Ask AF: Explaining to Our Child That We Can’t Adopt Her Foster Sister

"We just found out that we won't be able to adopt the child we've been fostering. How do we tell the child, and explain to our older daughter?"

Q: We adopted our eight-year-old daughter from foster care as a toddler. We’ve been fostering a five-year-old girl for the last seven months in what we were told was a “pre-adoptive placement” and hoped to adopt her. I know that we shouldn’t have presumed to be anything more than foster parents, but we all very quickly came to love this girl, and our older daughter has long considered the two of them sisters. But, we were just told that a biological aunt will be granted custody. This news sent us reeling. The aunt doesn’t seem that keen on contact and lives several states away, so, even if she were, visits wouldn’t be realistic. How do we break this news to our older daughter? Should we tell the five-year-old, or should her caseworker? How might we ask the aunt if she would agree to some contact? If we take steps to adopt again, how can we foster a child for so many months and not fall in love and feel like parents?

A: I would have a joint meeting and have the caseworker tell the five-year-old with you there to comfort her. Be sure she knows that this was an adult decision made by the judge and it is not her fault. You can explain that it is OK to have two feelings at once. You are sad she is leaving but happy she is going to be with her aunt. It was your job to take care of her until a plan was made, and the plan ended up being that she would live with her aunt. Does she know the aunt? Have any memories of her? Can the agency get pictures of the aunt, her family, and the home? Children at this age are concrete thinkers, so pictures might help with the preparation and some anxiety. Also, if she has a lifebook, be sure to add some pages and photos of your family. If she doesn’t, it would be helpful to start one for her.

Does this girl have a therapist and/or CASA volunteer? Can they help intercede to make this transition better? It sound like the aunt could use some education about adoption. Is she working with an agency? Has she passed the home study? Will your agency contact her agency and have them educate her on the importance of contact? Don’t approach the aunt as the “bad guy,” however. You could say, “I would like to stay in contact so we can give you information about the time she was with us. Maybe we can help with school or medical questions. We would be glad to let her visit in the summer if you need a break. What can we do to make this easier on all of us?”

As for telling your daughter why the girl she considers her sister is leaving, we all have “relatives” who are not blood related—the lady next door we call “Grandma,” the guy at church we call “Uncle.” (Some people refer to these “fictives,” or fictitious relatives.) So you can say, “She will always be in our hearts like a sister, but she was not legally in our family yet. She was a foster sister. Your story was different. We were able to adopt you and, even if a birth aunt were to say she could raise you now, the answer would be No because you belong with us. Your sister was not adopted, so it is different.” This may open other sibling questions, like, “Do I have other siblings?” (most children who were adopted do), “Where are they?” “Are you going to adopt again?” I wrote a workbook for children, The Confusing World of Brothers, Sisters and Adoption: The Adoption Club Therapeutic Workbook on Siblings, which might help.

I have no idea how you can foster and not feel like parents; as foster parents, it is your job to parent. I would not recommend being cold and distant to protect yourselves from love. Loss is a big part of foster adoption parenting. If adoption is the goal you can ask for information on children already freed for adoption, with no known birth relatives. You might want to take a break for a few months from fostering to heal. I would take a picture of the two girls together and frame it. Give one to each and maybe display one in your home. Celebrate her birthday with a cake and point out how old she is. Some children make a sibling box and put in a postcard from vacation, a school picture, and so on, in the hopes of sharing it one day when they meet again. Does the foster daughter have your email address? Phone number? It won’t be all that long before she is an adult and can contact you if she wishes.

Thank you for the love and stability you have given her. Love is never wasted.

is a co-author of Parenting the Hurt Child: Helping Adoptive Families Heal and Grow, Adopting the Hurt Child: Hope for Families with Special-Needs Kids – A Guide for Parents and Professionals, and therapeutic workbook series The Adoption Club. Kupecky also co-authored The Mystery of the Multiple Mothers: A Cub County Caper, a mystery novel with an adoption theme, with her brother. She has been working with adoptive families and children for more than 35 years, and recently retired as a therapist at Adoption & Attachment Therapy Partners, in Broadview Heights, Ohio.

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