Because the primary goal of foster care is to reunite families and adoption happens as a secondary option when the first goal is unachievable, adoption from foster care can be especially complicated. For this reason, and many others, some families do not consider maintaining an open adoption. Sometimes foster parents are advised to maintain anonymity and completely cut off contact from biological families for the safety of the children. Some states only offer closed adoptions, which means the adoptive family is under no obligation or commitment to maintain contact with the biological family. Is open adoption after foster care even a realistic possibility? Is it good for kids?
Loving the Parents
There is not a single answer to account for all circumstances and individuals, but in our case, open adoption was not only a realistic option but the absolute best choice for our kids. Despite the heartache it entails, foster parents understand that in almost all cases, the state’s primary goal is to rehabilitate and reunite biological families for the good of the kids. Great foster parents put their time and energy into helping provide children a healthy family environment during their time in care, but they also work hard to establish relationships with the biological parents and provide love and support to them as well.
This is much easier said than done, but early in our foster training before we even had children placed with us, we determined that the best way we could love the children in our care was to love the parents from whom they came. Statistically speaking in our state (and it varies from state to state) 50% of children exiting in-home foster care in 2016 reunited with their parents or primary caretakers. If children in our care were to stand a good chance of returning home, they would need us to love their parents to make that process as smooth as possible. If their case did not lead to reunification and resulted in adoption instead, they would still need to know, for the rest of their lives, that we love and value the people who gave them life—the people whose DNA makes up the children we so deeply love. Think of it this way: regardless of the choices they’ve made, if I am unloving toward the biological families of my children, I may be inadvertently communicating to my children that they are damaged, evil, or inherently unloved and unvalued. We decided we were in foster care to love not only children but their entire family unit. Even hurting, volatile, and unhealthy families are comprised of valuable people, and we wanted to treat them as such.
Not Our Enemies
The best experiences I have heard of in foster care happen when foster parents and biological parents unite for the good of the children. They learn to connect and see each other as teammates—not enemies. There is no fail-proof formula for accomplishing this, but we knew we wanted to do everything in our power to try. I remember being extremely nervous the first time I met my kids’ mom. Her children were placed in my home against her will, and I was nothing more than a stranger to her. I feared that she might think I was trying to take her kids away and I imagined she probably feared for their safety and well-being. I wanted to show compassion and kindness, but I was also nervous about how much I should say or share. I can’t remember the exact words that were exchanged that day, but I know I expressed my sorrow that she was in this place and pledged my willingness to help her turn things around and to love and protect the kids as she worked. In the weekly visits that followed, we often stuck around to talk a bit after, to share stories about the kids, and to share tears and hugs. We did what we could to help her and her partner to maintain connections with their very young children by providing photos, artwork, and progress reports from daycare and doctor visits. We were amazed that though their families were extremely concerned about them, they did not treat us as the enemy. They even expressed gratitude to us for what we were doing for the children. Together, my husband and I processed our frustration with the biological parents. When we interacted with them, we simply tried to provide encouraging and honest kindness and support. We also committed ourselves to pray for them daily when we put the kids to bed.
Because we were able to transport the kids to their visits ourselves, we also began to allow their parents to take them to our vehicle and buckle them into their seats. It gave them a few more minutes for goodbyes, a brief moment away from the caseworker, and the chance to know that we understood how important it was for them to have that little glimpse into the world where their kids were living. We covered our aversion to the heavy smoke smell on them and the gifts they gave, and we smiled and said goodbye before buckling the car seats properly—out of their sight. These little things sometimes felt weightier than they seemed they should, but they were being added on to our growing love for these precious kids and fear and concern for their well-being. Visits were very stressful on little ones who were unable to put words to their feelings. Their behaviors regressed and their need to be consoled (and inability to be consoled) went through the roof with each visit. Still, we stayed the course.
Stop the Cycle
We tried to help identify different locations for visits to give the kids variety and to allow their parents a better chance of success in playing with them. They normally met in a local library but sometimes were able to venture outside to a nearby park. On one particular occasion, we had their visit scheduled to be before the family support team meeting. The mom did not make it in time for the visit, though she managed to get to the meeting before it ended. The caseworker was not willing to allow her extra time to visit after the meeting, so we parted ways to go to our car—sharing in the mom’s sadness at not getting to spend time with the kids. We were headed to lunch and suddenly it dawned on us—maybe we could take the mom, too. We quickly texted our caseworker with our idea and asked for her permission to invite the mom. She readily agreed and gushed her gratitude for our willingness to reach out to the mom in that way. The caseworker was fine with the interaction as long as we were present. The mom happily accepted our offer and joined us for lunch.
As we ate Italian food and breadsticks, we talked like regular people—not like people whose lives had been thrown together in an incredibly awkward and complicated way. We learned more about her and she learned more about us, and I took my first opportunity to offer some mentoring and challenging words. She shared how the demons she battled were nothing new in her family and that she had grown up in this lifestyle she longed to escape. She expressed her appreciation for what we were offering the kids and said that she could finally see that God had a better plan. She had originally wanted them placed with her mom, but she knew that they needed to be completely removed from the entire situation, and she found herself thankful at that moment that they were safe with us. She expressed her desire to turn her life around and not to become like her friend who had lost her kids to the system in similar circumstances. I clearly remember saying to her, with tears in my eyes and all of the love I could muster, “This is your chance to put a stop to the generational cycle so that she doesn’t have to,” I said as I gestured to our oblivious two-year-old daughter. “You can change this for them.” It seemed as though my mini-motivational speech had landed on ready ears and she pledged to do exactly that.
