Post-Adoption Services Work in Many Ways
by Barry Chaffkin, C.S.W.
An active and experienced adoption advocate, Barry Chaffkin works to help children and families in many capacities. He is the director of adoption for the Harlem Dowling-West Side Center for Children and Family Services, the oldest and largest community-based agency devoted to providing out-of-home care for New York City?s children of color, and president of the Adoption Action Network, an independent coalition of adoption professionals and advocates dedicated to improving adoption services in New York State. He also serves as an adjunct lecturer for Columbia University, and is an active member of NACAC?s adoption support and preservation task force. Committed to shaping post-adoption services to benefit everyone connected to adoption, Barry shares below his personal Top 10 list of recent post-adoption stories.
As the countdown marking the end of one century and the beginning of the next approached last December, top 10 lists of this or that emerged everywhere—the top 10 athletes of the century, the best movies, the most memorable entertainers, the most influential people, and on and on. Below is a list of stories that the general public did not see during the last weeks of 1999. These 10 post-adoption stories did not make Time or Newsweek or get aired on any major television network, but to those of us in the adoption community, they serve as reminders that we must continue fighting to see that adoption support services receive full funding.
As you read the stories below, think of your own stories and reflect on the positive ways that family support groups, agencies, and communities can help adoptive families. Bring your stories to NACAC's 2000 conference in Baltimore, and share your experiences with the adoption support and preservation task force.
1: Grandma Meets McDonald's®
Remember the McDonald's® ad campaign before "Did somebody say McDonald's?" The theme was "You deserve a break today," and that is what I thought of when this case came to my attention.
An older kinship foster parent, Mrs. Smith, adopted two grandsons diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Another relative was supposed to be her back up, but things somehow changed after the adoption. Mrs. Smith did not get as much help as she needed from her relative.
Another agency referred Mrs. Smith to Harlem Dowling's post-adoption program, and when she came to us, she was worried about managing the boys' medication. Mrs. Smith was also concerned about finding someone to care for the boys if she needed to be out of the house.
To start, we offered her our most important service: an empathetic ear. And we made sure Mrs. Smith could talk as long as she wanted. Due to the common lack of formal funding for post-adoption services, many agencies ask workers who are already overwhelmed with foster care and adoption cases to cover post-adoption calls. Over the years, many families have told us about being rushed off the phone by a well-meaning but overburdened worker.
We then referred Mrs. Smith to our preventive services program where, with her full participation, staff performed a family assessment. Now she receives short-term case management services and respite care. As the slogan goes, Mrs. Smith deserved a break, and now she gets it when a respite provider cares for her grandsons.
2: Revelation at the Rink
Several years ago our post-adoption program sponsored a recreational activity involving a roller-skating party. More than 200 adoptive parents, adoptees, foster siblings, and birth siblings showed up from the five boroughs of New York City. All the kids were skating along to some great music when two boys, each about 10, suddenly stopped and pointed to each other.
"You're adopted?!" questioned the first boy.
"Don't tell me you're adopted!" replied the other boy.
As it turned out, both boys attended the same class in the same school, and until the roller-skating party, neither knew that the other was adopted. After the revelation, they skated off together and smiled for the rest of the day.
Recreational activities, as this story illustrates, are a key part of any comprehensive post-adoption program. Not all families attend support groups or workshops, and our children's support group that year had limited attendance. Support groups consciously try to normalize adoption for children, but the recreational activitywhere the goal was simply to have funaccomplished so much more. One boy had been in counseling and had been told that he was not the only child who had lost touch with his birth family, but when he came face to face with another adoptee, the message struck home. He said it really helped to know that someone else he knew was going through the same things he was.
3: Lien on Me
A couple we know adopted two brothers when the boys were very young. Though the children spent most of their lives in their adoptive home, both ended up battling substance addictions from as early as age 10. The couple remained completely committed to their children, and when they needed residential care, a lien was placed on their home to cover the cost. When one boy reached age 18, he needed another program, but his Medicaid eligibility came into question.
When they came to us for help, we assisted the family in applying for an upgraded subsidy. Both boys were receiving a basic rate subsidy the entire time, when it was clear that they were eligible for a special rate subsidy. We also made sure that the 18-year-old?s Medicaid coverage was continued to age 21.
