Sara Jensen / Dose

I Adopted My Daughter From The Foster Care System

Here’s why you should be a part of it, too.

Let’s start off with a little thought experiment, okay? When you read the words “foster home,” what kind of mental picture pops into your head?

I’m guessing it’s a grim one. I suspect you’re envisioning bunk beds and gross food, served by someone milking the government for the monthly check that each foster kid brings in. The foster care system is nothing if not incredibly stigmatized.

When you see the term “foster kids,” what springs to mind? Again, I’m guessing it’s children who are damaged, violent or unwanted. Something must be wrong with them, otherwise, why haven’t they been adopted?

I’m a foster parent. My daughter Rose was a foster kid. I’m here to tell you that everything you think you know about the foster system is probably wrong.

Rose celebrates her eighth birthday. | Sara Jensen / Dose

There are nearly half a million kids in foster care, and more than 60,000 are legally free and waiting to be adopted. These are children who have been dealt bad hands ranging from parental abuse to horrible accidents. Without family members to fall back on, the children are put into custody of the state, which tries to find citizens to house them.

The problem is, there aren’t enough people to care for them. Multiple states are facing foster parent shortages; older families are aging out of the system and not enough young people are stepping up to replenish it.

Here’s how we joined them.

My son had the largest head our OB nurse at a bustling Manhattan hospital had ever measured. My wife delivered him via C-section; shortly afterwards, she contracted a staph infection that landed her back in the hospital with a PICC line pumping her full of antibiotics. I would wrap ten-day-old Henry in a blanket and take him on the subway to the hospital to nurse. It was a nightmarish few weeks (thankfully, we survived).

We talked about having more than one kid, but doing it the biological way now seemed risky. We didn’t stop trying, but we did open our minds to other possibilities.

Adopting through a private service wasn’t an option for our family. First, it was absurdly expensive. Second, we were concerned about uprooting a child from their own culture and raising them respectfully in ours. And finally, we were aware of how badly the foster care system was hurting and we understood that there were way too many kids out there just waiting for a new family.

We knew of some other foster and adoptive parents on the island where we live, and they helped us get set up for training. We were fingerprinted, got CPR certified (which, honestly, is a good thing to do anyways) and passed all of our inspections.

We got a phone call less than a week after we received our foster care license. “There’s a little girl up in Bellingham. She’s three — the same age as Henry. I think she’s your girl.”

We drove up to meet Rose — her name was different then — at the foster home she was staying at. She looked up at my wife and said “Mama Sara, I’m ready to go home with you now.”

Sara Jensen / Dose

Rose’s foster mother looked at us in disbelief. “She’s never said that before. She’s never talked to anybody who has come to visit before.”

We decided to take her home, packing her clothing and few personal possessions in a black garbage bag. As we rode the ferry back to our little island, we called our social worker. It was Friday. He’d already left the office for the day. “Uh, hey. We took Rose. Let us know if that’s a problem.”

It wasn’t a problem. They put the paperwork through and entrusted her to us.

We entered into this experience knowing that adoption was our end goal, but Rose wasn’t “legally free” yet — a judge hadn’t yet ruled to strip her biological parents of their rights to raise her. This is not something courts do lightly. Ruling that a birth mother and father will never be able to properly care for the child is the system’s last resort.

This wait was agonizing. We were fairly confident that she would be legally freed, but the uncertainty was overwhelming. We knew not to raise the idea of adoption — of joining our family forever — until we could be sure that we could do it. We knew we wanted to keep her, and Rose knew she wanted to be kept, but everybody had to hold their tongues.

We waited, but as our bond with Rose grew, the idea that she could be taken away became more difficult to stomach. Eventually, the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) managed to bring the case to court and remove Rose’s birth parents’ parental rights. We applied to adopt her and Rose became a Jensen.

We celebrated. The whole tiny island we live on celebrated. Rose invited everybody she saw on the street to her adoption ceremony. The presiding judge said he’d never seen so many people in his courtroom for something like this. Dozens and dozens of people joined us to experience Rose’s entrance into a forever family.

So we got Rose and now we’re done, right? Mission accomplished.

Actually, no. My wife and I just finished the training to re-up our foster license for another five years.

We’re not looking to adopt again. I have a strict house rule that kids are not allowed to outnumber adults (otherwise they’ll vote us out of office). But renewing our license means we can provide respite and short-term care to foster kids looking for placement.

We’ve volunteered ourselves to temporarily house kids with type 1 diabetes because our experience with Henry gives us the experience necessary to manage their condition; we’ve also volunteered to take LGBTQ kids who often have problems finding supportive places to stay.

Sara Jensen / Dose

When Henry and Rose go off to college, my wife and I will probably open our home to children who require longer-term care. We’re especially interested in fostering teenagers who are about to age out of the system, so we can help them transition into adulthood in a safe and accepting place. More than 20,000 children age out every year without families in place. Some foster parents even volunteer to give these aged-out kids places to go during the holidays, so they won’t feel alone.

But you don’t have to do any of that, if you don’t want to.

Here’s the thing. If you get your foster care license, even if you never adopt a kid, you’re still helping. Even if all you do is take one kid for a respite weekend one time, you’ve still given that kid — that human being — a positive experience that they’ll have forever. And nobody can ever take that away from them.

You don’t have to turn your whole life upside down. You don’t have to take any kid you don’t want to take. You can help exactly as much as you’re comfortable helping, and by doing so, you’ll be giving more than most people.

You can take a kid for a day. You can take a kid forever. All I’m asking you to do is think about it. Foster parent training takes a couple days, and afterwards, they send someone over to your house to make sure you don’t have a bunch of loose guns lying around or whatever. You might have to order a box with a lock on it from Amazon to store your NyQuil. If you can go to the DMV to renew your driver’s license, you can certainly handle this.

Being a part of the foster care system was one of the best decisions my family has ever made. I hope it will be one of yours as well.