Communication Currents

Is Family Based on Biology or Action? Dueling Meanings of Family at Play in the U.S. Foster Care System

April 1, 2014
Interpersonal Communication

Although recent legislative changes have intended to expedite adoptions, the typical foster child in the United States waits four years to be adopted. This delay results in part from the foster care system’s preference for reunification with biological parents or relatives, reflecting larger cultural messages that position biological families as the “best” type of family. Given this current climate, our study examined online stories of foster adoptive parents to understand how their words construct meanings of family in the midst of cultural messages that construe adoption as second best. 

We explored 100 online foster adoptive narratives with an eye towards identifying adoptive parents’ meanings of family. We then analyzed how parental meanings agreed or disagreed with the meanings of family currently upheld by the foster care system and mainstream American culture at large. Two primary discourses, or systems of the meaning of family, emerged in foster adoptive stories: the discourse of biological normativity and the discourse of constitutive kinning.

The discourse of biological normativity (DBN) is similar to current understandings of the best family as one created and authenticated through biological ties. DNB-inflected stories displayed a bias toward the biological family in a number of ways. For example, stories described efforts of parents to present foster adoptive children as genetically linked. Stories favored visible similarities in physical appearance between foster adoptive children and foster parents and voiced fears that relationships with adopted children would be viewed as less valid than those with biologically related kin. For instance, one woman’s story told of longing to be biologically connected to the foster adoptive daughter so intensely that the adoptive mother was driven to lie to outsiders. The story described how situations requiring the truth that the two were connected by adoption rather than biology (e.g., the doctor’s office, her daughter’s school) were emotionally crushing for the adoptive mother.

In contrast with the DBN is the discourse of constitutive kinning (DCK), which defines family as created and sustained through actions rather than biological ties. Stories inflected by the DCK define family as something families “do” rather than simply “are.” In other words, a family is created not through genetic ties but through daily expressions of love and support. DCK-dominated stories described family as a group that cares for its members and loves unconditionally despite difficulties with foster children. As one foster mother stated, “Foster parenting is one of the most rewarding givings you can experience . . . You have to be willing to give of yourself even when you feel there is nothing else to give.” Foster adoptive parents’ stories claimed children as permanent, authentic family members, regardless of the absence of biogenetic, and in some cases finalized, legal ties.

Some of the analyzed foster adoptive stories mentioned only one of these discourses of family, thereby constructing family as created solely through biology or through action.  However, the majority of stories displayed a polemic refutation pattern, favoring one discourse by negating the other one. For example, in some DCK-inflected stories the DBN is explicitly mentioned simply to point out its inaccuracy in defining what being a family truly means. The story of one foster adoptive father pointed out that while his children were the “picture” of children who should be causing trouble, in his neighborhood, the children raised by biological parents—not his foster adopted children—were smoking pot, being destructive, and shoplifting. Other DCK-dominated stories mentioned the DBN as a legitimate definition of family but ultimately framed it as less important than the DCK in defining a family. For instance, one story recounted how an adoptive mother allowed difficult visits between her adopted son and his biological relatives until she was convinced that maintaining ties to his past undermined his well-being.

Still other stories construed the DBN and the DCK as equally viable options for constructing the meaning of family. In framing both discourses of family as legitimate, foster adoptive parents were caught in the middle regarding which meaning of family is “best.” While the stories of these foster adoptive parents stated that their relationships with their adopted foster children were authentic based on the love and care they provide, they simultaneously gave credence to genetic ties as authentic. Thus, when forced to choose one meaning of family over the other, these parents’ stories noted feeling stuck, often appealing for advice from other foster adoptive parents on the online forums.

Overall, our study demonstrates the importance of studying families in relation to wider social institutions. In the context of the current study, these results suggest how meanings of family might influence decision-making in foster adoptive contexts. Individuals agreeing to foster must to some extent subscribe to the DBN, as it undergirds the foster care system: Ultimately, the goal of foster care is reunification. Whereas foster adoptive parents do not necessarily enter the system in total agreement with this goal, at a policy level foster care is intended as a temporary measure to protect children until they can be permanently placed with caring parents.

Yet, by asking foster parents to love and care for foster children while remaining open to returning children to biological parents, the system also asks individuals to subscribe to the DCK. Once children are officially adopted, foster adoptive parents must make important decisions regarding ties with the children’s biological relatives. Parents invoke these differing meanings of family in deciding whether or not to maintain, limit, or cut biological ties. Similarly, parents also must negotiate these divergent meanings of family in cases in which they have the opportunity to foster or adopt a child’s biological siblings. The foster care system considers maintaining connections with biological kin beneficial to the adopted child. For instance, foster parents agreeing to keep bio-siblings together are considered better adoption candidates. Thus, within the foster care system, both the DBN and the DCK circulate to construct permanent, caring families for foster children.

The prevalence of both the DBN and the DCK in foster adoptive parents’ narrative constructions of family demonstrates the importance of examining family members who must use both dominant and alternative meanings of family in making sense of their own families. By examining the multiple ways that the DBN and the DCK intersect, the current study provides a rich and nuanced understanding of how family members negotiate these differing meanings of family.

About the author (s)

Elizabeth A. Suter

University of Denver

Associate Professor

Leah M. Seurer

University of Denver

Doctoral Candidate

Leslie A. Baxter

University of Iowa


Lindsey J. Thomas

University of Iowa

Doctoral Candidate