Cover Photograph by Bryan Randall/Getty Images
Jeff Nelson
December 02, 2015 11:10 AM

Oscar winner Sandra Bullock opens up for the first time ever about adopting her 3½-year-old daughter, Laila. Subscribe now for instant access to the exclusive interview, plus the adorable family photos of Laila and brother Louis, or pick up PEOPLE on newsstands Friday!

As Sandra Bullock‘s adoption announcement brought to light, there are hundreds of thousands of children in foster care waiting to find forever families each year.

“There are so many kids out there who so badly want to have families,” the actress, 51, says in this week’s issue of PEOPLE, in which she opens up for the first time ever about adopting daughter Laila (pronounced “Lila”).

Sure enough, last year an estimated 415,129 kids were in foster care, with 107,918 waiting to be adopted, per the U.S. government’s 2014 Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System data.

“What’s heartbreaking is that some of these kids don’t get love,” adds Bullock, who adopted 5-year-old son Louis in 2010. “It’s our duty to help.”

There are several resources available for people to learn more about the foster system and adoption. One of Bullock’s favorites: the Alliance for Children’s Rights, an L.A.-based organization that provides free legal aid and advocacy for impoverished, abused and neglected children.

Another national resource: AdoptUSKids, the only federally funded organization in the U.S. where prospective families can go to learn more about foster care and adoption.

PEOPLE spoke to Kathy Ledesma, AdoptUSKids’ national project director who has worked in the field for 43 years. Ledesma answered our biggest questions regarding the foster care system and adoption.

Why do most kids end up in foster care?
In the United States, the children end up in foster care due to founded allegations of abuse or neglect in the homes in which they’re being raised. When we talk about children and youth in foster care around the United States, they are in foster care through no fault of their own. They’ve done nothing wrong. Something went wrong in the families with which they were living that made it an unsafe place for them to live.

How are kids usually adopted out of the foster care system?
For the past several years, about 85 percent of the children who are adopted from foster care are adopted either by their relatives or by a non-relative temporary foster parent. Those that are adopted by foster parents, the children were placed with them only on a temporary basis to give the child’s family time to sort out the issues in their home. When that does not happen, when the problems are not resolved, because the children had formed an attachment with their temporary caregivers, it was deemed by the court to be in the child’s best interest to remain with that family permanently.

How do families who aren’t relatives or foster parents adopt?
We call those adoption-only families, so these are families who approach the child welfare system with an interest in only adopting a child from foster care, only adopting. In most states, those families have to become approved both to provide foster care and adopt because when a child is placed into a family, even if it’s for the purpose of adoption, until that adoption is finalized by the court. Until it’s made legal in the court six to nine months after the placement occurs, that is a temporary placement, and there has to be some mechanization through which resources can flow to that family to help support the child.

What are the steps that go into adopting out of the system?
It’s a typical application where there’s demographic information on the family, what children have they raised, where are they now, what are they doing? They have to provide three letters of reference, usually, and have to show some kind of financial solvency. [Then there is] a face-to-face home study process. That really probes the quality of the relationships within the family and outside the family with extended family, friends, faith, community, neighborhood, community involvement, those kinds of things. So families do need to have a strong support system around them because they are bringing a new member into their family who will bring some challenges. So having some other people around who understand that, can support that commitment and be supportive of the family and of the child is really important.

How long does the adoption process take?
There are lots of variables in that, but what we like to tell families is: Think about how long it takes from first getting the idea that you want to have a baby biologically to the time that that baby is actually in your hands. That could vary from 9 months to 15 or 16 or 17 months. That’s about how long we like to tell families that that part of it will take. After placement, the typical period of time between the placement occurring and that placement becoming legal adoption is six to eight months to the finalization. That is a period during which a social worker is engaging with both the family and the child to make sure that this really is a permanent, nurturing, safe place for the child to be and that the family is satisfied with the placement.

What traits do favorable prospective families share?
Years of experience tell us families that are flexible is probably the highest qualification: flexibility. A good sense of humor. Ability to roll with the punches; not get stressed out by things that happen. And then have supportive relationships, in addition to that relationship that they’re forming with that child. But the important thing is the family demonstrates a support system.

What s the biggest misconception about foster care or adoption?
I really think the financial thing is really a big barrier in people’s minds. Not only does adopting a child from foster care not cost anything, the child brings a number of benefits with him or her. Most states are now providing some form of higher education free of charge if a child has spent time in foster care. There is a growing trend toward that, so not to worry about: “How am I gonna pay for college for the child?” More than 90 percent of children adopted from foster care come with an ongoing adoption subsidy, and that is usually about the same amount of money that the foster parents were receiving to take care of the child, and that’s to remove any financial disincentive from adopting. So it’s $400-$500 a month on average. It’s not a lot, but it really helps the family to provide those extra things for sports equipment or musical instruments or something like that.

Why are older children more of a challenge to find homes for?
That’s another complex issue. There’s a very common misconception about why kids are in foster care. If a teenager enters foster care, there’s some unspoken assumption made that the child did something wrong and that teenagers are delinquents. Certainly, the media often portrays them that way – TV, movies portray teenagers as though they’re delinquents. But these are dependent kids that bring some issues with them because they’ve experienced trauma by having been removed from their families in the first place. People still equate the word “adoption” with “infant” or “very young child.”

We’re working very hard to change the public perception about the tremendous need that there is out there for families for older kids. Even though a teenager may only live full-time in a family home for a few years rather than 18 or 20 years like an infant adopted, that person is a member of the family for a lifetime and not only can learn and grow with the family’s help but also make huge contributions to that family.

With reporting by JD HEYMAN

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