In an era of mixed, extended, blended, and biracial families, untraditional is the new norm. There's no such thing as a normal family anymore what's most important is the love and support found in a home, not who lives within. True to this perceptible shift, adoption has also lost its shroud of mystery. In the media, shows like Teen Mom and Modern Family show different sides of adoption, from perspectives that may not have been previously considered. Under the magnifying glass, celebrities around the nation have embraced this new type of family as well, adopting children both locally and internationally to expand their broods.
When Debra and Jim Loucks discovered their inability to have children after 4 years of marriage, they made the decision to adopt. Debra's sister-in-law had adopted through Santa Cruz County with successful results, and unlike private adoptions, finding a child through the county is free. With an abundance of hopeful parents on adoption agency waiting lists, the Loucks were banking on plenty of kids that really needed homes in San Joaquin County. Enter adopted sons Jon, 14, and Caleb, 10.
Here in San Joaquin, adoption is just as common, producing colorful and thriving families in all our cities. The individual reasons that families decide to adopt are as varied as the children who need homes, from couples unable to have children to families looking to spread the love. Also important is the type of adoption that a family chooses international, private, foster care, kinship, or adoption through San Joaquin County are all examples.
While we seem to be embracing this new tradition of mix-and-match families, what isn't getting as much attention is the overwhelming number of children in foster care either removed from unfit birth parents or safely surrendered at birth who are moved from home to home in the pursuit of a permanent family. According to the North American Council on Adoptable Children, close to 30,000 children have been removed from their homes statewide in California and are waiting to be adopted.
For each child that enters the foster care system, a plan is created to hopefully reunify with the birth parent (or parents), says social work supervisor Karen Christensen from the Human Services Agency of San Joaquin County. The federal guidelines provide an 18-month period during which the adult is able to take parenting classes, restore order in their life, and create a livable home for their child. If the child is under age 3 or part of a sibling group, and the social worker doesn't see the proper steps being taken, they can start the process of terminating the parent's rights in as short as 6 months to find a permanent home more quickly.
A foster parent for 31 years, Barbara Patton was married when she started fostering kids, and is now a single foster parent and adoptive mom-but to say she's alone as a foster parent would be incorrect. Barbara comes from a family filled with adoptions, both in her immediate and extended family. In her own home in Stockton, biological daughter Edythe, 35, and her husband, Toby, also live with two of their own biological children, Phebe, 13, and Drake, 2, and two adopted children, Ryan, 5, and William, 4. Ryan was a foster child, and William was a surrendered baby.
"We always try to reunify these kids if at all possible," says Christensen, "and then after that we do an extensive search for close friends or relatives that may want to take the child. We have such a huge pool of kids, and there are so many people that have been happy adopting these children through the county. If there are no efforts on the parent's part to reunify, then we look at finding a permanent home."
The first step for a child that has become a part of the child welfare system is to find them a temporary home as soon as possible. Through foster care licensing, the government provides funding for each child taken into a foster home.
Christensen explains that there are different types of foster families: some homes are willing to foster kids for short or long periods of time on an ongoing, rotating basis with no guarantee of any sort of adoption, and some families are looking for a low risk situation, with a small chance of the kids going back to their birth parents.
"The county adoption system can be a much more pleasant way to adopt," says Christensen. "Private adoptions can be more picky about the traditional view of the family, some will only adopt to two parents. For most, adopting through the county ends up being a positive, really rewarding experience."
Social work supervisor Tany Teas-Lim works with a private non-profit organization called Lilliput Children's Services, licensed by the state of California. While the county system is designed to equally find foster placement and permanent homes for children, organizations like Lilliput focus on getting these children adopted.
"It's a partnership between the public and private sector," says Teas-Lim. "We're working with the county to ensure a child's opportunity for permanence; it's foster care placement with an end goal."
Patty and CJ La Mar are just like any other suburban family-aside from the 72 foster kids they've hosted in their home, with more to come. When their girls, Brittany, 17, and Kimberly, 15, were young, Patty and CJ decided that they didn't want their kids in day care, and thought that foster care would be the perfect job for Patty to take on in the comfort of their home.
Families that enlist Lilliput's services are called "concurrent planning families," meaning that they are willing to foster children as the means to an end for a permanent home. The other benefit of an organization like Lilliput is that they have access not only to San Joaquin County foster care children, but also foster children all over the state, in all counties where the organization exists.
Lilliput also helps the county when a foster care placement has turned into a possible adoption. Although extensive home training and inspection takes place previous to any family's approval as a licensed foster home, Lilliput does an additional home study to assure that the adoption is the most optimal situation for both the child and the family.
Christensen explains the relationship between all parties involved in a foster child's welfare. "Through foster and adoptive training, we make sure that everyone is on the same page and has the same training social workers, attorneys, adoptive parents, children. Everyone needs to know what to expect and what's involved."
Even with all the successful adoptions through the county and foster care system, a large majority of children in the system still struggle to find homes. Foster care was always intended to be temporary, but many California children remain in care for years. According to the North American Council on Adoptable Children, the average length of stay in foster care before an adoption is finalized is still almost three years, and older children and minorities are less likely to ever be adopted. Foster children that don't find a permanent home by age 18 are often released from foster care without a family or support system.
"We try to move the kids the least amount of times possible," says Christensen. "I've been doing social work a total of 15 years and I've seen a lot of kids that have been really hurt. But I've also seen them just blossom and thrive in these [adoptive] families." [SJM]