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Manual of Articles Sections 15 - 28
In many jurisdictions, once a court ends reunification services to birthparents, children who are not already living with caregivers committed to adopting them are moved to foster-adoptive parents instead of waiting until termination of parental rights (TPR). These applicants have an approved adoption home study and a foster care license. In this way, the court can be reasonably assured that the child will be adopted and not become a "legal orphan." The children can experience earlier permanency than if they had to wait until TPR occurs and appeals are completed. This approach, although clearly beneficial in some ways, may present special challenges for children beyond toddlerhood and their new prospective adoptive families. This article explores the similarity and dissimilarity of this approach to foster-adoptive placement and concurrent planning. The emotional and psychological difficulties encountered by the children and their prospective adoptive parents as they deal with legal uncertainties that can arise are discussed. Clinical and policy recommendations are offered to help both children and families as well as the professionals who work with them in these situations.
The Federal Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980 highlighted permanency and continuity of relationships for children in informing case planning and practice (Lutz, 2001). The Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 (ASFA) went further by requiring states to achieve permanent placements for children in shorter time frames and by identifying what outcomes constitute successful permanency for children. ASFA also supports concurrent planning, the practice that allows social workers to simultaneously plan for more than one possible outcome. Section 103 instructs states to "concurrently…identify, recruit, process, and approve a qualified family for an adoption" while filing a TPR petition, and Section 201 encourages "programs that place children into preadoptive families without waiting for TPR."
Concurrent planning — with its emphasis on the use of permanent planning families who are carefully recruited, trained, and supported in working with and mentoring the birthparents — began as an extension of the foster care-adoption model (Gill & Amadio, 1983; Katz, 1999). This approach was designed for the very young child whose family's chronic problems (often neglect associated with poverty and drug or alcohol abuse) left the child languishing in out-of-home care (Katz & Robinson, 1991). Concurrent planning is defined as "working toward family reunification while, at the same time, developing an alternative permanency plan" (Katz, Robinson, & Spoonemore, 1994). With concurrent planning, a greater possibility exists for the children's return to birthfamilies (Gill & Amadio, 1983; Lutz, 2001) than with the foster-adoptive programs. The components of concurrent planning are intensive, focused outreach and services to birthfamilies; early searches for relatives; and frequent, consistent, safe visits between children and birthparents to mend relationships and promote attachment.
Documented benefits of concurrent planning include:
In many jurisdictions, concurrent planning, as described in the literature, has not yet been fully instituted for all children whose prognosis for family reunification is poor. It is difficult to find families who are willing and ready to perform the dual function of facilitating family reunification as well as adoption, and it is challenging for struggling, understaffed agencies to implement such vigorous and demanding programs. However, because legally free children are not readily available, many families, recruited as adoptive parents and whose primary desire is to be adoptive parents, are willing to stretch their preferences and accept a child who is not yet legally free because this situation creates a higher probability of being matched with a child. Usually, their understanding is that the children are likely to be adopted, because reunification services have ceased. Placing the children in these homes before TPR is similar in some ways to the foster-adoptive placement and the concurrent planning programs described above. The children involved have a poor prognosis for reunification, the foster parents are approved and committed to adopt if adoption is feasible, and the child is placed with them before a TPR petition is filed. In accordance with ASFA, the child can experience permanency earlier than if placement were delayed until TPR. This approach differs, however, from foster-adoptive placement and concurrent planning programs described in the literature. In this approach, the child is placed with the prospective adoptive family very late in the dependency court process, usually after reunification services have been ordered to cease. In many instances, the child has not lived with the birthparent for a year or longer. The family has no commitment to fostering for as long as is necessary, to working toward family reunification, to facilitating visitation, and to mentoring the birthparent. In many instances, these parents have no prior experience with foster parenting or parenting in general. They have obtained their license as a foster parent just to be able to accept the placement of a child they hope to adopt.
Parents' Emotional Reactions: Shock and Anger
Helplessness and Depression
Attitudes Toward the Child's Birthfamily
Often, the prospect of the child's adoption mobilizes the birthparents and stimulates their wish to reclaim the child. When birthparents communicate to their children, during visitation, that they are working at getting them back or that now they are getting their life together, the children may return from the visit and tell the adoptive parents that they are going home. This statement may stimulate adoptive parents' feelings of anger and resentment toward the birthfamily for undermining the current placement. Feelings of competition with the birthparents, common for adoptive parents, may be heightened (Akhtar & Kramer, 2000).
Another common scenario is when children return from a visit with birthparents saying that they are going to "act bad" so they will be sent back to their birthfamily. In some cases, a desperate birthparent may actually encourage the child to act out. Understandably, this behavior can create further resentment in the prospective adoptive parent, who may have struggled with working at controlling the child's behavior.
In some instances, foster-adoptive parents who initially felt willing and able to work toward an open adoption become increasingly angry and hostile toward the birthparents. Negative feelings may escalate further if, during court appearances, confrontations occur between the birthparents and the prospective adoptive parents. In several cases, prospective adoptive parents had to be escorted out of the courtrooms for their own protection. In these situations, the foster-adoptive parents may feel threatened about having future contact with birthparents or relatives.
Clearly, these concerns and fears are not conducive to positive communication with the children about their birthfamily. In addition, positive communication between foster parents and birthparents, as well as continuity of relationships for the child, become less likely. Escalating conflict and negative feelings between the potential adoptive parent and birthrelative may also jeopardize the placement over the long term. Some reports suggest that disrupted placements are more likely when the child maintains contact with someone opposed to the adoption (Festinger, 1990).
When the adoptive parents develop hostility toward the birthfamily, these feelings may erupt during conflict with the children. The foster-adoptive parent may tell the children that they are acting terribly "just like their birthparents." Negative consequences may result, both in the quality of the parent-child relationship and in the child's self-esteem. Carrying negative and hostile feelings about the birthrelatives can lead to fears and self-fulfilling negative fantasies that the children will be difficult, destructive, and unmanageable as they get older, like their parent or other birthrelative. The adoptive parents may become more inclined to attribute any behavioral disturbances to the child's genetic endowment and view the child as doomed to failure and evil (Akhtar & Kramer, 2000).
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