They Are Not Things: On "Just" Adopting From Foster Care

The latest round of assaults on reproductive rights has surfaced a couple bad takes about adoption.

The first, from those who think pregnant people should be forced to carry pregnancies to term, is that there are childless people waiting to adopt infants, so pregnant people should be forced to provide those infants. I’m not going to get into the various reasons that’s a bad take, because, goddamn. Pregnant people are not things. They don’t exist to serve strangers who want kids.

A common reaction to that ludicrous argument, however, is that there are thousands of children in foster care and that waiting parents should “just adopt them.”

While often well-meaning, this position misunderstands both the logistics and ethics of adopting from foster care, and it’s dismissive of folks who struggle with infertility.

Logistics

First of all, people do "just" adopt healthy infants and young children from foster care. They do it all the time. This is the population most likely to be adopted, and as with private infant adoption, there is a backlog of waiting parents, not waiting children.

US children in need of adoptive placements have profiles on adoptuskids.org. I searched for profiles of kids under four. Nationwide, there were five profiles. Under six? Twenty-nine profiles. Most of those were for kids with severe medical needs, including those that will need lifetime care.

So for starters, there's aren't thousands of babies in care awaiting adoption. Healthy babies and toddlers who are legally free for adoption generally get adopted.

But what about older children, or children with severe medical needs? Shouldn't waiting parents take any waiting child?

It's telling that I have never heard this argument from someone who has adopted an older child, or one with severe medical or developmental needs. Harder-to-place children are not a consolation prize for people who couldn't get the healthy infant they wanted. These kids deserve families who actually want them, and who are committed to meeting their specific needs.

People struggling with infertility aren't "choosy beggars" if they choose not to pursue this kind of adoption. They’re human beings with good boundaries who know who they are and are not prepared to parent.

If adoption from foster care were simple, waiting parents wouldn't need internet strangers to shame them into it.

Ethics

Ethical questions around adoption from foster care are complex. I’m only going to scratch the surface here, and I want to preface this by saying that I’m talking about how foster care is legally and ethically supposed to work. Bias—based on race, class, disability, gender, and other factors—affects foster care decisions just as much as it affects every other aspect of society, and the trauma of families separated for unethical reasons is real and valid.

That said: it's important to remember that foster care is meant to serve the best interests of the child, not the best interests of parents seeking to adopt. Much like pregnant people, kids in foster care don't exist to fulfill adoptive parents' dreams. They are not things.

What’s in most children’s best interest is reunification with their parent(s). Legally and ethically, their entire care team, including their foster parents, should be working towards getting them back to their birth family. More than half of children in care reunify.

If reunification with their parent(s) isn’t possible, best practice is to look for a kinship placement—a family member, godparent, family friend, or someone else to whom the child is already connected—who can provide a stable and loving home. If that doesn’t work, then generally the foster family will be considered for adoptive placement. Recruiting adoptive parents who are completely unconnected to and unknown to the child is usually a last resort, after all these other options are exhausted. It’s generally understood that it’s in a child’s best interest to maintain their ties with existing family and community where possible.

And yet, if you go on adoption forums, you'll find posts from waiting parents complaining that social workers are more concerned with reunifying kids than with giving them the baby they so clearly deserve. These posts reek of the same entitlement you see from people claiming that abortion deprives childless people of children. They bristle with that same contempt we see for pregnant people—viewing them as selfish, unworthy, and subhuman. As obstacles between the prospective parent and the child whom they’re so convinced they’re entitled to claim.

Posts like that are a good reminder to folks making the "just adopt from foster care" argument from a pro-choice perspective: it’s important to be aware of the role of birth parent choice, and how birth parents are treated, in private vs. foster care adoption.

As I said above, the ethics of any given adoption are highly contextual and blanket statements are always going to erase some adoptees’ experiences. But as a system, adoption from foster care legally overrules birth parent consent, whereas private domestic adoption legally requires it.

That's not to say that there aren't creepy unethical agencies that pressure birth parents into adoption. There are. But if you want to adopt an infant through a program that safeguards the birth parent’s rights and respects their agency, you don’t want foster care. You want an ethical, nonprofit, pro-choice private adoption agency. Contact your nearest abortion provider and ask them where they refer pregnant people considering adoption.

Foster care adoptions occur after the birth parent has already lost the choice to parent. Ideally, this happens only when it’s in the child’s best interest—but that doesn’t mean their birth parents were monsters, or even that the separation was just. People lose custody of their children due to death, poverty, illness, addiction, racism, and/or because they’re victims of domestic violence. We must resist the narrative that views birth parents of kids in care the way that anti-choice activists view pregnant people. They are not obstacles to overcome in order to get children for “more worthy” families. They are human beings. Even if they can’t parent their children, they are not things.

Just like pregnant people are not things.

Just like kids in care are not things.

And any prospective parent who doesn’t recognize the inherent worth, dignity, and humanity of everyone involved in an adoption, including the birth parent, their family, and the adoptive child themselves? Is exactly the sort of person that ethical agencies should screen out.


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Posted on May 30, 2019 .