Sean Anders was one of millions of Americans hoping to adopt a child someday, only feeling like he and his wife weren’t quite financially stable enough to do so. Then, when the comedy filmmaker hit it big with a string of successes, including the hits “We’re the Millers” and “Hot Tub Time Machine,” the couple decided to take the plunge.
But rather than go the traditional route of finding an infant through the private adoption process, which can take tens of thousands of dollars and years to complete, Anders decided to take a different route and adopt three siblings (one of whom was a teen) out of the foster care system. The result was an emotional rollercoaster that ultimately inspired him to co-write (with his partner John Morris from the smash hit “Daddy’s Home” films) and direct the new film “Instant Family,” in the hope of inspiring others to give foster kids a stable, permanent home.
“I thought I’m getting to the age where I’ll be an old dad who can’t throw a football when they’re 15, so I said ‘why not adopt a 5-year-old boy’ and my wife said she’d do it,” recalls Anders. “I said I was kidding, but we went to a website and learned about all these kids growing up without families. We instantly regretted our decision and felt out of our depths just like in the movie, but as we figured things out we became a family and realized it was the best decision we ever made.”
First Things First
The resulting film is remarkably effective at shining a spotlight on one of the most heartbreaking problems in American society (Please see review on page 27). According to the advocacy group Children’s Rights (childrensrights.org), there are nearly 438,000 children in foster care in the US on any given day, with more than 687,000 kids having spent time in US foster care in 2016. And in LA County alone, 22,000 children are awaiting adoptive families, yet have a harder time than infants to get adopted because people often assume they are psychologically and emotionally scarred.
Selena Liu spent 16 years working as a program director in Los Angeles-area foster care agencies including Kinship Center, Olive Crest and Altadena-based Five Acres, focusing on adoption, foster care and intensive-treatment foster care for children with heavy-duty issues. The former longtime resident of Pasadena now works with the Billions Institute, which assists foundations and nonprofits working to create system changes, one being reducing the mountains of bureaucratic red tape involved in the foster care system.
“One of the things that I think is great about Pasadena is that there are a lot of adoptive foster parents in the area, and having an area with a lot of families is key,” says Liu. “There are specific funding programs ongoing into Pasadena, which makes it easier on foster parents to have support.
“A lot of people initially think of finding babies through private adoption before seeking kids from foster care,” she continues. “Foster kids, foster parents and adoptive parents are all around you, but they’re often not spotlighted to protect their safety. But you can really help someone in your own community.”
Liu notes that those wishing to adopt foster children must first become foster parents themselves. The reason for that is to make sure the prospective parents fully understand the complexities involved in taking on an older child instead of an infant, and particularly the additional challenges of children who have been moved countless times from home to home while also dealing with their biological parents often fighting to reassert control over them.
“As good as a biological kid is at figuring out what your buttons are, foster kids can be even better at triggering the parents because they’re ambivalent about if they want to be in the new family,” explains Liu. “It may seem like a good story to you, but it’s complex from the child’s perspective. They recognize that having a family and stability can entirely change their future, but they’re still ambivalent.
“It becomes complicated so their cognitive dissonance about it triggers things and causes them to take it out on their adoptive parents,” she continues. “It’s not that the kid doesn’t want you, they’re testing you. The idea of that can be very scary to people, but there’s so much that can be redeemed in that whole journey. And the one other thing if I was to encourage families to think about this, is that a lot of people don’t realize there is a lot of support out there when you adopt from foster care you can access mentoring, support groups, therapy and you don’t have to pay for it. They recognize you need the support and it’s out there.”
Families for Kids
One local nonprofit that Liu works with via the Billions Institute is Journey House, which serves former foster and probation youth as they transition into adult life outside of structured systems. Jesse Aguiar serves as the agency’s director of its Beyond Foster Care program, and the 27-year-old is well-versed in the issues involved from his own experiences as a foster child growing up.
While Aguiar is eager to help increase opportunities for foster youth to be adopted and have the chance to thrive in stable homes, he does note the decision to adopt must be undertaken with eyes wide open and a deep determination to change a life.
“When a foster child is adopted out of the system, they lose their access to independent living programs (ILPs) that help foster youth get into housing as adults and receive rent, food and transportation assistance,” says Aguiar. “So if a family can’t handle caring for a kid once they hit 18, or give up on the child for any other reason, the kids are really at a huge disadvantage entering independent adulthood. We’re devoting the next year to helping agencies provide these resources to former foster youths, even if they were adopted, so no one is left behind.”
One parent who has been pleased with her experience in working with foster children and later adopting two teenage daughters is Pasadena resident Tiffany Sickler. A social worker in the foster care system, Sickler has one biological son and has had 13 foster children over the years, but decided to adopt two sisters ages 15 and 16 in 2012 who had endured 26 prior foster home placements and were facing yet another change.
“I had been approved as a foster parent, but didn’t have any kids in placement,” says Sickler. “I’m a single mom so I wasn’t ever looking to take in kids, but these were kids I was already aware of through my work as a social worker.
“Usually moves happen when families can’t handle them anymore, or the kids don’t want to live there anymore, or the birth family complains about them being there, or they’re too far away for easy biological family visits,” Sickler adds. “Social workers don’t just want to move kids around.”
Sickler notes that the first option pursued by social workers is to try and get kids back in with their biological families after therapy and other services to help improve their lives. The next best option is to have kids adopted by the families that are already fostering them, a move that is both emotionally stabilizing and far more affordable than private adoptions.
“Nonprofit agencies serve kids, so we’re looking for families for kids, not kids for families, and that’s a hard concept for new parents to grasp,” says Sickler. “These kids have histories and family attachments, or sibling sets, so it is a unique family composition. There are older kids or parts of larger sibling groups, histories of difficult behaviors, rejection and abandonment issues. Wondering why they have a different life than a kid who stayed with their biological family. But I believe there’s a family for every kid and sometimes it’s a rough around the edges kind of family.
“It’s always going to be challenging, but the rewards way outweigh the challenges,” she concludes. “My son has these two sisters that absolutely adore him. One of my daughters got married last year and it’s really cool. We reconnected with the church that the girls were a part of. Their childhood friends and extended family members have become our friends too. It’s just grasping the concept of a different kind of family dynamic, and they’ve done really well, graduated college and found happy healthy relationships of their own.”
November is National Adoption Month and Raise A Child is sponsoring foster and adoption information sessions throughout LA County from Nov. 28-Dec. 4, including a 6:30 to 8 p.m. event Nov. 29 at All Saints Church, 132 N. Euclid Ave., Pasadena. Visit raiseachild.org/events.
For those needing services for transitioning out of foster care into adult life, call Journey House at (626) 798-9478 or visit journeyhouseyouth.org.