Foster-to-Adopt: But what happens when they go home?

Foster care has gained a global spotlight over the past few years thanks, in part, to movies and media coverage. Many people are choosing this path. But, there’s a right reason and a wrong reason to choose this journey, as well as a right and a wrong mind set to have as you enter each process with each child.

“I wish we could do away with the term foster-to-adopt,” a co-foster parent used these exact words a few days ago on the ‘Foster Parent Support Group Facebook Page’ that I often times refer to on here. “It communicates the wrong message to people who are entering the process. We should call it, foster-to-reunify.” She was referring to the underlying intention some have in entering the journey, to build a family by fostering. Not specifically the program of fostering-to-adopt. I nodded as I read through this and the comments. She was completely right. Foster to adopt IS misleading at times!!

Harsh, right? I even used two exclamation points at the end. But I need to drive home a strong point here: You don’t enter the foster care journey to build your family. You don’t enter to adopt. You enter to care for children in need. The point is reunification….always…unless it absolutely becomes an adoption case. If you’re doing foster care for anything else than caring for vulnerable children or reunification, you’re doing it for the wrong reasons. Double harsh!

Let me be 110% honest and 110% vulnerable for just a second.. WE do want to eventually adopt, and YES as we fall in love with each child, we will in the back of our mind want to “adopt every single one” but we know that the end goal is and we say the same thing to every person we talk to about it, “if there’s a chance for a parent to turn their life around and be a family with their child, they deserve for that to happen – both the child and parent.” We must remove our feelings from it, we must not be selfish, because this process isn’t about what we need – it’s about what that child needs.. it’s always a little mix of both, just sometimes it’s more of us, sometimes it’s a little more of their biological family.

A few years ago I was talking with a friend of mine, she had just started fostering – tears streamed down her face as she shared their story. Six or so months earlier, when they began the journey, they had been told by their agency (DFCS) that their first placement, a 6-month old boy, was more than likely going to turn into an adoption situation. This moved their hearts as they had always dreamed of adopting a little boy or girl (back story – they had issue after issue with IVF treatments prior to this.) But the conversation with the case manager was casual and there was never a follow up after. A few months later, visitations with birth mom had been re-instated. She had turned a corner and began showing signs of progress. This prompted a judge to order visitations, even though it had been nearly six months since her son was removed from her care. All signs were pointing toward reunification (at least from the foster parent’s perspective.) Fast forward another 3 or so months and that child went home to his biological mother.

I listened, I empathized, I hurt for them. What a devastating thing to be told this by their agency, allow your heart to go there, and then have the carpet yanked out from beneath you, I thought. But I realized they had been led astray from the beginning. The case manager should have never mentioned adoption until it was absolutely a certainty. For the well-being of this precious couple, and their heart, as well as the child they were caring for, it should not have been a topic of conversation. (Post Note: They tried an additional IVF treatment about a year later and they now have a beautiful baby girl! Yay, happy endings!)

You don’t enter foster care to build a family, or to adopt. Could it turn into this? Sure. Can you sign up through an agency to be a foster-to-adopt couple? Yep. Those are both possibilities and there are designed programs for each. But, to set out on the foster care journey with an expectation of adoption in a general case is dangerous for your heart and the heart of the child you’re caring for. Make your focus reunification as a foster parent, but be open to adoption if it leads to this. Here are a few other things to focus on while you care for children through foster care…

1. Advocacy. Be an advocate for the child and the child’s family (if you are able to do this.) They need a cheerleader throughout this process.

2. Leadership. Make your focus to genuinely and authentically lead the child you’re caring for (and also the family.) You have this amazing, distinct opportunity to be a positive influence and guide along this journey. Be a role model for what parenting should look like to both the child and the parent – heighten the parents goal standards, heighten the child’s expectation standards for what parenting should look like.

3. Healing. Chances are, the child in your care has come from some pretty traumatic stuff. They may even be behaving out of this trauma. Or they’re afraid. They need time and space to heal. You can give them this space. You also have the opportunity to be a catalyst for hope and restoration in their story.

Make your focus reunification as a foster parent, but be open to adoption if it leads to this.

Listen, I get it. Can I just tell you that? I get the struggle you are having if you have fallen in love with the child in your care, or been told something pre-maturely by your foster care agency. I understand how your heart and mind can jump to adoption or permanency. In many situations during our time as foster parents, our hearts will go there, but we have to keep the right perspective in place. We have to keep reunification in focus, until it was absolutely certain a child was never leaving. We allow our hearts to love children deeply while they are with us, and then we grieve and celebrate openly when they reunify with their family. It’s the painful, tragic, reality of the foster care journey.

This isn’t just a letter to fellow foster parents, or to the potential foster parents, but to also myself, my partner, our friends and family… literally every single person who asks the question, “are you guys going to adopt?”

You are setting yourself up for potential heart break if you foster with the expectation of adoption. Can I give you some parting advice that will spare you pain and agony? If adoption is your expectation, you should adopt, not foster. No harm, no foul in choosing this path.

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