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Adoption: Children Waiting in Foster Care

Find out whether adopting a child from foster care is right for your family.

Adoption: Children Waiting in Foster Care


Waiting children refers to kids in foster care who need adoptive families. The parental rights have been legally terminated.

Thousands of kids in foster care need adoptive families. State agencies generally refer to them as waiting children, and you may see their photos in local newspapers, on agency websites, or even on television programs. According to statistics from the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis Reporting System (AFCARS) from the federal government, in 2001 (the latest data as of this writing), the average child who was adopted from foster care in the United States was 7 years old. Most of the children (80 percent) were in foster care for more than 11 months before they were adopted.

The numbers of foster children needing families vary from state to state, but every state has foster kids who need parents. (You can also adopt a foster child from another state, although it's more complicated than adopting from your own state. I recommend looking homeward first.)

The number of children adopted from foster care (“public child welfare involvement”) have doubled or increased even more in many states since 1995, primarily because the federal government, at long last, made adoption a favorable choice for states. For example, 3,094 children were adopted from foster care in California in 1995, and that number increased to 8,713 children by 2002. In Missouri, 538 foster children were adopted in 1995, and 1,542 were adopted in 2002. North Dakota also saw triple increases in adoptions from 1995 to 2002, as did South Dakota and Wisconsin.

Keep in mind that even though adoptions of foster children have increased greatly, many children still in the system need families because so many children enter foster care. For example, according to national statistics released by the Children's Bureau of the Department of Health and Human Services, in fiscal year 2002, 302,000 children entered foster care, up from 295,000 children entering the system in 2001. An estimated 126,000 foster children nationwide were ready and waiting to be adopted, but less than half (51,000 kids) were adopted.

How Do Kids Enter Foster Care?

When a child is abused, neglected, or abandoned and the protective services division of the state or county learns of the problem, the parents or primary caregivers are investigated. The child may also be removed from the family while the investigation occurs, especially if severe physical abuse or sexual abuse is suspected. Sometimes the child is placed in an emergency shelter or group home while social workers determine whether the child needs longer term care or not. If the child appears to need longer-term care because it would be unsafe to return her to the biological family, she then may be placed with a foster family.

If the state or county finds that no abuse or other serious problems have occurred, the child is returned to the family (although sometimes red tape delays the return).

Familybuilding Tips

Social workers say that many prospective adoptive families make mistakes at two extremes when it comes to adopting foster kids: They either assume that foster children have no problems that can't be cured by lots of love or that they are children who cannot recover from the abuse and neglect. In most cases, neither is true.

The abusive or neglectful family is given a performance agreement or a goal, which is a plan to change their behavior so they will be able to be reunited with the child. They may be given a time limit or target date to complete these goals. Often, however, a sympathetic judge will extend the time period.

Many abusive parents have problems with drug or alcohol abuse. In addition, they might have criminal records and jail time on their dossier. A performance agreement could include such stipulations as staying off drugs or alcohol, getting a job, and staying out of trouble. Parents are also often required to take parenting classes.

If all attempts to preserve the biological family fail, the biological parents might consent to an adoption or, as more commonly happens, the parents' rights are involuntarily terminated. Termination of parental rights (TPR) is not taken lightly by the courts, and in most cases, courts bend over backward to give biological parents chance after chance to overcome whatever problem caused their children to be placed in foster care. However, since the passage of the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act in 1997, states have revised their laws to restrict the time that parents are given to resolve their problems, and more foster children are available for adoption than in the past. Consequently, thousands of children in foster care nationwide are free to be adopted now. If and when a foster child is released for adoption, the child might be emotionally distressed by years of going in and out of foster care. Adoptive parents must prepare for the probability that the child will need therapy and extra support as he or she learns to trust in the permanency of the adoptive family.


Legal risk refers to a program in which parents become foster parents to children who might become available for adoption. Some states also use the term “fost/adopt” to describe the same program. The intent is that the agency will seek to terminate the biological parents' rights to the child. Some attorneys use the term legal risk to denote the time frame during which a child could be legally reclaimed by a birthparent; for example, during the days allowed by a state (if any) to revoke consent.

Foster kids who need families are included in special photolisting books that state agencies maintain for prospective parents and might also be listed on Internet websites. The books or websites might include short descriptions of the child. Sometimes videotapes of children are also available, and these can be very helpful.

Legal Risk Adoptions

Some states offer legal risk (sometimes called fost/adopt) programs. This means that you might become a foster parent to a child who the state or county agency believes will soon become available for adoption.

This program is called a “risk” because the biological parent might fight the loss of parental rights. Another risk is that social workers change, and a new social worker might decide to try to reunite the child with the biological family—no matter how many workers in the past have tried and failed. So it's possible that the child will never become available for adoption.

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