‘Days, months, years’: Older kids in foster care face a long road to a lasting home

A family poses for a picture at their home.
Jaseana and her parents, Susan and Brandon Drucker, pose for a picture with their two dogs at their Ham Lake, Minn., home on Sept. 30, 2019. The 14-year-old met the Drucker couple in October 2018. The family finalized the adoption process this summer.
Jiwon Choi | MPR News

Updated: 4:34 p.m.

On a long weekend, 14-year-old Jaseana Drucker was on her favorite couch, texting her friends on her cellphone — just what you imagine a typical eighth grader would be doing at home.

It was around lunchtime, so she walked up to the kitchen to grab a slice of pizza. It was leftover from last night’s slumber party at her family home in Ham Lake, Minn.

“Plastic plates can’t go in the microwave right?” Jaseana asked her mom, Susan Drucker.

“Is it paper though, honey? Then you’re fine,” Susan answered.

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These are moments that Jaseana waited for four years. Susan and Brandon Drucker and Jaseana first met just about a year ago at a park in Mankato, Minn.

“I just remember getting out of the car and being like, ‘Oh gosh, this is it,’” recalled Susan. “It was like, ‘We're meeting our kid today.’”

Until then, Jaseana was one of 820 Minnesota children waiting to be adopted last year. She was a foster child for six years, and in the meantime was free for adoption for four years.

“I got lucky,” said the 14-year-old. “It's nice to have something to come home to — instead of just like … living somewhere like, you could be in a foster home.”

Days, months, years of waiting

When she first entered foster care, Jaseana didn’t know it would take her that many years to meet someone who would bring her home.

“[I] realized it’s not going to be easy,” Jaseana said. “You’re going to wait your turn — like nothing just happens because it happens.”

In Minnesota, the majority of out-of-home placement cases stem from parental drug abuse, neglect or physical abuse. Once removed from parents, a child will then be placed in out-of-home care while caseworkers and the court seek the appropriate permanency option in the child’s best interest.

Reunification with parents is always the first goal, but if that is not safely possible and the court finds adoption to be the best option, then the child becomes a state ward and can seek adoption before turning 18.

The adoption process can take months or even years to ensure the arrangement is good for the child. And for older kids, like Jaseana, it could be even longer, or may never happen and they could simply age out of the system.

In 2017, 955 Minnesota children had finalized adoptions among 2,314 who needed adoption, a report by the Department of Human Services shows.

While there’s a gap between the numbers of children waiting for adoption and those who adopted, that gap was larger for the older ones between ages 12 and 17 — only 30 percent of older youth under state guardianship finalized adoptions that year.

Adoptees from the oldest age group — ages 15 to 18 — waited 805 days on average to find a permanent home in 2017. For the youngest group — birth through age 3 — that was 303 days.

Adoptive parents tend to prefer younger children over older ones because “at their best, teenagers are teenagers,” said Nikki Farago, assistant commissioner for Children and Family Services at the Minnesota Department of Human Services.

“They don't make things easy on any parent ever,” she said. “But in the same breath, they have so much to offer. But you have to invest the time and you have to be willing to do that.”

A child may not be willing to call you mom or dad right away or ever and you should be comfortable with that, said Michelle Chalmers, executive director and co-founder of adoption agency Ampersand Families. Ampersand Families’ service largely focuses on recruiting and supporting permanent families for older youth in the child welfare system.

“This is not just get a kid,” Chalmers said. “There's lots of kinds of adoption that are about getting a kid for a family. We're about finding a family for a kid and that's a very different thing.”

Unpacking the ‘No’

While the Drucker couple was the first family Jaseana met among those interested in adopting her, it wasn’t the first time she sought a permanent home while in the system. Her first foster placement was at her grandparents’ but her hope for them to adopt her and her brother was discouraged when they said they can’t.

That turned her skeptical of adoption — until last year.

“Basically after that, I really didn’t want to be adopted. And then my best friend at the time, she got adopted,” she said. “We talked a couple of times and she said she’s living a great life. And I said, ‘OK, maybe I want that,’ literally six months before [meeting the Druckers].”

Many children in the system have similar experiences, said Farago of DHS. On top of traumatic events the children had already gone through — including being removed from their parents and placed in a new environment — the idea of getting adopted can be daunting and scary, especially after being previously rejected for adoption, she said.

And the older you are, the more likely it is that you’ve been in care longer, and chances are that “you’ve experienced more and more trauma,” Farago said. “And you've been through all these experiences and to say affirmatively, ‘yes I want to be adopted’ — that’s opening yourself up for rejection and really having to be as vulnerable in that space.”

In Minnesota, teens who are 14 or older under state guardianship must consent to be adopted by a specific person. Even if a teen initially declines to be adopted, counties have to continue recruitment efforts while working with the kid to "unpack the no" so that the youth may be ready in the future to say yes if and when another adoptive resource is identified.

“[They say] ‘I've been rejected before. So why is it going to be different now? So, I'm going to put up and say no because then that's my choice to say no and I'm not being rejected,’” said Melissa Sherlock, program manager for Hennepin County’s children and family services.

“So, really a lot of that intensive child-specific recruitment is to try to unpack some of these and the past traumas and try to figure out ... where are we with this youth and how can we get them to a place where they're in a position to accept somebody who says, ‘I'm going to be your forever parent even if it's rocky.’”

Chalmers of Ampersand Families agrees. While a lot of people have a wonderful adoption experience, she said, “everything is not kumbaya.”

“Pretty much every one of our parents has at some point called us up just in tears like, ‘Oh my god, what have I done?’” she said. “You're really running a therapeutic home for a kid who's experienced trauma and that is a very different thing than just parenting a kid.”

A ‘very different but normal’ life

And that’s why Jaseana calls herself lucky: She found and accepted Susan and Brandon Drucker who were ready and willing to be her forever parents.

“It was kind of just like, ‘OK, let’s see how this goes. If I don’t like it, then I’ll say no,’” she recalled. “Then I met Susan and Brandon, and I am like, ‘maybe it’s meant to be, maybe they’re supposed to be my parents.’”

Brandon Drucker said he always knew he connects better with older kids, so when Susan first suggested adoption to him, things started falling into place pretty quickly.

After the decision to bring in a teenage kid, the couple started taking classes and training sessions that helped them create a list of what they can and can’t handle, “because I think in this process you have to go in without your rose-colored glasses like, ‘Oh, it's all gonna be magical and this child just going to move into your house and be an angel,’” said Susan Drucker.

“The trainings helped us ensure that we knew what we were signing up for as well as make a list of things we knew we personally couldn't handle in our home,” she said.

About 10 months later Jaseana moved to the Drucker house, they legally became a family in August.

Now the 14-year-old’s parents, who are in their early 30s, are ready for pretty much everything that could happen with their teenage daughter — including getting her 14th birthday present, making an unexpected ER visit and throwing a slumber party.

They said their family life has been “different but normal.”

“At first I think it was mostly just an adjustment to go from not having kids to having a kid,” Susan Drucker said. “Our life used to revolve around whatever we wanted it to revolve around which is mostly work and friends. But now we’ve got swim practice and we’ve got swim meets and we've got all these places to go to and be.”