“I really wish infertile couples wouldn’t try to adopt from foster care. They just aren’t in the emotional space for the reality.” So says a social worker/adoption agency director that I respect. Is she right?

should the infertile adopt a baby from foster care?

Infertility can grind you down and spit you out on the other end a different person than the one who believed that they would be holding a baby nine months after stopping birth control. If your struggle was short and treatment successful, the change may be insignificant, but the repeated losses of those who have been trying unsuccessfully for years change you.

The Realities of Adopting From Foster Care

Foster care agencies are not adoption agencies. Period.

Foster care agencies are supposed to be focused on child welfare first and family healing second. Only if the birth family is not able to get their act together to be able to parent does the agency look elsewhere to find parents for the children in their care, and even then, the first place they look is to the extended family. If no grandparents, aunts/uncles or cousins step forward, they usually consider the family that is fostering the child. And only if the foster family decides to not adopt, does the agency consider a family that is only interested in adopting from foster care. And at this point, the “baby” is most likely a toddler or preschooler.

To be clear, there are children in our foster care system that are available for adoption right this very minute. In fact, there are over 100,000 of these kids. However, almost never are these children babies. The vast majority are over the age of five, or have significant special needs, or are part of larger sibling groups. Most infertility patients I speak with who are considering adoption want to adopt a baby.

“I Want to Adopt a Baby from Foster Care”

I totally understand the desire to adopt a baby. Truly I do. Parenting is many things and is truly for a lifetime, but most of us expect to start our parenting journey with an infant. We have thought about the snuggling and that sweet baby smell. We have imagined clapping at the first steps and laughing at the first taste of carrots. We’ve probably even dreaded the sleepless nights. There is also something to say for learning to parent as your child progresses through the natural developmental stages.

But the bottom line is that if you want to adopt a baby from foster care you first must be the baby’s foster parent.

The Role of Foster Parents

When you sign up to be a foster parent you sign up to be part of a team of professionals who are trying to heal the first family. That means you will likely be bringing your foster baby to meet with his mom and dad weekly—often at separate times and separate places. You may also be asked to meet with grandparents and siblings. You might be asked to invite the birth parents to pediatrician appointments and allow them to take the lead. You may be asked to return this child to her birth family even if you disagree (and often strongly disagree) with that decision.

Why Babies are in Foster Care

“Why would anyone return a baby to abusive parents?!? Surely we’re a better home than them.”

Most people imagine that children are removed from parents because of horrible abuse. Sadly, that does happen, but only in a small fraction of cases. Most kids are removed from their family because of neglect or substance abuse. With infants, especially newborn infants, it is often the threat of neglect. For example, the mom has had another child removed from her home.

No one is saying that it is OK to neglect a child, but neglect is often a by-product of poverty or substance abuse, both problems that are amenable to help. You have to go into foster care with the attitude that your job is to provide this help. As a foster care caseworker said:

In my experience as a frontline worker most children enter foster care because of neglect, not abuse. Neglect is most often a pervasive family condition that with support and services can be addressed to a level that would allow parents to safely parent their children. A far to common example I have personally witnessed is domestic violence, where the non abuser was able to get services and be able to safely parent their children. Another example: An addict turning their lives around and breaking the cycle of addiction. For this reason most children are eventually reunified with their birth parents.

Should Infertile Couples Adopt from Foster Care?

The agency director quoted at the beginning who questions whether infertility patients should adopt from foster care is concerned that the losses inherent in failed infertility treatment make it hard for the infertile to accept their role as a foster parent to an infant in foster care. She believes that their desire to be a mommy and daddy usually overrides what is expected of them. On some level, she believes it is cruel to ask them to fill this role as temporary caretaker trying to help someone else fulfill their parenting dreams.

I think that paints infertility patients with too broad of a brush. I believe that those who have experienced infertility can make terrific foster parents with the proper preparation. In fact, I have seen families use their losses and grief to help them understand the losses their foster children and their birth parents experience. I do, however, agree that it is a fine balancing act to prepare families that come to foster care adoption from infertility for their role as a foster parent and far too often they go in expecting to become instant parents.

A wise caseworker at a foster care placement and adoption agency wisely noted:

As a caseworker in a foster to adopt program for almost 15 years, I have noticed that couples struggling with infertility are at different places in their own grief and loss experience when they begin researching foster care adoption.  This makes a difference in their ability and willingness to deal with the uncertainty of adopting from foster care.

Some families make comments such as, “We want to complete our family” or “We’re meant to be parents,” etc.  Those families feel more desperate about meeting their desire to be a parent.  Other families enter the process saying things like, “We know there are children who need families, and we have the resources to provide a loving family for them.”

This second set of families is at a very different place, and it is not necessarily a progression from one mindset to another.  It’s just a different focus.  Some are trying to meet their family needs, while others have decided to focus on the needs of children in society.  There is nothing wrong with either motivation, but it greatly impacts a family’s experience in foster care adoption.

Can a family with the first mindset have a successful foster adoption?  Yes!  But in my experience it generally takes longer and is more of a challenging and emotional process.  And those families are more likely to get discouraged quicker.

Can a family with the first mindset change their motivation for a more satisfying experience?  Yes!  But it takes extra understanding, encouragement, and training by the agency.  Also, the family has to be willing to let go of parts of the dream that they’ve held onto for so long and exchange it for something new but still extremely rewarding.

All families and children in the foster to adopt process will experience grief at some point for some reason.  One of my foster mothers was surprised at how much she grieved for the birth mother when rights were terminated, even though it meant she could adopt.  So it is important for families to honestly assess how much they can take when they’ve already been struggling with a lot, and whether foster care adoption is really something they’re ready for.

The more a family loves a child in their home, the greater the grief and loss will be if an adoption does not happen; there’s no getting around that.  However, that love makes a world of difference for a child, which makes it worth it in my opinion.

If you were infertile and adopted a baby from foster care, please share your experience in the comments.

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Image credit: Stevan Sheets