Why are There So Many Older Children in Foster Care?: Barriers to Adoption of Older Kids

by Madelyne Grim

Department of Sociology, Indiana University of Pennsylvania

When you think of a growing family, what comes to mind? A new a baby? Possibly other children, as well? Stereotypes about what a family “should” look like in our society impacts how people think about and proceed with adoptions. Prospective adoptive parents commonly believe that adopting younger children is always better (Geiger, et. al., 2014), and why wouldn’t they? They get to raise the child and mold them as their own. They can instill their values, and maybe even be there for first words and first steps. However, in 2016 the median age of children entering foster care was six years old, a quarter with the goal of adoption, and most staying years in the system (DHSS, 2017).

Mabry11.jpg.pnghttps://www.togetherwerise.org/blog/myth 1

Believe it or not, adopting younger children may not always be the best option for parents. It comes down to the known versus the unknown. When it comes to children in foster care who are up for adoption, prospective parents know a child likely experienced some trauma, like neglect or abuse. Older children can describe their experiences, and case workers often can tell prospective parents about the impacts of trauma on a child in care. Younger children, however, may not be able to share their stories, and the consequences of their trauma may not yet be evident.

So, what draws prospective parents away from adopting older children and towards the younger ones? Why are older children languishing in foster care? That is the question I explored with my Sociology research group recently (Grim, Piper, and Gray-Lawson, 2018). We interviewed a convenience sample of six adoption case workers and agency professionals from local, regional, and national organizations. After analyzing the interview data, we identified three main factors contributing to ever declining chances of adoption for older children in foster care: prospective parents’ beliefs about older children, prospective parents’ beliefs about their ability to parent older children, and barriers in the foster care and legal systems.

Table 1.

Factors Contributing to Prevalence of Older Children in Foster Care

Factor Characteristics
Beliefs about Adopting Older Foster Children ·         Older children will have behavioral/adjustment problems

·         Older children will be a negative influence on younger kids

·         Older children will not bond with adoptive family easily

Beliefs about Parenting Older Foster Children ·         Unprepared to help traumatized older children cope

·         Not enough time to make a difference in a child’s life

Foster Care/Legal System Barriers ·         Lack of support resources, like parenting guidance

·         Court delays in making children eligible for adoption

Barrier Beliefs about Adopting Older Children

Older children in the foster care system are labeled “special needs” since it takes a greater effort to place them with a family than it does infants and younger children (Barth, 1997, cited in Brooks, et. al., 2002). It is a common belief that older children in foster care will enter homes with behavioral issues, negatively influence younger children already residing in the home, and have difficulties bonding with new family members and adults (Geiger, et. al., 2014). Many prospective parents also turn away from older children as they believe that the child has already lived “so much” of their lives. This, however, is not the case, as there are milestones still to be achieved in adolescence, such as learning to drive, extracurricular events, graduating from high school and college, and getting married (Grim, et. al., 2018). The child’s life does not stop once they reach adolescence, and they still need the support of a trustworthy adult and the stability of a loving family.

Barrier Beliefs Prospective Parents Have About Their Ability

Prospective parents’ doubts about their own parenting skills may be a barrier to adopting older children, as well. If parents feel that they are not prepared to care for an older child with challenges due to their own lack of experience and/or training. This issue can be addressed through prospective parent programs and teaching tactics that have been found to be effective in older child placements. Some of these include setting and maintaining appropriate boundaries, responding to their concerns and troubles with sensitivity, displaying warmth and acceptance, and having higher rates of supervision (Wright & Flynn, 2006).

Another concern for parents is that they feel as if they will not be able to make a lasting impact on the child. When it comes to fostering an older child, they fear that there is not enough time to create a difference and help this child before they age out of placement. In connection with this, parents also have concerns that they will not be able to create a bond/ relationship with an older child, especially when biological parents are still in the picture (Grim, et. al., 2018).

Barriers Outside of Children’s & Parents’ Characteristics

Prospective parents already have initial concerns about bringing an older child into their home who has experienced trauma. They should not be concerned about whether they will receive adequate support services for helping the child deal with trauma or legal issues. Yet, prospective parents do worry about these problems. According to the professionals we interviewed, this is a common barrier to adoption. Services are needed before, during, and after placement. A child’s past can also present as a barrier to adoption. Prospective parents will hear a high bed count number and make a decision not to take a child solely on that; same goes for any legal troubles. Prospective parents may make decisions without context regarding the child’s situation. If they take the time to learn the child’s history and ask questions, there is a good chance they will find out that the child did what they needed to survive at the time, in the situation they were living in.

Annie E. Casey Foundation (2018) . National Kids Count. https://datacenter.kidscount.org/data/ 1

Another significant outside factor that our study participants reported as a barrier to adoption of older children occurs in the courts. The goal of foster care often is to reunite children with their biological families, so judges may delay terminating parental rights. This, in turn, may add to children’s trauma by drawing out the time they remain in foster care. This occurs sometimes even when there is clear evidence that reuniting the child and biological parents is no longer an option (Grim, et. al., 2018). Placing a child with another family member for care can also be problematic, as abuse is often multigenerational and can continue in other related households.

What Can Be Done to Help?

Small steps can improve services both for children in foster care and their (prospective) adoptive parents. One of these steps is parents getting a chance to interview the children to get a sense of the child’s needs and adjustments the parents would need to make. It could also be helpful to have children in foster care share their concerns and needs with prospective adoptive parents to help the parents better understand the child’s experiences and what they are looking for in a family/home. Another step would be careful education of prospective adoptive parents on misconceptions that are barriers to adoption of older children. Having prospective parents talk with experienced adoptive parents who have had successful placements might be helpful in dispelling misperceptions and sharing tactics that work.




When it comes to helping prospective parents feel more prepared to care for an adolescent, it may be beneficial to provide and promote training workshops that educate about helping older children cope with trauma and how to enhance adjustment and attachment. Parenting an older child who has experienced trauma and the challenges that come with that is a daunting prospect for prospective adoptive parents, we learned from the case workers who guide families through the adoption process.  Providing support for parents and therapy programs for older children can help them both in forging a future together.


If you are interested in adoption, please visit: https://www.adoptuskids.org/ or, for adoption in Pennsylvania: http://www.adoptpakids.org/

If you’re interested in a career in adoption services, The Adoption Exchange Network: http://www.adoptea.org


Brooks, D., James, S., & Barth, R. P. (2002). Preferred characteristics of Children in Need of

Adoption: Is there a Demand for Available Foster Children?. Social Service Review, 76(4), 575.

Department of Health and Human Services. (2017). The AFCARS Report.  Administration for Children and Families, Administration on Children, Youth and Families, Children’s Bureau, https://www.acf.hhs.gov/cb

Geiger, J. M., Hayes, M. J., & Lietz, C. A. (2014). Providing Foster Care for Adolescents: Barriers

and Opportunities. Child and Youth Services, 35(5), 237-254. doi:10.1080/0145935X2014.938736

Grim, M. K., Gray-Lawson, A., & Piper, K. (2018). Prospective Parents’ Perceptions of Older

Children in Foster Care and Barriers of Adoption. SOC 461 Research Report. Department of Sociology, Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

Wright, L., Flynn, C. C. (2006, May). Adolescent adoption: Success despite challenges. Retrieved

October 10, 2017, from http://www/sciencedirect.com.proxy-iup.klnpa.org/science/




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