Foster Care to Open Adoption
In the coming months, the mom and dad both tried to get to a good place. The dad lived with his parents and wasn’t able to keep a job. The mom remained homeless, couch surfing to stay warm, and after a couple of failed attempts at rehab, she disappeared. The last visit she had with the kids was a beautiful outdoor playtime where they fed ducks and played at the park. We didn’t know that would be the last time we would see her, and I’m not sure she knew either. Before that visit, we shared a phone call where she praised our role in the kids’ lives and expressed appreciation that we were giving them what she wished she could. She wanted them to grow up in church, learning to praise the Lord. She wanted them far from addiction and violence. She wanted them to be incredibly loved and she knew that they were with us. Weeks turned into months, and months without contact meant legal abandonment. Occasionally, she would reach out to me to check on the kids and I would encourage her to contact the caseworker to see what she could do about visiting again but, for some reason, she never managed to make that call.
In the meantime, the dad tried his best. After landing in jail a couple of times, he mustered up the courage to go to rehab. We took the kids there to visit him, and his regular visits resumed when he was released. Soon, he was approved for unsupervised visits and we tried to prepare our hearts for the kids to be reunited with him. Though the dad was doing better than ever, there were some obvious struggles still happening and they began to compound. A year and a half into the case, some information came to light that ended the dad’s chances of getting the kids back, and it was determined parental rights would be terminated. When the court date arrived, he made the heartbreaking decision to voluntarily sign over his rights. With tears flooding our eyes, we listened to him tell the judge that he signed the papers because he wanted the kids to stay right where they were.
Now, given these circumstances with two biological parents struggling with addiction, many people might think it best to cut ties for the good of the kids. However, we were not only bonded to them; we had grown to love their extended families as well and, even though several of those members also had challenges and struggles, they all had a tremendous amount of love for the kids. The kids were young enough at the time of the adoption that they may have easily forgotten their biological families. Having watched countless episodes of TLC’s Long Lost Family, though, we had determined that we didn’t want our kids to ever have to wonder about or search out their biological families. Now, we were the keepers of their memories and we wanted to honor their future selves by keeping them well. We also wanted to solidify our place as their parents and eliminate the confusion and stress that weekly visits had brought them. We were torn. We participated in the obligatory and heart-wrenching goodbye visit with their dad, and we completed our legally closed adoption according to state policies. We are grateful the state only does closed adoptions because it freed us to do what was best for the kids and our family without being required to document some sort of legal agreement. Even so, we fully believe in open adoption and felt that it was a realistic possibility in our circumstances because even though their birth parents had not succeeded in gaining them back, they had become an extension of our family through the process and we wanted the kids to know them.
Expectations for the Future of Open Adoption
After the termination hearing and final visit, we decided to take some time for the kids to be free from visits and settle into a new, calmer routine. We went several weeks without visits but, during that time, we stayed in contact with their birth parents through text. Once we were officially selected as their adoptive family and our adoption date was set, we prepared a lengthy letter for the biological family members. In the letter, we expressed our desire to have an open adoption, and we detailed what we wanted that to look like. At the time, there were some grandparents involved who were showering the kids with excessive gifts each time they saw them and family members who had a habit of speaking poorly of one parent or the other in our presence. In our letter, we expressed our love and appreciation for each of them and laid out the standards we planned to stick to for the good of the kids. Here were some of our expectations:
- We want all of our visits to be with our family collectively—not the kids alone.
- We want the kids to cherish relationships and not possessions, so we ask for no gifts to be given.
- Our time together needs to be when everyone is clean and healthy.
- We do not want negative conversations about other family members.
- Our opportunities to spend time together will be dependent upon how the kids are responding to these times and may need to be adjusted based on their feelings.
- We want physical affection to be child-directed and not coerced in any way.
- We do not want anyone to post pictures of the kids on social media without our permission.
There were a few expectations that were challenging and created some adjustments for their biological families, but we felt strongly that anyone who wanted to be involved in their lives would be willing to cooperate with our requests. It was an important part of us transitioning from foster parents to just parents in their eyes. They needed to see that we wanted them to be a part of our lives, but that it would need to be on our terms. Since that time over four years ago, we have maintained text communication and somewhat regular visits with the birth mom and dad as well as a maternal aunt. We also get to see biological grandparents and an aunt or uncle a couple of times a year. Nothing is set in stone and we all miss each other when we go long gaps between visits. There have been times when the birth dad’s choices have caused us to go longer stretches between seeing him, and the mom’s move out of state means that most of our time with her happens via video, but we are grateful for whatever time we have with them. Our kids know their birth parents and love their adoption story as we do.
Positive Results of Open Adoption
The greatest thing that has come out of this decision to maintain an open adoption happened just this past fall when the birth mom came back to the area to visit her family and we got to spend a couple of days with her. On the second day, she joined us for church, and then she and her boyfriend came to our home for lunch to spend a few hours with the kids. It was the sweetest gift for all of us. She gave each of the kids a Lego set and spent time helping them build them. We sat around the table talking and laughing together and the kids showed her their rooms, the house, and the yard. It felt so good to have her there in our home, knowing we have all come a long way from the first day we met. She blinked back tears as she said, “To most people, this is probably no big deal, but to me, it is huge. Just knowing that I’m at a place to be in your home makes me incredibly grateful!” We assured her that it was huge to us as well. I spent the day absolutely in awe of God’s redemptive work. Bible teacher Tara Leigh Cobble says, “Adoption is a step to redeem a really broken situation,” and it is. Our kids would not have needed adoption had there not been brokenness involved. Adoption may have been the secondary plan according to the state, but it was a beautiful plan for our kids and, because everyone involved has embraced this open adoption after foster care, our children are thriving and have easy access to people from all parts of their story.
Foster care puts kids in incredibly challenging circumstances. Kids from hard places endure tremendous loss and grief. Open adoption, when feasible, is just one more way to bridge the gap between surviving and thriving.