4: Grandfather Knows Best
Mr. Johnson, who provided kinship care for his young granddaughter, sincerely hoped that the situation was temporary and that his daughter (the girl's mother) would get help for her substance abuse problems and resume caring for the girl. The girl was just a toddler, however, when her mother became lost to the streets and Mr. Johnson decided to adopt her.
When his granddaughter turned nine, Mr. Johnson reached out for help because he knew he "needed to discuss things with her," and did not know how. How do you tell a child that the beautiful, talented woman in the pictures (the mother's pictures were proudly displayed in the apartment) gave up her future and her family to drug addiction? "Why did Mommy pick drugs over me?" is a question adoptive parents often hear.
To assist Mr. Johnson, a post-adoption specialist went to his home and provided short-term counseling services. The specialist also created a lifebook with Mr. Johnson and his granddaughter, and helped Mr. Johnson answer some of the girl's questions. The specialist explained that the granddaughter would understand things differently as she got older, and might come up with new questions. We assured Mr. Johnson that we would be there for him when he needs more help during the tough adolescent years.
5: Gotta Get the Donuts
A new M.S.W. intern who had a six-week adoptive parent support group planned picked up treats from Dunkin' Donuts® for each meeting. Based on strong outreach efforts (letters sent to hundreds of parents, workers canvassed for leads, flyers distributed, newspaper ads printed, and public service announcements aired), the intern always picked up two dozen donuts in preparation for the crowd he anticipated.
As it happened, only one family attended meetings consistently, and another few families attended some of the sessions. In the small group, most discussions centered on how to tell children about their adoption as they got older. Two of the families had toddlers who had been placed as foster children when they were infants. The inside joke in the group revolved around who got to take the extra donuts home.
The moral to this story is keep offering services even when attendance is low. The few families involved in the support group attended our annual picnic, which grew to include more than 50 families and 150 people by our third year. The group members learned a lot from each other and looked forward to their evening out each week. As an added bonus, they alternated taking home the leftover Boston creams!
6-10: The Gray Areas
My final five picks are just a sampling of the stories we see related to search and reunion. Agencies like mine?those that have been providing adoption services for a long time?receive quite a few search-related calls. In my experience, search or search-related identity issues have been the primary spark behind at least 50 percent of our post-adoption calls.
I title these stories "The Gray Areas" because the means of handling search calls in different states varies from one shade of gray to another. Depending upon the state?s laws and regulations, an agency may or may not be able to directly help someone to search for a birth relative. For instance, the recent ruling in Oregon (assuming a future court challenge does not again keep adoptees from requesting a copy of their original birth certificate) clearly affects search services in that state. In many other states, agencies can teach people about the process of searching, but cannot provide identifying information. The distinction between identifying versus non-identifying information may also fall into different shades of gray.
I received five search-related calls as I was working on this article during the week before Christmas. One was from a young adult adoptee (the most common call), and the other four were from birth mothers whose parental rights had been terminated years earlier. I have received search calls from siblings, grandparents, cousins, and birth parents, but four birth mothers within a few days was very unusual.
Two of the birth mothers came into the office, and since the office was pretty empty due to the holidays, I spoke directly with both women. They told me that they were concerned about their children. Neither wanted to be intrusive or cause problems for the adoptive family; they just wanted to know how their children were doing and let the children know they were not forgotten.
One mother expressed her deep regret for circumstances surrounding the child's foster care placement and adoption. She had raised other children both prior to the adoptee's birth and after her child's adoption was finalized. These siblings asked about the adopted child all the time.
Birth mothers and siblings, like those I talked to and learned about over Christmas, need to be included in advocacy efforts and program planning. It is not enough to base a program on the single goal of keeping adoptions from disrupting—worthy as that goal may be. We must not lose sight that all people affected by adoption may at some point in their lives need services that span beyond the narrow focus of preventing disruption.
The new year, decade, century, and millennium are just a few months old. We have a fresh chance to support those whose lives are forever changed by adoption, and create a new top 10 list of post-adoption success stories for the first decade of 2000. The next list will be shaped by service providers and advocates who champion changes in legislation and funding mandates to better serve families. As you fight for positive change, keep success stories like those I shared here in mind. Beyond the bureaucracy and stress, it is the families we help that keep me inspired to seek out new ways to provide good post-adoption services.