Opinion I was a foster child. Foster care adoptions won’t solve the end of Roe.

(Vanessa Lovegrove for The Washington Post)
(Vanessa Lovegrove for The Washington Post)

Andrew Bridge is the author of the best-selling memoir “Hope’s Boy.”

With the fall of Roe v. Wade, anti-choice governors have advice for what to do with unwanted children: Give your newborns to the foster care system, and they’ll be adopted. But if these governors had even the barest understanding of their states’ foster systems, they would know that adoption is not the true purpose. I’m certain of this because I grew up in the system myself.

One of my earliest memories is of babies crying in my foster parents’ house. I was 7, and these were the first infants I held, the first I changed and fed. Many came without a name, with no known family or idea of who they were.

Los Angeles County had taken me from my mother. Mom had grown up poor, never graduated from high school, was abandoned by my father and had her first schizophrenic break just as I started first grade. I was placed in a chaotic children’s institution. Eventually, a foster home was found. Babies arrived day and night, so fragile they made me nervous. When they left, I stopped asking where they were taken. No one in the house knew.

I was never adopted — which is true of more than 70 percent of children in care. This is because foster care operates not to encourage adoption but with the opposite goal: to reunite children with their birthparents as soon as safety allows. Finding a relative or an adoptive family should’ve been the aim in my case, but the system failed at both.

No mother can simply hand her child to a foster care department. If she tries, she’ll be given a lawyer, and her baby will linger in the system while a court decides what to do. In every state, the mother will be billed for the cost of care.

“Baby Moses” or “safe haven” laws exist in every state. And a mother can abandon her newborn at a fire station, church or police precinct — a solution Justice Amy Coney Barrett offered as the answer to unwanted pregnancy, asking during oral arguments to overturn Roe, “Why don’t the safe haven laws take care of that problem?” But it’s much more complicated than Barrett’s question suggests.

The laws vary on how old a newborn can be, who can take the baby and what a mother will be asked. If a mother gets it wrong, she’ll be open to criminal prosecution. The abandoned infant will enter foster care with no family to call, no one to share information on its medical history, no history of any kind. Safe havens are simply not that safe.

Post-Roe newborns given up by their mothers will join the 43,000 babies already in foster care. But they will be a class of their own, with even fewer chances than other foster children.

Relatives provide homes for a third of all foster children. In some systems, as many as half of children are placed with extended family. Relatives are also some of the biggest adopters of foster children. But an abandoned infant’s family will be hard to find, leaving the child to be moved repeatedly from one 30-day emergency home to another or put in a congregate facility.

Opinion: As an adoptee, I know: Adoption is not a fairy-tale answer to abortion

As of September 2020, 117,000 foster children were waiting to be adopted. And the number of adoptions is dropping. On average, an adopted child will spend nearly three years in foster care before leaving the system.

But no honest discussion about foster care can ignore race. The fact is, the darker a child’s skin, the longer that child will be in care and the less likely the child will be adopted — a crucial point when Latina and Black women, lacking equal access to quality health care and contraception, are disproportionally at risk of unintended pregnancy.

I know this from firsthand experience. After aging out of foster care at 18, I attended college (on a scholarship) and graduated from law school, then led a children’s rights organization and, later, one of California’s largest foster care adoption agencies. Trying to recruit foster and adoptive parents, I’ll never forget how many were willing to adopt — but only if the child was White or Asian.

Before they were consumed by foster care departments, independent public adoption agencies operated with smaller bureaucracies, hired social workers trained in evaluating adoptive parents and finalized adoptions in independent courts. Reviving them would take years. Even then, infants would be left to the sluggish planning of public care and the same struggles in recruiting families that exist today.

As little as I had while in foster care, it is possible to have less. A post-Roe newborn won’t be a romantic foundling. The infant’s future will be decided in a courtroom. No family, foster parent or adoptive family will be there. The assigned social worker is unlikely to show up. The baby’s life will be reduced to a file among a stack of others. The hearing will take less than 10 minutes. And no one there will have ever heard that child crying.

Roe v. Wade and abortion access in America

Roe v. Wade overturned: The Supreme Court has struck down Roe v. Wade, which for nearly 50 years has protected the right to abortion. Read the full decision here.

What happens next?: The legality of abortion will be left to individual states. That likely will mean 52 percent of women of childbearing age would face new abortion limits. Thirteen states with “trigger bans” will ban abortion within 30 days. Several other states where recent antiabortion legislation has been blocked by the courts are expected to act next.

State legislation: As Republican-led states move to restrict abortion, The Post is tracking legislation across the country on 15-week bans, Texas-style bans, trigger laws and abortion pill bans, as well as Democratic-dominated states that are moving to protect abortion rights enshrined in Roe v. Wade.

How our readers feel: In the hours that followed the ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Washington Post readers responded in droves to a callout asking how they felt — and why.

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