The Actual Foster Care Adoption Process that We Endured
After making the decision to pass on international adoption, we plowed into researching options for domestic adoption. I called the 1-800 number and had a lovely conversation with a worker about adopting from the foster care system in Oregon. It was a little strange to call the Department of Human Services. There had been a number of years when as a social worker I had been a mandated reporter and had to call the DHS hotline. I had this conversation in December. The next step was to take classes, another round was scheduled for January.
We took several hours of classes at the local DHS site. The classes were in the evenings. At first we took turns attending, then we hired a sitter for the boys and went together. Alone or together, it didn’t matter, these classes were boring, painful, and dry. As a former social worker and as a decent parent, I could not believe the course content for these classes AND the questions from the class. One class was devoted to logistics of being a foster parent. The dos and don’ts. I did not get why I had listen countless questions of: when I buy a pair of shoes for my foster kid, what form do I use to get reimbursed. Or, when we go on a weekend trip to another state, why do I have to get approval?
I really felt like so much of the coursework should have been divided between foster families, kinship homes and adoptive families. The fosters had different questions than the kinships, the kinships had all sorts of issues related to their kin being the children’s failing parents, and us adoptive people just wanted to get a kid into our home.
Finally we completed the course work and had permission to get assigned to an adoption worker. His name was Mike. He came to our house several times to interview us. We also had to fill out piles of paperwork, including essay style questionnaires on our childhoods, family of origin, interpersonal conflicts, methods for handling stress. He did a thorough walk through of our house. He interviewed the boys. He needed three personal references on us as parents. A part of me was impressed by how thorough the inquiries were, another part of me nervous about the review. Would we pass the test?
Mike was assuring, but reminded us about the process of getting matched. He gave us the basic scenario. We wait for our adoption worker to complete the homestudy. Once we are approved as an available adoptive home, we are granted access to the website of available children. If we see a child we are interested in, we contact Mike. He contacts the adoptive child’s caseworker to report our interest and sends in our homestudy. The caseworker reviews all the requests, which can be over fifty families from all over the state, and at some point can even close off the interest. Fifty families? Mike nodded and reminded us how tricky the process is at that point. The caseworker narrows down the pile of home studies of interested families to about three. The caseworker forms a committee that conducts the final review. They select the adoptive home. Mike said to contact him sooner rather than later if interested in a child, but then to sit back and wait.
The home study was completed in the Fall. I got my password to access the State system. I searched for young females. Only a few came up. Each child had a photo or two and a brief profile. It was like researching homes for sale online. There was just enough information to make a decision on whether to pass or call your agent. You could see the first name, the age, racial/ethnic background, and a few paragraphs of information. I came across a child I was interested in; my husband agreed. We contacted Mike. A few weeks later, he told me I could call the caseworker for more information. I was told the child lived in a nearby city. The caseworker wanted detailed information on how we would handle visits until she moved in with us. I was willing to relocate for a few weeks to this city and my family would visit on weekends. I was given the foster mother’s contact number. I called her and we had a brief conversation. A week later, Mike told me the girl was matched to another family. It’s hard not to take things personally. There were a few more girls we felt interested in, but no match.
With each child, her age, the two photos, I started visualizing how this would work in our home. I started having dialogues in my mind. What would the boys do during her naptimes? They would be in school. What would we do when they are playing ball at the field? I would take her to the playground at the field. What about when they are working on homework? I would set her up with picture books or toys. I got more invested in how my life would be when she was in our household. I got an agitated, excited, anxious feeling every time I visited the website, which was every day. You never know when there would be a new listing. Mike said to contact him sooner and not later! There was even a child that my husband was interested in; I was not so sure. I was secretly relieved when we were not called. Months went by and I had to balance the yearning with enjoying my current family life. I had to believe and trust that this would happen.
In March, we went to a school event for parents. I felt really good that evening– we dressed up, we were a couple going on a date, we hired a sitter for the kids. We had fun with other adults drinking, laughing, staying out late. The next morning I logged on. There was a new listing. A young child who was living in the same foster home of three years. She did not exhibit any signs of physical or sexual trauma, there was no indication of medical problems or delays in her development. Her contact with the biological family was inconsistent. This was our girl.
We left a voicemail for Mike that day, a Saturday. I heard from him Monday that he would represent our interest in her. He called me a few times that month, noting he had not heard anything but knew that our homestudy was received by the caseworker. A month later the caseworker called me. She asked if I was still interested in the child. She gave me information on the foster household but nothing more on the girl. My heart was racing. She said we and a few other families were her selections. She said the committee would meet in a week and either way we would be informed. Another wait.
