For both expectant parents (anyone considering placing their child for adoption) and hopeful adoptive parents (anyone hoping to adopt), there are plenty of options on the metaphorical table. There is international adoption where a parent adopts a child from another country. But if going far from home is not someone’s style, domestic adoption agencies are available as well. Birth parents and adoptive parents can work together in either a closed adoption where there is no contact between the birth parents and adoptive parents after the adoption is complete or an open adoption where there is a relationship between all parties after the adoption is finalized. However, there is another platter on the metaphorical table that can be just as filling: foster adoption.
As many people know, foster adoption is adopting a child that is within the services of foster care and looking for a forever home. But many people also know that foster care has its own share of issues, including capacity limits, children struggling with complex situations, and time itself. So, how can people help? How can we improve this situation so that children can find their forever families in a more efficient way?
Luckily, this video talks about these questions. Gladney Center for Adoption has created a podcast called reFRAMED which is meant to educate and encourage everyone in the process of adoption by talking about different related topics and their goals as an adoption agency. In this podcast episode, host Emily Morehead (Gladney’s research and curriculum supervisor) invites Executive Vice President Heidi Bruegel Cox to discuss her opinions on foster care, foster adoption, and Gladney’s recent goals towards improving the foster care system as a whole.
The discussion starts with a quick overview of the goals Gladney has involving foster care. Gladney’s main objective is to get as many kids out of the system and into permanent homes as fast as possible. They are committed to finding forever families faster by using adoption rather than keeping kids in foster care any longer than necessary. Of course, this shifts the conversation to the question “What is stopping adoptions from happening in the first place?” Often, the first issue to come up is the “capacity problem,” or rather, the idea that the child-to-home ratio is severely unfair. While this is often true, Heidi Cox responds with another issue that may be contributing even more to the problem. A major part of the reason the foster care system becomes so backed up is because the system itself is flawed, not because there are not enough families to go to. The system as a whole is slower than the number of children entering it. This is causing the backup.
“We know we have the families available; we just have to get them through the processes and the system to move on quickly for these children.”- Heidi Cox
Anyone who has been through the adoption process (or even just witnessed a friend go through it) knows how tedious and long the road is. There are mountains of paperwork, forests of official processes, and sometimes even literal oceans to cross. The foster care system, in particular, is a storm to navigate.
Reasons why the system is slow and complicated were addressed as follows (though they are certainly not limited to these):
- The court system is moving slowly. As in the actual paperwork/processes are slowing down.
- The caseworkers have huge workloads. It can be hard to be patient when waiting for parts of the adoption and foster process to be completed, but it would help to remember that there are regular people behind it all. They are working as hard as they can to make it go as well as they can.
- Caseworkers are trying to give birth parents more time. Sometimes, birth parents have not completely had their rights terminated and can bring their child back into their care. There are separate processes for this, and sometimes those require more time than originally given.
- Foster care workers are trying to do long-term planning for the child’s needs. Some children need more from potential parents such as experience with mental or physical health issues. As such, the agency and court system need to carefully plan for those needs.
After going through some of the rougher sides of foster care, host Emily Morehead begins to swing the conversation to a more positive light: how to fix those rough edges. One of the first things Heidi Cox brings up is a voluntary plan. These are usually offered through most agencies, and at Gladney, the voluntary plans are created when the birth parent is unable to support the child or cannot rely on a relative to do so but does not want to be separated from their child(ren). Normally, the child would go through a state placement where the state court chooses the child’s living situation at that time. However, this option allows the birth parent to choose the family and the amount of contact between the birth parent and the foster family. This will allow the birth parent to build a relationship with her or his child. It can also expedite the process with foster care adoption because that can take three or more years, but voluntary plans can be almost immediate. This allows more time to heal for both children and birth parents from the loss of being partially or completely separated. These plans are usually offered by most agencies, but Gladney in particular has been attempting to make them more prevalent.
This segues into one of my favorite parts of this episode in which Emily Morehead and Heidi Cox begin discussing the themes of empowerment within the system. Foster care is, unfortunately, often disempowering. It leaves very few decisions to the birth parent and can cause mental and emotional trauma to both parents and children. Voluntary plans are often more empowering because they give choices and freedom to both parties. This was the first time I had ever heard about the theme of empowerment being applied to the topic of adoption, but now it makes so much sense. The word “empowerment” is defined as “authority or power given to someone to do something.” By giving people a decision in a matter that is very important to them, you have empowered them. What bigger decision is there for birth parents than the decision of who gets to care for their child in the unfortunate situation where they cannot?
