A few years ago while working at our local health and human services office I was asked nearly daily if we would consider adopting a foster child. My answer was a firm and constant no. I was afraid–pure and simple. One day a friend in the office came to me and asked us to reconsider. We prayed about it for a week or so and jumped headfirst in foster care adoption. I am so very grateful that we did. We have added two children to our family through foster care adoption. Here are some practical things that I’d wish I’d known before adopting from foster care.
The number one thing I wish I had known in my state of fear is the pure level of joy that our children would bring with them. I’ll never forget the solemn eyes and the scared faces the first time they came to visit us at their would-be new home. But thankfully, they settled in quickly and with them came unending joy. That would become our focus as we adjusted to a new life for all of us. Our oldest son was expecting a baby, so when he met his brother, aged 2, he wasn’t quite as impressed as we’d hoped he would be. They started off sharing a room, then snuggle spots in our bed, then toys, then love. Watching all three of them bond and develop a sweet, typical sibling relationship is joyful. More and more the house gets quiet and erupts with laughter, jabbing, and jokes. As we dig deeper into adopting a foster child, it will become vitally important to remember the joy.
I cannot stress enough how imperative it is to learn about trauma. Drown yourself and your spouse in trauma-informed literature. There is no one-size-fits-all manual, but there is a plethora of great books and podcasts. Take it all in. The three continuing education credits are not enough. Both of our children whom we adopted from foster care came home at the age of 2. Yes, it was as horrifying as you might expect. (Remember the joy.) It was nearly impossible to gauge if their behaviors were coming because they were 2, because of trauma, or because of their personality. When the time had passed and things became more normal we were able to see more clearly. But knowing more about trauma and how it affects the brain, development, personality. I will not lie and say that I sailed through it. I failed miserably. But we repaired, we are still learning every day, and I wish I had known more. One excellent resource is a book called “Wounded Children, Healing Homes.” I pass a copy of this book out as often as possible. Another wonderful resource is to find other adoptive parents. Hearing from people who are in the middle of it is invaluable. Knowing that someone has been exactly where you are, with similar experiences, helps you to feel that you and this process are normal. Your family and your home will not look like those of your friends with biological children.
3. Mental Health
This might seem ominous, but it’s not necessarily. You will need to do much research in the adoption process. Nowadays, there is so much great information out there to access. There has been significant advances in therapies, treatments and research with time and advancing science. I personally believe that knowledge will only make the things that scare us less scary. You will also learn where your hard no is. It’s very easy to dismiss certain information when little brown eyes are staring back at you. Do your research. Know where your yeses and no’s are. Equally important is your own mental health. We have all experienced trauma of some sort. It may be an accident or a bad medical experience. We all have trauma. My best advice is to make an appointment with a trauma informed therapist in your area and do a little work. You may only need a session or two. But it’s important to know where you are in your own trauma history.
4. Resources/Therapies in your Area
Every adopted child will have trauma. When adopting from foster care a child will inevitably need therapies and interventions of some sort. With our second child we had a neuropsychological exam completed (we did with all of them) to help diagnose his challenges. In that process we discovered that he was in need of a therapy that we knew we would likely have to travel a long distance for. We live in a rural area, so some things just aren’t available here. Much to our surprise, we have a therapist in the area that specializes in it. Some to look for are OT, PT, play therapy to help your child process trauma, anxiety, and bonding in adoption. Speech therapy is also a very necessary therapy with many children in the foster care system.
5. Support Groups
I can not stress this enough: support, support, support. In-person or online, find people on the same path. This has been the most important part of the journey. There are times when you will laugh about the ridiculousness of the day, and days when you will need to know the best therapist in the community with the best tricks, tips, and sanity-saving supplements. Online support is wonderful, you can search social media by adoption support and state that you live in. You will also want/need to find a local support group. This is where you will find the resources near you.
