Progress toward a lifetime commitment to permanence has stagnated over the past decade at just under three-fourths of those children and youth in care. The reunification rate has slipped from 53 percent to 51 percent. Adoptions have stayed the same at 21 percent, according to the latest AFCARS report. The remaining 28 percent of children leaving temporary care are either under legal guardianship, staying with kin, or emancipated to what has euphemistically been called “independent living.”
Adding to the problem is a national shortage of foster homes. Although general scarcity varies by state and county, foster homes for special populations are in universal demand. Homes are needed for sibling groups, minorities, and health-challenged children. The availability of homes, temporary or permanent, is most desperate of all for teens.
Clearly we must continue to work as promptly and effectively as we are able for reunification or adoption. But what else can we do when our efforts to focus on reunification and adoption fall short? Perhaps it is time to rethink our initial approach to permanency for these youngsters.
You Gotta Believe in New York has successfully reversed the usual parent-recruitment process. Instead of finding a home for the older child, they start by asking the child for names of adults that he already gets along with, in whose presence he feels comfortable, maybe even happy. Who might that be? Perhaps an aunt or uncle, teacher, neighbor, parents of a childhood friend, coach, probation officer, caseworker, minister, mentor, anyone with whom the child feels an attachment. Then they contact that person and tell them that Johnny or Sally likes them, and invite the person to come by the office to discuss how to be of further help.
Attachment is a general term that refers to the many situations where we relate and connect to one another. Attachments are ubiquitous. All relationships begin with an attachment. Encourage the connection.
As that attachment becomes more secure and necessary, bonding may result. Bonding occurs naturally over time by sharing important events in daily life. Bonding has been defined as “a significant reciprocal attachment which both parties want and expect to continue, and which is interrupted or terminated at increased peril to the parties involved.”
Suppose the relationship does not lead to a formal adoption. Nothing is lost. The connection is what it is and still may last a lifetime. Couples today are remaining together for years without the formality of marriage. A significant attachment (bonding) might even be seen as an informal adoption.
How might the attaching adult and child come together after foster care? Each situation will be unique. An uncle might begin by visiting the foster home intermittently. When the child is about to age out of the system, the uncle might help with finding housing or a job. A young woman might develop a close friendship with a girlfriend while in school. The woman might get to know the whole family and continue to be included in all their holiday and family celebrations.
The desired and necessary outcome is lifetime support for every child. Nothing is lost in our pursuit of permanence by starting with an already existing attachment. If we fail to achieve a formal lifetime commitment, the intensity and lastingness of the informal relationship may surprise.