The #1 Reason You Should Never Choose Foster Care.

Foster care has gained a global spotlight over the past few years thanks, in part, to movies and media coverage. Many people are choosing this path. But, there’s a right reason and a wrong reason to choose this journey.

Do Not Enter

“I wish we could do away with the term foster-t0-adopt,” my friend said, as we chatted briefly during a conference a few days ago. “It communicates the wrong message to people who are entering the process. We should call it, foster-to-reunify.” She was referring to the underlying intention some have in entering the journey, to build a family by fostering. Not specifically the program of fostering-to-adopt. I nodded as I listened. She was completely right. Foster to adopt IS misleading at times!!

Harsh, right? I even used two exclamation points at the end. But I need to drive home a strong point here: You don’t enter the foster care journey to build your family. You don’t enter to adopt. You enter to care for children in need. The point is reunification….always…unless it absolutely becomes an adoption case. If you’re doing foster care for anything else than caring for vulnerable children or reunification, you’re doing it for the wrong reasons. Double harsh!

Last year I was talking with a couple during a break from speaking during a live event. Tears streamed down their face as they shared their story. Two years earlier, when they began the journey, they had been told by their agency that their first placement, a 2-year old boy, was probably going to turn into an adoption situation. This moved their hearts as they had always dreamed of adopting a little boy or girl. But the conversation with the case manager was casual and there was never a follow up after. A few weeks before I met them, visitations with birth mom had been re-instated. She had turned a corner and began showing signs of progress. This prompted a judge to order visitations, even though it had been more than a year and half since her son was removed from her care. All signs were pointing toward reunification (at least from the foster parent’s perspective).

I listened, I empathized, I hurt for them. What a devastating thing to be told this by their agency, allow your heart to go there, and then have the carpet yanked out from beneath you, I thought. But I realized they had been lead astray from the beginning. The case manager should have never mentioned adoption until it was absolutely a certainty. For the well-being of this precious couple, and their heart, as well as the child they were caring for, it should not have been a topic of conversation.

You don’t enter foster care to build a family, or to adopt. Could it turn into this? Sure. Six children who came to us through foster care did. Can you sign up through an agency to be a foster-to-adopt couple? Yep. Those are both possibilities and there are designed programs for each. But, to set out on the foster care journey with an expectation of adoption in a general case is dangerous for your heart and the heart of the child you’re caring for. Make your focus reunification as a foster parent, but be open to adoption if it leads to this. Here are a few other things to focus on while you care for children through foster care…

  1. Advocacy. Be an advocate for the child and the child’s family (if are able to do this). They need a cheerleader through this process.
  2. Leadership. Make your focus to genuinely and authentically lead the child you’re caring for (and also the family). You have this amazing, distinct opportunity to be a positive influence and guide along this journey.
  3. Healing. Chances are, the child in your care has come from some pretty traumatic stuff. They may even be behaving out of this trauma. Or they’re afraid. They need time and space to heal. You can give them this space. You also have the opportunity to be a catalyst for hope and restoration in their story.

Listen, I get it. Can I just tell you that? I get the struggle you are having if you have fallen in love with the child in your care, or been told something pre-maturally by your foster care agency. I understand how your heart and mind can jump to adoption or permanency. In many situations during our time as foster parents, our hearts went there too. But we had to keep the right perspective in place. We had to keep reunification in focus, until it was absolutely certain a child was never leaving. We allowed our hearts to love children deeply while they were with us, and then we grieved and celebrated openly when they reunified with their family. It’s the painful, tragic, reality of the foster care journey.

You are setting yourself up for potential heart break if you foster with the expectation of adoption. Can I give you some parting advice that will spare you pain and agony? If adoption is your expectation, you should adopt, not foster. No harm, no foul in choosing this path.

Question: Have you walked this road as a foster parent? Share your story with us in the comment section below. You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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  • Scott Bothel

    Wow. I always appreciate your perspective but an underlying assumption here is our ability to choose pure motives. In reality, we enter into every process with a mess of motivations. The idea that you could compartmentalize the urge to make a foster child a permanent part of your family until the case plan shows it, just doesn’t work in the cases we’ve seen. (Which is far fewer than you for sure.) I would just caution that avoiding foster care to avoid heartbreak will leave many children missing the people most equipped to love them in their time of greatest need. Enter into foster care and adoption to embrace the heartbreak with all your messy motivations. Just evaluate them regularly and keep prioritizing the values outlined above for sure.

    • Hey Scott, thanks for your comment and perspective. I agree…we all enter with a mess of motivations. However, I also agree with you that we shouldn’t avoid foster care to avoid heartbreak. It will bring us heartbreak. My intention with this piece was to simply challenge people who have entered with the underlying goal of building a family or finalizing an adoption, to take a step back and reconsider so they don’t go through the unnecessary heartbreak that could come as a result of a reunification. Thanks again for your input. Love the discussion.

