Friday, February 26, 2010

Adoption Isolation

Sometimes I have the sense that adopting a teenager is so unusual, it makes us a social oddity and a subject of speculation. I had a breakfast meeting this morning, and a client asked the inevitable "do you have kids?". I said yes; he said, how old?; I said 16; he said he was suprised; I said, we just adopted him, and then....well, you know how it goes. The conversation kind of dies while the other person tries to figure out how to make sense of what you just said. Awkward.

Life in a fishbowl makes me acutely aware of what I call adoption isolation: the feeling that you're in uncharted territory and while everyone seems to have an opinion, very few actually have any idea what older child foster-adoption is really about.

We're a biracial family now, and the difference in our physical appearance is probably one factor that gives people pause, but the predominant reaction is to T.'s age and, secondarily, to the fact that ours is an open adoption, meaning we know and spend time with his relatives.

People ask us outright all the time why we would ever want to adopt a teenager. I tell them teenagers still need parents. There are 12,000 kids in long-term foster care in Los Angeles, and 7,000 of them are over the age of 12. Of all the kids adopted out of foster care in LA over a ten-year period, only 3% were T.'s age or older. One in three kids in long-term foster care who "age out" end up homeless. One in five end up in prison within two years of leaving foster care. T. knew all that and he spent two years searching for adoptive parents against the odds, going to adoption fairs and trying his painful best to make a good impression on strangers in the hope they'd rescue him from the odds.

Kids in long-term foster care who can't return to their birth families need parents. Is that really so hard to understand? Even though they aren't "little" anymore, they are still children - they can't work, they don't have the full cognitive capability necessary to make adult decisions, they are vulnerable and malleable. They want, need and deserve protection and guidance. They aren't gross; they aren't damaged beyond repair. They have special needs, and satifsying those needs can be really profound!

Those who don't balk at the idea of adopting a teenager balk at our choice to be in contact with his birth relatives. I believe in the merits of open adoption, particularly for older kids. It's very difficult - there are enormously complex issues of divided loyalty, unresolved trauma and loss, cultural differences and more. T's birth mom probably hates me, but we talk. We do our best, so he can integrate his past and present. I want the stability we provide him to be a home base from which he can explore his feelings about his birth family and understand where he came from and make sense of his history. But the idea of a family that combines blood and adoptive ties confounds people more than I expected.

Here are a few other juicy questions we commonly field:

Why would you want to adopt a teenager?
Read: Teenagers are gross.

What happened to his family?
Read: There must be a sordid story here and I want to hear it.

What do you call yourselves? Foster parents? Adoptive parents? (This from his school counsellor, prompting me to reply "We call ourselves parents" in my best don't-fuck-with-me tone of voice that made T. laugh with delight.)
Read: You're not his real family.

On some level, I probably like to be different, to make unusual life choices - and I know I have to accept that doing so implies some degree of self-isolation. But if I were advising someone else who wanted to foster/adopt an older kid, I'd tell them to get ready for a lot of intrusive questions and grow a thick skin. And I'd tell them to seek out other adoptive parents of older kids, because some days it feels like there are three other people on the planet who understand that this is just another way to be a family, and that parenting is parenting, no matter where the kid comes from.


SocialWrkr24/7 said...

Just dropped by because I noticed you were following my blog - and I am SO glad I did! I am sooo glad to read accounts of people adopting older kids/teens from foster care! They so desperately need families! Not sure if you've read her blog - but Yondalla at is a great wealth of info on parenting teens in care. Thought I'd pass her link along to you! Keep up the great job! :)

marythemom said...

Maybe because my kids are the same race we don't get too much hassle. I also look young, but I'm an extrovert and I actually like the attention.

It was a little more confusing before the adoption was finalized; the kids had different last names, and when my oldest was in residential treatment we technically had no rights at all because he was still a foster child so we didn't have custody.

I don't know if I would recommend adopting teens if it hadn't been for you! I wish there were more places to go for good advice on parenting adopted teens.

Mary in TX

Gab said...

I'm reminded of the Andy Kaufman act where he said he adopted 3 kids, and the punchline is that they are black adults. I know they were adults, and not teenagers like T., but it was the most absurd, shocking thing Andy Kaufman could think of. That says something.

The responses you get also say something about the preconceptions T. himself faces as a young black man with a complicated family. So maybe you can use this.

