When I was little, everyone I knew who had been adopted as a child had grown up to become successful entrepreneurs and musicians. It happened three times in my extended family, alone. This led my very young self to believe that all my childhood traumas would be resolved if only I could somehow trade-in my obviously malfunctioning parental units for more reliable models… Just imagine the look on my face when a dear aunt finally sat me down and explained how adoption really works and why it’s important. I decided then and there that, as soon as I was an adult, I would adopt a dozen kids, and they would all grow up to be geniuses.
Of course, even after my aunt’s explanation, I was still a little kid with a big imagination. It didn’t occur to me that my life would turn out any differently than I intended. Yet here I am, 30 years old, and the only child I have is the one I made from scratch. No, life doesn’t always go according to plan, but that’s why I still feel so strongly about my original Plan A: Adoption. Because every kid deserves to be cared for like they’re a genius in the making.
Recently, I interviewed Janice Halpern, the Director of PR & Fundraising for the Massachusetts Adoption Resource Exchange:
Geek Mom: As a geek and a parent, it’s my humble opinion that geeks make great parents, but I also know that we tend to lead very full lives. We have a lot of hobbies – like gaming, knitting, parkour, and robotic soccer – in addition to maintaining our jobs and other social obligations. Do people with busy, interesting lives make good adoptive parents, or are they harder to match with waiting children?
Janice Halpern: I could turn the question around – do these geek adults make good loving friends and family in general? Children are in foster care because the families they were born into were not able to provide them the safe, stable home every child needs. They’ve been neglected, and maybe abused, by adults they should have been able to trust. They need adults they can rely on for love, trust, guidance, stability, dependability, and a high degree of stick-to-it-iveness to help them move beyond their past trauma. Busy, interesting people can be superb adoptive parents if they are willing to meet the needs of the child. If finishing the next level in Mass Effect is a higher priority than guiding an emotionally stressed child, then not so much.
Geek Mom: What about budding geeks? Are there many children in foster care actually looking for adoptive parents with eclectic tastes and interests?
Janice: Many of the children in foster care are fledgling geeks – when the adults around you disappoint you, the computer games (etc.) give you a level of control over your environment that human interactions don’t. I’ve seen many youngsters at our Adoption Parties who are more comfortable sitting alone at a table full of Legos than interacting with strangers.
Geek Mom: In spite of having full lives, some adult geeks still have a hard time finding a comfortable social niche. Some of us have disabilities, and some of us are just a bit withdrawn around other people. Should disability or social awkwardness pose a barrier to adoption?
Janice: Adults with disabilities and social awkwardness can be excellent parents, as long as they can meet the needs of the child. Being able to advocate for the child, with teachers, social workers, doctors, etc., is an important trait. And being able to recognize when you and/or the child need help or advice, and then reaching out for the resources you need, are also important. An adult who cannot be pro-active on the child’s behalf may not be able to meet the child’s needs. But it’s amazing how that “protect-the-family” instinct can kick in and inspire the shy and quiet types to speak up and get their needs met.
Geek Mom: Are there children in foster care wanting parents who are ‘the quiet-type’?
Janice: Yes, quiet can be soothing and comforting. Routines and dependability are important for any child. But fun is important, too.
Geek Mom: Might experience with managing disability be an advantage for some adoptive parents?
Janice: Absolutely – adults who have experienced disability and/or being “different” from their peers have a perspective that is very helpful to children who’ve been in foster care. Kids in state care feel different because their family experience is different from the majority of their classmates. Adults who’ve managed their own disabilities and differences can help teach a child how to do the same, while serving as a role model for successful coping techniques.
Geek Mom: What about geeks who already have other children? It seems logical that experienced parents would make better adoptive parents, but do blended biological-and-adoptive families generally have positive outcomes?
Janice: Many of our adoptive parents are experienced parents before they turn to adoption to expand their families. Some are empty nesters whose kids have moved out, but they’re not done parenting. Others have a few children and just want a bigger clan. Adoption is a family event – everyone in the family has to be committed to the adoption. There are a lot of resources to help with integrating siblings into the process; besides sibling rivalry is an issue no matter how a new child joins the family. But I don’t have statistics that could answer that question with any degree of certainty – just anecdotes. When the entire family is committed to making an adoption positive for everyone, it works; when they’re not, it’s a lot harder.
