About 120,000 US foster kids are waiting for parents. One of them is now my daughter

(CNN)I adopted my daughter from foster care. It took a specialized village to help her succeed.

The day our daughter toddled around a corner of her foster mother's house in a peach pantsuit and flashed my husband and me a mischievous grin, we knew we were her parents.
We also knew we had made the right choice in adopting her from our state foster care system. What we didn't know was how much we'd rely on medical professionals, educators and mentors over the next 13 years to raise her.
    She'd had a rough start in life. Relinquished at birth to the state, she spent her first 18 months in a foster home with three other children her age. The repercussions of too-little eye contact and too-little cuddling in that critical first year of life didn't surface until she entered first grade, when she suffered from separation anxiety so severe that we finally pulled her out of the classroom and found her a pediatric psychologist and alternative schooling.

      Longing for love

        Melissa Hart and her daughter.
        All kids have special needs, and we learned the most important work we'd do was learning how best to meet them.
        More than 120,000 foster children across the United States are waiting for a permanent home at any given time, according to AdoptUSKids, a national project that matches foster kids with adoptive families. They range in age from infants to 21-year-olds about to age out of the system -- all permanently relinquished by birth parents and longing for love and stability.
          Stigmas against this demographic run deep. Potential parents worry about the emotional effects of neglect and trauma, about babies born addicted to drugs, and how to maintain relationships with a child's biological family members as recommended by the US Department of Health and Human Services.
          Thirteen years ago, my husband and I were two of those anxious adults. Then an adoptive dad did a presentation in one of our foster care parenting classes.
          "Sure, my kid was born exposed to drugs and needed some help," he said, "but she's also a soccer player and a straight-A student."
          What he didn't say was what type of help a child adopted from the foster system often needs, and we didn't think to ask.

          The importance of trauma-aware caregiving

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          Infants bond with their caregivers through breast- or bottle-feeding while being held with loving eye contact, according to a 2016 study in the London Journal of Primary Care. Without this constant building of attachment to at least one adult who's devoted to meeting their physical and emotional needs, a baby's brain can start operating in "fight-or-flight" mode, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
          It's the same for older kids who've dealt with neglect and abuse in their home. Kids exposed to early childhood trauma develop post-traumatic stress disorder, according to a 2020 study in the British Medical Journal. They begin to perceive a trip to the doctor's office or a six-hour school day as a threat to their very existence.
          We didn't see that at first. At 19 months, our daughter responded to every new location and experience with one hand outstretched for a high-five from strangers.
          When she entered first grade, her attitude changed. Suddenly, she hid under her desk and screamed if anyone came near her. She refused to sit still for classwork, and she yelled at me when I picked her up from school. Her anxiety increased in direct proportion to the hours she was away from home. Peers began to shun her, confused by her behavior. She spent time in the principal's office -- a lot of time. She grew deeply depressed.
          "I feel like a broken lightbulb," she once told me in tears. She was 7.
          We didn't know until later that she was reacting to being separated from her mother at birth, and then losing her foster mother 19 months later -- and that she was terrified that she'd lose my husband and me, as well.
          Caregivers must apply a trauma-aware lens to child behaviors in order to determine what's working and what isn't, both at home and in the classroom, said Kendra Morris-Jacobson, Director of Oregon Programs at the Oregon Post Adoption Resource Center.
          "Kids have to feel safe in order to learn. It's our job as adults to create those regulating environments, particularly for children who have experienced the traumas associated with time in the child welfare system," she explained. "Creating an environment that is responsive to a child's capacity and helps them stay regulated is paramount. What this looks like differs for every child."

          Flexibility and creativity are key