From Temporary to Permanent: Understanding Foster Care and Adoption
Three weeks after being certified as foster parents, Dustin and Mandy Cowley saw their son for the first time. His lean little body wriggled around in their arms, and they fell in love. They thought this newborn would be in their lives for just a little while, but five years later, he shares their name and is their forever child. The road was unpredictable and full of obstacles, but the arrival to their shared destiny was worth every struggle.
The moment Jessica Black and her then husband signed their official foster parent documentation, they were asked about taking in an eight-year-old girl. A couple days later, she stood at their front door holding one suitcase and a garbage bag of belongings. Her sister, then six years old, joined the family soon after. Now, these girls are in high school and middle school, and taking the world by storm. Together, they have weathered family upheaval, joys, floods, and changes.
Amber Carter lugs around a baby girl, scampers after a frisky toddler, and watches her preschool daughter and first grade son play. Her life is busy, to say the least. That frisky toddler has been a part of the family since he was two days old, and the Carters cannot wait until he has their name, permanently. They have been waiting for two years and anticipate that call everyday.
There are 4,787 children in foster care in Louisiana; 653 of these children are waiting for adoptive families. Foster care aims to place those children back in their homes of origin, but when that doesn’t work out, the foster parents have an opportunity to give that child a forever home through adoption, a gift for both the child and the foster family. Children need love. Children need homes. Parents need help. It’s a complex issue, but one worth exploring. Children’s lives are at stake.
The reason to foster varies from person to person, but the underlying common ground is to give a child a home. Children in need of foster homes range in age from infants to teenagers. They may have an emotional or physical illness, have been neglected, abused, abandoned, have experienced a breakdown in the family, or the death of a parent. It is not the child’s fault that they are removed from the home. For the Cowleys, their motive was “to be that safe place for a kid to land while mom and dad took the time to get their lives on track. We never really intended to adopt.” Many plan to be that temporary refuge, but then decide to adopt later. Jessica had a similar mindset, “We had realized that we had this big house and there was so much more to offer. We were open to adoption, but also just to foster.” Some parents decide to foster because of their faith like the Carters. Amber explains, “We wanted to help kids feel loved. We figured whoever God put in our family could be here for a little while or forever.”
Foster care to adoption ends the cycle of abuse or neglect for these kids. Children who turn 18 and age out of foster care are more likely to be homeless at an early age, be unemployed, experience mental health problems, and live in poverty. But if they are either reunited with their family or adopted, their chances greatly improve.
Since reunification is always a priority, foster parents have a responsibility to work with the courts and DCFS towards that goal. Michelle Faust, DCFS Child Welfare Manager, emphasizes, “We ask the foster parent to provide excellent parenting and be a team member in the reunification process. The case manager will try for reunification for at least 12 months.” Of course, in the interim, bonds are formed between the foster parents and the children.
The ultimate goal is reunification and for the parents to get what they need, but if that isn’t possible, then a permanent, safe home becomes the goal. After parental rights are terminated or surrendered, DCFS will try to find biological family first for kinship placement. A foster parent knows that at any moment that child can be taken from them. This is the hard part. Amber shares, “You literally never know. You love the child like they’re your own, so the thought of them leaving is heart wrenching, but if it’s what’s best for the child, then it’s worth it. The alternative is that these babies would be somewhere in an unsafe environment and unloved. I guess it’s better for an adult to be heartbroken than a baby to be unloved.”
Both Mandy and Amber brought their foster sons home from the hospital as newborns. Their cases are somewhat similar in that the biological parents were not really involved and multiple caseworkers were. Juggling the needs of a baby while fulfilling the responsibilities of foster parents is a challenge. “It’s hard work. Most kids are older and have issues because they have been in horrible situations and parenting a child who comes from trauma is not easy. My child has 19 diagnoses because of drugs in utero,” Mandy says.
Older foster children’s needs differ from babies. Jessica had to learn on her feet how to register for schools, manage visits and appointments, and navigate the world of emotions her two foster daughters were experiencing. Their mother was involved throughout the process, having weekly visits until she surrendered her rights. “It’s so important for people to be brave and foster the older ones. It takes courage to foster a kid who knows her past and her parents. It can be intimidating, but once you get into it, it’s so rewarding,” Jessica acknowledges.