The topic of discussion then turns into another unfortunate reason foster adoption tends to be more of a challenge: the child’s background. Every child has a story to tell, but foster care children tend to have both a wider variety and a more complicated plot to their autobiographies. Some were removed at birth (this is usually a result of early drug exposure), so they were quite literally born into the system. Others do not enter the foster care system until an older age, but even in this circumstance, it is likely that the court has been in and out of their lives for one reason or another since they were younger. Some kids came from very dangerous situations such as abusive parents, but other kids came from very sad situations such as a family member’s death. The point being that by the time these children get to the adoption agency, they have probably been through a lot. That was an understatement, but I am sure you get the message.
Regrettably, the foster care system does not do them any favors. Foster homes are temporary, they have many different children rotating through them, and they are not always a good match for the children they house. This adds even more trauma onto a child’s shoulders along with whatever burdens he may already bring with him. These children usually require different services, whether it be counseling or medical attention, and that can make it harder to place them. Heidi Cox sums it up rather well by saying, “[It’s] not because foster parents are bad, but because the system causes an unstable environment for children.”
In order to remedy these problems with foster care, Gladney Center for Adoption has been attempting to educate and prepare families for permanent adoption. That is partially why reFRAMED exists, and the agency has plans to spread their education further starting with the families going through Gladney.
Gladney knows that education is one of the best ways to ignite change. So, they have set up ways for families to learn more about children, their potential backgrounds, and how to be as understanding as possible. Any family adopting through Gladney will have the opportunity to take part in these educational sessions as well as meet others who have been through similar experiences. Gladney will also help coach the family during and after placement. You may ask why Gladney would stick around once the placement has been finalized. Heidi Cox answers this question by saying, “You go to college not for training, but for education. It’s not until you’re on the job that you get the training.” Gladney continues to train adoptive parents and birth parents even after placement.
Beyond teaching their families, the agency is also pursuing the effort to teach themselves. In the podcast episode, Heidi Cox shares a basic idea of what Gladney’s next steps to improve the system are:
1. Ensure Gladney understands what their clients are struggling with. So far, they have witnessed a growing struggle in reading and comprehending the mountains of paperwork and adoption files. People are confused by some of the adoption-specific language used in the documents, not to mention exhausted in trying to keep up with all the requirements. In response, Gladney is discussing how they can make it easier for the families.
2. Gladney is making the placement of children more efficient and less time-consuming. As mentioned before, the entire system is quite slow when it comes to placing children in permanent homes. Even if the child has been with those particular foster parents for an extended amount of time, the child may still experience a backlog when it comes to becoming legally adopted.
3. The opening of Gladney Home in order to meet the needs of preteen and teenage girls in the foster care system. The objective of this project is to create a safe place for educating foster children. Studies have shown that this group in particular has been rather difficult to place. With this new project, these preteen and teenage girls will be cared for by official Gladney workers who will spend time with them, figure out their needs, be mentors for them, and help them learn to live in a family. Many preteen and teenage girls come into the foster care system broken and traumatized, so they need to relearn how to trust and get along with others. Once they are through with their learning and training, Gladney will ask them what they want in a family and advocate for them. Like a voluntary plan, these girls have now been given the empowerment they deserve in deciding their future instead of just “a hope and a prayer.”
Now critics are probably typing their comments about how “this is just one agency” and “why can’t we apply this to the whole system right now?” But changing the foster care system will not happen overnight. However, if one agency begins to change itself and is successful then they can spread that knowledge and experience to others, and from there, it can grow to a full-on revolution. I have said this already here, but Heidi Cox has a way with words and concludes it perfectly, “I can’t go to the state and say, ‘Your system is broken, let me help you fix it.’ That would never work. But there are things that we can fix in our processes. Then we can go to the state and say, ‘Hey, we made some changes, and this seems to be successful. And if you want, we’ll give you the information that we have.’ We want to be partners.”
One last thing they mentioned in this episode was a list of ways to help when you are not adopting or fostering. The list includes the following:
- Advocate for other children to help them find families that fit.
- Help other families going through the process with favors (bring them food or supplies they may need, drop off a gift card, etc.)
- Locate your local agency and ask what you can do to help.
- Churches and schools will often have drives and sales that go towards foster care. Just this year, our youth group was asked to gather school supplies that would be donated to foster care agencies within our area.
Improving our country’s foster care system can start with one agency changing its processes. It can also start from one community being willing to help. Whether you are a foster parent, an agency worker, or just someone looking to contribute your services, you are needed in this movement.