There’s a special way to make a profound contribution in the world—one you surely know about but maybe haven’t actually thought about. It is adopting or foster-parenting a teenager. Those who do it find it unbelievably rewarding to share and help guide these deeply appreciative young people through many of life’s milestones, including learning to drive, first dates, graduating from high school and getting their first job. Even more rewarding is the knowledge that you’re making a difference—perhaps the biggest, best difference possible—in a child’s life. The teenage years are an especially critical period during which children need guidance and stability. 

Sadly, although approximately 19% of kids in foster care waiting to be ­adopted are teens, last year only 10% of adoptions from foster care were teenagers. Those who age out of the system without finding adoptive families face a world where they are more likely to be unemployed and homeless versus their peers who are adopted.

Bob Herne, MSW, national project director for AdoptUSKids.org, explains the joys, concerns and details about bringing a foster or adoptive teen into your home…

What are some common misconceptions about fostering? A lot of people hear “foster youth” and think that the child is in the system because of something he/she did. Not so. It’s because his/her parent was unable to keep that child safe. These children are not at fault. Most are scared, don’t know what’s happening to them and crave guidance and care. 

Another misconception? Lots of interested parents don’t think they’re good enough to be foster or adoptive parents. All families have quirks, and those quirks are our greatest strengths. These are the qualities that allow us to relate to each other. So long as you can provide love, safety and unconditional commitment, you can do this. We have empty nesters who still want to actively help a younger person and older professionals who spent years focusing on career, never had kids and now, in their 50s, feel ready. 

In most states there is no age limit to adopt. Being older offers unique advantages—you have a lifetime of experience to draw on, and older parents tend to be more patient. Both can be tremendously beneficial to a teenager. You just need to show that you can parent the child. You can be single or partnered…straight, gay or anywhere else on the LGBTQ+ spectrum…and own or rent your home. 

Screening includes…

Standard background check, including fingerprinting, to show that you have not been convicted of any major crimes.

Attending a training curriculum, where you will learn more about the children and youth who are living in foster care and how to best meet their needs.

Providing information to show you can sufficiently support yourself financially.

Home study, where a social worker will assist in understanding you and your support system and assist in determining the child/youth whose needs you can best meet (see below).

Can I really handle helping a child through whatever difficulties got him to this point? When beginning the fostering process, a social worker will conduct a home study, designed to find the right match between you and a youth. The social worker will ask about your family, career and community…if you’re open to children of different ethnicities…what types of experiences you’ve overcome in your life…and more.

All children removed from their families have experienced some form of trauma. At a minimum, they’ve lost their primary caregivers, friends, maybe their teachers and classmates. Many also have been abused or neglected or witnessed violence or drug use. There are straight-A students, children who struggle academically, kids with ­emotional issues, ones who are incredibly well-adjusted. There is a family out there for every one of them. 

No family will be put into a situation where they don’t feel comfortable or able to help the child feel safe, loved and unconditionally accepted. The child-welfare professional works with the family and the youth to meet the needs of both. 

What kind of support does one receive when fostering or adopting a teen? You and the child will receive 24/7 emotional and informational support from your foster agency and access to a social ­worker. There also are support groups for foster and adoptive parents that can help guide you and share resources and ideas. Families will work with social workers to determine the services and supports that a child needs to thrive.

On the financial side, there usually are no (or at most, minimal and reimbursable) fees involved. Foster families receive a monthly state and federal subsidy based on the child’s age and needs to help cover expenses, but the subsidies do not cover all the expenses of raising a child/youth. 

The majority of families adopt after a child has been placed in their home for foster care. However, there are families that are interested only in adoption. Support includes a monthly adoption-assistance payment that is set by the county or state. Adoption and foster payments last until the child reaches age 18 to 21, depending on the state. 

Will I need to interact with the child’s biological family? Is that safe? When a child first enters foster care, the main goal generally is reunification with the biological family, so there usually are supervised visits. Sometimes those visits are supervised by a social worker, who will bring the child to the family, or you may be asked to partner with the family directly. The family and social worker will determine what is safe for the foster family. Honestly, most biological parents are not scary. While they may have issues they are dealing with, such as drug addiction or mental illness, they love their children and are grateful that families are opening up their homes for their children. I operated a large agency for 18 years and never once has a biological family threatened or harmed a foster family assisting in visits. 

I’m not ready to commit just yet. How else can I get involved? If you’re not able or ready to bring a child into your home, you still can help. Volunteer to mentor a college-bound foster youth (www.fc2success.org)…or become a court-appointed special advocate (CASA) volunteer, which means you’re empowered by the courts to advocate on behalf of a child in foster care ­(NationalCASAgal.org). A CASA spends time with and gets to know the child and informs the court about the child’s needs. You could become a respite-care provider—short-term child-care relief for parents and caregivers—or fundraise or donate supplies to foster care organizations. 

These children need to hear over and over that someone cares about them. These options allow you to do just that. 

To learn more, AdoptUSKids.org can refer you to a local agency to help start the process.