Foster care placements walk a delicate balance. On the one hand, the goal for any child in foster care is to feel safe and loved. Home should feel like just that — a home, with a family, where the child can grow and thrive.
On the other hand, there’s the knowledge that, in many cases, this situation is temporary, and the child will be reunited with their biological family.
Sometimes, however, foster care placements extend for many years. During that time, the reunification plan may fail, and that child’s biological parents may lose their parental rights. Now, the child you have been caring for as a part of your family for years is eligible for adoption. What should you do?
Choosing between long-term foster care vs. adoption is a pivotal point in anyone’s life. This fork in the road can lead to two very different outcomes. What’s the difference between long term foster care and adoption? Which route is best?
This guide to long-term fostering or adoption will lay out the pros and cons of each option and give you helpful information as you, along with the child in your care, make a choice that is best for everyone.
Why Some Children Stay in Long-Term Foster Care
Long-term foster care (also known as permanent foster care) is not simply referring to a placement that lasts many years. More generally, it is the term for when a child stays under a family’s care until the child “ages out” of the foster care system without ever being adopted. This could happen when a child stays with one family for many years, or the child could move from family to family until they are a legal adult.
There are many reasons why a child may end up staying in permanent foster care vs. adoption. Some of these reasons are the child’s choice, some are the foster parents’ choice, and some are outside of either’s control.
For example, a child’s reunification plan may still be in place despite spending many years in foster care. In an instance such as this, the courts have deemed that reunification is still possible, even if it seems unlikely. It is therefore outside of the control of foster parents to initiate the adoption process.
In a different situation, a child may already be 15, 16 or 17 years old when placed in the care of new foster parents. Both the parents and child may decide that it is best to let the child become a legal adult without going through the adoption process.
Permanent Foster Care vs. Adoption: The Pros and Cons
The general consensus of the professional foster care community is that long-term foster care is not ideal. We recognize that every situation is unique, so there may be some reading this who disagree. If you are trying to choosing between long-term foster care or adoption, these are several pros and cons of each.
Pros of Long Term Foster Care
Let’s start with the positive. The primary “pro” of long-term fostering is continued access to support and benefits that may not be provided when the child is no longer in foster care. This could mean assistance from your social worker, financial aid from the state or other helpful benefits that are provided to foster parents.
Another potential “pro” of long-term foster care vs. adoption could be the opportunity to honor the child’s wishes. Older children can speak for themselves. It’s important to honor their voices. If a child does not want to be adopted, then long-term foster care can be an opportunity to respect their desire.
Cons of Long-Term Foster Care
While there are several reasons a family may choose long-term fostering vs. adoption, the “cons” outnumber the “pros.”
These are some of the most agreed-upon reasons that adoption is the ideal situation (whenever possible) as opposed to long-term foster care. These differences between long term foster care explain why.
Con: Lack of Full Parental Rights
Foster parents have legal guardianship over a child in their care, but this is different from full parental rights. For things such as, for example, major medical decisions, birth parents who still maintain parental rights may need to be looped in. This can limit the ability of foster parents to make important choices. In situations where a decisions need to be made quickly, this could put the child in danger.
Con: Potential for Relocation
The foster care system can be unpredictable. Long-term fostering vs. adoption leaves the door open for a sudden and unexpected relocation — a challenging and potentially painful event for the child and foster parents.
Con: No Established Legal Parental Relationship
We’ve already touched on the immediate effects of this, but a parent-child relationship that has been legally established has many benefits later in life, too. From creating a path for estate planning to legal authority in emergency situations, an adoption creates a lasting, important legal bond. Long-term foster care vs. adoption leaves this relationship legally ambiguous, which can cause problems down the road.
Con: Absence of Permanency
Achieving permanency as soon as possible has been shown to be a vital factor in a child’s development. Even if the foster care placement creates an amazing, loving and safe relationship, there is still an unavoidable element of insecurity. If adoption is possible, research has shown that it creates a healthier environment for a child.
“The main defining difference found between these two forms of substitute parenting appears to be the higher levels of emotional security, sense of belonging and general well-being expressed by those growing up as adopted compared with those fostered long term,” according to one report.
What’s Best for You?
As you can see, the opinion of the professional community lands on one side of the debate concerning long-term fostering vs. adoption. If possible, adoption can be the best path forward for a child. Which one of these paths is right for you? If you would like to speak with a professional about this subject, please contact your foster care caseworker or, if you do not have an assigned caseworker, your local child welfare agency.