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Trend: in-family, foster adoptions on the rise

Children in Wadena County are being adopted by relatives and foster parents more often than they were in the past, according to social services officials.

Social Worker Karen Johnson has worked with the county's adoption program since 1984 and has kept track of adoption outcomes. When she first started, most adoptions were by non-relatives, Johnson said. Now, most adoptions are by unrelated foster parents with relatives and kin coming in second.

Non-relatives adopted 14 out of 24 adopted kids from 1985 to 1989, according to statistics provided by Jane Erckenbrack, a social services supervisor. All 21 completed adoptions from 2005 through March 2009 were by foster parents, relatives and kin.

This trend is good for kids, according to Erckenbrack.

"It really has made a significant difference in not forcing children through disruptions and new relationships and starting over again and again," Erckenbrack said.

Kids are integrated into the foster families and extended families and disruptions are less likely, Johnson said.

It is nice to keep the family involved and maintain that connection, she said.

The shift from non-relative to family and foster family adoptions happened in the mid-1990s for a number of reasons, Johnson said. One reason is that social services began to focus on its relative search program, which locates relatives of children who have been removed from their parental homes.

The county also started doing concurrent planning instead of waiting to plan for permanency options after the termination of parental rights, she said. With concurrent planning social workers not only develop a plan for reunification with parents but also start looking for other permanent options in case parental rights have to be terminated.

Kids lingered in foster care a lot longer before that, Johnson said.

Another reason for the increase in foster parents adopting children is that counties are more welcoming to people who place adoption as one of their goals as foster parents, Erckenbrack said. Counties used to discourage that practice. A number of counties resisted the change because of the resources they had to put into recruiting additional foster parents and training them, she said.

"But when you're approaching it from what works best for kids ... then it's kind of a no-brainer," Erckenbrack said about foster family adoptions.

The implementation of adoption subsidies also help foster families make that commitment to a child, she said.

Foster families are always needed, Erckenbrack said. But they can be hard to recruit in a small county where a placement may not occur very often. The county avoids placement whenever possible and works very hard to identify extended family when children are removed from their parents' home, she said.

Social Worker Crystal Hess shared a story of a teenager who had been ordered to long-term foster care, which is rare, who requested she be adopted by her foster parents. Her parents agreed to voluntarily terminate their rights and she was able to be adopted.

Adoptions of teenagers are increasing, Erckenbrack said. This is important because statistics show that when youth age out of the foster care system they experience tremendous struggles when they go out on their own.

"Statistics are just appalling for the level of homelessness and youth that end up in prison and other really negative outcomes when they don't have a permanent family to fall back on and to provide that support," she said.

The nature of adoption has also changed during Johnson's career and her own 40 years in child welfare, Erckenbrack said. Adoption no longer means kids cease to have a relationship with their birth family.

"That also tends to be in a child's best interest to maintain those family ties to the extent that it's healthy and positive," she said.

The county has already had a number of adoptions already this year. Five children were adopted in the past six weeks, Erckenbrack said. Seven children are pending an adoptive placement or the finalization of their adoption. Social services had a total of 18 children in foster care as of April 21.