Never too old to have a family 

by Jennifer Nehlsen •

“When I was 16, I wasn’t ready for permanence in a family because I was hanging on to the hope that even after six years my mom would sober up and bring me back home. Since I was 13, I had never been in a placement longer than four to six months and I didn’t foresee this placement being any different.”

That’s how our daughter says she was thinking when, seven years ago, my husband and I received a call from our foster care licensing agency to say they had a 16-year-old girl in need of a placement. She asked if we would consider bringing her into our home. After speaking with our kids, then ages 11 and 18, we all said yes.

My husband said it best: “Family is defined by love, not a timeframe.”

I cannot remember what her official permanent plan was, but efforts to achieve reunification had not been successful. Her wish was to have a safe place to stay until she aged out of the system. She had visits with her family and begrudgingly tolerated us until she moved out on her 18th birthday.

Little did she know, we had no plans to say goodbye. We were like a bad penny that kept appearing with check-in texts and calls, invites to grab coffee, and inclusion in holiday and vacation plans. Six and a half years after she first moved in, we undertook an adult adoption when she was ready to officially become part of our family.

“By the time I was 23,” she says, “I had a stable and consistent life with my [former foster] family. After feeling what a home was supposed to be and having parents and siblings who never turn their back when it gets bad, I realized that family sometimes chooses you and that it’s okay to allow yourself the luxury of an actual family and a forever home.”

North Carolina statute allows an adult to adopt another adult as long as the adoptee consents to the adoption and they are not spouses. There is paperwork, of course, but it is a relatively easy process compared to the adoption of a child. Once the paperwork was filed, the fee paid, name chosen, and the 30-day notice to our other adult daughter had passed, the entire family met at the courthouse to sign the papers. The bureaucratic process did not do justice to the emotions felt by all present. My husband described it best when he said, “Trauma doesn’t stop when a young adult turns 18. Things do not magically fall into place with the blowing out of candles. Family is defined by love, not a timeframe.”

Sometimes older teens are not ready to commit to everything an adoption requires and signifies. Sometimes they need more time to heal and learn to trust. And sometimes they say yes when you ask if you can adopt them.

Adult adoption may be an option to explore for individuals who have aged out of the foster care system but either remain connected to or form a connection with a resource family. I encourage resource families and social workers to discuss this option, if appropriate, with older teens in foster care and those who opt into the Foster Care 18-21 program.

Additional information on adult adoptions can be found at

Jennifer Nehlsen is the Guardian ad Litem Regional Administrator for NC’s 26 western counties. Jennifer leads a staff of 44 who recruit, train, and support 1,200 volunteers to serve as the voice for 3,200 abused and neglected children in this region. To learn more about Guardian ad Litem, visit