My agency, Mission West Virginia, has worked in adoption for 18 years.
This year, we created a series of videos featuring interviews with adoptive parents. One 14-year-old girl, Carolyn, who hopes to be adopted herself, tried to put into words what that would mean and how it would feel.
“I would really like it so much. I really don’t know how to say I would feel, but I would really, really like it,” she said.
We have to admit, after all these years, we also don’t know how she would feel. What we hope she’d feel is safe and secure, with a family to rely on well into adulthood and a sense of belonging. Those are our goals when seeking families for youth in foster care.
We know that youth who age out of foster care without being adopted have much higher rates of homelessness, unemployment, teen parenthood and incarceration. Children who have experienced trauma, combined with the lack of support systems or positive role models, are much more at risk than the average child. This knowledge is what drives our efforts to find families for waiting children.
“Waiting child” is a term that is often used but not always understood. It is used in the foster care/adoption field to refer to children who are in state custody in the foster care system. When parents’ rights have been terminated and the child has not yet been adopted, that child is considered to be “waiting.”
“State ward” is a more formal term. In West Virginia, there are approximately 2,000 children waiting for adoption.
Some are merely waiting to finalize an adoption with an identified relative or foster family. Other children experience more delays and challenges to be matched with an adoptive family. In federal fiscal year 2017, there were 1,069 children in this state who were adopted.
Many factors are relevant when matching a child and family, including the desires of the child, the child’s specific needs and the ability of the family to meet those needs. The goal is to find families for children, not children for families.
As you might imagine, there are many challenges to finding families for waiting youth, especially older teens, who tend to wait longer to be adopted. These are the challenges that we see regularly:
- Expectations: Starting a family with babies that you can mold and influence as they grow is the standard expectation. Families who have a certain idea in their head sometimes have to adjust their expectations if they want to consider adopting an older youth.
An adoptive family told us, “With older children, sometimes people only want the little ones, but the thing is, we had a worker tell us, with older kids, you still have your firsts.” They adopted two older children who, despite their ages, got to experience their first beach trip, learn to tie their shoes and decorate a Christmas tree for the first time, all with their new family.
- Love is not enough: A loving family is the first step, but children who have experienced trauma and loss need therapy and other services to process their feelings and address behaviors.
Adoption is also not every child’s long-awaited wish. Some kids feel that adoption betrays their birth family or they worry about being rejected by a new family. Our workers often help them process those feelings in preparation for adoption.
- Transition to a new home: Children and teens may be coming from a foster home with a different set of house rules or, even harder, from a group home or treatment facility. They may not be used to having chores or responsibilities in a home, and even having the freedom to get a snack from the kitchen or turn on the television without asking can be a change. We work to help families understand the child’s perspective and practice patience and understanding toward the youth.
- Commitment is the key: The difference between a successful adoption and a failed adoptive match often comes down to the family’s level of commitment to a particular child. Through one specific program, we have finalized over 80 adoptions over the past 13 years, working with some of the longest-waiting children.
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed parenting any child, so adding an adoptive relationship can sometimes make the task feel insurmountable. An extensive team of professionals and services is often necessary — but it’s often the parents’ decision to fully commit to the adoption that makes a child feel safe, secure and wanted.
As an adoptive mother told us, “You have a child in front of you and you need to put the pieces together and make it work. ... Most people, us included, despite our fears, rise to the occasion.”
Families interested in pursuing foster care in West Virginia can visit Mission West Virginia at missionwv.org/request-information, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 1-866-225-5698. View the adoption videos at missionwv.org/family-stories.