November is National Adoption Month, an occasion usually devoted to celebrating adoptive parents and asking more families to step up and care for children whose own parents are unable or unwilling to do so. But this year it might be more appropriate to use the occasion to ask why state and federal agencies are standing in the way of more children being adopted.
About half of Americans hold a favorable view of adoption, compared with about one in ten who view it unfavorably. (The remainder either don’t know or don’t have an opinion.) But in recent years, the media and policymakers have tried mightily to chip away at those numbers. Especially in the wake of the Dobbs decision, the Left wants to make sure that no one thinks adoption is preferable to abortion.
The drumbeat appears to be having an effect. According to data released from the Children’s Bureau of the federal Administration for Children and Families a few weeks ago, 391,000 kids resided in foster care on September 30 of Fiscal Year 2021, of whom 114,000 were waiting to be adopted. But the actual number who were adopted—54,200—reflects a 6 percent drop from the previous year and an 18 percent decline from FY2019.
Last week’s dialogue between Nicole Chung of The Atlantic and her fellow adoptee Tony Hynes is emblematic of the anti-adoption messaging. “Many adoptees I know today feel conflicted at best about this month,” Chung explains, “in part because the narratives leveraged to celebrate and promote adoption have not always left space for discussing its complexity.” Hynes, who is black and was raised by a white lesbian couple, responds that we are feeding into a notion that “families of color are somehow ‘less fit’ to raise their children.” Chung adds, “Yeah, sometimes it’s hard for me not to hear the assertion that ‘more kids should be adopted’ as ‘more kids should experience the trauma of being separated from their families of origin.’”
The problem of speaking in these broad terms about “narratives” is that no one is denying that adoptions are complex. Of the hundreds of adoptive parents and professionals I have met in the past several years, I cannot think of one who does not see the process as inevitably beginning from a source of loss or tragedy.
Some families certainly are less fit to raise their children, but this judgment has nothing to do with the color of their skin. Children adopted out of foster care have been removed from their homes because of chronic or severe abuse and neglect. Kids who are taken into foster care for the first time are mostly under the age of three. They disproportionately suffer from physical or mental disabilities as well. Putting scare quotes around the words “less fit” doesn’t make their parents any more fit.
But it is not just those in academia or the media who are pushing these ideas; policymakers are, too. The reason that more kids aren’t getting adopted is not that fewer kids are coming into foster care (though that number, too, has dropped in a way that should worry anyone who knows that home situations aren’t getting any safer). It’s that we are leaving kids in foster care longer and failing to terminate parental rights, even when the law requires it.
The Adoption and Safe Families Act (1997) requires that states move to terminate parental rights if a child has been in foster care for 15 of the past 22 months. This guidance is considered a limit, but the law explicitly states that in cases with aggravated circumstances like sexual abuse, the state is free to act sooner. According to the recent Children’s Bureau report, however, the median time in care for a child is 21 months, and that number has been creeping up. Even worse, 17 percent of children in foster care stay for more than three years.
If agencies don’t prioritize adoption, we shouldn’t be surprised that it doesn’t happen more often. In releasing the report that included these dismal adoption numbers, the Administration for Children and Families touted its commitment to finding alternatives to adoption, as well as ensuring “equitable outcomes.” Once again, the concern is more with racial ideology than with providing safety and permanency to children.
Foster care was always intended to be a temporary arrangement. If a parent cannot reunify with a child after the first year, the likelihood that he or she will ever be able to do so diminishes significantly. But while we move children back and forth from their biological family to a foster family, or between multiple foster families, we are preventing them from developing a secure attachment to caregivers, subjecting them to trauma beyond what they have already experienced from their families of origin, and making it harder for them to find adoptive homes.
Almost 20,000 kids aged out of foster care last year without being reunified or finding an adoptive home. Too many of these older kids experience severe behavioral or mental-health challenges, making adoption highly unlikely. But acting earlier to make sure that children spend less time in foster care when they are younger could result in fewer of them exiting care without a family. The goal for our federal and state child-welfare policymakers should be to reduce maltreatment and find safe, loving, permanent homes for all children. Everything else is a distraction.
Photo: Tammy Fullum/iStock