Don’t Foster If You Want To Adopt

Back before we started fostering, I read a blog post titled:

There is No Such Thing as Fostering to Adopt.” 

It said that fostering is, by definition, caring for a child with the goal of reunification, not adoptionAnd while that goal might change, and adoption might become the best option for a child in care, the post argued that foster parents should never be fostering TO adopt. They should be fostering TO reunify.

When I read this, I was taken aback. I was a foster mom. And adoption, not reunification, was 100% what I was hoping for. 

Had I made a mistake? I wondered. Was it really wrong to foster with the hope, or even the goal, of adoption?

Domestic Infant Adoption vs Foster Care

Fostering had never been my plan. Adoption had, but not fostering. My husband and I had thought we’d have a few of our own before we adopted, but after years of unsuccessful trying, eager to start our family, we began pursuing domestic infant adoption.

Then Covid hit. 

And as domestic adoptions paused, DCF was inundated with cases. As compromised parents, who were already teetering on the edge of their limited capacities, suddenly had their kids home full time, while simultaneously losing access to the support services they relied on. Removals became constant. And a social worker friend of ours told us that one night she’d had 14 kids sleeping on the floor of her office because there were no available foster homes to take them.

I had chosen domestic infant adoption over adopting through the foster care system because adopting through the system is HARD and by no means a guarantee!

  • First, you have to choose between two “tracks”: the adoption track and the fostering track… Being in both is not an option. You have to choose one.

  • The adoption track is for those who want to adopt without running the risk of having to reunify. There are tons of people in this track hoping to adopt younger children. With domestic infant adoption costing 40-50k, the DCF adoption track is the only option that many couples can afford. But, because of the sheer volume of people in this boat, the wait for a child can be a long, long time.

  • The foster track becomes the way that many hopeful-parents-to-be cut that line, so to speak (and here’s where you find most of the people that post I’d read was talking to). The foster track is supposed to be for people willing to foster with the goal of reunification. Then if things don’t go according to plan, and parental rights are terminated, and no kin (a relative or family friend) steps forward to adopt, then the foster family is next in line for adoption.
  • Typically, it’s only when each of these options have been exhausted, including the foster family not wanting to adopt, that a child becomes available to those waiting in the adoption track (now you see why the wait can be so long).

So why doesn’t every hopeful parent try cutting the line this way? Because the majority of kids in DCF custody do get reunified. By choosing to be in the foster track, you’re rolling the dice, hoping that the child that’s placed with you will make it all the way through that process without being claimed, allowing you to adopt them. It’s not only a gamble; it puts your goal of adoption in direct conflict with DCF’s goal of reunification.

Despite all of this, in light of the Covid-created need, we decided to take the gamble. (I should mention that for my husband, Micah, it wasn’t a gamble. He was 100% on board with being a foster parent, even if it meant delaying starting our own family.)

But, in hindsight, I believe that for me, this wasn’t the right decision.

I didn’t know it at the time. 

I said I understood what we were signing up for. 

I said I understood the goal was reunification. 

I said I understood that that was the most likely outcome. 

But in the end, what I said I understood didn’t really matter.

Because, in my heart, I desperately wanted to start our family.

And it took me months of trying frantically to manipulate each situation, in any way I could, to get me closer to my goal of adoption before I realized just how wrong what I was doing was. And in the end, I came to completely agree with the claims made by that post I’d read years ago:

You should not foster if your goal is adoption. 

Because the goal of foster care is not adoption. It’s reunification.

Here is why I am now so convinced this is true…

  1. An adoption service is there to serve you, to make your goals a reality. As a foster parent, you are there to serve DCF, to make the system’s goals a reality.

    The difference between these two scenarios CANNOT be overstated. It is massive!

    When pursuing domestic infant adoption, whether through an agency, an adoption attorney, or adoption consultancies, each service’s primary goal is to help you adopt. And though there’s always the risk that a bio parent will change their mind and the adoption will fall through, these services do everything in their power to minimize these risks and ensure that all your hard work and your hard-earned money result in you bringing a child home forever.

