It is no secret that the foster care system in the United States is chock-full of problems; in fact, many consider it to be a broken system. With approximately 440,000 children in foster care on any given day—many of whom spend years shifting between homes before eventually aging out (to the tune of 20,000 teens a year)—it’s a fact that’s difficult to ignore or deny.
The Adoption.com article, “Aging Out of Foster Care: A Hard Look at a Serious Problem,“ discusses the need for tools for teens dealing with the possibility of aging out of the system with nowhere to go and no one to lean on. Others say that we need to take a step back and place more focus on early intervention—working to increase education on everything from family planning and birth control to parenting classes and available resources to keep birth families together, especially where unexpected or unplanned pregnancies come into play.
No matter your perception of or feelings toward foster care or adoption, the sad truth is there are way too many children waiting in the system by no fault of their own; agencies and resources are stretched to capacity, and there are far too few social workers who are trying their best to support the weight; the legal system and courts are backlogged with ongoing casework making matters harder for all involved; and birth families, foster families, and adoptive families oftentimes find themselves caught in a confusing crossfire wrapped in red tape and uncertainty.
So what’s the answer? And how can you help without fostering or adopting when the children are caught in the middle of it all?
Despite the negative aspects and implications of our current situation—and it really is all of ours to own as a society—there is hope, and there are ways to work together to improve the situation right now. As Dave Thomas, the founder of the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption once said, “These children are not someone else’s responsibility. They are our responsibility.”
Learn About Adoption and Fostering
As an adoptive mom, having been immersed in the world of adoption for many years, it’s always interesting to me to hear how very little those not touched by adoption actually know about foster care and adoption—despite oftentimes having very strong opinions. But in truth, it’s unfair to assume everyone should know everything that’s important to those involved with the foster and adoption community—and let’s be honest, there’s enough misinformation within the community itself to keep even the most informed on their toes!
Taking the time to educate yourself about adopting and fostering children can do wonders to helping to break down so many untruths, myths, and false claims surrounding the hundreds of thousands of kids who live the life of an unparented child—whether they are temporarily in the foster care system or have been released for adoption into a forever family.
In the Adoption.com article, “7 Ways to Help Kids in Foster Care Without Becoming a Foster Parent,“ author Kelly Meldrum offers helpful suggestions on how everyone can help without fostering or adopting children in need if fostering or adopting isn’t an option.
Get to Know the People in Your Neighborhood
Do you have any friends or family members who have adopted or fostered children? Chances are, you probably do. It’s okay to reach out and ask questions, just don’t get any more personal than you’d want someone to get with things that you hold near and dear to your heart. While there’s nothing wrong with natural curiosity, foster and adoptive families should receive the same amount of respect and tact as any other family. And just like no two biological families are the same, neither are families through adoption.
Ask rather than assume that you are an expert on your neighbor’s family just because your co-worker adopted a child 20 years ago and shared some stories. You will find most families enjoy sharing about their experiences, especially to those who are either interested in fostering or adopting themselves or interested in offering support in some way. What’s most important is seeing beyond the label to the individuals.
By breaking down the walls and seeing families as families rather than “that adopted family” or “that foster family” we can focus on supporting each other with less bias and prejudice.
Support Your Friends
The Adoption.com article, “The Best Ways to Support Your Friends Who Are Adoptive Parents,” suggests that friends make an attempt to listen more than you talk and to be careful when offering an adoptive family advice based on a non-adoptive parenting experience. It can be difficult to know what your friends may need before, during the adoption process, and afterward. Just like with any other major change, this is a transition that will take time and patience. For an adoptive parent, knowing that there are supportive friends in the wing can make a huge difference. Knowing that an adopted child will be coming into a strong and safe network of family and friends will help to set a parent’s mind at ease. Like any parent, adoptive parents only want the best for their children, including having a loving circle to count on.
Join Your Community
Life gets busy between work life, home life, family, chores, obligations, and just trying to find five minutes to stop and relax in a day. We have become a community that interfaces through electronics—emailing over writing letters, texting over phone calls, posting to social media over driving across town to visit a friend in real-time.
As cliche as it may be, children can’t raise themselves and they learn by example. Instead of assuming someone else is volunteering down at the youth center, investigate what options are available to community members to get involved—and it doesn’t have to be limited to youth activities. Become an active participant in your community and be the example your youth looks to for how to handle the real world rather than the virtual one.
Oftentimes, family support agencies and social service organizations run events throughout the year. You don’t have to be a big spender or bid on live auction events to be supportive—gathering some friends and attending galas, getting the word out, participating, all are helpful in furthering the cause.
