One of the avenues people have to adopt a child is through a state’s foster care system. Thousands of children are placed in the foster care system each year due to their parents’ inability to parent or care for the child, or not having a parent to do so. Sometimes family members or friends step in before a state agency is alerted, and gain custody of the child through a minor guardianship action (previously known as a non-parental custody action) if the child is residing in Washington State. Other times, a state agency is notified (usually Child Protective Services (CPS)) and their investigation leads to the child becoming a ward of the state. If the parents’ rights are terminated, then the child becomes eligible for adoption. A more detailed explanation of the process is below:

How do children end up in the foster care system?

As mentioned above, children are placed in the foster care system due to parents’ alleged inability to parent and properly care for their child. Sometimes a family member, friend, or neighbor will contact the police or CPS to alert them to a child being harmed or improperly cared for in some way by a parent. As you may already be aware of, some professions are mandatory reporters, and must contact CPS if they reasonably believe that a child is being harmed or improperly cared for. Some examples of mandatory reporters include teachers, counselors, and doctors.

Once CPS receives a tip or complaint, they open an investigation. They typically interview the parents, the child, and other witnesses, and do a home visit. Depending on the level of harm or neglect suffered by the child, CPS will refer the case to the Attorney General’s Office to review for opening a dependency action. The Attorney General’s Office then reviews the facts and completes an analysis using the standard under RCW 13.34.030(6). If it is believed that a child should become dependent, then the Attorney General’s Office files a Dependency Petition. If the Dependency Petition is granted, then the child becomes a ward of the state and a dependency action is started.

Where do children go if they can’t be with their parents?

Typically, children are placed in foster homes if there is a dependency action and the child is removed from their parents’ home. A foster parent must be licensed to have a child placed in their home. More information on becoming a foster parent can be found here: https://www.dcyf.wa.gov/services/foster-parenting/become-a-foster-parent. One thing to note is that the process to become licensed can be long and difficult depending on the prospective foster parent’s situation. This generally isn’t something that happens overnight, so be prepared for the process to take time.

Foster parents can be unknown third parties to the family involved, or a family member or friend will be asked to undergo the licensing process so the child can be with them. Placements with people known to the child are generally a preference unless placement with a family member or friend isn’t possible. Foster parents are paid by the state to care for the child for the length of time the child is placed in their care (a few days, weeks, months, or years depending on the length of the dependency action and subsequent outcome). A foster parent can choose the terms of their fostering relationship, and can opt to be a potential adoptive placement.

How does a dependent child become eligible for adoption?

The goal of a dependency action is to attempt to rehabilitate the parents and reunite the child with their parents if possible. However, that doesn’t always happen. If the court makes an initial finding of dependency, there are remedial services that a parent is required to complete, and visitation is ordered depending on the severity of the circumstances. If a parent fails to make progress on these requirements for a substantial period of time, the Attorney General’s Office can file a Petition for Termination of the Parent-Child Relationship. RCW 13.34.180. If a judge finds that the factors under the statute have been met, a parent’s parental rights can be terminated. A parent can also choose to relinquish (voluntarily give up) their parental rights. Once the parents’ parental rights are terminated or relinquished, the child becomes eligible for adoption.

A couple things for foster parents to note when going through this process is that even if a child is placed with you and is thriving in your home, if a parent is found to be making progress with services there is a possibility that the child will be returned to them. Another thing is that this part of the process can take a substantial period of time. Not only does a parent have to fail to make process for a substantial period of time (within 12 months according to RCW 13.34.180(1)(e)) for termination to be pursued, but a parent is entitled to a trial and entitled to an appeal of the trial court’s decision if their parental rights are terminated.

What happens after the parental rights are terminated?

As you have likely gathered from the information provided up to this point, the time from CPS report to termination of parental rights is a fairly long and involved process, so long term foster care placements with the possibility of adoption are preferred. If the child is not already in a prospective adoptive home once the parental rights are terminated, the state will work to place the child in a prospective adoptive home. Once the parental rights are terminated, things speed up if you are a prospective adoptive placement and the child has been successfully residing with you. As the child is a ward of the state, they continue to be involved and will help facilitate the adoption process.

Through the foster care process, a lot of the necessary steps for the adoption are taken care of. Both a Pre-Placement Report and Post-Placement Report are required for an adoption to take place, and the state takes care of both. The state also handles termination of the biological parents’ parental rights, which is another required step. When everything is deemed ready to proceed with the adoption finalization, the state can provide recommendations to private attorneys to complete the process or you have the opportunity to find a private attorney on your own.

What does the adoption finalization process look like?

After a child is deemed eligible for adoption, and there is a Post-Placement Report recommending adoption take place with the foster parent the child is residing with, the private attorney of the foster parent’s choice can move forward with finalizing the adoption. As mentioned above, a lot of the necessary steps have been completed in the foster care process. The adoption attorney then files the necessary court pleadings and schedules the finalization hearing. In Clark County, Washington, adoption finalization hearings take place on Friday afternoons.

After the final orders are entered regarding the adoption, the adoption attorney assists the now legal parents (previously foster parents) with obtaining a new birth certificate for the child. The waiting period for obtaining a new birth certificate from the state can be anywhere from two to twelve weeks depending on the state’s workload and capacity. One thing to note is that attorney’s fees and costs paid by a foster parent to finalize an adoption and obtain a new birth certificate are eligible for reimbursement through the state. Make sure to save copies of your attorney’s invoices or ask for copies so you have the appropriate paperwork to request a reimbursement.

A Few Final Thoughts

Choosing to adopt through the foster care system can be a great avenue for parents looking to expand their family and make an impact in a local child’s life. However, it can be a very long and involved process, and there can be a lot of uncertainty up to the point of the termination becoming final. Consulting with a private adoption attorney sooner rather than later can help make the adoption through foster care process a bit more transparent, but understand that a private adoption attorney’s role is quite limited. If you have questions about adoption through the foster care system, don’t hesitate to reach out to Navigate Law Group for an experienced attorney to assist you. 

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Disclaimer

Every legal issue is very unique. Accordingly, the information in this blog is intended as general education material and not as legal advice. If you think you may have a legal issue you should consult an attorney.