It was never a thought or consideration for me, for many years. Yet, as it is in so many areas of life, plans change, and people change.
Through the years, my own family has been granted the blessing of the wonderful joy that is adoption. As recounted in the book, Love and Mayhem: One Big Family’s Uplifting Story of Fostering and Adoption, my family and I have had the opportunity to adopt three children from foster care. Sadly, we have also experienced the realities of four failed adoptions, as well. Without a doubt, these adoptions have changed our family and our lives in wonderful and unanticipated ways. Yet, there have also been times of great anxiety, too, when it appeared that the adoptions might not go through as first planned. Fortunately, three adoptions did take place, and my wife and I are now loving parents of six children. Three of these are biological, three are adopted. To be clear, there are no labels in our home: no adoptive, biological, or foster children. They are all family, and all our children, and we love each unconditionally.
When a child is placed in foster care, the initial goal is to have the child reunified with their birth parents or a member of his biological family. To be sure, the initial intent of placing a child into care is that the placement is temporary, with reunification the main objective. Yet, there are those instances when reunification is not possible, and the child is placed through the court system for adoption.
Sadly, thousands of children available for adoption are never adopted. For those children who are not adopted, many remain in the foster care system for extended periods of time. Some of these children are moved to group homes, while others simply age out of the foster care system, never truly finding a family of their own and a place to call home. (The Foster Parenting Manual, DeGarmo 2013).
Now, there are a few reasons why a child in foster care might be available for adoption. First, the custody rights of the birth parents are voluntarily terminated; secondly, the custody rights of the birth parents are terminated by a court order; and third, the child is up for adoption due to the death of birth parents.
As foster parents, there are many reasons why we are the ideal choice to adopt a foster child. Many times when a child from foster care has their rights terminated, they have already been living in a loving and stable home with their foster family. When we care for foster children, we raise them as our own for an extended amount of time, meet their needs, and nurture them. Perhaps you are a foster family that cares for children with special needs. If so, you are the ones most familiar with these needs and have gained valuable insight and resources on how to best meet them and care for your foster child.
So many in our society believe that once a child is adopted, a happy ending is the result. What is not understood by so many is that adoption can be an emotionally difficult time for a child from foster care. No longer will the child be able to hope for possible reunification with his biological parents, or even with other members of the birth family. Instead, the termination of rights by birth parents might produce feelings of grief and loss within the child, fears they had kept bottled within themselves for the length of their stay in foster care.
They may even feel that they betrayed their biological family as they legally take the adoptive parents’ last name, as well as becoming a permanent member of the family. You may find that the child revisits the stages of grief again, both during and after the adoption process. Indeed, it can be an emotionally traumatic time for adults and children.
So, what can you do to help a child during a difficult transition and life-changing time?
To begin with, you can help your now permanent family member by working with them to understand why the adoption took place, and why he or she has a new family. What is important to keep in mind is that the internal process for all involved can be a challenging one, especially for your child. They may have a difficult time accepting the fact that they will never return to live with their biological parents or birth family members again. It is necessary for you, as an adoptive parent, to allow your child time to grieve the loss of connection with their birth family. They may very well need time to experience the stages of grief before they fully transfer an attachment from their birth family to yours.
Even though they may have lived in your home for some time as a foster child, they will likely re-experience feelings of loss during the adoption process. Allow them to discuss their feelings of grief and loss with you as you listen attentively, validating their feelings and emotions. If they should ask any questions about their biological parents or birth family, it is important that you answer them as honestly as you can. At the same time, help them to transfer attachment from their birth family to yours by ensuring that they are included in all aspects of your family, and when possible, incorporate parts of their previous family’s traditions into your own, as it helps them to feel more comfortable. After all, their birth family gave them their appearance and gender, intelligence, temperament, talents, and of course, their life. These, of course, will never change.
The adoption of three girls into my home has taught me much, made me a better person and father, and has filled my home with more laughter, more tears, and more learning experiences than I would ever have imagined. To be sure, there are challenges involved. Yet, these challenges are far outweighed by the gifts of love each brings to our home and to our lives.
Dr. John DeGarmo is the founder and director of The Foster Care Institute. He has been a foster parent for 15 years, and he and his wife have had over 50 children come through their home. Dr. John is an international consultant to legal firms and foster care agencies, as well as an empowerment and transformational speaker and trainer on many topics about the foster care system. He is the author of several books, including The Foster Care Survival Guide: The Essential Guide for Today’s Foster Parents, and writes for several publications. Dr. John has appeared on CNN HLN, Good Morning, America, ABC Freeform, and elsewhere. He and his wife have received many awards, including the Good Morning America Ultimate Hero Award. To learn more about Dr. John DeGarmo, please visit: drjohndegarmofostercare.com.