When my wife Gabrielle and I first decided to adopt from foster care, we agreed on a rule for ourselves: we would welcome children of any age, as long as that child wasn’t so old that we couldn’t have biologically been his or her parents. In other words, we wanted an age gap of at least fifteen years or so, which we felt was fair and understandable.
And then our first child turns out to be a thirteen-year-old boy. I’m twenty-five, so that leaves us with an age gap of eleven years, seven months, and twenty-one days. My child came into the world while I was enjoying the summer between fifth and sixth grade. On the day he took his first breath, I attended my first Kansas City Royals game.
We fell a good three and a half years short of our intended age gap. So what happened?
Suffice it to say that pretty much every plan we made for our future children didn’t end up happening, for one reason or another. At first we thought we would have a mix of biological and adoptive kids. Then we decided to only adopt and do so by privately adopting babies. And after that our intention shifted to being a temporary home for children in foster care who hope to one day be reunited with their biological parents. But wait, hold up; that plan got interrupted by our crazy idea of adopting a sibling set of five kids. When that didn’t work out, we returned to working on our foster care license so we could take in a sibling set of three boys who might someday be in need of an adoptive home. That was our plan the day we were approached about a certain thirteen-year-old boy.
I first met him in March of 2017, when we were just finishing up our foster care classes; Gabrielle met him later that summer. He was a great kid and I liked him right away. In fact, after my initial interaction with him, I told Gabrielle that I’d met a boy in foster care who was just like the kind of boy I’d like to adopt in the future. In August, Gabrielle and I agreed that we’d love to adopt a son just like him someday. We didn’t mean that we were going to adopt him specifically, as that wasn’t even a possibility at that point; we simply meant that a kid like him was who we saw ourselves adopting someday. I can still barely believe what happened next.
Seriously, less than three weeks later, we were informed that this boy needed a new place to live and were specifically asked if we would take him in. I was flabbergasted, but I knew even before the conversation was over that my answer was an overwhelming yes. So was Gabrielle’s. However, we were told to take some time to talk it over and pray about it before answering. We went to Walmart to pick up some groceries and then texted that we were in. To be honest, we didn’t even pray about it. We didn’t have to.
A week later he moved in, and that’s how we became instant parents to a teenager.
Now, back to the question of what happened to our intended age gap. What happened was basically that our perspective on foster care shifted from a plan for our future to real people here and now. It wasn’t just that some kid somewhere needed a home; it was that a real kid in my own community who I already knew and cared for deeply needed a home. Raising a teenager in my twenties was never the plan, until it was a teenager I already loved; then it couldn’t not be the plan. Putting flesh and blood on our abstract concepts tends to drastically shift the way we think about them.
These nine months of raising a teenager have been completely worth it. There are some difficult things, of course. I don’t have any baby pictures of my child and I don’t know a whole lot about his early development and there are a lot of values we don’t share that lead to a good deal of conflicts. But also he’s potty-trained, he sleeps through the night, he bathes himself, he can tie his own shoes, and he can join us in fun activities like camping and going to football games and riding roller coasters at Worlds of Fun.
Yeah, our family looks a little different than most. Usually people think he’s my brother or my college roommate rather than my son. But that’s okay. What matters is not what others think about what we’re doing, but what we’re actually doing. And when it comes down to it, what we’re actually doing is building a family. For us, we’re gaining a son, someone we can delight in and show unconditional love to on a daily basis. And for him, he’s gaining a forever family, parents (and grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins) to be there for him for the rest of his life, no matter what.
Don’t get me wrong: this lifestyle is no cakewalk. There are days that are so exhausting, so stressful, so infuriating, so intense that when I lay down to sleep at night I wonder why I ever wanted to get involved in foster care and adoption in the first place. It would have been so much easier to just…not.
On those days, though, it doesn’t take much to remind me why I keep going. Every year, 23,000 foster children (who were never adopted) turn eighteen and are released from the foster care system. Of those 23,000, 20% (one in five!) will instantly become homeless. Only half of these newly minted adults will ever be gainfully employed by the time they’re twenty-four. It is seventeen times more likely that someone who has aged out of foster care will develop a substance dependence than graduate college. And nearly 60% of young men who age out of foster care will be convicted of a crime at some point in their lives.
The world is not a safe place for kids growing up in foster care. No matter how draining or disruptive or irritating or even scary it can be to adopt a teenager from foster care, it’s worth it because I love my son too much to let him face a cruel world alone. I don’t know how involved he’ll want me to be once he turns eighteen and I can’t really control any of that. At the very least, though, I want him to know that he has a family he can turn to and loved ones in his corner.
He will not become another statistic.
There are a bunch of teenagers in your community and state looking for adoptive homes. You can help one of them radically change the narrative of their future. We don’t have to helplessly bemoan how tragic those stats are about kids who age out of foster care–we can do something very concrete and powerful about it now!
It’s totally okay if doing something like that is just out of the question for your situation. I get that! But don’t underestimate the impact you can still make, even if you aren’t able to take in a teenager. These kids are all of our responsibility to care for, so everyone can play a role, big or small. We need you too. Stay tuned for another post about how to do this!
Stats in this post were taken from here: https://www.nfyi.org/51-useful-aging-out-of-foster-care-statistics-social-race-media/