Everybody loves a volunteer! Most organizations can’t find enough of them. If you’re looking for a way to support a local or even a national agency—do some legwork or online work for upcoming events that you may be able to support in a volunteer capacity. It’s no secret that most support networks aren’t exactly rolling in the dough—and oftentimes run fundraisers and charity events to raise funds for projects. Consider stepping up and spreading the word.
Want to be more hands-on with children, but not ready for the role of mom or dad? For more than a century, Big Brothers Big Sisters has offered adults a perfect opportunity to influence at-risk children in a positive way. With nearly 400,00 volunteer mentors and families engaged with more than 250 affiliates nationwide, Big Brothers Big Sisters has served over 2 million children over the past decade.
Since 1977, court-appointed special advocates have been standing up for children who have experienced abuse or neglect with the goal of finding every child a safe and permanent home. CASA and guardian ad litem volunteers advocate for a child’s best interest in court, helping judges to develop a fuller picture of each child’s life in order to make the most well-informed decision on behalf of the child.
Consider donating your time or services by becoming something like a respite care provider. Foster parenting comes with additional responsibilities and by law, children in foster care must be under adult supervision at all times. Whether you’re able to provide mom or dad an hour of your time to run out to the store or a couple of hours to take another child to swim practice, you would be offering a much needed helping hand.
Offering photography services to adoption agencies to help highlight waiting children to share with prospective adoptive families is a huge help and necessary service.
Check with local children’s services facilities to see how you can volunteer your time with children in residential care, including offering tutoring services, offering your talents with the arts or sports instruction, or reading to younger children.
For those willing to travel a little farther—there are opportunities to volunteer at international orphanages around the world. Volunteerworld.com offers general information insight into volunteering overseas, qualifications, information on non-governmental organizations and volunteer agencies, and articles relevant to those deciding if volunteering is for you.
Spread the Word
Once you know what you’re talking about, become an ambassador of adoption and fostering. Like with most things, word of mouth is typically the most powerful form of communication.
The Adoption.com article, “5 Ways to Advocate for Adoptions in Your State,” offers simple and sound ways for you to spread the word about adoption from educating others to giving back to speaking up and out about legislation that affects foster and adoptive children. You don’t need to be an adoptive or foster parent to become an advocate. Taking an interest in speaking up for children can also help to promote more ethical practices in adoption, making the process safer for all parties involved and positively impacting society as a whole.
There are many opportunities to raise funds in support of the foster care and adoption communities. The Adoption.com article, “7 Things the Average Person Can Do to Support Orphans Worldwide,” provides ideas on how anyone can take a step toward improving the lives of children close to home or across the globe.
The Dave Thomas Foundation offers ongoing opportunities for those looking to have a direct impact on supporting children in foster care, sometimes offering incentives such as matching funds.
Working with local community agencies, churches, and even reaching out to local adoption support groups are all first steps toward determining and setting a goal, spreading the word, and building support. Foster families are always grateful for donations as well, especially equipment, backpacks, school clothes, toys, and necessity items like toiletries. Some foster kids go from home to home with only a trash bag to carry what little belongings they own. Canvas bags and suitcases are a much nicer alternative for kids who are already experiencing enough trauma and uncertainty without having to worry about travel gear.
Certain times of the year can prove even more difficult for a child to be relocated and for a foster family taking in a child with little to no notice right before a holiday. Consider donating gifts or gift cards as a way of letting these children and their families know that they are not forgotten or undeserving of the same love, anticipation, and excitement these “joyful” days bring to so many others.
Some agencies offer the opportunity for you to “adopt a family” in need—not just limited to holidays, but helping with grocery shopping or general family “wishlists.”
Just Be a Good Person
It costs nothing to be kind. And you don’t have to adopt or foster a child to positively impact their lives or to make a difference in working to help change things in the foster and adoption world for the better.
Before you assume, take the time to learn what you don’t know. Before you rush to judgment about the family down the street—get to know them. Reach out to your friends who are in the process of adopting to see how you may be able to best support them. Get involved within your community to ensure there are healthy and practical options for local children, especially children at risk. Carve out a little time during the year to volunteer with organizations that benefit children. Raise funds and donations to support foster families and programs meant to improve the lives of children. Now that you know, spread the word—be an advocate for foster and adoptive children by breaking down myths.
Sue Kuligowski is a staff storyteller at Adoption.com. The mother of two girls through adoption, she is a proposal coordinator, freelance writer/editor, and an adoption advocate. When she’s not writing or editing, she can be found supervising sometimes successful glow-in-the-dark experiments, chasing down snails in the backyard, and attempting to make sure her girls are eating more vegetables than candy.