ENID — With a continued shortage of foster and adoptive families, Oklahoma Department of Human Services is asking families to consider whether they might be a good match for a child in need.
DHS communications manager Casey White said currently, there are more than 9,000 children in some form of DHS custody.
The majority of those children are in foster care, trial adoptive placement, group homes, inpatient care or trial reunification with their birth families.
But there remain more than 600 children in Oklahoma who cannot return to their birth families, and who are eligible and waiting for adoption. That currently includes 13 children in Garfield County, nine in Blaine County, four in Woods County and one each in Alfalfa and Major counties.
The child’s path
White said the length of time children wait in foster or group home care before being eligible for adoption varies significantly, “because the initial process for most of these kids to be adopted is for their parents’ rights to be terminated.”
She said most children in DHS custody enter the system through the often traumatic process of being removed from their home by law enforcement due to abuse, neglect or other crimes committed by their parents.
“The majority are taken from the home either due to domestic violence, substance abuse or neglect or abuse,” White said. “That’s what we see most often.”
More than 15,000 Oklahoma children were substantiated to be victims of abuse or neglect in 2016, according to DHS figures.
For those who are removed from their homes, the first stop often is a foster family or emergency shelter.
“For the most part, we’re going to try to get that kid into a foster home immediately,” White said. “Our workers who do that work are on an on-call rotation and will call available foster homes for placement overnight.”
But, White said, a shortage of foster homes often delays that process.
“Sometimes if we can’t find a foster family, you’ll see workers in their office all night, calling every foster family they can find to find placement,” she said.
When a foster home isn’t available, the alternative is moving the child to an emergency shelter, which may be in a different part of the state from their home.
White said the preferred option is to work with the birth family to enact a remediation plan and eventually place the child back with his or her parents.
“Really, what we want to do is get kids reunited back with their families,” White said, “and sometimes families just need some help to get to the other side.”
If that’s not possible, then DHS begins work to find an adoptive placement for the child after the parents’ rights are terminated or surrendered.
The family’s path
The first stop for a family considering adoption is OKFosters.org, where they can obtain information on qualifications and request a packet of information be sent to them.
If they desire to proceed, White said the family can obtain help from DHS in completing the foster and adoption application paperwork. She said the application and approval process is the same for fostering and adoption.
Prospective adoptive parents must undergo a background check, which excludes those convicted of sex crimes and certain felonies.
Following the background check, prospective parents must complete a 27-hour training seminar, which covers “the majority of the information they need to successfully become foster parents and adoptive parents,” White said.
DHS conducts follow-up interviews and assessments with families that successfully complete the training, and from there the family and DHS work to identify the types of children that would fit into the family.
White said some families may be put off by the perception that the application process is arduous, “but we just try to make it as easy as possible and find something that will work best for them.”
She said it typically takes 60 to 90 days for prospective parents to complete the foster care certification. For families seeking adoption, the process from there is longer, as DHS, the child and family work together to identify an appropriate match.
“It could take a little more time for families to be matched (in adoption),” White said. “That’s a forever placement, and you need to make sure the prospective adoptive family and the prospective adopted child are a good match.”
White said DHS covers the administrative and legal costs associated with adoption through the state system and will help families connect with nonprofits, if needed, that can help with the cost of outfitting the home with clothing, furniture and other essentials for the child.
Children over the age of 12 must consent to a placement, and White said DHS case workers will consider the placement desires of younger children.
Once a prospective family is identified, the family and child begin a six-month trial period, beginning with day visits and working up to overnight stays and living in the home.
While DHS continues to streamline the adoption process, shortages for adoptive families persist, especially for teenagers, children with special needs and sibling groups.
“I think when people think of adoption, they think of little kids or babies,” White said. “The reality of that is most of the really young kids available for adoption are going to be in sibling groups.”
She said it’s hard to find a family willing and able to adopt sibling groups of two or three children, let alone sibling groups that number as many as eight, and DHS works to keep siblings together, as much as possible.
“A lot of times a child’s brother or sister may have been the only constant presence in their lives,” White said, “and when we’re able to keep them together, that helps them adjust better to their surroundings.”
Families also are less likely to adopt teenagers, or sibling groups including teenagers.
“I think people are intimidated by teens,” White said. “The reality of it is when teens have stability, most are able to finish high school and go on to post-secondary education, and they’re able to move on to productive, positive adulthood. There are challenges to teens, but it’s also really rewarding for families who are willing to give them a chance and help them prepare to navigate adulthood.”
Families also may be dissuaded from fostering and adopting because of the stigma surrounding circumstances under which children are removed from their birth families.
White said ongoing support is provided to help foster and adopted children work through any trauma they’ve experienced, but what they need most in their new environment is love and understanding.
“I think if people would sit down with foster and adopted kids they would see they’re just kids, like anybody else,” White said. “They just want to be loved and accepted, and they came into custody by no fault of their own.”
Providing that network of love and acceptance requires effort by more than just the adoptive family and extends to the family’s community, White said.
“We would just hope people in the community would surround our adoptive and foster families with love,” she said, “and show a little grace to kids who’ve gone through some things most people would never even think of happening to them.”
White said the hardest children to match with adoptive families are those with special needs or serious illnesses.
“All children, regardless of what their needs are, deserve to be in a loving home,” White said. “Unfortunately a lot of our kiddos with special needs end up remaining in residential care or group homes because it is hard to find families who are willing to take on a child with special needs.”
White said DHS provides ongoing support, specialized staff, referrals to medical professionals, resources for specialized services and full medical coverage under Medicaid to assist adoptive families overcome any challenges their adopted children may face.
While raising any child comes with challenges, White said adoptive and foster families regularly report receiving far more than they give.
“A lot of families who do foster care or adoption will tell you they get more out of it than the kids,” White said. “It can be a really rewarding experience with opportunities for growth in the family, and the opportunity to help a kid prepare for life.”
With the holiday season in full swing, White said DHS is hoping to engage more families, to answer their questions and help them determine if fostering or adopting a child in need would be a good fit for them.
“Especially at this time of year,” White said, “when families are thinking about the holidays and togetherness, we hope more families will consider fostering and adopting kids in need.”