One common criticism of the system is that DCFS is understaffed, and the social workers are underpaid. The turnover rate is high, which means a case usually has multiple caseworkers. When a caseworker leaves, the next one has to track all the paperwork and pick up where the other left off, but if documents are never filed, then they will have to go through them again. This gap extends the process of finding a permanent home.
Both Jessica and Mandy have observed that helping out the biological parents is the area that needs most improvement. Jessica explains, “My ultimate dream would be to have a home for women like my girls’ mom. No doubt, she loved her girls, and if she had more support and someone to walk with her throughout the process, she could have been a better mom. Programs are available, but many of them are hard to work and hard to get to.” Since reunification is the objective of foster care, the state should provide more resources necessary for parents to reunify. Mandy shares, “We haven’t invested in these families and given them the resources they need to get to a happier, healthier, safer place.” She witnessed firsthand that her son’s mother was unable to work the plan given to her.
When departments are cut in the legislature, it directly affects our Louisiana families. Medical and mental resources for biological parents and foster families come from the Department of Health, which has been drastically cut. Michelle speaks about this issue, “It is very difficult when resources are cut. Our children and families suffer. When state funding is lacking, we have to turn to the private sector.”
When that call finally comes after a long wait, the foster family and child can breathe a sigh of relief, but it isn’t until the court date or “Gotcha Day” that the celebration goes into full effect. “It’s a very long process. It’s not supposed to take as long as it takes, but unfortunately they’re understaffed and underpaid, and so things take a lot longer,” Amber says.
The Carters are still waiting on that beautiful day for their two-year-old son, but Jessica and Mandy remember that day vividly. Their choices to adopt hinged on what was best for their foster children. Mandy remembers, “By the time Joseph was freed for adoption, he had been with us for two years. We couldn’t imagine at that point sending him anywhere else.” Once these children found a healthy home, turning them loose again into the unknown was just not an option. Jessica says, “We realized they were going to continue in the system if we didn’t step in. Their lives are completely different than what they would have been. It changed the cycle of their family.”
What is the benefit of adopting through foster care? Michelle shares her perspective, “You have the reward of providing permanence for a child, one who has suffered some element of abuse or neglect. Most children are eligible for an adoption subsidy which helps pay for services and provides a Medicaid card. All children deserve quality parenting so they can grow up with the benefits of a healthy family.”
“As a state, as a community, it’s time for us to step up. These are our children,” Michelle emphasizes. So, how do you get involved? You can choose to foster, help support foster children, or support foster parents. The road is long and hard, but so worth it. Louisiana is in dire need of foster parents, especially those open to working with older children with behavioral and physical needs. “If you’re the type of person who thinks you could never do it because you’ll get too attached, then you’re exactly the type of person they need,” Amber declares.
Although building families this way may be unconventional, the families are strong and provide permanent love. Jessica exemplifies this unconventional but unconditional love, “My girls still call me Miss Jess even though they refer to me as their mom. I had to get rid of my pride. Everyone’s story is different. They are my daughters, and I will fight to the death for them. That’s just how we roll.” ■
What are the steps to foster care/adoption certification?
1. Orientation: Informational meeting to provide an overview of the agency and the foster/adoption programs. Held every 21 days. Call your local office to find the next session in your area.
2. Application: The beginning of the certification process and a requirement to proceed.
3. Fingerprinting: Every applicant and adult (over the age of 18) in the home will be fingerprinted.
4. Pre-service Training: Training generally consists of seven three-hour sessions. All spouses must complete pre-service training to be certified.
5. Home Study: During training, caseworkers will conduct a series of interviews, home visits, a safety and fire inspection and additional paperwork. During this process, you will become familiar with the Home Development Worker.
6. Placement: After you are certified, a child or children will be placed in your home. This may happen immediately or may take longer, depending on what age and type of child you are able to care for. The agency will try to place children with you that match your strengths and preferences. You can always refuse any placement you are offered.
On average, it takes from 4-12 months to complete the steps necessary to be licensed to adopt or foster—including submitting an application, undergoing a home study, and attending training.