Traumatizing kids is not okay — not at the border and not in foster care

Traumatizing kids is not okay — not at the border and not in foster care
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America’s overburdened foster care system is failing the very children it’s intended to protect from neglect and abuse. The numbers are sobering: 437,465 kids languish in foster care, and of these 117,794 are waiting to be adopted. According to The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACES) these traumatized kids will likely struggle with lifelong issues such as depression, addiction, criminal behavior and suicide.

Innovation is critical to stem this growing crisis and revamp the child welfare system — before thousands more children suffer the ill effects of long-term fostering. One solution is already available but remains underused: proactively planning an open adoption.

Open adoption offers struggling parents a way to keep their child out of foster care, and stay actively involved in their life. This proven, progressive model also costs taxpayers nothing and could save governments millions of dollars annually.


Consider Sharene who was shuffled between 40 foster homes as a child. Due to the impact of this trauma, as an adult Sharene’s two daughters were removed and entered foster care. When she became pregnant again, she wanted a different outcome. She placed her son in an open adoption, a choice that enabled her to choose, meet and form an ongoing, extended family relationship and legally protected visits with the adoptive family.

“I wanted my child to have a good life,” she said, explaining why she reached out to the adoption agency where I serve as executive director. “I can still try to be his mom as best I can.” She and her son’s adoptive parents now enjoy a genuine friendship.

Their close family connection inspired the adoptive parents to also adopt Sharene’s daughters when they were removed from foster care due to neglect. Now her three children are together, she visits them often and has an honored role in their lives. Sharene tells us this is a process in which she feels heard, valued and respected. 

Unfortunately, the foster care system often operates under a shame-based approach that stigmatizes parents like Sharene and defines them by their limitations. States typically offer parents only two choices: reunify with their child after completing mandated requirements, or relinquish their parental rights (voluntarily or involuntarily) in a state adoption.

Both paths are lengthy and complex, and turn the parents and the state into adversaries in a battle over whether the parents will win back or lose custody. Reunification is typically viewed as the only success (regardless of the odds against it, or the cost to the child as they languish in foster care), while adoption is viewed as a failure.

In state adoptions, the mom doesn’t choose the family and has no ongoing relationship support. The adoptive parents ultimately determine how involved, if at all, the birthmom will be in the child’s life, even if the contact agreement is mediated and called an “open adoption.”

The National Pro-choice Adoption Collaborative (NPAC) created core tenets necessary for an open adoption to truly thrive.  

These include offering unbiased, all-options pregnancy counseling; honoring diversity; creating fully open adoptions based on an extended family model; and providing lifelong counseling and relationship guidance. Family preservation is achieved by adding family and supports.

A high-integrity open adoption offers struggling parents a third path that embodies candor, compassion and inclusion. It redefines what adoption can and should be: a process of entrustment that puts the child’s needs at its center. In genuine open adoptions, the expectant parents and adoptive parents form a close and lasting friendship much like an extended family.

This heartfelt process replaces secrecy with transparency, separation with lifelong relationships and shame with transformation. This is the model for America’s next era of adoption.

NPAC is advocating for state child welfare programs to offer the option of planning an open adoption to struggling families.

At-risk parents have a right to be fully informed about all of their options: reunification with their child, a state adoption where future contact with their child is uncertain, or a truly open adoption where the birth parents are an integral part of their child’s life.

After decades of working with moms like Sharene, we know America can do better than the current overwhelmed child welfare system. NPAC’s innovative, nonprofit agencies have successfully practiced open adoptions for more than three decades. It’s time to apply this humane, progressive approach to solve our foster care crisis. 

By Shari Levine is the executive director of Open Adoption & Family Services. Dawn Smith-Pliner is the executive director of Friends in Adoption.