      • Scott Bothel

        Thanks, Mike. We get comments all the time from folks that say they couldn’t do foster care because they would get “too attached”. I think heartbreak is the natural outcome of healthy attachment. I’m sure there’s more qualified people who could shed light on that, though. People desiring healthy attachment are the ones best able to meet these kids where they are at (with equipping). We just encourage people to expect heartbreak as part of the process which shows their hearts are working properly. 🙂 Keep up your awesome work. We were privileged to hear from you at 2 refresh conferences so far. Blessings!

        • We always tell people, “Yes, you will get attached and you SHOULD get attached, even if you are caring for a child for a short while.” It would be inhuman to not get attached. So cool that you’ve been to both Refresh Conferences. Love it. Will I see you in Chicago this fall?

          • Scott Bothel

            Wont make it to Chicago, but for sure we’ll be at the Seattle one next year as well.

      • Christian Whetzel

        We entered as foster-to-adopt. That was the exact reason why we entered foster care. We knew what journey it would be, but we also knew that God would place children with us that needed to be in our home whether it was permanent or temporary. Our agency knew we wanted to adopt, and we received calls for children that were most likely to be adopted. Does this always happen? No. Are the children sometimes reunited with their biological family? Yes. Should people think and research before they become a foster family? Absolutely! But anyone who enters into foster care whether it’s for adopting or fostering go through heartbreak. It’s part of the journey. We have to be willing to place ourselves into vulnerability. No matter what, God will bless you, and you have had the opportunity to pour God’s love and your own into the child no matter the age. I encourage people to foster and to love even in the midst of heartbreak.

        • This is well said Christian. I think when a couple declares that they want to foster to adopt and enters into a specific program to do so, it’s healthy all around and the expectation is clear on the front end.

    • Allisonm

      Yes, Scott, I see what you are saying. I wouldn’t caution people who want to adopt against foster care to avoid heartache so much as to ensure that they are constantly aware of the need to put the children’s best interests before their own. Foster children whose parents have become able, available, and willing to parent them in an acceptable environment, within a reasonable time frame, should get to go home. That’s in the children’s best interests. And helping the children’s parents get to successful reunification is in the children’s best interests, too. It is messy and heartbreaking.

      Even though we adopted waiting children who were on the Heart Gallery, we knew that nothing would be certain until the TPR was complete and final and the adoption decree was signed and no longer appealable. The day they came home with us was a happy day for us, but very much tempered by the realization that our children were scared to death and experiencing yet another big set of losses, since we lived many hours away from where they had lived their lives to that point. And it was our job to meet their needs, not theirs to fit into our family or what we hoped our family would be like.

    • Heather

      Yes, yes and yes. “I would just caution that avoiding foster care to avoid heartbreak will leave many children missing the people most equipped to love them in their time of greatest need. Enter into foster care and adoption to embrace the heartbreak with all your messy motivations. Just evaluate them regularly and keep prioritizing the values…”

  • Care Families

    I have a question about foster care. I totally understand the reunification focus but when you see wounded kids reunified with bio family prematurely and a year later they are back in the system with more baggage; then adoption becomes an option. How do we help families walk through that?

    • This is a great question. And this is part of the biggest struggle within foster care. While reunification is the goal, sometimes you can clearly see that it’s not the best option. I guess if you’re referring to helping foster families walk through this, I would say reassurance. Reassure them that they have done a good job and the exact job that they were called to do. If the child ends up back in the system and adoption is an option, communicate this clearly (but make sure it’s definitely the case first). Does this answer your question?

      • Care Families

        We help families walk their journeys and sometimes (ok. many times) we see the proverbial writing on the wall – the child goes back into a harmful situation because bio mom and/or dad “jumped” through the hoops but nothing really changed… Then, that child is “offered” back to the same foster care family with option to adopt… Ugh. We see broken hearts break all over again. How do we help that family not loose their ability to care, to not become jaded? How do we reassure those families they did a good job? By the way, we LOVE your site and the honest answers to hard stuff.

  • gina

    Thank you Mike for keeping it real. We went into fostering for the mail goal of fostering, and if adoption happened, great. However I have to say, it’s hard to keep that view when everyone around us only saw adoption as the main goal. Even within the church, I found often the reponse we got was “adopt, adopt, adopt”. Because if that is not the main goal, what is the point? Oviouslly, that is not what we believe, but found it hard to stay on track. As we are preparing for our first foster placement to return home to mom, I have been thinking a lot about how I would do things differently. I wish I supported her from day one. But I didn’t. Based on what soical and case workers told me, I thought it would lead to adoption. Thankfully God’s grace is bigger than us. Two months ago birth mom and I finally met and have a beautiful relationship. I think from the beginning God wanted me to support her, the mom. It just took me a while to see that. Thankfully, I still can. Over the next few weeks, our little foster baby will transition home, and I can truly say, “I trust you God”. I just have been floored on what God can do if we are willing to love on these children. I’m pretty confidant mom will keep us in her life, but I know this will not always be the case. Yesterday the birth mom’s dad thanked me for taking his grandchild. He had tears in his eyes as he said this was the biggest blessing his family has ever had. For the first time in years, his daughter has cleaned up her life. He said he has his daughter back and now a grandchild. I was floored. I never looked at foster care that way. But now I will.

