Rethinking “Forever Family”

A picture of a person holding a white paper cutout of a a family in their hands.

Maybe it’s because we are in a time of such turmoil politically, environmentally, in our personal, social, and work lives, that I’ve seen an increase in the use of “forever” as an adjective. It seems like we are all looking for more security.

But when I started hearing this used with pets, and with houses (I’m looking at you HGTV – what is up with “Forever home?!?”) I was struck by how much our society seems to want to feel like things won’t change, that we can somehow use language to cover up our feelings of instability and uncertainty. It’s a term that’s supposed to make us feel secure and good; I get that. But like many adoptees, I’ve disliked the term “forever families” for years.

Recently, a friend of mine, a transracial adoptee, wrote on their social media page, “Adoptive parents (and everyone else for that matter), please remove the phrase “Forever Family” from your cultural and individual lexicon. It is a form of violent erasure for adoptees and birth families.”

I agree. It’s time to stop using the term “forever family” when it comes to adoption.

Someone asked why I disliked the term “forever family” and I wrote:

I think it’s a dishonest term *in general* and perpetuates this idea that familial bonds can’t be broken, changed, altered, whatever. Every child who has been adopted has had at least one family that has not been “forever” so we are in some ways trying to make people feel better and hopeful that the second/next/subsequent family will be one that doesn’t change or alter. But people move in and out of families all the time! Divorce, abandonment, estrangement, these all are realities for many families whether adoption is involved or not. Specific to adoptive families, sometimes adoptive parents divorce, sometimes adoptees are placed in out of home care or other relatives or even strangers, sometimes they run away or get kicked out of the house. There is no such thing as permanency, I’d rather we talk about how to strengthen family relationships in the midst of lots of ambiguous loss for adoptees and adoptive families. That we can’t always prevent these family disruptions from happening. I don’t know, I also get that we want adoptees to feel a sense of security after they’ve experienced loss and insecurity, but can we really promise “forever?”

I had previously written in another place that every adoptee knows families are not always forever, otherwise we would have not been adopted. I mean, aren’t all of us supposed to have been in our “forever families?” Or does that mean that for every person – including those who have not been adopted – we see our first families or families of origin as “not forever?” Do those who have not been adopted but were raised by their biological parents call their families “forever families” too? The term seems to be designated just for us adoptees and those of us who have spent time in foster care or orphanages.

I think the term is dishonest because some of us have had previous “forever families” that were not actually forever. This could include our families of origin or it could include previous adoptive families. In my research on intercountry adoption displacement, adoptees did not feel their adoptive families were their “forever families” because many of them did not experience that unconditional love and support that adoptive families were supposed to give them. Some were re-adopted legally, some were informally placed with others, and all of them experienced relationship impermanence with their supposed “forever family.”

Child welfare and adoption professionals use the adjective “forever” as a hopeful ideology (also the term “permanency”), but in reality they cannot actually promise a child in the system this because we cannot guarantee that adoptive parents won’t change their mind about the child. Adoption disruption and dissolution rates are hard to determine but recent conversations I’ve been part of with different federal and local agencies estimate anywhere from 10-25% of adoptions do not end up “permanent” and I would add that this is only looking at legal permanence – if the adoptive parents actually legally end (dissolve) the adoption in a court of law. There has been no way to determine just how many adoptees experience residential or relationship breakdowns. Brodzinsky and Smith (2019) pointed out that when we talk about permanency we actually are referring to three concepts – legal permanency (i.e. adoption), residential permanency (i.e. living in an adoptive home) and relational permanency (i.e. adoptive parents and adoptee have a mutually satisfying and meaningful relationship).

Adoption language has often been changed to feel more loving and hopeful and less shame-based and derogatory – but in some ways I think in attempting to promote a “positive adoption language” we have gone too far the other way and obscured and erased that there is a lot of negative aspects to adoption. Not all birth/first parents “make a plan” for adoption or “relinquish.” Some actually do abandon us.

Those of us adoptees who were not white infants without any siblings or disabilities at the time we were in foster care or orphanages were NOT “special needs” but *were* hard to place in a culture that prioritized the needs of white married heterosexual couples looking to adopt a child that looked as if they were born to them. At the time of this language change, the use of “special needs” was supposed to shift the framework to what we as children needed but didn’t achieve that because the system itself was still catering to prospective adoptive parents. Adding additional money (or reducing the fees) to convince white married heterosexual couples to adopt us *despite* our race, disability, age, or siblings might have propelled more of us to get placed in families but didn’t necessarily ensure all of our needs were met – especially if we were BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) and placed with white parents.

“Forever family” is, as one of my research study participants said, “a Hallmark idea.” It’s a feel-good phrase meant to make people feel good but is like a sock in the face to those of us who have known the devastating reality of losing a family. And I would say it’s not just those of us who have foster care/orphanage care/adoption histories that experience the loss of our supposed “forever family.” It’s not any surprise to me at all that a large percentage of people experiencing homelessness in the U.S. have foster care or adoption histories AND/OR identify as LGBTQ and were kicked out of their homes because of their sexual orientation/gender identity.

The reality is, like I wrote on my friend’s social media post, families change. All the time. People leave, people join for a while or stay for a long time, people divorce, people die, people become estranged. A person who has experienced a lot of relationship change in their life knows that “forever” and “permanency” are false promises. Adoptive parents divorce. Adoptive parents die. Adoptive parents sometimes emotionally check out with their child. Sometimes adoptees are kicked out. Sometimes they’re removed because of abuse/neglect by their adoptive parents.

Let’s advocate for truth-telling and begin supporting the skills people need to understand what relationship change looks like and means and how we can support each other’s deeply resonant and meaningful relationships for however long they last. We need to teach each other and support each other through what it means to grieve relationship losses rather than assume that quickly finding that “next one” will solve all of our sadness and hurt from the end of that last relationship, just like we wouldn’t assume after a couple divorces or ends their relationship that the next person they date will become their next “forever spouse.”

Children need stability, they need people to love them, they need adults to help them understand what has happened to them and help them develop and build emotional tools and skills to be able to work through the ups and downs that life will give them. Adoptive parents can be those people; and so can many others. Instead of promising “forever” why can’t we acknowledge that “forever” is hard to achieve, and work to meet people where they are right now, and together figure out how each of us can move forward together, hand in hand, or arm in arm?

**Brodzinsky, D., & Smith, S. L. (2019). Commentary: Understanding research, policy, and practice issues in adoption instability. Research on Social Work Practice, 29(2), 185-194.

One thought

  1. Fantastic article Thankyou! We should also consider the reality that forever family in intercountry adoption also implies forever country .. yet the fact that America actively deports its intercountry adoptees after 40 odd years of us being raised in our adoptive country, and still hasn’t provided citizenship to those adopted pre 1983, says that “forever country” is also a legal myth.

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