Why Adoption vs. Foster to Adopt
Adoption is prohibitively expensive. This isn’t true in all countries. Many friends and supporters have been great at listening to my critiques and frustrations with our foster/adoption/childcare system over the years. Inevitably, in their desire to help, they offer up the foster to adopt solution. Which is by far the least expensive way of procuring children, arguably less expensive than the homegrown method. So why are we resistant to doing this cheaper method of adoption? Well that’s what I am hoping to answer in this post.
Secondary Trauma, Self-Care, and Burn Out
I have been working with adults and children with trauma for the past twelve years. I spend most of each day working with individuals to manage the symptoms of trauma, through coping skills, and learning how to accept their symptoms and work with as opposed to work against them. This is rewarding work, but to say it’s not exhausting would be a lie.
As a therapist, I have been to many seminars and continuing education credits on the effects of secondary trauma (the result of others being traumatized by continuous exposure to hearing others’ trauma. This is not uncommon for police officers, first responders, nurses, veterans, and those in the helping professions.), self-care, and burn out. We learn about all the ways to help curtail the symptoms of secondary PTSD (trauma) and reduce the effects, and possibly prevent, burnout. One of the best way to prevent burnout and secondary trauma is by having good boundaries between you work and home life. This can be very hard for people who have dedicated their lives to helping others, as they often think about their clients while at home, and worry about their wellbeing.
I, like many therapists, can struggle with this from time to time. It’s very important that I manage my stress levels at home as best as I can so that I can recharge so that I can give my all to the clients that depend on me.
This can become very difficult for therapists that are also parents. They spend forty hours (at least) empathizing and caretaking at work, and come home to do more of the same. I watch as many of my coworkers come in to work exhausted from taking care of children and trying to get them off to school in the morning. I then watch them leave at the end of the day, trying to pep themselves up for “round two” once they return home. And these are with their biological children.
Part of my plan to help me from burning out is to work reduced hours. Which is great way to try to create balance (assuming we can financially swing it. Another way to reduce the risk of burnout, both as a therapist and as a parent, is to try my best to reduce the likelihood that what I am doing at work (working with trauma) I am not also doing at home. Part of this means weighing the pros and cons of foster-to-adopt versus adoption.
I want to speak to my own experiences with the foster care system. I have worked with foster parents, children who are or were once in the foster system, and biological mothers who have had their children taken away and returned and biological mothers who have had their children taken and not returned. These are all heartbreaking scenarios. The foster care system is like any other system. It is put in place to protect and serve the greater good. The tricky part is discerning what the greater good is in a given situation. For the foster care system, it starts with trying to help the parents get their lives on track while the child is in a safe environment. The goal is reunification in most cases.
I have seen the system work well. I have also seen biological parents work hard to improve their situations, but not in a timely enough fashion or have had other legal issues that have kept them from becoming effective parents. I have seen the heartbreak that this causes.
I have seen foster parents become attached to their foster children, start the process to adopt, and have the child taken away and given back to the biological parents. Many of these foster parents feel that the biological parents could not provide the same quality of care as they could. This can be very difficult to accept and could entail a long grieving process.
I have seen foster children shuffled from one home to another. They find it hard to trust others and may even blame themselves for their situation. They often struggle in school both socially and academically. Self-esteem can be an area that they struggle with as well as many other mental and behavioral health issues.
The system has also worked well for a number of children.
There can also be concerns about the placement of adopted children. There can be just as many poor and not-so-poor outcomes. The differences can be due to biological and environmental factors. These factors are often referred to as “resiliency factors.” Some examples of resiliency factors are: supportive environment, financial and emotional resources, overall good general health, etc.
Because each child has varying levels of resiliency factors, it is easy for people who advocate for either fostering to adopt or adopting outright to point to successes of one method of building a family and the failures of another. In order for me to make this decision, with the understanding that I need to do my best to keep some separation between my work and home life, is to look at the facts and make the best possible decision based on the statistics I can find. The remainder of this article will be spent walking through these statistics and explaining how I have come to the decision that adoption will work the best for our family.