I return to your blog because it makes me so happy to read about how your family has come together. It might be hard for people to wrap their minds around, but once they do, I can't imagine anyone being anything less than thrilled for you.

TTBoot said...

I just found you blog thx to SocialWrk 24/7. I've been searching for blogs on foster teens (I already follow Yondalla), but there seems to be few. Tho I am licensed to foster kids 6-21, I prefer to foster teens, specifically teen boys 16 and up. Most people think I'm strange to WANT to foster teens and my general response is "They can dress themselves, they're for the most part housebroken, and I can leave them alone for a few hours" I can soooo relate to your post relate to your adoption (or in my case foster care) isolation.

BTW, my foster sons are 16 and 19 (the 19 yo is still in the system volunteeringly. Tho I get little support from DSS for him, I have made a committment to him)

Bryna said...

This is a great post and I also found it thru SocialWrk 24/7. The post made me sad but I was also so glad to know there are foster parents out there making a difference in the lives of older children and teens. My partner and I hope to get to a point eventually, when we're a little older, that we can foster teenagers - She has experience working with teens who were aging out of foster care and has a way with difficult teen boys. I, on the other hand, am a bit terrified of them... but I can see that changing slowly as I get older and away from my own teenage years!

Maggie said...

I've loved reading your thoughts. My husband and I are also foster parents - blogging at
I'm so looking forward to following your story - I love reading about other people with the same passion for foster care and adoption.

Lulu McCabe said...

SocialWrkr: Thanks so much for introducing me to pflagfostermom!

Gab: So true. Our landlords initially tried to stir up trouble when we told them T. was moving in, and referred to him as an "adult roommate". He's quite tall, but it was clear their difficulty imaging us as a family also had to do with race. After we demonstrated our knowlege of the applicable laws - and now that they see how we've melded as a family - they're a little sheepish but it was appalling and a wake-up call in terms of what T. faces as a young black man. Thanks so much for your support.

Bryna: I really recommend it! Teenage boys are often so much softer and more receptive than they seem at first.

TTBoot: Hooray! So happy to meet you!

Mary: Thanks for being my blogger friend. I really appreciate your words of encouragement the past few months.

Maggie: Can't wait to check out your blog!

Anonymous said...

I know when we first brought our boys home I used to be surprised by people's responses to our family. Like you, I thought "They need parents. We wanted kids. What's the big deal?" Six years, 9 hospitalizations, 2 trips to residential and a suicide attempt later, I can see why our family shocks people. But, it doesnt change the fact that we are a family. And that took some effort!

When we started with our kids, none of the big red flags were a big deal to me. I was blind to all of it. And I am glad. Because I do believe that regardless of what happens, our kids are better off with us than without us. And no matter what happens, we are a family.

Take good care!
Advocate Mom

Anonymous said...

For you and any readErs feeling isolated, an awesome resource is You Gotta Believe out of NYC. From their websitE you can download dozens of back episodes of their radio show. It features teens, parents and experts all discussing adoption of teens and Tweens.

Library Cat said...

I know what you mean. It seems like everyone just wants to adopt babies! I just got back from my parenting class and the looks on the other parents faces when I said we wanted to originally adopt kids in the 5-10 range... but we went up to 13 now. (Actually I also have looked into 15 year olds as well). We changed our minds because there was a sibling group and we thought they sounded like a good fit. There was only ONE other person willing to adopt a teenager. Not everyone, but a few talked about older kids like they were broken or something and it hurt my heart. Heck! During a small group session that talked about sexual abuse in children, one of the dudes who was there told me quietly: "I would worry about a boy who was 13 years old in my house... I mean he would be easily able to overpower and rape my wife." He gave me a meaningful look. Me and the other guy in the group sort of quieted down, I probably had the most pissed off face ever.

Lulu McCabe said...

Hey, Libraray Cat. Yes, exactly! Your comment is so like our experience, though things have settled a bit the longer we've been with T. It's that assumption that older kids are broken that is most painful, I agree. Particularly so since so many of them are real survivors and optimists, hoping for a permanent family and a chance at a stable life. The stigma of being an older child in foster care seems crushing sometimes.

Judeee39 said...

ok, where do we start? How do we find a family that fits, I wouldn't mind the 17, 18 year old either. Kids need a family, support and just plain ole mom and dad (or ole lady and ole man, lol)

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