    • Wow, Gina, this is powerful. Thank you for sharing this story with us. So encouraging! 😉

  • I would like to mention that there is an option in some states to go straight to adopting in foster care. Where we live, you have to be licensed to be a foster parent, but you can opt to go straight to adoption of waiting children who have already had parental rights terminated. Often these are the children who’s behaviors prevented others from adopting them. Sometimes it just didn’t work for their foster parents to adopt for other reasons. But it is an option that many don’t realize exists. Im sure this varies by state, but those kids who are featured on Heart Gallery websites nationwide, are already freed for adoption and are foster children waiting. However, the system choose the parent instead of the other way around.

    Those who choose this option still have to foster the child(ren) for a short time, but sign an intent to adopt right away. My heart breaks for those children who move in with a chosen parent, and are rejected because the parents felt they couldn’t handle them. This happens way more often than it should.

    • Emily, this is great insight. Can’t say for sure, but I believe that most states have this option. In this case, when someone enters the process to adopt children from foster care who are legally available for adoption, this is a good, good thing. Thanks for sharing this!

      • Allisonm

        That is the program under which we adopted our children. Initially, we didn’t even have to be licensed for foster care, though we had to go through the same classes and process with other prospective foster parents to get certified to adopt. Because we ultimately adopted from another state’s Heart Gallery, we ended up having to get a foster care license, as well, because one of the states involved required that before allowing an interstate placement under ICPC.

        Technically, we fostered for the sixteen months it took to finalize. TPR had not yet occurred, but was believed imminent until several procedural delays cropped up and lengthened the time frame. That ended up helping us because it gave us time to get to know our children and to have all of the evaluations of their conditions and probable future needs done. That enabled the state and us to arrive at a subsidy and post-adoption care plan that has met our children’s many special needs.

        One of the saddest things I saw when working in child welfare was adoptions blowing up–tragedies for everyone involved, especially for the children, who probably weren’t going to get another adoptive family. I have remembered that every time one of my kids has done yet another appalling thing that I thought I just didn’t know how to keep going through.

        • Alisonm, my heart breaks all the time for the failed adoptions! I am a volunteer for our state’s Heart Gallery and I have seen so many kids leave the heart gallery most likely for a home and then return later. I also keep it in mind with my own adopted children, and did when we were preadoption – that I make the choice to be in it for the long haul no matter how difficult, because ultimately that is what these kids need. I’m not in it to satisfy myself, we are in this because we love them.

  • San Dy

    This article assumes the foster home incorrectly expects a successful adoption. That is wrong. The placement agencies actively advertise adoption is likely. I went to an information session and the had 3 speakers tell us about their journey. All ended in adoption. One woman adopted 4 children! They are desperate to find foster homes and they knowingly mislead people and advertise adoption so they will sign up. Then the Foster to Adopt parent is left heartbroken and blamed for expecting an adoption to even be possible. Sadly I experienced this first hand.

  • Jim

    This is a great article. Families of origin do need the support of licensed families. We’re in this for the kids, and we know that reunification is often (not always) in the child’s best interest. And yet, yes – our heart broke when our pre-adoptive son was *finally* reunified with his mother. Even with all of our preparation and knowledge, and advocacy (we were on board with reunification), our hearts broke, and continue to break.

    In our state, we have different types of foster care, and also a separate pre-adoptive placement. The state makes clear the level of “legal risk” that a child may be reunified. While this measurement isn’t perfect, it’s helpful for licensed families to have a starting point.

    The model here is “families helping families.” Whether right out of the hospital, or off of the streets, we’re here for the kids to be part of the team of adults in their lives that support them. It’s hard, but it works.

    • Jim, glad you liked the post. I agree with you- we’re helping families and we’re here for the kiddos. Great perspective!

  • Jim

    Also, I don’t love the title… i find it confusing and a little “click-batey.”

  • Heather

    Appreciate reading this blog/thread and wanted to add another ‘prism-view’ to the many windows of fostering. While I feel distinctly separate from the foster-to-adopt experience, I have incredible gratitude to those who are called to adopt, and to those fostering youth steadily through and into adulthood (typically up to 18-21yrs).

