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 and...fun!
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.