November is National Adoption Month, a time to increase public awareness about children and youth in foster care and the need for adoptive parents. However, the public often hears two types of stories hyped in the media about foster care adoption: Either families adopt children and live happily ever after, or their lives end in tragedy. The reality for most families lies in between, but these extremes can discourage some parents from considering adoption, while others eagerly proceed, assuming love will be enough. Even for experienced parents, though, the trauma that children adopted from foster care may have experienced can present unique challenges. Further, some adoptive parents may also need support addressing the effects of their own trauma histories—and the help that is needed might not be available or adequate.
Child Trends’ 2009 analyses of the National Survey of Adoptive Parents (NSAP) yielded the first nationally representative data on the population of adopted children. Although groundbreaking, the NSAP relied on the perspectives of adoptive parents and was limited to children in intact adoptive families.
Almost a decade later, we still don’t know a lot about what happens to children after they are adopted, especially as they transition to adulthood. We do know that young people who age out of foster care often face challenges with employment, education, and mental health. And we hope that adoption leads to better outcomes by providing youth with legally permanent, loving parents who can provide support throughout childhood and the transition to adulthood. Still, we don’t know how often this is the case. Sometimes family members struggle and sometimes adoptions end—either legally or emotionally.
We know even less about why adoptions fail, or how to support adoptive families to prevent these relationships from ending. We need to better understand the diversity of adoptive families’ experiences, as well as these families’ strengths, challenges, and needs. Like many parents by birth, some adoptive parents may breeze through their child’s early years to face seemingly insurmountable hurdles during the child’s adolescence. Others may need intensive services for their child during the first few months after the adoption is finalized, while others still may have ongoing or periodic needs for support. Even the most loving and supportive families may require extra help and support.
Two Child Trends studies are exploring adoption experiences from the perspective of young adults adopted from foster care as children. Our work aligns with this year’s theme for National Adoption Month: “In Their Own Words: Lifting up Youth Voices.” In our studies, extensive in-person interviews allow young adults to provide details about their personal experiences, including challenges they may have faced and family supports and interventions that could have made a difference. Findings from both studies—one focused on young adults adopted throughout the nation via the Wendy’s Wonderful Kids adoption recruitment program, and the other focused on young adults adopted from foster care in North Carolina—will be available in 2019. Funding for the studies comes from the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption and The Duke Endowment.
With this research and future studies, we will no longer have to wonder what it takes for young people to thrive and for adoptive families to succeed.