About once a month, someone struggling with infertility is referred to me to answer questions about adoption through the foster care system. I’m always quick to let them know that I have strong beliefs that couples struggling with infertility should not foster-to-adopt.
It’s typically not what they want to hear. Particularly from me.
I have two adorable toddlers that I’ve had since birth, both through foster-to-adopt situations. So they want to know how they, too, can adopt a newborn. My answer perplexes them. I tell them bluntly that they probably can’t.
It’s relatively easy to find a newborn baby to foster. But along with all the blessings that come with caring for a baby, foster parenting has some complicated realities that might not fit what infertile parents are hoping for.
First and foremost, the goal of foster care is almost always reunification. There aren’t any “unfit” parents who have their children removed. They’re only considered unfit at the moment. It’s your case worker’s job to do everything in her power to restore the child’s mom, dad, aunt, uncle, grandma — or any family member — to a stable place to parent. And you, as a foster parent, must not only support this reunification process, you must partner in it.
Let’s be clear what partnering entails as a foster parent: For most of us, family visitation is one of the all-consuming activities of fostering. Newborn visitation standards in my area start with three times a week. If the mom is breastfeeding, I’ve heard of judges ordering five visits a week. I’m sure you’ve heard how difficult it can be to get out the door with an infant. Imagine if you were court-ordered to be across town at a specific time three days a week — hurricanes, blizzards and holidays included.
If the visits are going well, foster parents should be inviting the parents to pediatrician appointments and letting them take the lead in conversations with the doctor. The newborn probably has siblings and those visits must be arranged as well. Then, of course, there are endless court days, case meetings, case worker home visits and continual foster parent classes. If the baby’s parents are in prison, expect to spend the whole day there. Cross your fingers that you don’t have two parents in two different prisons, because you’ll rarely see daylight again.
My own story is no less complicated. I have one adopted daughter. She is the fifth baby I’ve fostered. That means that five times I’ve: taken our “first day together” pictures, and traveled from New York to Florida to introduce my foster baby to my own family. Three times I’ve said emotional goodbyes (I’ve been foster-to-adopting my fourth foster child for almost three years now with no end in sight).
So the question becomes, as a person who has tried extensively to become a mom or dad — usually over the course of several years — are you willing to spend unlimited time, resources and energy on building someone else’s family? Only after the local government tries for years to reunite the baby’s family are you, the foster parent, considered. In fact, in the context of the foster system, adoption is oftentimes viewed as a failure. In all circumstances, foster-to-adopt is considered a last resort.
As a foster parent, it’s your job to be positive and supportive of passing the baby (possibly a toddler by now) along to someone biologically connected. Can you do that? Do you want to do that?
I’m often asked about “legally free” babies, or those whose parents’ rights have already been terminated. The thing is, this is pretty much a misnomer. Judges aren’t willing to create court orphans. They want to see a viable, committed parent in action before terminating parental rights. Usually that’s the foster parent. I’ve never heard of a baby in foster care waiting for adoptive parents in my city.
So which foster kids are available for adoption? They are typically older kids, babies and children with very severe physical and intellectual disabilities, and large sibling sets. I originally wanted to foster, and possibly adopt, an older child with a disability. I only qualified for ages 0-3 however because of the size of my small New York City apartment. I love to talk to people about adopting older kids, large sibling sets and kids with disabilities. Understandably though, couples trying to have a biological child have been dreaming of baby days and it can be hard to adjust to the idea of starting a parenting journey with a son or daughter in the fourth grader.
What’s most disheartening is that I know of two couples that struggled with infertility, listened to my discouragement and warnings of attempting to foster-to-adopt and both couples took foster care newborns and then returned them within months. They decided they didn’t want to deal with the babies’ parents. I empathize with the couples in a lot of ways. I spent many days on the phone with my therapist crying that I couldn’t do it and wondering out loud if I should return one of my foster babies. But deep down I knew that my parenting plans were flexible. I was willing to become an instant mom or go a different route in another ten years (I started fostering at age 32 and adopted Clementine at age 38). It’s hard not to be mad at the couples who returned the babies even after I had warned them.
Foster-to-adopt is not a backdoor path to becoming a parent. You can’t forget that our gain as foster-to-adoptive parents includes a very real loss for our children and their biological parents. There’s no backdoor to avoid that.