Geek Mom: About how many children are waiting for adoption?
Janice: There are roughly 600 children and teens in Massachusetts waiting for adoption; nationally, over 100,000 children are waiting.
Geek Mom: How long do kids in foster care typically have to wait before being adopted?
Janice: That’s a hard question to answer because it varies so much. Most children come into foster care with the goal of having the birth family fix the problem that caused the child to be removed. So 70% of the kids in foster care have the goal of being reunited with the birth family. But over time, if it becomes clear that the problem cannot be fixed, the goal changes to adoption into a stable, loving family. How long does that take? It varies. Last year, for the children on our caseload who were matched and placed with pre-adoptive families, the time from their being registered for MARE’s services by their social workers until they were placed with a family averaged 1.6 years. Then, once a child has been placed with a family, the child must live there for at least 6 months, but usually longer, before the family can get a court-date to legally finalize the adoption. That’s why we talk about “placement.”
Geek Mom: What’s the age range of most waiting children?
Janice: MARE’s caseload is made up of the “harder-to-place” children who need our extensive recruitment services. Of the 500 children MARE is serving, 80% are ages 6 – 18.
Geek Mom: What about waiting teenagers? What are they looking for in adoptive parents?
Janice: Oh my goodness, so many teens are waiting for adoption – they may have been in and out of foster care for a number of years while the birth family fixed the problem, then sank back into the problem, then fixed it, then failed again. The child may become a teen while that happens, when their goal finally becomes adoption.
Teens want what everyone wants in parents – love, stability, guidance, understanding, and someone they can trust will be there for them, no matter what.
Geek Mom: And what happens if they don’t find ‘forever families’ before they turn 18?
Janice: At 18, as legal adults, teens in foster care can sign themselves out of state care. And there are many services available to help young adults transition from foster care to independence. But teens are not the best decision-makers, and teens who’ve been in foster care can be sick of taking advice from social workers. Each year, over 600 Massachusetts teens “age out” of foster care into our communities. Already burdened by their experiences of abuse, neglect, and instability, these high risk young people leave the foster care system without the skills, habits or caring relationships to help them become productive and connected members of society. They are not only at high risk for themselves, but at high risk for creating the next generation of children who end up in foster care.
A 2008 Boston Foundation report* found that, of young adults who aged out of state foster care:
- 43% had been pregnant or had gotten someone pregnant
- 54% were unemployed
- 25% had been arrested in the last 12 months; 8% had been incarcerated
- 37% experienced homelessness
Many young adult former foster children do succeed and progress – and mentoring helps; but look at the young-adult homeless population and you’ll find a high percentage of people who had been in foster care. Fortunately, in Massachusetts, an “aged-out” young adult can sign himself back in to foster care (and the services available) up to age 23.
Geek Mom: How might the world be different if every waiting child found a waiting family?
Janice: For our communities, we’d see fewer children needing foster care, because they’d have the guidance from stable, loving homes that could help them become good parents to their own children. We’d see so many more productive and emotionally healthy young adults. We’d see lower homeless populations. Financially, we’d probably have healthier state budgets – with fewer kids in foster care, and no young adults aging out, we’d have fewer people needing those services. How many fewer beds would we need in homeless shelters? How many fewer people would be living in poverty?
But the difference adoption makes in the life of a child is incalculable – kids in foster care often can’t do the simplest things the rest of us take for granted because of the instability in their lives. When 11-year-old Jaron was adopted, he told us he was looking forward to playing Pop Warner football – until he was adopted, he never knew when he’d have to move to a new temporary foster home, so he never could join a local team because he didn’t know if he’d be in town long enough to last the season. Imagine that – a child able to play sports because of adoption. So simple, and so life-changing.
And I just got teary-eyed writing that.
Massachusetts Adoption Resource Exchange exists to find a permanent place to call home for children and teens in foster care in Massachusetts, including sibling groups and children who are traditionally harder to place. For more information and guidance on adopting a child from foster care, you can visit the website , attend an upcoming Adoption Party, or call 617-542-3678 (617-54ADOPT).