“Real People With Real Stories”: An Interview on the Adoption Experience

An Interview on the Adoption ExperienceBy Tymothy Belseth

Within the vast landscape of foster care experiences, the narratives of older youth transitioning to adoption hold particular significance. I sat down with Jaden Williams, a current senior studying International Relations and Global Studies at UT Austin who participates in our Spark Program. Jaden is a young adult who was adopted from foster care by relatives at the age of thirteen. In our interview, we explored his experience with adoption and what most helped during the process.

In examining Jaden’s perspective, I aim to illuminate the impact of open communication, supportive relationships, and individual expression during the later stages of the foster care to adoption journey. Through understanding Jaden’s experiences, we stand to gain valuable insights that can inform best practices and improve outcomes for older youth navigating this complex process.

The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Tymothy Belseth (TB): Can you share a bit about your family history and any unique experiences you’ve had in life?

Jaden Williams (JW): Interestingly, my family comes from a rural area in East Texas. Through research, I discovered it was likely a Freedman’s town, where they lived for generations since the 1800s. They were farmers, but around the 1950s and 1960s, they sought better opportunities and moved to Dallas, then eventually here.

Unfortunately, my mom wasn’t able to care for me properly and got into trouble. Child Protective Services intervened, and that’s when I entered foster care, which ultimately led to my adoption by my wonderful second parents.

TB: What was the adoption process like for you?

JW: I was 13 when it happened, I was in 8th grade. Luckily, my parents really kept me outside of the court process and the law process. I didn’t really hear much about it, but hearing it now, it was kind of exhausting to be going back and forth to court, to have the house be looked at, and all these strange people coming by. And of course, all of the questions about how they’re treating me.

So yeah, it’s kind of exhausting, but I’m realizing, they just wanted to make sure that everything was okay and I was getting the things that I needed. Exhausting, but good for me at the end of the day.

TB: Did someone explain what was happening to you at the time?

JW: By the time I was 13, I was already used to the instability. I entered the foster care system at 6 [years old] and spent most of the next seven years moving between homes. Thankfully, I was adopted by my second cousins, but those earlier years were tough. The constant change caused emotional problems, and I needed therapy to process everything that happened.

TB: Ages 6 to 13 is a significant amount of time in the system. It sounds like you were familiar with the challenges—the constant moves and instability that many people, including myself, experience. When things became more stable around age 13, what were the conversations about adoption like?

JW: My parents had many conversations with me about the adoption. They asked if I was comfortable with them adopting me and discussed my name. They wanted to know if I wanted to keep it or change it, and if I wanted to change it, what I’d like it to be. Ultimately, I decided to keep my birth name because I felt connected to my family and heritage. I just wanted to do something good with my name.

We also talked about how everyone was feeling during this time. They wanted to make sure both I and my siblings—who were thankfully adopted with me—understood everything and were okay with the adoption process.

TB:  You mentioned your parents discussed things with you, like keeping your name, and that they obtained your consent.  From your perspective, why do you think that was important?

JW: It felt deeply connected to my identity. Growing up, my family emphasized the importance of our last name, what it meant to be a Williams. Honestly, I wasn’t ready to let that go. Being the firstborn added weight to the decision as well. I was motivated to make something positive of the name, to break the cycle.

For generations, my family had struggled with drug abuse and incarceration.  We had our issues, but I always wanted to be the one to break the curse. Keeping my name felt right then, and it still does. I don’t regret my decision.

TB: That’s powerful. It highlights the importance of these conversations in foster care adoptions. Unfortunately, these in-depth discussions aren’t happening systematically. Do you have any insights or advice on how we can better initiate these discussions with young people in foster care?

JW: Honestly, the most important thing was having open and honest communication. I needed to understand what was happening and feel in control. So, I would say, be honest and upfront. Adoption is a serious decision.

It was also important for me to be clear about my motivations from the beginning. My parents made sure I reflected on how I felt about adoption. They asked me countless times, and I also went to therapy to discuss it. In court, I even had to express that I did actually want to be adopted. It was exhausting, but I also prioritized maintaining the connections with people who mattered most to me when making that decision.

TB: And who were some of those people that made you feel safe during this process?

JW: My new parents and siblings were a big source of support, since I wasn’t the only one being adopted. My therapist was also fantastic. She helped me understand and process the emotions I was dealing with.

