In light of the recent Supreme Court decision striking down Roe v. Wade, adoption has been the focus of significant discussion in the state.
There are currently around 5,700 children in foster care in Alabama, but only 240 are available for adoption. So, why is that?
The Alabama Department of Human Resources (DHR) coordinates foster care and adoption of children removed from their parents or families. According to Karen Smith, DHR’s deputy commissioner for children and family services, reuniting a child with their biological parents or a family member is always the main priority.
“For children in the department’s custody, we work with the families to try to reunify if at all possible and if it can be done safely," Smith said. "The reason we remove children from parents or families is because of [the] safety of that child; that whatever is going on is so egregious that we can’t manage and protect that child in that home setting, and so, we feel like that child needs to be removed, [and] services put in place to try to reunify.”
There are several means of adoption, either through agencies, consultants, agreements with birth mothers, or through the state.
In order to provide foster care to these children, individuals go through a qualification process. There is also an option to be certified as an “adoption-only” parent, meaning not open to fostering but looking to adopt a child. However, due to federal and state guidelines on termination of parental rights, the number of children available for adoption in DHR’s custody is much lower than the number of children available to foster.
Catie Lumpkin, who lives in Birmingham, fostered over 80 children in 15 years and adopted her two daughters after fostering them for several years. She described the process, saying, “The goal in Alabama is always reunification [with a biological parent] first, extended family reunification second. After that, current foster parents are given the option to adopt, followed by the child becoming available to other prospective adoptive parents.”
Smith said the department pursues termination of parental rights if there has been evidence of significant physical or sexual abuse, substance abuse or mental health issues. Terminating parental rights requires a court process, which can be lengthy if the parent decides to appeal the termination in court.
Through the lengthy court process, Smith said the department always has a temporary and permanent plan in place for the children to ensure they do not stay in the system any longer than necessary.
According to Dominic Binkley, Director of Communications for DHR, reunification occurs in 70% of cases yearly.
Some parents have criticized the state’s policies on adoption due to the long waits during adoption, which can often last two years or longer.
“Sometimes, adoptive parents may get frustrated with the process because they’re looking for a specific type of child,” Smith said. “They may only want a child from birth to age one, or birth to age two, with no issues, and sometimes that’s very difficult. We need families that are open to taking our older teenagers. We need families that are open to taking our children with autism, with special medical needs. We need foster and adoptive parents that are willing to take the child as they are.”
Lumpkin said, “As a whole, I long for people in our state to think beyond age barriers in regard to adoption preferences. … Adoption from foster care in Alabama is practically free, and in special needs cases, resources follow for many years. It just requires us to think outside the box we possibly envisioned.”
While DHR may have many children in the foster system, only a small portion is available for adoption. Binkley said there were 783 children adopted through the state in 2021 and 814 children in 2020.
According to Smith, DHR assumes a minimal role in private adoptions. She claims that DHR is responsible for vetting would-be parents for child abuse and neglect and checking the Putative Father Registry. The Putative Father Registry exists to notify fathers who have registered with the state when actions to terminate their parental rights as part of adoption proceedings have been filed.
After properly vetting the adoptive parents, DHR no longer has any part in the private adoption process, according to Smith. She also said the standard turnaround time for DHR, after being notified by the probate court, is 30 days.
Efforts to address and streamline the adoption process in the state have repeatedly recognized staffing shortages at DHR. Since adoptions are only one aspect of DHR’s workload, it can seem to foster or adoptive parents that the process takes longer than necessary.
“DHR is understaffed and overworked, and they’re not really [giving] a lot of the care and attention that families need to get through this process,” said State Rep. Matt Simpson (R-Daphne). “DHR doesn’t have the ability to help parents the way they should. There’s not a single problem. There’s just a laundry list of nightmares with our current system that absolutely have to be addressed.”
Despite any issues with staffing, Binkley stated that understaffing has never delayed any adoption in the state.
“We are really good at changing our focus and pulling staff from other areas to fill in when there is an uptick in any type of situation,” Smith said. “With the pandemic, we - like any other agency, or business, or organization - we’ve taken a hit as well with our workforce. But we do what we have to do here at DHR, and that’s something that I’m very proud of. We may have to work a little bit longer to make sure that our kids are seen and that our family’s needs are met, but that’s just what we do, and that’s something we’ve done year after year.”
While it is difficult to find an exact number as to how many parents in the U.S. are waiting to adopt, some sources estimate there are about two million couples currently waiting, which means there are as many as 36 waiting families for every one child who is placed for adoption. According to Adoptionnetwork.com, around 140,000 children are adopted by American families each year.
Lumpkin knows that foster parents often say the "system is broken." She doesn't completely agree with that statement.
“Perhaps the system as an institution - meaning the red tape and paperwork - is [broken], but if we are speaking of the system as people, this isn’t true," she said. "I have witnessed social workers spend weeks on end in hospitals caring for children who won’t remember them. I’ve seen lawyers and caseworkers follow cases for decades after finalization. These social workers, judges and lawyers who stand in the shadows as their careers - sacrificing their reputations, family, lives, etc. - they are our heroes. Their pictures are in our family albums.”
In reflecting on her family’s experience in fostering and adoption, Lumpkin concludes, “We happened upon foster care completely by accident. … We are forever grateful we did.”
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