6. FASD/RAD/Effects of Varying Drugs
Even if you never end up using this information, it’s important to do your research and learn about all the potential diagnosis that your child may have. Make sure when doing your research that you also consider when the information was written and all the information and advancements there are in the treatment of certain diagnoses. Having the knowledge will help you determine if a child or sibling set is a good match for your family. There is no shame in knowing your limits. It will only be a benefit to you and the child to know what you can handle. It’s also important that you compare that information with the findings in #4. If you adopt a child with a physical disability that would require you to travel a significant distance on a constant basis, ask yourself if that feasible for your family. Only you and your family will know what the right decision is.
7. Open Relationships with Biological Families
While I’m a huge proponent of open adoption, I want to recognize right here and now that this is not an option for all families. Even if you are unsure of your child’s involvement in that relationship, I will share that I feel it’s immensely important to maintain some kind of relationship. You can set up an email account that only biological families use. You do not have to give them your phone number or allow them to see your children. I have learned so much about my children’s lives because of my relationships with their biological parents. This has made parenting my children so much easier. Truly. It’s also a wonderful resource as they grow and begin to ask more questions. My theory is that I can guess/assume what happened in their lives, or their biological parents can answer the hard questions. Each relationship will be different. We have three adoptive parent groups and they are all as unique as our children.
8. Respite Care
Another wonderful part of networking in the adoptive, foster, and kinship community is respite care. You can leave your child with a friend or family member once they are adopted, but sometimes accessing care with someone who knows exactly how to handle certain situations and behaviors will make for a better break for all of you. Especially early in the foster care and adoption process, you will need a break. We all do. And I know from personal experience exactly how hard admitting that is. Having a trusted respite source and relationship will make leaving your child easier on all of you. If you don’t have personal relationships with someone in your area you can ask your agency or someone in your support group. Agencies will generally have a list of available respite resources in your specific area.
9. Trauma-Informed Teachers and Schools
As a foster and adoptive parent with school aged children, I’ve only lived in our current area. The area we live in has a large low income population, and therefore, has a lot of trauma-affected families. Our teachers and schools have been so wonderful to work with. We have trusted relationships with our children’s teachers and school. It is such a relief to have access to in-school programs when they need a little extra help with their emotional health as well as physical issues related to adoption and trauma. Kindergarten was a struggle for one of our children in particular. They struggled with emotions and relationships. We eventually learned that this child also has RAD and it explains a lot of the issues they were having with the kindergarten experience. After talking with our principal, their teacher, and a CTSS (Children’s Therapeutic Services and Supports) we were able to help them have a better understanding of relationships and their own emotions and they finished the year strong.
10. Your Tribe
It has been life-saving for me personally to have a group of friends, though one or two would be great, who have gone out of their way to learn about my kids, their specific challenges, and trauma in general. They have literally asked questions, researched diagnoses, jumped in to truly understand, know, and love my children. That has been a relief for me because I know that they will respect boundaries and rules we have set for each child and our family. I have several families that I will easily leave my children without a thought of what could happen. Because they have taken the time they do not feel overwhelmed or nervous about what may happen. While none of my children have extreme behavioral issues, we do keep a closer eye on some of them for various reasons. When we are all together it allows our children to experience the richness of healthy and safe relationships.
I know that all of this information thrown at you can feel overwhelming and negative. That is exactly how I felt about foster care adoption for many years. My only regret is that we didn’t do it sooner. We have challenges; we have trauma and RAD. That made me terrified in the discovery process. But what you will find is that it’s just a part of this child. It’s a diagnosis which is important to help them get the services and diagnosis that they will need to succeed. Success is possible. Over the years we have learned that our definition of success has changed. That’s ok. The big things that seem insurmountable and so challenging in the moment can turn out to be a wonderful way to bond with your child in helping them overcome that challenge.
You will have hard days. Let’s face it, you’re going to be a parent. All parents have hard days. But the days that you can see the growth and change in your child is exhilarating. I guarantee if you take the time to do the research, you will definitely find the family that is right for you. Face the fear, it’s healthy and completely normal. You are not alone. You will not be alone. Remember, you’re adopting some children.
Adopting a foster child has changed me in many, many ways. Our family has grown, our empathy has grown, and our hearts have grown. Each day we learn, we love, we live, and grow stronger. My prayer is that some day our children will follow in our footsteps, not because they aren’t able to have biological children, but because they see the beauty in adoption, in foster care, in love.