In March of 2019, I went to an Aging Out Crisis Forum where I heard from former foster youth and some young women who currently live at Zoie’s Place, a transitional home for girls who have aged out of foster care. These young women shared story after story of rejection as an older child in the system, feeling unsupported by foster families, and their struggles after they aged out.
One girl’s story specifically caught my attention. She explained that her foster parents (as well as other mentors in her life) wanted her to get a job, so she worked hard to apply for different jobs in the area. However, even though she was over 16, her foster mom would not take her to get a license, would not allow her to use public transportation, and would charge her money for gas to get to and from work.
As I heard this, I could feel my knee shaking and my face turning red. How many more children in the foster care system have been hurt this way by foster parents? How would their lives be different now if their foster families were places of unconditional love, support, and kindness? I was imagining what my relationship with my (then) foster daughter would be like if I charged her money to get to and from a friend’s house or basketball practice. The extent of our relationship would be “What can you give me?” instead of “How can we build our relationship?”
I listened to these young women tell the truth about their journeys. I imagined the faces of hundreds of children in the foster care system whose hearts have already been broken, only to enter into a foster home where true family feels unattainable, love is a transaction, and all hope is lost. I thought about the countless foster parents who have missed out on opportunities to show love, grace, mercy, and kindness (and receive it in return!) because they didn’t want to be “taken advantage of” by the children in their home. My heart broke for the five young adults at the front of the room sharing their stories. I envisioned the hundreds of thousands of families in America with empty bedrooms and beds and big hearts who could provide a different kind of story for older children in foster care (in whatever ways they can).
What if, instead of aging out, 16,17, and 18-year-olds found forever adoptive homes? What if, instead of having the support of random program-funded mentors, they had real, actual, unconditionally loving parents? What if, instead of feeling like an intruder and a burden, they felt like true, integral members of the family (even before they were “legally” members of the family)? What if, when they run away, foster and adoptive parents waited with open arms instead of disrupting placement? Would the aging-out statistics change then? Are older children just as worthy of love as babies? Does their preciousness change based on their age?
There are many potential adoptive parents who have fears about adopting older children or teenagers. Let’s address some of those fears.
If a child is a teenager in the foster care system, it is likely that he or she has experienced more trauma than a younger child. This can cause fear for some parents who may not feel equipped to handle the manifestations of trauma in the household. When talking about this with potential adoptive parents, I try to help them see this trauma from the perspective of the child in need of a family. Yes, they certainly will have extra trauma to work through. But your home could become a place of healing from that trauma. It could be a place where they learn what it means to be a part of a family, where they understand their value, and where they figure out their passion and place in the world. Although it is possible for teenagers to accomplish all of these things in a group home or shelter for teenagers (yes, that is what they call them), it is more healing for them to be in a family. Through adoption, you can rewrite an older child’s story.
Being “Too Young”
When my husband and I started foster care, we were both 26 years old. We started out taking ages 5-11, simply because we didn’t want to start out with teenagers but, with our stage of life, it would also be really difficult to bring in babies (both of us work full-time). Then, after we adopted our son, we extended our age bracket to 18. In some ways, I think we were totally naive. But in others, I think we were just stepping out in faith. We now have adopted a 14-year-old and an 11-year-old, meaning if we had given birth biologically to our children, we would have done so at 14 and 17 years old. There have been some things in parenting older children that we have been completely lost about, lacking the wisdom that a more seasoned parent might have when it comes to boundaries, social media, etc. However, we have often used our age to our advantage with our older children. We can relate to their music; we know the TikToks they like, and we can still jump with them at the trampoline park. It’s pretty fun to be able to participate with them in activities. You should definitely take your age into account when considering adoption, but don’t let it stop you from stepping out in faith to adopt an older child.
Birth Order in Family
Many people with biological children are hesitant about switching up the birth order in their homes. They want their oldest child to remain the oldest, and I totally understand that. But there are benefits of bringing an older child into your family when you have young biological children. I listened to this podcast with Emily Recker about fostering teenagers and how her biological children have helped them, as a family, in welcoming them into their home. Having biological children in your home can cause instant bonding for an older child, giving them an immediate way to help, a child to pick up, or even someone to play with.