Attachment and Trauma
I am a therapist. Many people know this. What they may not know is that one third of my clients have been adopted. Working with these clients has been a blessing and a joy. It has also shown me how resilient people can be as well as how debilitating broken attachments and trauma can be as well.
What is Attachment
Attachment is the initial bond between a child and its parents. There are several different flavors of attachment, but the healthiest attachment style is a “secure” attachment. This is what you think of when you think of “normal” healthy children. Parent leaves the room, child cries. Parent returns, child seeks comfort. Parent stays in room, child begins to explore again. This type of attachment build resiliency and sets the child up for healthy social bonds in the future.
“Broken” attachments occur when the child is taken away from a parent for a period of time that results in a trauma. The child’s brain has literally been altered in a way that the child is unable to form a secure attachment with a parent and often with others, including him or herself. These broken attachments can lead to problematic behaviors later in life.
This information is important, especially as it pertains to foster care and adoption and the difference between the two.
In foster care, the initial goal is reunification. The goal of the foster home is to provide the child caregiving while the parent(s) continue to work on themselves to become safe parents. This means that in many cases, the child who is in foster care has been removed from the home, not once, but many times. There are visits with biological parents, sometimes weekly. The child is often having to navigate two very different households. It is also important to note that the fostering process can take years. Just like with anyone trying to improve on themselves, progress can be slow and there may be times that you regress. As the years go on, that same child may have now been to several foster homes, thus exacerbating attachment wounds.
Additionally, not all foster parents are the same. There are many reasons people site for wanting to be a foster parent. Here are a few:
Babble.com noted three good and three “not-so-good” reasons to become a foster parent. The three “good” reasons they provided are as follows:
- To be a great parent to a child that needs one
- You believe in thinking globally. But acting locally
- You are fortunate enough to have the resources to share
The three “not-so-good” reasons include:
- To proselytize a religion
- To make a living
Notice the 3 reasons to not be a foster parent. The fact that these reasons needed to be stated may be evidence that those are reasons for enough foster parents that it needed to be addressed. Imagine what the attachment wounds may look like in those homes. Or in the homes of excellent foster parents who have become burnt out via child behaviors, interactions with birth mother, social workers, therapy appointments, school appointments, legal system, etc. It is easy to see how one could become tired. Especially if this is not their first foster child or if they are foster more than one child at a time, which is often the case. It takes a strong and caring person to be a foster parent and everyone can get burnt out over time. The foster care system, although the goal is to do the best for the child, can also become very traumatic.
Foster to adopt is an option for many people looking for children to love and support. They may have started out as the foster parents and decided that they wanted to be the forever home to their foster child. They may be people who wanted to try their hand at parenting before committing to a lifetime of being a parent and decided that parenting is right for them. Or they could also be people who could not afford the adoption costs to outright adopt the child. Assuming the parents ultimately are decided to not be healthy for the child and the child then gets placed with a forever home, that same child has been through so much trauma, that he or she is not the same child who was originally placed in the foster home. It takes a special kind of person to be willing to repeatedly engage in the legal system, with the social workers, and the birth mother, and to be continually under threat of the child you want to adopt being taken away from you. And possibly to a family you feel is unsafe and not in the best interest for the child to return to.
In adoption, the goal is to find a family for a child who is in need. Often times the biological parents are giving the child up due to certain circumstances that impact their ability to parent and in some cases the parents are deceased and there is no one to care for the child. It is easy to see that there is considerably less risk of attachment wounds in this scenario. As someone who works with people on a regular basis who suffer from attachment wounds, I can attest that a life with an “insecure” attachment is very hard. And although I may be one of the best parents for this type of child, I also want to choose the adoption method that is going to allow me and my husband the best opportunity to be the best parents that we can be. And for us, that method is adoption.
