Q: How long does it take before a foster placement turns into an adoptive placement? And, how long does it take for you to know that you want to adopt the foster placement? And, how long does it take for you to know that you will be the adoptive home?
A: There is no easy way to answer any or all of these questions. First though, I'd recommend starting here to brush up on how long placements last and why...it kind of makes a difference.
In this case, I'm going to focus on pure foster care cases rather than adoptive placements. Going the straight adoption route is something very different and not something I have direct experience on yet. (Though, if you have questions on that I probably can still answer, just send mie an email).
As referenced in the link above, we typically plan on cases lasting between 12-18 months. Ideally, by that time we'd know for sure if the case was going to adoption, and then ideally at that point the adoption would be on its way to being finalized. There is no "ideal" situation in adoption though so not let's get into the practical.
Practically, we almost always plan for the case to go home. Not only is that usually the plan through at least half of the case (6 months) but it's also just easier for us to try not to get too attached. Inevitably though, the circumstances of the case begin to come out over time and we get a better feel for what the issues are and whether or not the parents are going to be able to get their children back. In our experience, we've had a good understanding of whether or not the parents are going in the right direction to get their kids back within 3-4 months. By 5 months in, the state has a 2nd permanency conference to determine the direction of the case. In all but one of my cases, the decision at that conference has correctly indicated what will happen to the children, whether they will return home or if an alternative placement will be found.
Here's why - even though a case usually has 12-18 months (let's call it 12; 18 is supposed to be by exception only), the time allowed per case typically includes the time to get the child to their permanent home. If you really think through the situations that might lead someone to a CPS case (let's say drugs, violent behaviors, long-term prison sentences, etc.) there are only a handful that can be adequately resolved in 6 months. So, after the first 6 months, if the parents have done nothing to move their case forward, it's often unlikely that another 6 months will help. Not impossible, so foster parents and the state always have to be aware and provide the opportunity for parents to make appropriate life changes even in the last 6 months, but if a parent isn't making progress for the 1st 6, he/she probably won't. A case going toward reunification has much different activity than a case going toward termination (please keep in mind, I'm not a social worker, just an observation and common sense). It takes a while for the state to find the right permanent home for a child. If a kinship placement is chosen a homestudy is required and those can take a while especially when dealing with another state. The court system takes a while, etc. So bottom line, by 6 months in there is a good feeling on whether the state is going to ask for reunification or for termination.
If the state is going toward reunification, in my experience the parents are working their visits and I've had a good relationship with the parents. In our experience, we've been happy to support parents working toward getting their kids back. So though we love those kiddos too, it's a little bit easier to avoid thinking about adoption. You're part of a system that is trying to get the kiddos back with a particular set of parents and you have a job to do within that system.
It is much different when the state believes it might be or is going toward termination. At any point in a case the state looks for kinship (family) placements. I've noticed a more active search once the decision has been made about termination. So, the first thing is to determine if termination is the goal. The second is to determine if there are any family members. Depending on how long the case has been going on, by 6 months in you have a good sense of what family members are there and maybe interested and when there are no qualified kinship placements. That's not to say someone won't "pop-up" but certainly you have an idea of the family structure. Usually, but not always, when there are interested kinship placements they have come forward participating in conferences, hearings, and often times visits. That is not always the case, but in my experience has been true.
So if and only if they've exhausted their resources trying to identify kinship placements does the case go toward an adoptive placement with a non-relative. Almost always, the foster parent gets first choice because they have had the next-longest relationship with the child and that is presumably better than moving the child to a stranger's home. Depending on where the case is with termination, if the foster parent chooses not to adopt they will either place the child in an foster-to-adopt home (usually prior to termination) or they'll place the child in a pre-adoptive home (post termination and appeals). Ideally, this will be their last placement. Here's a good post on the risks of foster care adoption.
Specifically, I've outlined our cases below, including the outcome, the time we thought we knew the outcome, and when we officially knew the outcome.
Case # Outcome Placement "thought we knew" Official Notice Notes
1 Termination Kinship within 4 weeks about 5 months Moved to kin @ 2 mo
2 Reunification Parents 4 months 5 months Terminated after return
3 Termination US! 2 months 7-8 months to be adopted...
4 Moved Homes - only had for 2 weeks but expected termination - who knows...
5 Reunification Parents 1 day (6 months) 4 mo (10 months) Still with us
I don't know if that helps. I think we've had a good feeling about most cases within the first few weeks and were typically right but every single case has had twists and turns so that even though our first guess has usually been right it has never been a clear path to get there. Even with case #3 even though we are currently the sole consideration in her adoption and we did the homestudy last night, something could happen where that plan changes and we have to be prepared for that.
Bottom line, until the judge signs the final judgements and adoption decree (when necesary), no one knows how the case will turn out.
I'm going to wait to address the "how did you know when you wanted to adopt" question in another post because it really has a whole different set of criteria that are only partially impacted by the way the court case is going.