Foster-Adoption: The Fastest Way to a Family in L.A.

Willie_Garson_and_Son_Nathan - S 2015
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Willie_Garson_and_Son_Nathan - S 2015

Last year, of the 35,000 county kids in foster care, only 4 percent were adopted. But for would-be parents, campaigns like FosterMore offer an efficient alternative for those bogged down by the adoption process: "We started telling another narrative to show how resilient and amazing these kids are."

This story first appeared in the Oct. 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

On April 14, Kirsten Schaffer, the new executive director of Women in Film, and her wife, Linda Kennedy, began fostering — in hope of adopting — a 6-month-old baby girl whose biological mother, says Schaffer carefully, "just doesn't have the stability to be able to take care of her." They are part of a growing number of people in the entertainment industry becoming parents via what's called fost-adopt.

The process works like this: Children in the foster system have been taken from their biological families, usually because of abuse, incarceration, homelessness or substance abuse. Once in custody of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), they can be placed with a foster family hoping to adopt. Biological parents can be given six months to two years to prove to a judge that they are responsible caretakers, often with visitation rights of two to three times a week. If, say, the bio­logical parents fail to kick a drug habit, then their rights can be terminated, and the foster parents can adopt with complete parental rights. (Before then, they are given a monthly stipend, about $800, and state-provided health care if desired.) "The majority of our friends who have done this have ended up adopting their foster kid," says Schaffer, who is awaiting an Oct. 23 hearing.

Despite the uncertainty of whether foster children will stay with them, many parents are drawn to fost-adopt because of the urgent need. During the past year, Los Angeles County had 35,000 children in foster care — more than any other county in the nation — of which 1,463 were adopted (half went to relatives) and 5,500 were reunited with their biological parents, according to L.A.-based RaiseAChild.US, which provides free services to prospective foster-adoptive parents. Single men and women and gay couples are welcomed at DCFS and at nonprofit social-work agencies such as Aviva, Five Acres, ExtraordinaryFamilies and The Village Family Services.

Revolutionary Releasing vp Tamar Chafets tried domestic adoption for nine months as a single mother. She never was picked. "I was told moms rarely pick a single woman. They feel, 'Why should she be able to do this if I can't?' " In 2011, Chafets became a foster mom to 8-day-old Charlotte and, in 2013, her adoptive mother. "This is anecdotal, but the number of people who ask us how they can do this is up dramatically," says Andy Spahn, a Hollywood political consultant who with wife Jennifer Perry, founder of the foster advocacy group Children's Action Network, adopted their two 20-something daughters out of the foster system when they were 8 and 10.

Becoming certified to be a foster parent can take at least two months, with fingerprinting, background checks, home safety studies, social-worker interviews, parenting classes and CPR/first aid classes. Once the process is complete, placements can happen quickly, especially if parents are willing to take older children. Executive producer/commercial production company partner Ned Brown and his now-ex-husband became foster parents to a nearly 1-year-old boy only seven weeks after their first certification class. Today, they share custody of the now-10-year-old. "I firmly believe it's the best thing I ever did," says Brown.

Sometimes the outcome goes the other way. A year ago, Steve Ledoux, a marketing exec at NBCUniversal, and his husband began fostering a 2½-year-old boy, who likely will move back in with his biological mother in November. "The mother insists she wants us to continue to be a part of her son's life — we are the only Daddy and Papa in his life," says Ledoux. Regardless, he adds, "you have to realize you are making such a difference in that child's life."

For the past three years, a campaign called FosterMore — spearheaded by Disney/ABC Television Group and its executive director of corporate citizenship and social responsibility, David Ambroz (a former foster child) and co-chaired by Perry — has done awareness work around fostering, filming PSAs with stars like Ty Burrell. "The words people associated with foster care were 'damaged' and 'criminal' and 'drugs,' " says Ambroz. "We started telling another narrative to show how resilient and amazing these kids are and how much potential they have."

Studies show that exposure to drugs in the womb does not necessarily make for long-term health problems. "People are fearful that a baby is a biological duplicate of their parent, and that is really not true," says comedy writer Andrea Abbate, a consulting producer on ABC Family's Young & Hungry. Abbate and her husband began fostering a 13-year-old in 2011 and within months adopted the now-17-year-old. "He's a wonderful kid and getting straight A's in school," she says. You don't need to persuade White Collar actor Willie Garson, a single straight man who adopted his son, Nathan, at age 7 after a year of fostering. "It was about the third playdate, and when I showed up he jumped into my arms and was hugging me and would not let go," he says. Nathan is now 14. Says Garson, "It's just another way to make a family."