Age as a Consideration
I have had a lot of feedback from coworkers and friends about adopting an older child. My success working with teens is often sited as evidence that this is something I should consider. And I have. I have also considered that my husband and I would be first-time parents, struggling to find our footing in the realm of parenthood as all parents do. When taking that into consideration, I feel that it would be more important for that child to have a more experienced parent, as they would most likely be struggling with a lot of trauma on top of the transition into another home.
With our novice-parent status in mind, we feel that to be the most effective at parenting we need to any advantage we can. For this reason, we feel it is important to start parenting as close to infancy as possible. Why? Because of neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity in the brain’s capacity to rewire itself throughout our lives. Children up until the age of two have the most neuroplasticity that they will ever have throughout their lifetime. This means that correcting attachment traumas, although not easy, can occur more rapidly and effectively at this age. Children in foster care are often there for years. Even if they enter the system and a foster home at infancy, the child is likely to continue to have broken attachments throughout the years until the child is placed permanently. The advantage to adopting at infancy is not only will there be statistically lower chances for broken attachments and trauma, but that there is a better opportunity for the effects of trauma to be reduced if addressed in this critical time period.
In summary, statistically, it would appear that it is statistically less likely that a child who is adopted would have as many attachment wounds and traumas as a child who has gone through the foster system. In order for my family to not suffer due to burnout from work and from my work to suffer from my burnout from home, it would make the most sense for me to adopt. Again, I recognize that there are plenty of success rates with foster children and that all the same things that could go wrong with non-biological children as with biological children. This means that I have to push aside anecdotal evidence, as compelling as it may be in order to make the decision as I can.
There is another aspect to consider as well:
The Importance of “The Story”
The stories we tell about ourselves, others, and the world shape our identity. Think about it. When you introduce yourself to someone, what story do you tell them about yourself. When you are talking to a close friend how does your story change. What are the stories you tell yourself about yourself? These stories, whether accurate or inaccurate, promote a sense of identity. When choosing a method of adoption, it is important to take this into consideration. For you, the story might be one of joy, discovery, adventure, and fulfillment. That may also be true of your child, but there is also a story of loss. This is inevitable. The question is: how do you want that story to be told?
In a foster to adopt situation, often the mother does not want to give up the child. This can be heart-wrenching for all involved. The child may also never know their mother. This could lead to curiosity in wanting to seek them out and/or some resentment to the adoptive parents. Others may remember their parents. They may remember the trauma of being removed from the home. And what they may not remember are some of the aspects of the home that led to their removal. Again, this could lead to resentment, blaming him or herself for their removal from the home, or even the adoptive parents for “taking them away from their real parents.”
In an open-adoption scenario, which is the version of adoption we are looking for, the mother is choosing to give up the child. Often this happens while she is still pregnant. This means that the child only attaches and knows the adoptive parents. Additionally, they get to see their biological parents an agreed amount of times throughout the year. This offers more opportunities for discussion and story building. The biological parents are often grateful to the adoptive parents, illustrating to children that the adoptive situation is okay, and approved of by them.
There is no guarantee as to what story anyone will choose to have for themselves. However, if we had the choice, and at this point it appears we do, we would like our child to start off his or her life with as positive of a story as possible. We want them to know their mother, hopefully feel safe and have a relationship with the mother. We want to be caring parents willing to facilitate any healthy bonds that are available to our child. Therefore, we feel an open-adoption is best for us.
Again, we recognize that there are many different ways a family can form. And we don’t oppose what is best for you. We have no negative judgments towards foster parents or the foster care system. Everyone who is working with in that system is trying the best they can to put the needs of the child first. They are giving, strong, hardworking people. Our decision to work towards having an open-adoption is in no way a reflection of our feelings towards that system. And if it is right for you, it’s right for you. It just may not be right for us. At least for right now.
If you are interested in learning more, check out the links below:
Synopsis of Attachment Theory:
Ramifications of trauma in children (broken attachments are a form of trauma):
There is also an excellent book called Becoming Attached: First Relationships and How they Shape Our Capacity to love by Robert Karen.
Statistics relating to length of time in foster care:
Statistics on the sexual abuse rates of children in foster homes: