This story is part of the SoJo Exchange the Solutions Journalism Networka nonprofit dedicated to rigorously reporting on responses to social issues.
Youth in foster care who “age” out of the child welfare system without emotional or financial family support face a dangerous transition into adulthood that can entangle them in the justice system.
Studies have found that youth who leave the foster care system before they get older—either by reuniting with their original families, being placed with distant relatives, or through adoption—are significantly less likely to be incarcerated in their late teens and early 20s to end up taking to the streets or becoming a victim of sex trafficking.
“Youth without supportive networks are at risk of adverse outcomes as they transition from the child welfare system into adulthood,” according to a 2018 report prepared for Congress by the Department of Health and Human Services.
“The risks are likely to be particularly severe for the nine percent of youth who are ’emancipating’ or aging out of care without a permanent home.”
The report reaffirms the importance of finding stable families for foster children.
What is “moral adoption”?
Earlier this month, the New York City-based organization You Gotta Believe hosted a symposium on what it calls “moral” adoption — a model for finding lasting families for older foster children. The organization began using this model in the mid-1990s.
“We’re trying to reach kids who don’t have a plan to go home or go to someone’s house when they get old,” Mary Keane, senior advisor for family permanency services at You Gotta Believe, told The Crime Report.
“Moral adoption really means making a lasting commitment,” adds Paul Brown, adoptive parent for over 20 years and former board member of You Gotta Believe.
Brown became the adoptive father of Rey Santiago when Rey was 13 years old. Ray was separated from his mother when he was eight – due to substance abuse and neglect – and placed in foster care.
He cycled through six different nursing homes in five years.
The purpose of the November symposium was to raise awareness of what makes “moral adoption” unique and effective; The most important of these distinctions is the facilitation of placement by recognizing the reluctance of many older foster children to be legally adopted.
The You Gotta Believe group helps the urban youth
Ricardo Vasquez, morally adopted by his former social worker, explained the concept this way:
“If you’re talking about urban kids from New York City,” Vasquez said, “we’re not interested in adoption. Our thought process is not about submission or going under a rock and saying, ‘Hey, I need your help. Can you? Choose Me?’ This is weakness for us; thinking of adoption is weakness.”
Vasquez was placed with a woman who was originally his clerk at New York City’s Administration of Children’s Services.
Over the years, Vasquez and his case officer developed a close bond.
“I was just lucky,” he recalls. “You Gotta Believe connected me to a permanent home and my social worker became my foster parents. We were able to connect.
“I’m Caribbean, she’s Caribbean, so she understood my background and she’s always been open about me.”
Before becoming Vasquez’s formal adoptive parents, however, she stayed by his side through difficult times as a young adult — times when he routinely drove in and out of prison.
The consistency and unwavering commitment that Vasquez’s foster mother showed him at the time is the essence of moral adoption.
Moral adoption is characterized by a lack of the requisite commitment on the part of the youth unless they choose to do so; but the insistence on a lifelong commitment to the care home.
In this way, foster youth can find permanent adoptive families without having to agree to a formal legal adoption or psychological commitment themselves.
When Ricardo was in his early 20s, he decided to make their mother-son relationship legal and was formally adopted.
That happens often, according to Mary Keane, the organization’s former president.
When Rey Santiago raised the issue of legal adoption a few months after moving in with Paul Brown, Santiago was uneasy. Brown respected Santiago’s reluctance and dropped the matter; However, their lack of a legal relationship has never reflected their identification or behavior as a family.
Now, many years later, formalizing their relationship legally “isn’t an issue anymore,” Brown says.
Since its inception in 1995, You Gotta Believe’s program staff has grown 100% from former foster children as well as adoptive parents of foster children. During the ten-week training, coaching, and education that prospective families go through to receive adoption process support and subsequent support services from You Gotta Believe, former foster children talk about what it’s like going through a foster care system, from their own experience.
This is built into the lesson plan. Some of the typical effects of this experience, such as B. A learned lack of trust so adoptive parents know what they might find in young people they might adopt.
You Gotta Believe founder Pat O’Brien describes the organization’s origins as a focus on foster care to prevent homelessness.
“Basically, the idea was to be a homeless prevention program,” O’Brien said, “because at the time, whatever homeless population I looked at, a significant percentage of the homeless had spent time in foster care as children; which meant they essentially left the care system on this world alone. And when children reach a certain age, nobody makes any effort to find them a permanent family for life, and there was a need for an organization that focused on just one goal.
O’Brien, who has since retired from the day-to-day operations, recalls that it was crucial to ensure, with as much certainty as possible, that the homes that housed the youth they worked were indeed permanent.
“We would not place a child if the family did not make the promise of adoption, even if they could not legally do so, because the child was either not free or the child did not want to change their name or such child did not want to be legally adopted,” he said.
That commitment is paying off, says foster parent Paul Brown.
“Besides doing a lot of good for young people, it’s incredibly rewarding to become a family,” Brown said. “It can be difficult at times, but most importantly, it’s deeply satisfying, (especially) the human connection.”