EARLIER THIS YEAR, I spoke to a 23-year-old named Lauren, who told me about her foster care experiences. Her father had committed suicide when she was 6. Then her mentally ill mother became unable to care for Lauren and her siblings; a few years later, she also took her own life. Over the next 15 years, Lauren was moved around among nearly 20 Massachusetts foster homes, hospitals, and group homes. She told me she was repeatedly abused and prescribed potent cocktails of psychotropic drugs. Adults would promise they were going to adopt her, only to renege and find a way to blame her for it.
I’ve been thinking of Lauren a lot this November, which is National Adoption Month. Before we spoke, I was already a passionate advocate for adopting through foster care, having been an adoptive father for almost a year. I wondered if her life could have been different had she found a stable life sooner. Last time I heard from her, she was homeless in New York. “I want to effect change in the world,” she had told me then, “but I can’t do that because I have so many issues in my past that I haven’t dealt with.”
When our 6-year-old, Chris, was 3, the Department of Children and Families removed him from his birth mother’s home and placed him in temporary foster care. At an age when other children were worried about monsters under their beds, Chris remembers fearing for his safety. Sometimes he’ll talk about this, but in the next breath, he almost always tells my wife and me how grateful he is that “the judge said we could be a family forever.”
There’s an emotional maturity in Chris that is rare for his age. Perhaps it’s rare for any age. It’s the kind that only comes from overcoming life’s hard stuff — stuff no child should have to experience.
There are some 2,200 Massachusetts kids awaiting adoption — longing for a “forever home” — and about 600 of them don’t have a single prospective family on which they can pin their hopes. All of them, like their peers, have dreams and ambitions, even if the modest scale of them can be heartbreaking. Click through the galleries of children posted on the website of the Massachusetts Adoption Resource Exchange and you may run across 15-year-old Jordan, whose “special wish” is for a family with a huge library of books. Or 16-year-old Richie, who, when asked what he thinks he’s good at, says “forgiving people when they make mistakes.”
One way or another, children in foster care have suffered greatly at the hands of adults. But the feelings of rejection and loss will likely have the longest-lasting effects. Twenty percent remain in foster care for at least two years, according to state figures, with 14 percent in care for four years or more. Many of these children will “age out” of the system having never experienced permanency.
Domestic adoption most benefits children and families, of course, but there are societal benefits to placing foster children in permanent homes. In 2008, the Boston Foundation studied youth who turned 18 while in foster care and found that their lives were often a mess: 37 percent had been homeless; 54 percent were unemployed; 25 percent had been arrested; 43 percent had become pregnant or impregnated someone. Fifty-nine percent reported feeling “sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks or more in a row.”
But the solution to this complex problem is thankfully really simple: More families need to open their lives and homes to youth from this area who have no one. Everyone has heard horror stories about international adoptions — which can cost more than $25,000 and take years, if they don’t fall through altogether. Yet adopting from foster care in Massachusetts is free and can be relatively quick.
It’s true, as some have told me, that Chris is fortunate to have been young when he was placed with a family so ready to love him. But when I think about his adoption, I realize I’m really the blessed one. I only hope I have a fraction of his courage when I grow up.
Estimated number of foster children in the state without clear prospects for adoption
Steve Holt is a writer in Boston. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.