400,000 children in foster care in the United States of America.
FOUR HUNDRED THOUSAND!
When you imagine 400,000 children, it is common to wonder why they are in foster care when so many people want to adopt a child. If you are visiting our site, it is likely you or someone you know has a heart for those kiddos. So let’s dive a little deeper into the process of understanding how it all works. It is important to know that the first goal of foster care is reunification. Studies have shown that biological connections are very important to a child and that staying in their family of origin is beneficial, when possible. However, sometimes that is just not in the best interest of the child. Have you ever wondered why kids stay in the foster care system for such long periods of time? I know I have! The way the system is set up is to allow the biological families to stay together.
Have you ever looked at a photo listing website and wondered about the lives of the children pictured there? I remember scanning the sites like it was my full-time job when we were in the process of waiting for our daughters. The children posted on those sites are typically ready for adoption. I’ll explain more on this in a bit, but when I say ready for adoption, it means that the birth parents no longer have parental rights over their biological children. This can happen for many reasons, but it takes a lot of time to get to that point in every scenario.
There are a lot of factors involved in adopting through foster care. So let’s start with understanding some terminology: kinship, foster to adopt, and adoptive placement.
Kinship adoption through foster care is very common. Kinship is qualified by there being a connection to the biological family. For instance, if one of our adopted daughters were to have a sibling become adoptable while in foster care, the caseworker for the sibling of my adopted daughter would contact our family to see if we would like to be considered. It is always the goal to keep the family connection intact when at all possible. As you may have guessed, kinship also refers to when a family member or friend of the child’s birth family is open to adopting the child. In these cases, there will still be a mandatory period of transition. Home visits must be completed, child visits must be accommodated, and so on. Once every box is checked on the to-do list, then the adoption will be scheduled.
Foster to Adopt
While many assume this is the only way to adopt a child in foster care, this is not the only way. It is very common for foster parents to adopt children whom they have been fostering. The process will be basically the same, although the timeline will vary. When a person becomes a foster parent, there is always the potential that reunification won’t happen. When that is the case, the caseworkers will reach out to kinship possibilities. If no kinship placement is found, the foster parents will often have the option to move forward with an adoption. I know many foster parents who become foster-to-adopt parents. This means they will only foster children close, in the eyes of the courts, to being adopted. There is always the risk when opting to adopt this way. This is often referred to as “legal risk.” It simply means that parental rights are still in place. A child in the foster care system will not be adoptable while the birth parent rights are intact. While the child is in foster care, the birth parent is given a list of expectations they must abide by to show the courts they are working to retain the rights to parent their child. This list is made up of requirements for that parent to maintain. It is specific to the needs of the case, and many things go into deciding what needs to happen or change for the birth parent to safely parent and meet the needs of the child. The list can include anything that the court determines necessary for reunification to happen.
The list may include things like:
- Parenting classes
- Finding and maintaining employment
- Finding and maintaining housing
- Negative drug tests
- Working through an anger management program
- Showing up to court
- Showing up to scheduled visits with the children.
When the birth parents show the courts that they are working hard to reunify with their children, it speaks volumes. Every few months or so, there will be a status update hearing for the child’s case. At those trials, the judge will review the information given to them regarding the child, including how the birth parent is working on the list. This can be a very long and obviously emotional process for everyone involved in the case. If the birth parent has not complied with the court’s orders, the judge can terminate their parental rights.
Once the parental rights are terminated, the child will become adoptable. Once the child has been placed in an adoptive placement, whether in kinship, current foster home, or a new adoptive home, more boxes will need to be checked in order to finalize the adoption. In most cases, this takes a minimum of six months. When people talk to me about the foster-to-adopt process, the same questions are asked.
- How long does the process take? In most cases, it is a lengthy process. From what I have read and experienced, the courts usually take about two years before they terminate parental rights.
- Can I lose the child? Yes, while seasoned caseworkers can usually gauge if it looks like reunification will happen, there is nothing 100% sure about this process. Keep in mind that maintaining connections to the birth family is very important for a child’s development, so the courts will give the birth parents many chances to keep their rights intact. This is not an easy process, but I know many families who have successfully adopted children this way.
Adoption-ready placement is when a child’s birth parents no longer maintain their parental rights, and the child is placed for adoption. Both of our daughters came to us as adoptive placements. Because the birth parents’ parental rights have been terminated, this is a permanent placement for the child. When a child is moved from foster care and transitioned into an adoptive placement, the parents will sign an adoption agreement at the time of placement. For us, it happened a few weeks after we first met each of our daughters. In Ohio, like most states, there is a mandatory six-month waiting period before a child can be officially adopted. During the six-month waiting period, you will have many things to do.
You will set up weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly visits with the child’s social worker. This is typically predetermined, and your caseworker will inform you of the requirements for these visits. If you are working with a private agency, you will likely have to complete a set number of visits with your caseworker during this time.
You will also need to establish your new child with a doctor. If the child is school-aged, you will need to enroll or set up schooling for your child. You will need to meet with the guardian ad litem (GAL), the person appointed to represent the child in court. For us, this was handled differently with each of our adopted daughters. For our first adoption, we only had one phone call and one in-person meeting with her GAL. Our other daughter’s case required several phone calls and one in-person meeting. You will be very busy in the months leading up to the adoption hearing, but it is all part of the process. Have no fear; your caseworker will guide you through this part. There is a lot to accomplish, but that is why you have six months to get it all done. During this period, it is a great idea to get established with an attachment therapist. This will be a learning process, and you don’t want to rush things.
In conclusion, there is no specific timeline for the adoption process when a child comes from foster care. There are so many factors and so many pieces at play in this process. I think the number one thing you can count on is that things will change along the way. The process ebbs and flows. You may be in for a long, difficult wait, or you may be looking at finalizing an adoption within months of an adoptive placement. No matter what the process, it is crucial that you stay flexible.
The process of adopting through foster care is different for each child. There are individual considerations to be made, and there are also many predetermined criteria for all foster care adoptions. Our daughters were both in-state adoptions. Meaning we adopted kids who live in our home state. They were both adoptive placements. They were both in our home within about a month of being “matched” or identified as parents. Our first daughter was placed with us in 2015 and our second in 2016. However, they were from two different counties, and the process was unique to the county from which they came. This is true for all foster care adoptions, whether you adopt from the state you live in or a different state.
When you are looking into adopting a child from foster care, you have a lot to consider. It is not an easy decision, but it is a very viable option and an opportunity to welcome a child into your home who needs a loving family. Understanding when children in foster care get adopted is so important because it helps us understand the many layers of the process. It helps us know our time isn’t just being wasted. The system is not perfect, but the intention is good. Did I have frustrations along the way? Definitely! Was it worth the wait and the work? 100%Are you ready to pursue adoption? Visit Adoption.org or call 1-800-ADOPT-98 to connect with compassionate, nonjudgmental adoption specialists who can help you get started on the journey of a lifetime.
Becky Dell is a Staff Storyteller for adoption.com. Now married for over 20 years, her journey to motherhood started with a miscarriage, followed by the birth of her 2 biological sons, and brought to completion with the domestic adoptions of 2 daughters. You used to be able to find Becky baking cookies and playing trains with her two tiny sons, but now, you will find her learning to parent through the rough and rewarding world of adoption, attachment, and trauma. She is a fierce advocate for adoption and processes the many facets of adoption through written word.