Adoption And Foster Care Are Complicated — Here's 8 Things Everyone Should Know

by Rachel Garlinghouse
An adoptive mother hugging her daughter

My husband and I have been parents for thirteen years. When we adopted our first child, we had spent over a year self-educating. We read every adoption book and article we could get our hands on. This was before podcasts were popular — and adoption education materials were few and far between. Most were textbook-like, almost always authored by “adoption professionals.” We also met with adoption triad members — that’s adoptees, birth parents, and adoptive parents — seeking their wisdom. We did the best we could with what we had at the time, which really wasn’t much.

Thankfully, today there are far more resources available, and they aren’t all one-sided. Oftentimes, when people learn that we are an adoptive family, we’re met with “how wonderful” and “God bless you for taking in children in need.” Our kids have been told they are “lucky” to have such “great parents” — as if they are charity cases and not people. Adoption is often framed as a win-win-win situation. But the reality is, adoption and foster care are complicated. November is National Adoption Awareness Month, and here’s what you need to know.

Don’t assume an adoptee was unwanted.

Jill Murphy, author of Finding Motherhood: An Unexpected Journey, is a birth mom to one son and a mom-by-adoption to two daughters. She shared with me in an interview that her decision to place her son, when she was a teenager, was “painful and difficult.” It’s offensive and hurtful when people assume that an adoptee — a child who was adopted — was “unwanted” by their biological parents. She shared with me that she had to put her feelings aside and “do what is better/best for the baby.” She went through “loss, trauma, grief,” when placing her son for adoption, something she won’t “ever forget.” Her son, she says, is always “on your mind and in your heart.”

Foster care is not an adoption program.

Mik Taylor, an experienced foster parent who runs the Instagram account fosterwhileblackfam, wants us to know, “The foster care system is not an adoption agency.” The idea that you can just adopt for free and easily from foster care is false. Taylor reminds us that the goal of the foster care system is “reunification” and family preservation — not taking kids from fit parents and allowing them to be adopted. However, her experience has been that “the foster care system is broken at the federal and state levels.” She adds that Black children “are disproportionately represented” in the system, and “teens are out of the system without proper support and resources.” In my experience, too many hopeful adoptive parents attempt to use the foster care system as a “free” adoption program to avoid the fees of a domestic or international adoption.

Children aren’t blank slates.

Parents who adopt or foster (as well as the general public) too often believe that “nurture”—the parenting they provide—will grossly outweigh “nature”—the child’s biology and previous traumatic experiences. Tina Bauer, a former foster youth and adoptee who is now in reunion with her biological mother, wants us to know that even babies who are adopted at just a few days old are not “blank slates.” She adds that younger children who experience abuse, neglect, and separation from their first families have trauma “literally being woven into their bodies and minds.” The developmental years, she remarks (with experience as both a teacher and a former foster youth), are “extremely important.” Even children adopted at birth have a nine-month history with their biological mother—and that history matters.

Adoptive parents — and families — are real.

I can’t tell you how many times someone has asked us about our children’s “real” parents or ask if our kids are “real siblings.” These statements are incredibly rude, especially toward the child. I often reply, “Well, they aren’t fake siblings” or “I’m not their fake mom!” I’ve also elaborated that all of my kids’ parents — by birth and adoption — are “real.” It’s unfair that adoptees are asked to justify their families, being put on the spot by strangers. It’s especially dreadful when the adoptee is a child and is being interrogated by a nosy stranger. Furthermore, I do not refer to my children as my “adopted” children, nor do they call for me, let’s say when they have a bad dream, as their “adoptive mom.”

Adoptees shouldn’t be expected to feel grateful.

Michelle Madrid-Branch is an international adoptee, author, and adoptee coach. She shared with me in an interview that adoptees are often told to “just be grateful.” I have experienced this through my own children, who are often told they are “so lucky” to be adopted by “loving parents.” She told me that this grateful-adoptee narrative can “increase our sense of shame because we often are dealing with high levels of unspoken and unresolved grief.” She adds, “Adoptees deserve the space to grieve what’s been lost and to define what gratitude looks like on their terms.” Instead of assuming, we can practice “leaning in and listening,” even when adoptees “say things you don’t want to hear.” Madrid-Branch reminds us, “Our truth is what frees us.”

Stereotyping birth parents is hurtful.

Jill Murphy also shared, point-blank, that based on her experience as a birth mom, “Being a pregnant teen doesn’t mean you’re slutty.” Birth parents are often stereotyped as young, poor, drug-addicts, who are sexually promiscuous. The issue is that people tend to degrade the birth parents and elevate the adoptive parents as the saviors, superheroes, or saints. Adoptive parents are often praised for “rescuing” a child “in need of a good and loving home.” We need to remember that birth parents are the child’s first parents. They deserve respect, and there’s no need to compare adoptive and birth parents. (Plus, the comparisons are usually based on stereotypes—not the individual facts of any situation.)

Transracial adoptees need more.

Heba Freese, who was transracially and internationally adopted from Ethiopia, told me in an interview that in her experience, it’s hard to “fit in with the white kids since you are considered racially Black.” Additionally, it’s also difficult to fit in with the Black kids. Being adopted transracially, according to Freese, requires a “cultural assimilation” for the adoptee “to thrive” with their new family. The adoptive family cannot just love the child and think everything will be fine. Instead, they need to do all they can to regularly incorporate their child’s racial culture into their family life. Keia Jones-Baldwin, content creator at Raising Cultures, cuts to the chase. As a mom of four children, three of whom are adoptees, she wants hopeful adoptive and foster parents to know, “If you aren’t willing to put in the work to check your own biases, don’t adopt transracially.”

Adoptees need support.

Caroline J. Sumlin is an adoptee and former foster youth, as well as a writer and co-founder of Black Girl Voices. She shared with me in an interview that adoption is loss that causes “permanent, traumatic, psychological” life-long effects. For example, she struggles with “fear of abandonment.” When she faces gaslighting when she shares her experience and feelings, it can lead to “more trauma, shame, frustration, anger, and resentment.” She wants today’s adoptive and foster parents to take classes on adoption trauma, have a trauma-informed therapist on standby, and make sure they’re trained on their child’s cultural identity. Adoptees can find refuge in other adoptees, because “no one else will ever understand these deep wounds.” By having the proper support, adoptees may be able to “share openly and not feel so alone.”

Historically, National Adoption Awareness Month has centered adoptive parents and their beliefs about adoption, as well as the need for foster parents and adopting children who are legally free for adoption from the foster care system. Thankfully, this is changing to be more inclusive — and honest. More adoptees and birth parents are speaking up, using social media platforms to share their honest experiences with adoption. We need to listen and learn from them, creating an accurate understanding of adoption and honoring lived experiences.