    We are a ‘short term’ (3-9 mos) foster family, taking in teens for which reunification is no longer an option, and which an agency placement with a ‘long term/aging out’ foster or adoption family is in the works. We offer a landing place w/time for youth to find their grounding, create/regain a sense of stability from the sea of ever-changing faces within the system, while also advocating for our youth’s voices to be heard in all decision making and in general, model as much as we can, validating their lived experiences and respecting their journey toward adulthood and well-being. We model that families can also be genuine/messy/clumsy AND healthy.

    Attachment is inevitable. There is undeniably always a point where we are either asked by friends/family or our foster youth, ‘why we don’t adopt or apply to be permanent foster parents?’ Recently our fd stated clear feelings re grief and anger when imagining someone else in her room after she moves on to her ‘long-term foster family’; this was followed by the need for reassurance we will remain in her life, regardless of where she is and how old she is. These are the real, raw and heart pieces experienced on both sides of which is hard to describe in words. It isn’t always easy to explain the reason we signed on to be the type of foster parents we are. Sometimes there are not words sufficient enough, but the love is still real, it doesn’t get negated.

    We are honored to remain a part of a young persons support and inner community, sometimes even fortunate to become their ‘extended’ family. Other times, we respect with loving heart, when a youth needs to move forward, without pulling the past behind them. We don’t get to choose the youth we stay in contact with over the youth who navigate out of our sight. We don’t get to determine whether our faces remain in their vision, or become simply another ‘notch’ in their belt of homes.

    What I can tell you, is right now our foster youth is playing guitar and singing her heart out for the richness of life she is so very worthy of. Nothing can ever replace the sound and essence that is her, and of which she shared in this house. Her presence will forever be with us, regardless of time passing. To be a foster parent, requires a courage to see youth in their fullness in a way we often don’t see even in those we think of as closest to us. It requires being willing to love, while letting go over and over, in order to be present for the next youth. Complex, diverse and transformative. Every day we foster, it is an honor.

  • hippocampus

    We did straight foster to adopt. Our daughter already had family reunification terminated and would have TPR terminated soon after being placed in an adoptive home. California does not like to make legal orphans so they don’t actually do TPR until that adoptive home is found. Then we were treated like a foster family for the eight months until we could finalize – six months for them to monitor the match, then 60 days after filing the petition to adopt. We had to be certified as both a foster and adoptive home during training. So yes, there is a foster to adopt program at least here in California.

    And a lot of these kids don’t even have visits with any bio family, except maybe siblings who were adopted by other people or an elderly relative who can’t take the child in due to their age and health. My daughter’s entire bio family, both sides, had completely ditched her and had no interest in even keeping a casual relationship. So there was zero chance of reunification at that point and after TPR, definitely no chance.

    BUT that means people have to be open to the older kids and most people are not, unfortunately. A real shame.

  • ChildAdvocate

    Having done foster care for the past 4 years (on and off), I will say a few things here and try to keep my feelings as in check as possible. Some background, I currently have three children in my care: a 3-year-old girl for the past 8 months (A), a 4-year-old girl for the past 2 months (B) and a 5-year-old boy for the past 2 months (C). I am in NYS.

    The goal of OCFS, or CPS, or whatever acronym you want to use for them is reunification. To rehabilitate the parents and get their kids back to them. Ideologically, this sounds great. Fixing a family so they can thrive and bond to be successful. Realistically, this is catastrophic. Barring an extraordinary event (such as both parents being killed in a car accident), kids are removed from their parents/guardians at the singular fault of the parents/guardians. Of the kids I have, A,B and C, A was home when a sibling was murdered by a family member. B was discarded by her mother and then discarded by a foster family. Along the way, she was beaten and raped. C was locked up in the basement for 2/3 a day, every day, without food or water and no use of a restroom. 2 of the three of these children are having attempts being made to reunite them with family. EXCUSE ME? C has been given visits with a cousin who is allowed unsupervised time. And the cousin brings him around family members of the parent who abused him. The first time he saw a vehicle that looked like his parent’s, he immediately urinated on himself.

    The goal of the agency should not be reunification; it should be to place the child in the place and with the people that give him or her the best opportunity to thrive, learn, be loved and become a successful adult. Instead, these kids are thrown back to the wolves and I am left here to wonder what ever happened to them, uneasy about watching the news for fear that I will see something I don’t want to see and wouldn’t see if the system truly had the interests of the child in mind. Having the task of loving a child unconditionally with the knowledge that they may never experience that again is difficult but someone has to do it.

    Lawmakers and advocates should rise up and attempt to enact some sort of reform on this system. It is destroying kids left and right. I’d get behind that immediately.

    • We know the struggle. We really do. There is a quote I recently heard that stuck in my mind. “Laws and rules are meant to be broken when they have a name.” Or something like that. We are fighting with you.