No, it was not. And it nearly broke me in many, many, many ways. It stretched me, pushed me, grew me. I had to learn a lot, and I’m still learning every single day how to parent a child with trauma. And since I didn’t know him at all, I had no idea where “he” ended and trauma began. I think for us that was the hardest part of the journey. When I finally began a relationship with his biological mom, it filled in a lot of those blanks, helped me understand him in ways that would have taken me a lot longer to figure out if I hadn’t had that connection. Now I can connect with him in valuable ways that fill him up but allow him to grow and change in ways that are productive and helpful for him. He’s only 3, so in time, it will be an invaluable tool.
The goal of foster care is generally reunification. In a perfect world, there wouldn’t be a need for adoption or foster care. We do not live in a perfect world. We have adopted two children through the foster care system. Both of those children were concurrent placements. Concurrent in layman’s terms means that children are in foster care, their parents are not succeeding at working the reunification plan, and while it’s likely that these children can move to being adopted, there is no guarantee and it is possible that they will be sent home. Essentially it’s risky. Risky to your heart, your mind, your family. That’s what I was most afraid of: loving these children and having to send them home to a place that is proven to be unsafe.
That’s exactly what happened with our daughter. She was home, adjusting well, and man, did we fall head over heels in love. She was the perfect addition to our crazy, loud little family. And then one day, she left. Very unceremoniously. Cold. I didn’t want to scare her or make her feel like going home to her biological mom was wrong, so I stayed strong, told her I loved her and was numb. For 31 days, she was gone. I missed her. Desperately. We all did. We painted over the pink wall in her room. We removed every part of her. And we were convinced that she would not return. In truth, we were right. When she physically came home with about two hours’ notice, she was changed. This vibrant little girl was scared, reserved, and hurting.
It has been a hard process. But she is returning more and more each day. She is sweet, so very sassy, and still a bit reserved when she doesn’t need to be. But now that we are nearing the anniversary of her adoption, I see the growth. The changes not only physically but emotionally. Kids are remarkable. They can forgive though forgetting may take a little longer. They are strong, resilient, and made of wonder. That being said, they need more than love. We have a wonderful play therapist who allows our kiddos to process all that has happened in their short little lives. And I’ve noticed that they confuse things that happen with us with things that happened in their first home. No matter what, if they are willing to talk, I listen. I try to help guide them through their feelings, and I apologize whether or not it was me that caused the hurt. I apologize. I’m sorry that happened to you. And occasionally, I’m sorry that I made you feel afraid.
I’m far from perfect. In fact, if you talked to the people in my home every day, you’d hear a litany of wrongs. I don’t dispute that. But I’m trying. I’m growing right along with them. Learning about them, what they need, and how to parent them in the best possible way. And some days, I blow it. BIG TIME. I lose it and yell when all they need is a hug and some softness. And there are times when I get it right. And those moments are the ones that I cling to. Glean from. Try to emulate repeatedly. The moments when you see acceptance and pure joy on the face of your child and know unequivocally that you’ve made the right statement, bought the right gift, and spoke the right language of love.
I get asked a lot how and if a family should adopt from foster care. When I’m asked there really isn’t a black and white, one-size-fits-all answer. It’s gray. And that’s because you have to know what you can handle; what fits your lifestyle and family situation; what is going to be the best-case scenario for the family you have and the family you want. Is it possible? Yes. Is it guaranteed? No. At least not without a lot of hard knocks, bruised ego, and emotional warfare. Sounds appealing, right? I promise it is worth it.
I often guide families to evaluate life as if adoption isn’t an option. If adoption is the ultimate goal, I encourage them to seek an outside agency. Why? It’s simple. Counties will place with their families first. It makes sense. However, if the child is moving toward adoption and the foster family isn’t interested in adopting a child, then they seek outside the agency for families that are waiting to adopt. By this time, the length of the concurrent is usually greatly shortened and the likelihood of reunification greatly decreased. It can still happen, and you will know this ahead of time, but it’s unlikely. In other situations, you can choose to adopt only waiting children. This means that the biological parents’ rights have been terminated. Then the children are free and available to adopt.
What do you need? You will need to complete classes on parenting children from different backgrounds with varied special needs and exposures. You’ll want to know what that looks like. Find a family in your church or your community in which you can develop a relationship with and know what their day-to-day life is like. Do your research. Explore as many books, podcasts, and videos as you can about common diagnoses associated with trauma: reactive attachment disorder, fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, oppositional defiant disorder, etc. Learn. Devour information. Grow. You will need to change your thinking on just about everything. I have learned how to parent my kids according to their needs. It looks different for each of them, and yet there are many consistencies. Seek a support group. I so wish we had support in place before we started this journey. And not because it’s been so horrible; I don’t want to give that impression at all. But because it’s not easy. I placed unrealistic expectations on myself and on my family. I could have avoided many mistakes if I had just had someone who had been there—someone who understood the complexities of the many relationships you’ll encounter along the way.
You can do this. If you feel drawn or led to adopt then I suggest that you research every avenue. I know instantly that international adoption wasn’t our path. That doesn’t mean I didn’t want it to be. But it just wasn’t for us. Early in the journey, I would have told you that foster adoption wasn’t for us either. I was wrong. It can be scary. And it will be difficult. I don’t want to urge anyone to enter a process that will lead to heartache. You know what your limits are, and I believe that you should know them and respect them but allow yourself room to grow. You may be surprised at your strength, resilience, and adaptability. Just because I would only adopt from “x category” doesn’t mean you shouldn’t research “y category.” That may be where you soar. It may be where you are the best and most effective parents. Don’t view these children as damaged. I honestly believe that was my worst mistake. View them as healing, strong, and worthy.
Too many times, we hear the tragic story of a child or adult that was raised in foster care. It has become a storyline that is overused in many TV crime shows and novels. But we don’t see enough of the ones that succeed. The ones that make it through hard work, determination, and pure grit. True, success for that young adult may look very different than you once pictured it. But the journey there is all that’s important. I hope one day my children grow up to do something they love to do. It will most definitely not fulfill the checklist of things that I wanted for my life. That doesn’t make it any less significant, and it certainly makes it well-deserved.
Karla King is a passionate open adoption advocate, adoptive mom, foster mom, wife, reader, avid creator of food, a stay-at-home mom, and Christian. She loves taking care of her family, supporting others on the adoption journey, and watching the world through her children’s eye.