“And I could hear the system’s clock ticking. I knew that the older I got the less likely I would be adopted. Everyone wants cute. Everyone wants a blank slate. And as my case file began to overflow with problems, I could feel my value shift.” — Story of Tim McAdam* in America’s Youngest Hostages, (*name changed for privacy)
Tim was formally adopted at age 10. This puts him very close to the average age of Downey Side adoptees, just over 11 years old. The age of the children we find permanent families for is the most distinctive characteristic of the agency, it’s been our focus for over fifty years, ever since our first placement with Margaret Downey in 1967 of 17-year-old Brian Champoux. While we often hear people say, “they’re almost adults!”, we believe that the primary task of a young human being is to form relationships that will last until they are seniors, that’s called family. Everybody needs one.
Our approach is unique because the typical age of adoption in the US is less than 6 years old. In fact, 56% of adoptions from foster care are of children under 5. And of those children, two-thirds are 1, 2, and 3 years old. Past 3, there’s a steady decline in the number of children adopted. Exactly what Tim observed when he was placed almost twenty years ago. Nothing has changed. Today, 17-year-olds make up a paltry 1% of adoptees.
Preventing homelessness through relationship
So, while the odds of getting adopted decrease, the longer a child stays in foster care the chances of harmful long-term outcomes increase. Every year, over 20,000 children age out of foster care according to a study published by the National Institutes for Health prior to the pandemic, and the impact on them is dire. 20% become homeless immediately, 60% of young women wind up in the sex industry and 70% get pregnant before turning 21, less than 3% will earn a college degree while 25% will be incarcerated within 2 years. To say the odds are stacked against them is a massive understatement.
Not surprisingly, that story changes radically when kids are in loving permanent families. And being “permanent” is just a big a part of the story as “loving”. We’re not saying adopting teens and tweens is a walk in the park. But Downey Side makes sure from the outset that parents know they’re in it for the long haul. Sending kids back to foster care is devastating on children. Can you imagine what it does to their self worth when they think nobody can love them, ever?
While we go to great lengths to help families establish permanent relationships, occasionally families can’t go forward with the adoption. The technical term for this is “disruption”. At Downey Side our “disruption rate” hovers around 10% of all our placements. The national average is about 4 or 5 times higher, 40%-50%.
How does Downey Side do it?
Importantly, we don’t set up an expectation of failure—either for the parents or the kids. When parents are searching for kids, we won’t allow them to meet each other unless the parents are already committed. They aren’t shopping for shoes, after all.
Dashing kids’ expectations over and over again is part of what makes foster care so cruel and traumatizing. So we ensure the parents understand all the information provided by the authorities which invariably includes assessments of mental health issues. But even before it gets to that stage, we thoroughly check out parents. We trust our parents because we know them. Proper preparation helps most inappropriate applicants decide against proceeding.
Knowing people thoroughly is not the same a judging people
There is no such person as “the perfect parent”. And we don’t waste our time trying to find parents who fit some imaginary profile. Our procedures are preparatory not investigatory. We’re way too busy paying attention to the needs of the child. For us the child’s interests always come first. Once a child is placed, because we trust the parents, we can get out of their way as much as possible. Of course, we’re ready to help and give advice at any time, day or night.
Ordinarily, people don’t choose their family, their family chooses them. And still, family life gets messy, especially once kids hit their teens. And that will never change.
Yours for children,
Br. Terry Taffe, ofm Cap., MA, LMSW & Ian Keldoulis