The truth is, I was just tired. Tired of CPS, the foster care system, and the drama surrounding my biological mom.  It was difficult knowing her yet having an awkward family dynamic, especially during holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Everyone seemed to know, and I felt a weight of watchful eyes on me sometimes.  Despite the challenges, staying connected with those who supported me was so important during the process.

TB: What is the significance of continuous family connection during the adoption process?

JW: Having a stable family connection during the adoption process was critical. Honestly, I can’t imagine going through it alone. My emotions would have been all over the place, just like any kid in foster care dealing with trauma. Focusing on school would have been nearly impossible. But connection with my family provided a sense of security and support. They made sure I felt safe and okay, and that was essential. Having people to lean on made all the difference.

TB: Now, regarding the adoption process, can you tell me about the conversations you had with your biological family leading up to it?

JW: Honestly, there weren’t many conversations with my birth family at the time, which was probably a good thing in hindsight.  Looking back, I don’t feel sad about it. It just felt like the necessary course of action. They couldn’t provide the safe and healthy environment I needed to thrive. I was aware of that, and while I still respect them, by the time I was 9 or 10, I knew foster care was a better option than my situation.

TB: Is that a conclusion that you reached yourself or did other people help you reach that?

JW: Others definitely helped me reach that conclusion, but I also spent time reflecting on it myself. Growing up, my mom used to manipulate me with false hope.  She’d promise things like, “You’re coming home soon,” and show me pictures of my room.  I have other siblings who weren’t adopted either, and she’d tell them I was some mythical figure who would save everyone.

It took a long time to realize she was lying.  She was my mom, so why wouldn’t she be honest?  When my therapist explained why I was in foster care and the family dynamics, it was a shock.  But with time, I processed it.  Without that guidance, I don’t know if the outcome would’ve been the same.  Things unfolded gradually, allowing me to understand the situation and eventually take some control.

TB: You mentioned the importance of openness and honesty throughout the adoption process. In my work with foster care and adoption, I often see a reluctance to have these frank conversations. Sometimes, therapists or social workers might sugarcoat things, unintentionally misleading those in the system. We might think we’re protecting them from harsh realities, but having all the information is crucial for informed decisions. 

It sounds like your therapist’s honesty helped you understand your situation and the path ahead. Would you say that open communication allowed you to process what was happening and ultimately agree to the adoption?

JW: Absolutely, it feels like they were preparing me, looking back on it.  But at the time, my new parents weren’t even certain until the adoption day.  They were honest with me about the possibility that my birth mom might get things together,  preparing me for that reality as well.  Ironically, it was almost like, “It’s adoption or back with your mom. Those are your options.” They were upfront with me.

Honestly, those early conversations were more about me understanding what had already happened.  It all started with someone picking me up one day, and I never went back.  That’s how abrupt it was.  I barely had anything with me, just a single toy I remember clutching in the car.  It took me a while to process it.  At some point, it dawned on me, “Wait, I haven’t left in two years. What’s going on?”  So, it was more about helping me accept what had already happened and be open to the possibilities of the future.

TB: Adoption conversations can vary greatly.  Many people in foster care I work with express a reluctance to be adopted, often fearing their families are being replaced.  Did you ever experience those feelings?

JW: Not really. I still saw my birth family as family, and my new family never stopped me from seeing them. They allowed visits even when it might have been inconvenient for them, even during court proceedings I wasn’t aware of at the time.  So I never felt like my birth family was being replaced.

I also distinguished between parental figures.  While I called them uncle and aunt, I recognized their parental role in my life.  The care they provided was demonstrably different from what I’d experienced before.

TB: I’m curious about what you called your adoptive parents. Did you call them mom and dad or something different?

JW:  So in my family, you don’t call them by their first name. You would have to put a title in front of it for respect purposes, so they had always been Uncle Kelly and Aunt Eddy to me. That’s all I had really known them as. It didn’t really occur to me to even like, think about calling them mom and dad until maybe a couple years in with me living with them. I had just grown to see the care that they provided for me.

It wasn’t a formal decision, really. They never pressured me about it. I think they understood how complicated things were for me and respected my boundaries. They gave me all the care of parents, but they let me call them whatever felt comfortable for me. In the end, it was their love and support that mattered, not what titles we used. I never really felt like anyone was being replaced.