    The goal of a DCF placement, on the other hand, is to reunify with a bio parent if at all possible. When that’s not possible, then the secondary goal is to permanently place with kin. And as a foster parent, you are there to serve DCF and to partner with them in pursuing their goals. Your personal goals, if they don’t align with the system’s, don’t matter.

  1. When your goals don’t align with the goals of the system, the social workers end up caught in the middle, and, put in lose-lose situations, they end up looking like the bad guys.

    This happens time and again!

    First, let’s look at another set of goals. Let’s look at the worker’s goals. While the system’s goal is reunification, most of the social workers that work within the system have a slightly different goal – their goal is to support the kids going through it in any way they can.

    The kids are the reason the good workers stay, enduring unhealthy workloads, dealing with the trauma of removals, and doing a job that gets very little, if any appreciation. They do it because they love the kids and want to give them the best shot at life possible.

    Now consider a couple scenarios:

    Scenario #1:

    Knowing that we wanted to adopt, our resource worker (who is amazing, mind you) tried to place us with a legal risk infant (A child who is placed with a prospective adoptive family, before parental rights have been terminated, because adoption is the most likely outcome).

    This little guy was healthy, beautiful, had no dad listed on his birth certificate, and a mom that’d already declined interest in him. He was everything I was dreaming of! I felt like we had won the lottery!

    But DCF paperwork got in the way, and by the time things were cleared up, the short-term home he’d “temporarily” been placed with had fallen in love with him and decided to pursue adoption themselves.

    In our resource worker’s book, this result should have still been an absolute win. This little guy was going to get a great shot at life!

    But I was crushed, and she knew it. And as a result, she ended up wasting her precious time trying to see if there was any way that he might still be placed with us.

    He never was. But looking back, I feel so bad that she felt pressured to try to finagle that situation on our behalf.

    We were foster parents, after all, and we should have been equally as excited about the little girl we were placed with a couple weeks later, even though she had no adoption prospects.

    Scenario #2:

    This scenario is a bit trickier.

    Friends of ours were hoping to adopt and were placed with twins who they were told were a legal risk placement.

    Fast forward several months, and their aunt comes into the picture. Turns out, the twins were not really a legal risk placement, their aunt had been a bit of a question mark and DCF had needed a place for them to stay while she decided if she was going to step up to the plate.

    Now, did the case worker fudge the details to convince our friends to take the placement? Yes. Was it wrong of her and heartbreaking for them? Yes. But when I look at the situation from her perspective and remember that her goal is to give these kids the best shot at life possible, I see the lose lose situation she was in:

    She couldn’t find a foster home willing to take them.

    She had a great home that was technically a “foster home” but was only really looking for a legal risk placement.

    She didn’t know what the aunt would decide, but she knew that the twins needed a safe place to stay in the meantime.

    So, what did she do? She prioritized the kid’s needs over the family’s goals and exaggerated their “legal risk” status.

    Moral of the story – when a foster family’s goals are not in line with DCF’s goals, or better yet, with the worker’s goal to give each kid the best shot at life possible, more often than not, it’s the workers who get put in no-win situations.

    They are the ones who get stuck in the middle between what the “foster” family wants and what they’ve signed up for.

  1. Even when everyone’s goals are aligned, fostering is heartbreaking. When the foster family’s goal is actually adoption, it makes it much more likely that they’ll be devastated by the process.

    When we started fostering, I was desperate to be a mom. After years of trying to conceive, Micah and I were getting older, my siblings already had clusters of kids, and I felt like we were being left behind.

    If I’d been more honest with myself, I wanted to start my own family far more than I wanted to help preserve someone else’s. And as a result:

  • I got way too caught up in the ups and downs of our foster daughter’s case

    In the beginning, her parents were out of the picture, and I felt hopeful and full of optimism. Then one suddenly came back in, and I became fearful and anxious. Then that parent decided they didn’t want custody – and I was hopeful again. But then the other parent reemerged, and my world came crashing back down.

