‘Kids are still waiting’: Adoption and COVID-19

The Badger Family poses for a photo. Pictured (from left to right) are Kaitlyn, Kinsley, Maren, Leshia, Amber, Casey, Jeremiah and Andrew. 

COVID-19 has impacted many aspects of our world, but one thing it hasn’t changed is that there are children in need of loving homes.

There are more than 900 children in Minnesota’s foster care system who are waiting to be placed with adoptive families, said Rachel Walstad. Walstad is the executive director of MN Adopt, a nonprofit organization that supports families throughout the various stages of the adoption process.

“The reality is that kids are still waiting,” she said. “The pandemic hasn’t changed that.”

It has, however, changed how state and private adoption agencies are currently operating.

“They’re working really hard to figure out what barriers exist because of our current situation and seeing how many of those they can remove,” Walstad said. “Whether that’s moving more trainings online or having meetings between a family and a social worker via Zoom … Things like that allow families to continue to move through the process so that we can find homes for these kids.”

That means if families have been considering adoption, they shouldn’t let the pandemic postpone their plans — no matter where they are in the process.

“If people are still interested, they should be contacting us (MN Adopt) or their county or their agency,” Walstad said. “Just because COVID-19 is happening doesn’t mean that if they’ve been thinking about adoption, they have to wait till it’s all over to start the process. They can continue to move along as feels comfortable for them, because the need is definitely still there.”

Interest in adoption hasn’t waned since COVID-19 struck Minnesota. In fact, it has increased. At least, that is true at Children’s Home Society & Lutheran Social Services (CHSLSS), where Heidi Wiste is the director of foster care adoption.

“We haven’t seen a slowdown in any of our intake. We’ve actually seen people continue to come through (and) continue to inquire about foster care and adoption,” said Wiste.

That surprised CHSLSS staff, according to Wiste.

“We were thinking, ‘Well, who’s going to want to step forward now? People are losing their jobs. People are furloughed,’ and yet we have families who are like, ‘I’m home; I can complete my paperwork now,’ and ‘I’m home; I can do these trainings,’” she said. “They haven’t let the setbacks in what’s happening to them personally stop them from learning more and taking that next step.”

Modern technology, Wiste also noted, has helped make that continuation possible.

“Before, where we would have done most of this work in person, we’ve just moved everything online. Although we don’t have that in-person contact, we do at least have a video component,” she said. “Although it has a few drawbacks … it has the added benefit of helping more people move through the process.”

Even amid the pandemic, children have been able to transition into their adoptive homes, though with proper precautions in place.

“We don’t want to put anybody at risk. When a placement is happening, we’re making sure that everybody is comfortable and safe to do that,” Wiste said. “These 905 children still need permanency, despite social distancing and despite COVID-19. It’s been really wonderful to see what we’ve still been able to do, despite how we aren’t able to do it in the most preferred manner.”

Shoreview resident Maren Badger and her husband, Casey, can attest to the power of adoption in their own lives. They have six children, four of whom they adopted from the foster care system. After the births of their two biological children, Maren said, she and Casey started looking into adoption as a means of growing their family.

“I’m a Type 1 diabetic, and I have been since I was 2. We knew at some point it wasn’t going to be possible for me to have children,” she said. “After 20-plus years of being a Type 1 diabetic, it just gets harder and harder.”

Maren and Casey originally considered international adoption, but the financial and time demands proved too great.

“The travel expenses and all the other unknowns were overwhelming,” Maren said. “We had two small children. We couldn’t just up and leave them for six weeks at a time to make an adoption run to go to China or Russia or wherever it may be.”

Though they were then unfamiliar with the foster-adoption system, they looked further into it after a friend planted the seed. “I can’t remember who it was, maybe someone at church. They said, ‘Well, why don’t you look at domestic (adoption)?’ I was like, ‘Oh, we can do that?’”

A Ramsey County adoption class gave Maren and Casey an overview of the process, but Maren said it also worried them.

“We were completely freaked out. We said, ‘Oh no, no, we can’t do this,’” she remembered. “But we went home, talked about it some more, kind of went back and forth for a while, but then just said, ‘You know what? Let’s just go into foster care, and if a situation arises, then we’ll see where it goes.”

They got licensed for foster care through a private agency and were nearly immediately placed with two half-siblings, both of whom have what Maren described as significant special needs.

“Everything that we had heard in the class that we were afraid of happening was happening. I was running late to work, and having to chase kids through the yard and so forth … It was a complete disaster at first,” she said. “But we bonded with them, and they bonded with us.”

Maren and Casey adopted one of the children, Amber, who will be 18 this summer. Her birth brother was adopted by another family, for whom the Badgers provide respite care—short-term relief for primary caregivers—about two or three times a year.

After adopting Amber, the Badgers continued to open their home to children in the foster care system, caring for about 17 foster children over the years. When they received a call about two sisters—Kinsley and Leshia, then 3 and 5 years old—they immediately agreed to take them in. A few days later, the girls’ brother, Jeremiah, who had been living in a separate home, joined them.

“We took them all in, and they just fit so wonderfully with our family, and we got along with their birth mother really, really wonderfully,” Maren said. “We had a fabulous relationship with her. She would come to our house on Christmas … I’d text her, and she’d text me asking how the kids were doing that day. We’d send her their school pictures. It was a very positive relationship.”

The children’s birth mother had been working to regain custody, but she ultimately decided her children were better off in Maren and Casey’s hands.

“She just decided she couldn’t do it. She had the first one at 15, and so she was a very, very young mother and didn’t have any support,” Maren said. “She called us and asked if she could sign the kids over to us … For us, it was just one of those things where you say yes, no hesitation.”

In September 2018, their birth mother died of a drug overdose, which Maren said was “a gut punch” to their whole family.

“It was really, really hard for us and the kids,” she said. “But I think she knew, deep down, that were kids were okay, that they could see the life that she never had for herself. I think that meant a lot to her.”

Now, with six children all under the age of 18, the Badgers have a bigger family and busier day-to-day lives than they originally anticipated, but Maren said they couldn’t be happier. Her family’s experience with the foster care and adoption systems has helped dispel misconceptions she previously had, and she hopes to help dispel those misconceptions for others.

“I wish more people knew about (domestic adoption). I really do, because I’ve had people whisper in my ear, surprised, ‘They’re just normal kids.’ Yep, they are,” she said. “It’s been wonderful for our family, and it has exposed other families that we know to get involved in foster care as well because they’ve seen us do it and be successful, even with our struggles.”

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