TB: During the adoption process, these details often go undiscussed. There’s no official meeting to determine titles, pronouns, or how this new dynamic will unfold.  People just figure it out. Do you have any advice or recommendations on how people can approach these discussions? 

JW: Absolutely. It can be confusing for others.  Explaining family dynamics can be tricky, especially when you might use “mom” or “dad” to refer to multiple people.  I remember when I first moved in with my aunt and uncle.  My little brother called them Mom and Dad, and I corrected him.  My uncle took me aside and asked why I felt the need to do that.  He pointed out that my brother clearly saw him as a father figure, and why not let him express that?  If he wanted to call him Dad, that was okay.  My aunt and uncle never felt disrespected by my using “aunt” and “uncle.” They said to call them whatever felt comfortable, as long as it wasn’t their first names!

It really boils down to self-expression and how you identify the people in your life.  Personally, I didn’t necessarily need a “mom” or “dad” figure.  I just needed someone to care for me, to do what parents do, without the specific titles.  But I know others who crave those titles, who want a mom and a dad.

TB: So to shift gears here, can you tell me a bit about your transition from being adopted to where you are today? How has your experience shaped you?

JW: It was a gradual process, and as a young adult, I’m still figuring things out.  Honestly, being adopted allowed me to focus on my goals.  College was the only way I saw out of my situation, and with their support, I thrived academically.  Without their honesty and transparency, I don’t know if that would have been possible.

My experiences have made me more open-minded.  Having been in foster care, I don’t judge people easily because you never know what they’re going through.  It’s also instilled strong family and friend values in me.  These have always been important, but now they play a huge role in how I live and interact with others.

Being the eldest and witnessing certain things growing up made me fiercely independent from a young age.  Asking for help was always difficult.  Foster care did show me that sometimes help is necessary, but it’s a balancing act—knowing who to trust and when to ask.

Honestly, I don’t know where I’d be without the Spark Program.  It’s opened my eyes to the resources and support available, sometimes requiring just a little effort to find or for the right opportunity to arise. So shout out to you all.

Growing up and facing adoption, I often felt powerless.  However, it’s instilled in me a sense of trusting in fate and going with the flow.  Looking back, I realize everything happened as it should have.  Without those experiences, I wouldn’t be here today, graduating from college with the support system I have.

TB: A lot of what you’re saying resonates with me too, especially the hyper-independence that often develops in people who’ve been in foster care.  It can be incredibly difficult to ask for help, even as professionals.  We build this self-reliance, this “I can do it myself” mentality after facing challenges, but the truth is, no one succeeds entirely alone.  We all need a support system.  It sounds like you’ve had a strong one with your aunt, uncle, siblings, and the program here.  We’re always striving to do more, and I’m thrilled to share that we just received a grant to provide additional student support! 

As we wind down the interview, I want to ask: What are your hopes and aspirations for the future?

JW: Finding a great job is always a priority, but for the future, lifelong learning is key for me.  I’m realizing I’ve always enjoyed learning, and it depends on the subject matter at the time.  As long as I can keep acquiring knowledge, exploring, and discovering new things, I know I’ll be alright.

But one thing’s for sure—I’m eager to explore the world and see what’s out there.  It’s different from reading about it online, which I’ve done extensively.  I’m excited to see what the future holds, where I’ll land a job (if I land a job!), and whether grad school is in the cards.  I’m open to everything.  I think it will take some time for things to crystallize, but I’m ready for the journey.

TB: It absolutely takes time, but it will fly by before you know it. I have no doubt you’ll do great things. 

Is there anything you’d like to add, anything you feel we haven’t covered?

JW: I’m very open about being adopted. Sometimes people are surprised to learn about it and say things like, “Wow, you don’t look adopted” or “I never would have guessed.”  Here’s what I want to say about that: adoption and foster care come in all shapes and sizes.  There’s no one-size-fits-all story.  The more people are aware of this diversity, the better.  Sometimes it feels like people forget about adoption or have misconceptions about who gets adopted.  Because of my own experience, I can confidently say I’d love to adopt children someday.  I see the value the system brings to both families and children.  These are real people with real stories, and I think that’s important to remember.

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Read more:

My People: Fostering and Language

The Fictive Language of Adoption

It’s All About Respect: An Interview on Open Adoption With Joyce Horn

Words Matter: A Guide on Adoption Language