By the numbers
9,417 children in Washington are in out-of-home care.
1,715 of these children are legally free, meaning the child has no legal parent and is waiting to be adopted.
Source: Washington State Department of Social and Health Services
Learn more about adoption in Washington:
• Children’s Administration: www.dshs.wa.gov/CA/adoption/how-to-adopt or 360-993-7900.
• Northwest Adoption Exchange: www.nwae.org or 1-800-927-9411.
• Washington State DSHS Adoptions: www.facebook.com/WAStateAdoptions/.
Earlier this month, Sheryl Herd officially adopted 2-year-old Karter, a milestone celebrated with balloons, cake and Karter dabbing tears from his mom’s eyes. It was the anniversary of the day Herd’s dad passed away in 2011.
“There were lots of tears for multiple reasons,” she said.
Adoption in Washington typically takes about 7 months from the termination of parental rights to the adoption being finalized.
Herd may now be Karter’s legal parent, but that doesn’t mean relationships with his biological family are off the table. His biological mother came to his second birthday party at Dizzy Castle last month. And Karter has a younger brother that Herd wants him to know. She also contacted his grandfather, who cried as they talked on the phone.
“He was there when Karter was born and held him and then has not seen him since and wondered what happened to him,” said Herd, who began fostering Karter when he was just four days old.
The 46-year-old would like to see more adoptive families recognize the importance of connecting with biological relatives.
“Even if they’re broken, even if they’re flawed, they’re a part of this child that you love, so why would you not do your best to keep that connection?” she said. “The biological families, they can really just be an extension of your family.”
Though there are cases where contacting parents is not in the best interest of a child, there might be an aunt, uncle or grandparent that could answer a child’s questions about where they come from and who they are. If anything feels inappropriate or unsafe, Herd has the legal right to stop the contact. Parents have the option to communicate with relatives on behalf of the child, too.
Brandy Otto, the adoptions area administrator for the state Department of Social and Health Services, said Washington used to be a closed state; adopted children never heard from their biological families after parental rights were terminated. There’s since been a cultural and policy shift.
In the last few years, there’s been a larger push for DSHS to find and contact relatives. The agency tries to determine whether suitable relatives are OK with providing family information, having a relationship with the child or possibly having the child placed in their home. Nearly half of foster children are adopted by relatives.
“If (adoptive parents) are wanting to have that open communication, we embrace it 100 percent,” she said.
Otto herself was adopted and didn’t meet her biological dad until she was 30. It’s a different story for adopted children today.
“I don’t want Karter to ever feel like he’s going to hurt my feelings if he’s curious about where he came from,” Herd said. “Nowadays it’s so easy to find people, but it wasn’t always that easy.”
All three of her now-grown daughters were adopted in California through closed adoptions.
“Open adoption really wasn’t as common then in California,” Herd said.
Children naturally have questions. Who do I look like? Why do I feel sick when I eat this food? Why do I have trouble gaining weight or losing weight? Why do I act the way I do? She watched her daughters go through the anxiety of wondering what would happen if they reached out to biological relatives to answer some of these questions.
Aubrey, 19, recently connected with her birth mom on Facebook and found out that she has a 4-year-old brother. When Aubrey had to have emergency gallbladder removal surgery, she learned that health issue runs in the family. Cambria, 16, connected with her biological relatives, learning she has a couple of siblings. Shelby, 20, knows some information about her birth family but isn’t interested in connecting with them.
Herd adopted Shelby when she was a baby after trying unsuccessfully to have her own children. Then Aubrey and Cambria came along. The family moved to Vancouver from Tulare, Calif. in 2004. Shelby had developed severe asthma due to the poor air quality in the Central Valley, and Vancouver offered a healthier climate and the chance to be close to Herd’s family.
Otto said foster parents are also talking more at trainings about how to establish appropriate communications with a child’s biological relatives.
Herd got her foster license in Washington and fostered her cousin’s kids, who later reunited with their family. Afterward, she fostered Karter.
“I was never actually able to give birth. I’m eternally grateful to these biological families because they gave me the gift of motherhood,” Herd said. “It’s not a competition. They’re not a threat. They’re actually a huge blessing.”
Her family will have Thanksgiving with the family of two siblings, a four-month old and a 2-year-old, Herd is fostering. Their biological mom tagged along during a trip to a pumpkin patch, too.
More adoptions could be in the future, but it is “really in God’s hands,” she said. Either way, Herd is thankful for the family she’s built.