California Adoption -- Why Is It So Hard to Adopt From Foster Care?

When James and his wife Stephanie, an attorney and bank compliance officer, decided in early 2009 to adopt a daughter through foster care, he assumed it would be pretty easy. James was wrong.
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Son in bathtub -- "Daddy look at me, I'm a chocolate milkshake with whipped cream (suds) on top, do you want to put a straw in me and drink me up!?!? " TEARS OF LAUGHTER!!!! :-)

That was a recent Facebook post by James Higgins, child advocate, adoptive father of two young children, and stay-at-home dad, or as he describes it, "The President and CEO of Chocolaty Niblets, Inc."

Clearly, the man enjoys fatherhood.

When James and his wife Stephanie, an attorney and bank compliance officer, decided in early 2009 to adopt a daughter through foster care, he assumed it would be pretty easy. After all, there are 68,000 children in foster care in California. Over a quarter of these children are African American, four times their proportion of the general population. James worked at a San Diego nonprofit that trains Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASAs) to protect the best interests of foster children. James assumed that as a two-parent black family, a child advocate and an attorney, a couple who had already became parents to a son through a private adoption, California's child welfare system would welcome them with open arms.

James was wrong.

The entire process, from application to finalization took almost two years. The problem was not the private agency they worked with. James raves about how responsive they were. For James and Stephanie, their experience with California's public agencies is where the adoption process became a story of frustration, unreturned calls, and irrational bureaucracy. It took over a year before they were even considered for a waiting child. Their struggle presents a case study in the obstacles that face anyone trying to adopt a child from a public agency in California:

California's budget crisis -- As a result of the huge shortfall in California's budget, the state cut $121 million from child welfare services, including $80 million for county child welfare services. Phone calls to county adoption offices that used to take weeks to be returned were not returned at all.

Difficulty in adopting across county lines -- California is one of about 10 states that have a state-supervised, and county-administered approach to foster care. Each one of California's 58 counties is largely self-contained. In a county-administered system, each county's goal is to find families interested in adopting their kids. The same dynamic that makes interstate adoption rare also serves to discourage adoptions across county lines. In this system, it is rational behavior for San Diego County to keep a family (such as James') waiting for two years rather than adopting a child from neighboring Orange County tomorrow.

California is not actively recruiting families for children -- According to the North American Council on Adoptable Children, there are 20,832 foster children in California waiting to be adopted. Go to the website that lists California's children in foster care who are available for adoption. Click on "Find a Child" and you will discover that there are only 216 children in the entire state of California currently listed on the state's directory of waiting children. 216.

I'll do the math for you. 20,832 waiting children divided by 216 children listed means that for every child listed in the directory, there are 95 children who need permanent, loving adoptive families and are not listed. Is it any wonder that in 2007, over 5,000 children in California "aged out" of foster care without a permanent, legal family.

How would James and his wife even find out about any of these children who are not listed?

But James is a ferocious advocate. He made call after call, argued, cajoled, and held the system accountable. In January of this year, James and Stephanie finalized the adoption of a beautiful little girl that James describes as "a pure blessing to our family." The only reason James and Stephanie were able to adopt is that they went through a private agency, one with a state license and a handful of offices throughout California. Had they gone to their county program they would have been limited to San Diego County and still be waiting.

Many parents trying to adopt children from foster care wait far longer than James and Stephanie did. In the greater scheme of things, the two years it took is not a long time.

Unless, of course, you are a hurt child waiting for a loving family.

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