Sitting across the coffee table from me, a young woman – adopted as a child out of foster care – shared her experiences. She had achieved incredible success in life, a college degree, with a master’s degree forthcoming. Yet the overriding emotions she described were feelings of loss and confusion after being adopted.
Unanswered questions had lingered in her mind for years, causing pain. Why did the court terminate the rights of her birth mother and prevent her from ever seeing her mother again? Why wasn’t she allowed to give input into the decision to terminate her mother’s rights? Why was she placed with a white family – even though she was black? Could more have been done to prevent her from being separated from her family?
The uncertainties poured out of her mind. As we talked, she made clear that she was not alone – so many kids adopted out of foster care shared her doubts. Many addressed their pain by connecting with their birth families through social media. Or self-medicating.
Every year, thousands of children exit the foster care system through adoptions. Balloons are launched. Cakes are eaten. Applauses are heard. Smiles are displayed. We publicly celebrate success during annual Adoption Days.
In our minds, we have achieved a final, permanent, happy outcome for these children. Case closed. And for many kids, it is a day to celebrate.
Yet, for other kids, our celebration might not match their reality. Adoption reflects a tremendous loss in their lives. Children may never again see their birth parents, siblings and relatives. They might lose their friends, communities and schools. They might be stripped of their racial and cultural identity. Even their birth certificates and names might be changed.
During my coffee, one thought kept entering my mind. As a system, do we do enough to hear the voices of these children, either before or after they are cut off from their families? Have we learned how these children experience the termination of their parent’s rights? At what point do we even inquire whether these kids would prefer to continue having a relationship with their birth families, even if their parents can’t care for them?
We could force systems to do this. For example, we could require a court to consider a child’s opinion about the termination of their parent’s rights before a final decision is made. We could mandate that children have a client-directed lawyer in every one of those proceedings. We could pass laws that instruct courts to consider less drastic alternatives, such as a guardianship or custody agreement, prior to taking the severe step of terminating parental rights. We could incentivize states to offer subsidies for other less drastic forms of permanency at the same level as adoption subsidies.
These suggestions all revolve around a basic point – that before courts take the dramatic step of permanently ending a child’s relationship with their birth family, they should ensure that the decision makes sense for the specific child before them. At a minimum, this must include hearing the child’s voice, and considering other alternatives that might give the child a permanent home while also preserving important relationships.
And if we do need to terminate parental rights, kids deserve the opportunity to have someone carefully explain to them why it was absolutely necessary to take this step, why no other options existed, and what rights they might have to reconnect with their families if they choose to do so.
To those of you adopted out of the foster care system, share your voices. Tell us what worked and what didn’t. Let us listen and learn from you. Let your experiences and wisdom guide the creation of a new foster care system that prioritizes preserving and strengthening meaningful relationships over expediency and efficiency.
Vivek Sankaran is the director of the Child Advocacy Law Clinic and the Child Welfare Appellate Clinic at the University Michigan Law School. Follow him on Twitter at @vivekssankaran.