By: Tori Petersen, foster care advocate and former foster youth
As a youth in foster care, I attended an annual hearing. The court dates started when I first went into care at 12 years old. It became easier to predict what the caseworkers, lawyers, and judges would determine without me having any say. After all, I was just “a ward of the state.” If offered a voice in my own case plan I would have expressed that I wanted to be adopted, even as a teenager, but my intuition told me there wasn’t a chance. Though I would have been considered a young adult, there were few decisions I could weigh in on while in the foster care system. I stood in court afraid. A lump filled my throat as I held tears tightly in my eyes as they told me I was "unadoptable."
In foster care, a different plan is determined for each youth. The majority of children reunify with their parents or are eventually adopted into a family to call their own. However, the foster care system where I grew up labels approximately one-fifth of youth in care as unadoptable under a case plan called Permanent Placement Living Arrangement (PPLA).
Under a PPLA, a child is placed in permanent and legal custody of an agency and must be placed in the care of a foster care provider, person, or agency, but the biological parent’s rights are not terminated. Though the definition of a PPLA does not technically label youth as unadoptable, the judges and caseworkers declared me as such in the court hearings each year. No child should ever be deemed unadoptable, because every child deserves to be a part of a loving family. I wasn’t only deemed unadoptable, but my mother who abused me retained parental rights. I couldn’t live with her ever again because her mental illness manifested in severe beatings and drug use. I could not be reunified with any biological family because abuse and neglect were still a high risk.
My mom refused to terminate her parental rights, and foster parents feared the threats she made toward them if they adopted me. Most foster parents said even if my mom did terminate her rights, they wouldn’t want to take on the financial responsibility of adoption. While in foster care, I simultaneously belonged to the system that called me a liar when I reported abuse occurring in foster homes. Caseworkers mandated strict rules that isolated me as an adolescent because county workers did not want to be held liable or be sued by my biological mother if “anything happened to me.”
Foster Youth and Parents Should Be Educated on Education Opportunities
On top of my biological mom retaining her rights, another reason I was considered unadoptable was because of the financial responsibility. “Tori, you’ll go to college in 4 years and if we don’t adopt you, you will get your college paid for by the government,” foster parents would say. If this is true, then we are making vulnerable teenagers choose between a forever family or an education and then encouraging them to choose education, though family is the bedrock of our humanity and country.
Though the excuse felt understandable at the time, I’ve learned the reasoning was not true. Students who are/were in foster care, who aged out of care, or who were adopted out of care after reaching the age of 13 may be considered “independent students” for the purpose of the Free Application for the Purpose of Federal Aid (FAFSA). This aid may qualify these youth for a variety of financial resources.
After receiving my first acceptance letter from one of the various colleges I applied for, I scheduled a financial aid meeting. I sat across from the financial aid officer as she explained to me how much I would have left to pay out of my own pocket even though I qualified for so much government funding—the same amount of funding I would have qualified for if I would have been adopted after age 13.
Permanency for Youth Is Critically Important
When vulnerable youth are considered unadoptable, they fall through the cracks and lose the potential to become future leaders in our society, and young people don’t have the chance to gain what everyone should have—a family. Youth aging out of foster care are at high risk for becoming homeless during the transition to adulthood. In one study, between 31 and 46 percent of study participants had been homeless at least once by age 26 years. At age 26, less than half were currently employed. Compared with their peers, youth who aged out of care were less likely at age 26 to report income from employment and those who did have employment income earned significantly less than their peers who were not involved with the foster care system.
I emancipated out of the foster care system the day I turned 18 with no forever family. Thankfully, my track coach and his family saw the value in offering me stability, security, and love and adopted me as an adult. My last name changed to my new family’s last name, and their home became mine. Teenage adoptions are rare, and adult adoptions are even more so, but young adults need family as much as anyone else.
Because of my track coach's willingness to open his home and welcome me into his family, I had a place to come home to during college breaks. Unlike many youth who emancipated from care, I never spent a Christmas alone or without thoughtful presents underneath a tree, just for me. I had a father to walk me down the aisle, and now my son has another upstanding man and role model to call “grandpa.”
Permanency and stability are crucial to a young person's development at any stage—from toddler to teenager. There should be no such thing as unadoptable, otherwise we will have to ask ourselves, “How much more potential are we willing to lose?”