We were called by both Mike and the caseworker, Karen. We were chosen. Karen told us she would set up a series of visits. When can we see her? When? Karen said the foster family had plans to go away for Mother’s Day, she would set up the visit for the weekend after. What about my Mother’s Day? I wanted to meet her. I had to wait. Again.
We started with visits in her foster home, then out of the home nearby, followed by visits in our home over the course of a few weeks. Each visit was a day or two apart. During the visits away from her home, she showed no signs of distress when separating from the foster family. She seemed so enthusiastic about us, and resilient. Three weeks later the final moment arrived. The four of us piled into the car. We drove to the foster home. She had a quick goodbye at the door and into our car she went. We sang songs during the ride home. We counted down as we approached our block. We yelled out when we arrived at our house. Then we went inside to celebrate Move in Day.
For six months, Mike gave us a check-in phone call each month. Karen made home visits. She observed how sweet it was that our new child climbed onto my lap and snuggled with me. As we neared the end of the calendar year, Karen told us they could start the paperwork for adoption. It seemed odd to us that the State required for adoptive families to wait at least six months while a foster child lived in their care. Karen explained that unfortunately there were families that changed their minds, no longer willing to make it final and legal. The kids were returned to the foster system and placed again. It breaks my heart thinking of those kids. Despite all the challenges, we were committed to our girl and ready to finalize matters. We completed another stack of paperwork. We had phone calls with the attorneys, with the adoption workers who finalize, and more home visits with Karen. That Spring we got news that everything was signed off by the judge. Twelve months after being matched we became legally binded. We were now officially a family of five.
Adopting from a Foster Family
We experienced a domestic adoption — we adopted from the state foster care system. It was risky, the outcome unknown. We found our child from a single page narrative written by her caseworker. The first paragraph was about what had brought her into the state system– a few sentences about neglectful parenting. The second covered her placements. The next had a brief description of her foster household. Then, a few statements about the current lack of medical conditions or developmental concerns. At the end, there was a descriptive sentence of a preferred permanent home. The caseworker was hoping for a loving, non-violent home where the caregivers are willing to provide to the child’s needs.
Any child removed from their initial environment and placed in another home is likely to have an adverse reaction. A kid with multiple placements is more likely to be traumatized. The age of the child can be an additional major factor. Our child was removed from her biological parents when she was an infant. She was placed briefly with a relative, then lived in the same foster home for 3+ years. When we read that she had been in this one home I figured we were getting a less traumatized, less problematic child. I was wrong.
When you adopt from the state foster system, you are adopting a child that will be susceptible to emotional disturbances related to the disruptions in their home life. You are also adopting a kid that was raised by others. Yet, no one tells you in detail about the nurturing and child caring practices used in the foster home. I made assumptions about them. No one told us what we had to do or should do or what is expected when it comes to contact with the foster family. I was not prepared for how different we could be.
Soon after we were informed that we were matched to our child, the foster mother emailed us. Mrs. Foster informed us of their daily schedule of activities– wake up time, breakfast, one tv show, outdoor time, lunch and so forth. I was told by the caseworker to try and follow the schedule as closely as possible when she was in our home.
During one of my first visits in their home, several members of the Foster household were present. My soon to be daughter, about three and a half years old at this time, was encouraged to do her crazy eyes. Bursting into laughter, they pointed at how she could cross her eyes. Over and over and over she did it for her attentive audience. I shrieked: Please, stop doing that!
A week after she moved in, we had a visit with the Fosters. She had just moved into our home, she had just started becoming accustomed to the routines, the smells, the practices. They were insistent on having this visit due to their planned camping trip. I felt it was too soon. Yet, I wanted to be accommodating. I wanted us to all get along. They arrived– all seven of them. Our new daughter opened the door and let them in. She gave them a tour of our house– upstairs, downstairs, and into the backyard they went. I wanted to see the value of this, but again felt a discomfort about them. We somehow managed to get everyone off the couches and out the door to a nearby playground. There the foster kids called their parents Mommy and Daddy. They whooped it up with squeals of laughter while running around. I stood off to the side, not sure how to join in. After the visit, they got into their cars while she waved from the front door. The next day she unraveled.
We endured multiple tantrums, weepiness, and non-verbal responses. The day after more of the same. I felt resentful that the Fosters had stressed their need to visit. What about my need and her need for adjusting? I decided no more visits in our home.
