By Kim Stevens and Anna Libertin, NACAC Staff
Pat O’Brien, founder of You Gotta Believe, has spent years working to convince audiences that our beliefs are the greatest barriers to lifelong families for every child and youth who enters care. Kim Stevens still remembers attending one of his trainings and seeing him write “afamilyisnowhere” on a flip chart. He asked the audience to read the phrase. Naturally, she read “a family is now here”—her oldest son was adopted when he was 15, so she was immersed in the notion of adolescent adoption. But many people around her read “a family is nowhere.” Now, as Stevens writes, trains, and consults on adoption issues—particularly for older youth—she thinks about that moment a lot. Our own beliefs, whether we are workers, potential parents, or youth can and will drive the process and, for good or for bad, often predict the outcome.
If you have the assignment to recruit families for older children and teens in foster care, you are likely to have encountered young people who say they don’t want to be adopted. How do you respond? First and foremost, you have to respond by believing that a permanent family is possible and that it matters for every child and teen. Your conviction that there is a family waiting for every child you work with is one of the most important ways you can help achieve successful outcomes for children. This enthusiasm is essential, especially for older youth. When you talk with a teen you need carefully crafted convincing: your language, your reasoning, and the ongoing conversation will be critical to getting youth excited and engaged.
There are a number of reasons why older youth would not want to participate in adoptive family recruitment. Understanding the “no” can help you develop responses that encourage youth to be engaged in their own permanency efforts.
- When they say: “People only want to adopt babies and young kids.”
- You can respond by telling the youth you work with that many prospective adopters who are older adults would rather offer their life experience to an older child or youth. You can also tell them about the many teens you know who have been adopted.
- When they say: “I would be better off being ‘on my own.'”
- You can respond by reminding youth that while adulthood legally starts at 18, you never outgrow a need for a home and a family. Everyone—regardless of age—needs people to lean on, celebrate with, and belong to. Seeking permanency means always having a place and a family to turn to. Tell them about your or others’ experiences needing a family after 18. If you know of any, tell them about young people who had been in care who were adopted in their 20s and 30s because they realized how much having a family matters.
- When they say; “If I’m adopted, I will be betraying my birth family. I will lose them.”
- You can respond by telling youth that when you’re adopted, you become a member of your adoptive family, but that doesn’t mean you have to lose your birth family. Explain to youth that many adoptions are open, which means that the adopted person is able to maintain their relationships with siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, parents, and others. Remind youth that your job is to work with them to find an adoptive family that wants to support the relationships that an adopted child wishes to grow and continue. And work to be sure that all of the adoptive families you serve understand the importance of these ongoing connections.
- When they say: “I’ve tried to be adopted before, and it was disrupted. This doesn’t work for me.” or “I don’t trust the system.”
- You can respond by allowing youth to express their feelings of loss, grief, and betrayal—especially in situations where a youth has experienced disruptions in the past. Validate these feelings and let the youth determine the pace of how they might share this information. Then, work with them to identify what went wrong, from their perspective. Think about how things could have worked out better and explore with them the ways that they can feel safe moving forward. Be sure to get them any professional help they need to address their past losses.
- When they say: “I don’t want to move again. I don’t want to start over.”
- You can respond by trying to explore permanency with the family that the youth is expressing a desire to stay with. After that option is exhausted, find out what it is about the family and the location that the youth enjoys so much, and work with them to identify those qualities in their profile. Help the youth see beyond the present to a future that involves unconditional belonging.
- When they say: “I don’t know how this works. No one has ever suggested adoption before.” or “What makes this any different from what I’ve already tried?”
- You can respond by spending some time explaining adoption and how it is different from foster care or group living. Use concrete examples of older youth who have found a permanent family through adoption, so that they may see why this route could benefit them.
Of course, these are deep, sometimes difficult conversations that will take time. Helping a young person move from reluctance to willingness to consider adoption requires patience, belief, commitment, and respect for their feelings and experiences. If you can engage the youth in their own permanency plan and recruitment strategies, they may be more willing to participate.
Above all, the best way to get an older child or youth excited and engaged in the process of finding permanency is to create opportunities where they can hear from other youth who have been adopted. These shared experiences, insights, and advice can help answer many of the youth’s questions and eliminate their fears of the unknown.