    And on and on and on.

    Scooter (as I affectionately call our foster daughter)’s case has had more ups and downs than any roller coaster I’ve ever been on.

    And, in the beginning, I rode them all. Up to the tippety top and back down to their very lowest point.

    For 6 months, I was an emotionally exhausted, bipolar mess because, ultimately, the thing I so desperately wanted was to be a mom not a foster mom.

  • I struggled to root for her birth parents

    How much support foster parents can offer birth parents varies drastically from case to case.

    I know of a foster mom who called her foster son’s bio mom each night so that she could read him a bedtime story.

    And while I know that relationships as beautiful as this one are the exception not the rule, I believe that, as a foster parent, my goal should be to support birth parents in any way that’s both safe and in the best interest of the child.

    With Scooter, I struggled to be supportive for a while. Each time I’d pack her lunch, pick out an outfit, and drop her off for parent visits, I felt like I was packing up my own hopes and dreams and giving them away. It’d take days to recover emotionally, just in time to do it again.

    And while, in hindsight, I know there wasn’t a whole lot I could have done differently to be more supportive, I also know that, in the beginning, my heart wasn’t rooting for their success in the ways it should have been.

  • The waiting game is torture when you’re focused on the time that you’re losing.

    I feel like most foster cases seem to drag on longer than is fair to the kids – that’s just how the system works. And it leaves their foster families in limbo right along with them, waiting for the next foster care review or court date.

    Even when foster parents are fully bought in to their roles, the indefinite waiting, with little to no control over the situation, is incredibly hard!

    But for the foster parents that are trying to build a family, the waiting is that much harder.

    When each day your biological clock is ticking, and you know that at any point you might be back at square one, with no kids, wondering whether you should roll the dice again, the waiting can feel like torture.
  • Reunification can become more than you can handle.

    For everyone, reunifying a child that you’ve cuddled, and kissed boo boos, and rocked to sleep, and become attached to (because this is what foster care done right looks like!) is heartbreaking.

    You are breaking your heart open and giving part of it away, and it’s will hurt no matter what.

    But, for the parents who were also pinning their hopes of having a family on the child that’s walking out their door, they’re losing so much more.

    They’re not just losing the child; they’re losing their future, their dreams, and the time they spent fostering, which they now realize wasn’t spent building their family.

    And these added losses can make reunification more than they can handle.

It’s for all these reasons, that I’m convinced that I should not have been fostering.

Not until we’d adopted children of our own.

Not until we had a family. 

Not until I could honestly say that I was fostering TO foster, not fostering To adopt

Not until I could be available for adoption without pinning my hopes and dreams on it. 

But that’s not what I’d chosen.

I’d chosen to foster.

And so, as Scooter’s case progressed towards reunification, and I began coming to grips with the reality that (in my mind) we’d lost the “foster to adopt” gamble, I started searching for a way to minimize the damage. 

My solution: Renewing our pursuit of domestic infant adoption while at the same time fostering Scooter. This required sending appeals to our local and then state DCF offices, as fostering with the state while pursuing adopting with a different agency is typically not allowed. After months of collaborating with adoption consultants and our family resource worker, we were finally granted permission to do both simultaneously. 

And just like that, I got back to where I’d started. Back to where, I now knew, I should have stayed.

I wanted to build a family. That was my primary goal. And I shouldn’t have started fostering until fostering could be my primary goal, and adoption just a beautiful surprise if that’s how things turned out.

If you feel time pressure to start a family, and your primary goal is adoption, I encourage you to avoid my mistake and don’t foster first.

Pursue domestic infant adoption. It’s expensive, for sure. But there are grants and scholarships, there’s government assistance, and you can fundraise on your own. I’m not saying it’ll be easy, but the DCF path is for people who are comfortable waiting (what could be a very long time) or are comfortable fostering, fully aware that while they’ll touch many kid’s lives, they may never get the opportunity to adopt one of them.

Because while kids get adopted out of the foster system every day, THE GOAL of foster care is not adoption. It’s reunification.

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