The following month Mrs. Foster contacted me and requested to have a visit that week. I agreed to meet at a park . I asked for a smaller group visit this time. At the park, I informed Mrs. F that we were calling her by a different nickname. She made a facial expression of surprise. Yes, that’s right, I replied in my mind, we decided to call her by a different nickname than the one your family came up with. She encouraged S to do her crazy eyes. I said to S directly: please no. Do not cross your eyes. I do not like that. Again, I saw the dramatic surprised facial expression. I was ready to go home.
Mrs. F continued to write me often. I put her off a few times, then gave in. We met up at a coffee shop. During this visit, S and the foster kids crowded around a phone. After what seemed like a long time, I asked what they were viewing. I thought maybe they were looking at the photos of their camping trip. Mr. Foster said: oh, they’re just watching Justin Bieber videos. I gave my spouse the look of I’m ready to leave. Why not have a chit chat with her, why not ask her things? That’s how you want to spend this visit?
Many conversations ensued between my husband and me around the Fosters. How can two families that seem different be involved in this kid’s life? I did not want to be around them and I did not want my child around them anymore. Our lifestyles, our values, and our parenting styles all differed. I have no doubt that they are a loving family and that they loved our kid. For months after she moved in with us, I felt really baffled over some of her behaviors and ways of reacting. I struggled with feeling just a general sense of connection to her. She did not play with toys, she complained when we did a physical activity, she was defiant and talked with a lot of attitude. She did not act like most four year olds.
We worked with two different counselors. One started working with my child when the judge changed the plan to adoption. We saw her for a few months. I then requested more family work. We switched to another counselor, one who specialized in foster and adoptive families. Both counselors helped me better understand my child. They noted my little one’s language, her large repertoire of behaviors to get negative attention, her lengthy tantrums, her constant requests for junk food. Some of this is foster care kids stuff. For anyone who had dealt with a foster kid, you know what I mean– hoarding, hunger, sneaking and lying. What we experienced with her involved some of this, but something else. I could not figure it out, I couldn’t put my finger on it. The one counselor had a feeling that the teenagers did more child caring than was let on by Mrs. Foster. This would in part explain my daughter’s language and sass. The second therapist had more of a theory: the foster teens took turns watching her, their ways of dealing with her varied, their friends came over and encouraged the silly and naughty behaviors for laughs, there was snacking while watching tv, there was no limit setting. It all made more sense now. I needed to hear more about her life in that home, from her.
I was persistent in asking in a variety of ways what play activities she did in their home, which members were her favorites, about the fun times she had with them. I got shrugs for answers, I heard of many tv shows, I was told she liked it when they ate pizza while watching a movie. Over time, over many sessions, we discussed her previous home life. In her foster home the tv was on for lengthy periods, the days not structured, roles blurred with the kids and adults, and age appropriate play activities limited. I was skeptical of that initial email from the foster mom. Nothing they did or taught her was awful. Nothing grossly inappropriate. I did not suspect anything weird. I just felt that in addition to dealing with trauma related disturbances and behaviors, we were mystified over her antics. Getting professional help really clarified matters. After months of shaking my head, pulling my hair out, and screaming silently WTF, I had more information. I was in a better place as a parent to her.
I went through a course of thoughts, feelings and views on matters. At first, I really wanted to maintain contact with the Fosters. I envisioned them as extended family to her, like an aunt and uncle and cousins. Over the first several months we had visits and my feelings changed with each one. It seemed dishonest to me to work in both therapy sessions and at home on reshaping behaviors that she had learned from them and then interact with them during a visit. It felt awkward to meet up with them when in private we made daily efforts to correct her language. I cringed during Skype phone calls while she informed them on her progress with changing her behaviors.
Maybe I would feel differently if she had shown a stronger attachment to them. Whenever my daughter mentioned the Fosters, I would ask questions or say something positive. Over time her comments about them diminished. We occasionally hear a comment about someone’s car or one of the pets in their home. I still let her talk and I always ask a follow up question. It feels like a cloud has moved past us. I had a really hard time with their presence that first year. I guess I wanted to feel that she has adjusted. I wanted her to be more like us and not them. I wanted to feel that connection– that she is one of us. I wondered about attachment — how long and what does it take to form it. And I know it does take some of us longer than others. I also know that I need to trust my instincts and make decisions that serve my needs, her needs, our needs.