The most frequent question I get asked on this blog is definitely “How does adopting through foster care work?” I’ve been typing a lot of loooong emails in response. Sometimes explaining it better, sometimes explaining it worse. I thought perhaps I could explain it here and refer to this post as needed. Hopefully this will be helpful to anyone who is thinking about adopting through foster care.
The foster care system is complicated (to be honest sometimes it’s a mess). There are some overlaps between various cases, but for the most part no two cases are exactly the same. The duration of time can never be guaranteed. Some cases take years. Some cases take months. Our personal case took over 3 years. This is on the longer side of average, but not unusual. I’ll try to make this short and easy. Please understand that this is condensed, and the time limits are guesses based on my experience and the experience of friends.
Before we start, let me state, THE MAIN GOAL OF FOSTER CARE IS REUNIFICATION OF THE CHILD WITH THEIR BIRTH FAMILY. And it should be. When this isn’t possible the child may become available for adoption. Below is how it generally works for those who are not able to be reunified.
Basically there are three phases for children who end up getting adopted through foster care:
- The child enters foster care and their birth parents are given the chance to work a case plan.
- If number 1 is not successful, the goal is changed to adoption and eventually the birth parent’s rights may be terminated.
- The child awaits an adoption date.
When A Child Enters Foster Care
Let me again repeat, the initial goal for children in foster care nearly always begins as reunification with birth parents. There may be rare circumstances where this is not the case, such as death of birth family or long term prison sentence, but almost always the goal starts as reunification. When children first enter foster care, their birth parents have the opportunity to work a case plan. The hope is that the situation that caused the child to enter foster care can be fixed, and the child can be returned home. During this time they hope to be able to place the child with family members so the transition is easier for the child. If family members (known as a kinship placement) are not available, a foster family or resource family is where the child will be placed. Sometimes during this early phase, the child’s caseworker will continue to look for a kinship placement even after they are placed with a foster family. If you choose to start at this phase in a child’s journey it is very important that you support reunification.
The birth parents will begin to work their case plan. It can involve anything, but usually involves things like going to rehab, getting a job, taking parenting classes, finding a safe apartment, etc. Sometimes children are returned to their birth family very quickly. The issue may have been something minor like mom having an unsafe boyfriend, and her case plan was simply that she had to kick him out. Some children will be in this phase much longer. Some parents will work hard to complete their case plan. Some will be unable to.
After around 15 months
After around 12-18 months, If the birth parents are unable to work their case plan, the goal is changed to adoption. The goal change will be decided in court. The birth parent will likely still have visits with their child after the goal is changed, and will still be able to work on their case plan. The caseworker will begin attempting to identify a suitable adoptive placement. The current foster parents will usually have first priority to adopt, as the child has usually bonded to them. Sometimes kinship will be considered again. If neither kinship nor the current foster parents are an option, another foster home may be sought out. The child may move in with the possible adoptive family at this time, or the family may just be identified as an option should the case go to adoption.
The court will set a hearing date for the Termination of Parental Rights (also called TPR). The TPR hearing is usually scheduled anywhere from 6 months to a year after the goal is changed to adoption. If the birth parents do begin working their case plan during this time, the hearing may be postponed. If the birth parents do not make any progress on their case plan, a judge may decide to terminate their parental rights. If the rights are terminated, the birth parents lawyer can file an appeal. Appeals are pretty common. Usually the appeal is not granted. It may be granted if the birth parent has suddenly started working their case plan or if their was some kind of technicality. If the appeal is granted they will redo the TPR hearing.
After Termination of Parental Rights
If TPR is granted and the appeal period has passed or been denied, the child is now “legally free” for adoption. The birth parent will no longer have visits*. If the child’s current placement is planning to adopt them, not much will change. The family will await an adoption date, which usually takes 6 months to a year. If the child’s current placement is not planning to adopt them, the child’s adoption worker will continue to seek a suitable placement. The adoption worker will seek out parents who specifically want to adopt and fit with the child’s needs. When a match is made, the child will begin visits with the potential adoptive family, eventually moving in with them. There will usually be a few months to make sure this is the right placement for the child, and then an adoption date will be set. This will generally be around a year after the child is moved to the potential adoptive family.
After The Adoption Date
Once the adoption is completed this is YOUR CHILD. Your child will be issued a new birth certificate with your name on it as the parent (but hang on to the old one for them if you can!). And that’s it! You don’t have to deal with anymore court dates or social workers coming by to visit. *If the birth family is safe, I would personally recommend trying to maintain a relationship with them, though it is not required.
Things To Think About
If you are hoping to adopt through foster care you can enter in at any of the 3 phases. I was going to list a few pros and cons of each. But that felt very wrong since we’re talking about people here. There are no pros and cons, but there are things to consider.
Things to think about when entering at phase 1:
- Since cases often take 2-3 years, if a child becomes available for adoption they have been with you for a good deal of that time. You have likely bonded as a family. This minimizes trauma to the child as they don’t have to go through the upheaval of moving to a new home if the case goes to adoption.
- You know the child’s case very well, which is helpful to a child when they are older and have questions.
- You probably know the birth family through visitation during the case, which again is very helpful as your child get’s older.
- If you do not want to adopt out of birth order it is easier to be placed with a younger child if you enter at phase one.
- The point of foster care is reunification. You must be able to support this as a foster parent. Your worker may be able to place children with you who seem more likely to be adopted eventually, but this isn’t a guarantee. A lot of foster parents go through heart break.
Things to think about when entering at phase 2:
- The child will be able to begin bonding with you sooner then if you wait until after TPR.
- You may still get to know the birth parents if visitation is still happening which is good.
- The birth parent may still get their child back, and you still need to be able to support that. It can be harder emotionally when you think the child is going to become available for adoption.
Things to think about when entering at phase 3:
- The child is legally free for adoption and the chances of the birth parent getting the child back are miniscule.
- You will be adopting a child who is really in need of a family.
- If you have young children and do not want to adopt out of birth order it may be difficult to be matched as nearly all children are at least 2 or 3 years old by this point, and more likely 6+. Not always, but often.
- The child may have spent the last 2-3 years being bumped around to various foster homes, or they may have spent the last 2-3 years attaching to a foster home they now have to leave. The transition is understandably tough.
I hope this helps people who may be interested understand a little more about adopting through the foster care system. If you have any questions feel free to email me! I’ll do my best to answer them, or point you in the direction of someone who can.