Susan Notkin

Tell us a little about the Center for the Study of Social Policy and how foster care adoption fits into its reform agenda.
Much of [the] Center for the Study of Social Policy’s system reform work focuses on improving how public child welfare systems and its partners address the safety, permanency and well-being needs of the children, youth, and families that they serve. As an organization, our focus is on ensuring that families receive the help they need in their communities so that they never need to come to the attention of the child welfare system in the first place. When children do need the State to step in to ensure their safety, we promote policy and practice changes to ensure that families are helped to reunify quickly with their children whenever possible. When that is not possible, best practice suggests that children should be placed with relatives through kinship care. Only when that is not possible should children be placed in foster care with non-family members. And no child should grow up in foster care or exit care on their own without a family to call his or her own. That’s where adoption comes in. Adoption from foster care represents the biggest mode of adoption in this country. Notwithstanding this fact, too many children in foster care are in need of adoptive families. And too many youth end up exiting from foster care to independence without family permanence.

One of your major interests is children aging out of foster care. How serious is this problem?
Each year, over 23,000 youth exit from foster care without a permanent family. The outcomes for these young people are dire: higher rates of homelessness, criminal justice involvement, teenage pregnancy, and lack of an education and skills to meet their financial needs. This isn’t surprising. Just imagine any 18 or 21-year-old – even youth who have had all kinds of advantages – being on their own without a family to rely on for advice, comfort or support. Succeeding without family support would be difficult for any young person. I firmly believe that we have a moral responsibility to these young people to ensure that they have the relationships and opportunities that all youth need in order to thrive – and the number one thing that the research says youth need is a lifelong caring adult in their lives.

What can be done to help these children and young adults?
The first thing we need to do is to ensure that no child spends their childhood in foster care and that no youth exits foster care without a family. All efforts should be made to help strengthen families to care for their children. And for those children who need to come into foster care, all efforts should be made to reunify the child with his/her family. States need to offer subsidized guardianship programs for families who are taking care of their relatives. But when reunification is not going to be possible, we need to move towards some kind of legal or relational permanency for the child. In many of those situations, birth parents can often play a role in preparing the child for a new permanent family. For older children and youth, we need to explore whether it would be better for them to stay connected in some way to their family of origin. Too often, we set up youth to reject adoption as an option because they see it as a rejection of their family. This is where open adoption needs to become a real option for youth. We also have to stop accepting a youth’s rejection of adoption as definitive. Workers need to keep returning to this option. Sometimes the way we ask a question dictates the answers we get. So instead of asking youth whether they want to be adopted workers need to ask: Would you like someone to celebrate your birthday? To support you through your triumphs and challenges? To be with you at high school graduation? To be there during times of need? And we need to ask these questions over time so that youth have the time to consider their options and understand the possibilities that adoption presents.

What are the impediments to adoption out of the foster care system?
There are many barriers to adoption out of the foster care system. Many prospective parents always imagined adopting a baby and they may not even have considered adopting a 5-year-old or an 18-year-old. Families are often hesitant to adopt a child who may have suffered from abuse and neglect and who has spent multiple years in foster care. They may understandably worry about the impact of these experiences on the child’s development and life chances. And, unfortunately, few states provide adoptive families with the physical and mental health supports that these children and their adoptive families may need. That’s why post-adoption services are so necessary. Finally, many child welfare systems haven’t figured out how to balance the fact that while we don’t want courts to create legal orphans, we also don’t want children to wait unnecessarily long when an adoptive home is available and when reunification is not possible. That’s where court reform plays a role. Courts need to aggressively and more intentionally pair services to the individual needs of families to give them the best chance at reunification, and when that is not possible, to move swiftly to another permanency option.