Dear Davion: It Was the System, Not You

Jeff Katz, foster care adoption advocate

By now, millions of Americans have heard about your incredibly brave appearance at a church in Florida. It took enormous courage for a 15-year-old child to stand up in front of an entire church and plead for a family. And you were so eloquent: “I’ll take anyone; old or young, dad or mom, black, white, purple. I don’t care. And I would be really appreciative. The best I could be…”

I am glad that your story went viral and that 10,000 people were so moved by your courage and eloquence that they came forward to adopt you. And I am thrilled that a family has been identified.

We’ve never met and I don’t know anything specific about your experience. I only know that your mother was addicted to crack cocaine and was incarcerated when you were born and that you have been in foster care your whole life. But there is one thing I understand that you may not. If the child welfare system worked as it should have, and as you deserved, you would have spent most of your childhood in the loving embrace of an adoptive family. The system failed you. Completely.

From the time you were a baby, Florida should have been actively looking for a family for you. The Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 requires that when a child is in care for 15 of the preceding 22 months the state has to actively look for an adoptive family for that child. And there are exceptions that would have required Florida to begin looking for an adoptive family from the moment you came into foster care.

If Florida was actively looking for an adoptive family, I guarantee they would have found one. As you just discovered, there are many, many Americans interested in adopting a child. According to the last National Survey of Family Growth, 2.5 million American women between the ages of 18 and 44 have taken steps to adopt.

I spent 10 years as the head of an agency that recruits families to adopt kids in foster care. I guarantee you that if you were available for adoption, many families expressed interest. For kids like you, the tragic fact is that all too often calls are not returned, home studies are not read, and prospective families are turned away because the state agency is hoping that the foster family will adopt. So you grew older.

Davion, I also know something about Florida’s adoption system. When you were around five years old, I was involved in a research project at Harvard University studying how parents experience the adoption process. In addition to broad national research, we studied and compared the process in three cities- Miami, Boston, and San Jose. Studying the adoption process in Miami was literally the most horrifying experience of my 35 years working in human services.

Prospective parents that called for information about adopting were required to fill out a detailed two-page form, over the phone, describing their home, their family, and their finances. They called to find out about adopting and were required to disclose to a complete stranger how much money they made and how much their electric bill was. If they “passed”, they were invited to an information meeting. That meeting began with a former prison guard telling everyone to line up in the front of the room to be fingerprinted. Workers were clear. The primary purpose of the first call and the information meeting was to screen out “bad” families.  

The adoption process in Miami was in stark contrast to the system in San Jose. There, people who called for information were given any information they requested and automatically invited to attend an information meeting. The information meeting was designed to give more information about the children in need and the adoption process. The primary purpose of the information meeting was to recruit good adoptive families.

The results were astonishing:

A family trying to adopt a child from foster care in San Jose was twelve times more likely to adopt than one trying to adopt a child in Miami. How many Florida children could have had a family if the system gave prospective parents half a chance?

Davion- You are a brave young man. I admire your courage and your eloquence. My greatest hope for you, beyond a loving adoptive family, is that you come to understand the truth. You were never unwanted. You were always worthy of love and there were always people who wanted nothing more in life than to love someone just like you.

Short Title
Dear Davion
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