National Adoption Awareness Month: From fostering to adoption, one mom says you should expect the unexpected

For as long as I can remember, I have said that if I were ever going to become a parent, it would be through adoption. Even though that method of parenting is something my husband and I talked about for many years, it was hard to envision when and how that big, ominous, overwhelming idea would become more of a reality.

As we established our lives in Durham (moving here six years ago), settled into new jobs and bought a house, we began to seriously consider the idea of becoming foster parents. Foster care would be a way for us to try out the parenting role while children were waiting to be reunited with their birth families; it would allow us to see what ages we best connected with, and most importantly, we would be providing a safe and stable environment for a child who needed it. (There are currently over 300 Durham children in care-and not nearly as many licensed homes to match the need).

We entered foster care with an open mind and with the intention to stick to fostering for a while. Since the goal is to reunify the child/ren with his or her birth family, you cannot really go into fostering with the sole intention of adopting a child (though you can elect to apply for pre-adoptive placements only, wherein parental rights have already been terminated. This tends to be older children who have been in the system for over a year and are now in need of a permanent home). One thing you can be certain of, however, is that you will become "a parent" to that child for however long he or she is with you, and that so many valuable lessons will be learned on both sides.

We became licensed foster parents through our county just over two years ago, and in that relatively short span of time, we have experienced several different scenarios: long-term foster placements who have gone back to their birth families; short-term stays for children awaiting placement; respite care on weekends for other foster families, and currently, a pre-adoptive placement. If there is one thing I've learned, it is that you never truly know what to expect!

Maybe you are like me and have thought about adoption your whole life and just don't know where to start; maybe you don't know if adoption is the right fit for your family; maybe you have thought about becoming a foster parent. Here are some of the first things you will want to consider.

Training Hours
The first step in obtaining your license to foster or adopt in the state of NC is to take MAPP classes (30 hours of training classes) provided by the county or local agencies. From there, you will have to write out your life story (I'm not really joking), get physicals, background checks, fire inspections, home inspections, and do in-person interviews. The process can take as little as four months if you do everything very quickly, but more likely, it will take six months to a year. You have up to two years after taking the MAPP classes to send in your completed application for review.

County vs. Agency
You can choose to be licensed through your county or through a private agency. Children come into care through the county first, but with so few foster families, DSS often has to move on and assign the child to a private agency. The kids and the situations are the same; it is the social worker/s assigned to the child that make a difference. Some counties provide more support than others; some agencies are better than others; talk to other foster parents to get their opinion on their licensing agency.

My husband and I chose to be licensed through our county mainly because we knew that is where there is the biggest need. No matter what, the system can be challenging. Overall, we find that our experiences depend on the social worker/s assigned to the case. We have had bad experiences in the past, but have also been fortunate to have some very caring and supportive workers, and that happens in both the county and in private agencies.

Foster vs. Adoption
Again, the goal of foster care is always to reunify the child with his or her birth family. This can take as little as a week, several months, a year, or more. And sometimes, reunification does not work out. When that is the case, if there are no other suitable birth relatives for the child, the foster parents are typically the first to be considered for an adoptive placement.

We know many families who have adopted through foster care-all ages ranging from infants to teens. Again, you should not go in assuming that is what will happen, but there is always a chance that somewhere along the way, a child could need you to be their forever home.

Saying goodbye to our first foster placement was very sad for us, but we knew that was what we were getting into and that we had done our best during the time he was with us. Then, last year, we were approached about a pre-adoptive placement, which has given us a whole new role to navigate. Like I said, you never know what to expect along the journey, but if you keep an open mind, you may just find yourself with kids you learn to love no matter how long they are with you!

Babies vs. Older Kids
No matter what age you think your family is best suited for, there are children in need. Older kids and teens are harder to place, but there are still many babies and toddlers who come into care as well. Sibling groups of all ages, too. We all know there are pros and cons to all ages, so it really depends on your lifestyle and comfort zone. Plus, each child, no matter his or her chronological age, is different.

We have stuck with elementary school age children and up because it works better for our lifestyle and personalities. Remember, older kids are not automatically "bad kids." We have had the pleasure of spending time with so many fun, kind, creative, and 6 to 14-year-olds.

Test Out with Respite
You can always become licensed in order to provide respite care as a way to assist other foster families (giving them a weekend off, or helping take care of a child when they are out of town), or providing a short-term stay for an emergency placement. We have met some of the coolest kids doing respite, including our current 11-year-old. We never could have predicted that a year later, she would be moving in with us. Again, you just never know what to expect.

Regardless of how you become a parent, it is a huge commitment, and I won't lie, being a foster parent or an adoptive parent requires an even more thoughtful and continuous level of commitment and emotional energy. Our foster and adoption story is not finished; we're still in the trenches and on a daily basis we are reminded how challenging it can be, but also how rewarding.

We are grateful for the countless lessons we have learned; we are stronger because of how much we are challenged to grow as people and as parents, and we are proud of every small victory our child/ren have, each small victory we have as parents, and all the new victories we have together-as a family.

Amber Watson is an ABC11 Influencer as well as a freelance writer and food blogger based in Durham, NC. You can follow her culinary adventures on bitesofbullcity.com.
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