An additional benefit to adopting an older child is that it will give your biological children a different perspective of the world. Just as foster care and adoption will change anyone who becomes involved, it also changes our children. It gives them a chance to be compassionate, and it opens their eyes to the world of suffering in their own homes.
Where Do They Go If They Don’t Have a Family?
You may know that there are about 120,000 children awaiting a forever home in the United States. You may also know that, each year, 23,000 of them will age out of foster care without a family. But do you know where they go if there is no family?
In the United States, there is a shortage of foster parents, and there are even less foster parents willing to foster older children and teenagers. Therefore, many of them end up in juvenile detention centers or group homes where they don’t have the opportunity to grow and heal in a family. After years of living in group homes, their faces on the website saying that they’re in need of a forever family, they start to believe the lie that they are unwanted and unworthy of a family. When we become willing to adopt an older child or teenager, we can rewrite that story, give them a new start, and show them that they’re wanted and worthy of a family.
“Aging out” means that at the arbitrary age of 18, the government assumes that children in the foster care system have the ability to move out, pay their own bills, get a job, and go to college without the support of family. Many of us from loving homes stayed on our parents’ insurance until we were 26, had help getting started in college, or at least had some kind of moral support coming from our families while we were getting on our feet. But children who age out the foster care system are expected to do this completely on their own, which is why many of them end up homeless, unemployed, pregnant before age 21, incarcerated, or experiencing other adverse outcomes. A common misconception is that only young children are in need of a forever family. However, Annie Marek-Barta, an adult adoptee who was adopted at age 26, says, “You never outgrow the need for a family.”
Healthy Ways to Adopt an Older Child
Adopting older children is incredibly worth it and will create lasting change in their life. They will surprise you with their love, their responsibility, and their hard work ethic. They will blow you away with their kindness and thoughtfulness. But it will also be difficult, and it’s very important to prepare yourself ahead of time and surround yourself with people who will provide you with the support you need. Consider the following when choosing to adopt an older child:
1. Counseling. Before you get a placement, find a counselor who specializes in foster care and adoption (check this website for TBRI trained practitioners). Before getting a placement, I was prepared to have my children in counseling and therapy, but I didn’t consider counseling for myself. I now regularly see a counselor, and I wish I had done so ahead of time to prepare myself for some possible emotional issues I would face.
2. Babysitters and Respite Providers. Becoming a foster parent requires that you have babysitters and respite care providers who have met specific requirements according to the state. When you start this journey of foster care and adoption, find people in your life who will come alongside you, support you, and love your child with you. Find people who will truly care about you and your children. Talk with them ahead of time about regular date nights or self-care nights so that you can be the best parent you can be to your child.
3. Take Breaks. Building healthy attachment with your child takes time, and the behaviors you will experience may be very overwhelming. Schedule breaks (even when you think you may not need them) ahead of time and be intentional about doing this. Take time to recharge for your own sake, but also for the sake of your child.
Driven by Love
Many people message me about foster care and adoption and express their fears. Many times, they have only heard the horror stories, the negative behaviors, or what they have seen portrayed in the media. They are afraid of how it may affect their family, of the extra trauma they will have to face, or maybe even feeling unqualified or unequipped to parent a child who has experienced significant trauma. All of these fears are valid, and it is important to explore them and make sure this is a decision that is right for you. But, in general, my challenge is this: are you driven by love or by fear?
When we are driven by love, our decision becomes less about us and our family and more about a child in need of a forever, loving home. Yes, you should be prepared. Find a counselor, line up babysitters, and schedule breaks ahead of time. Read and become as best prepared as you can. And then, jump in. You’re never going to be fully ready to start foster care or adoption, but an older child is fully ready for you. By choosing to adopt an older child, we are saying through our actions “You are loved. You are wanted. You belong. You are worthy of a family.”