Supporting Loving Families: After the Adoption

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More and more adoptive families find they need extra help with special needs after the adoption.

Sometimes, love isn't all you need. For children who have been adopted from the child welfare system, permanency is a start but not a solution, and a loving family is a blessing but not a cure-all. When an adoption is finalized, it may put an end to the paperwork, but it doesn't end the special needs of adoptive families and children.

Increasingly, families formed through adoption are finding they want help dealing with their complex issues and needs, and child- and family-serving agencies nationwide are trying to create, improve, and tailor services to meet those needs. How to pay for services and make postadoption support available to everyone who seeks it, however, remains a challenge.

Supporting Adoptive Families

CWLA Adoption Director Ada White calls postfinalization services "the most important issue in adoption right now." The push to double the number of adoptions completed in each state, she says, has meant "placing really difficult children" in adoptive homes.

The permanency guidelines of the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) of 1997 require agencies to seek out adoptive homes quickly and aggressively for children in foster care, many of whom--because of their age, race, disability, or sibling group--are considered to have special needs. "We are asking parents to take more chances," says Jeanne Howard, Codirector of the Center for Adoption Studies at Illinois State University.

Howard points out, however, that the adoption field identified the need and started providing postadoption services more than a decade before ASFA. The introduction of federal adoption subsidies, she says, which help families meet the ongoing financial needs of their adopted child, "let families know that [ tate agencies] didn't expect them to be a normal family." According to the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System, 88% of the children adopted from the child welfare system in 1999 receive subsidies.

Understanding the need for services also came with experience, Howard says. "We were placing kids, and everything wasn't happily ever after." The field began to realize "you may not only need a subsidy--you may also need extra help."

Parents also made their voices heard. Howard says foster parents who adopted knew what services were available to them as foster families, and they still wanted to access extra help when they needed it. "If you get a foster family to take that leap of faith [and adopt]," Howard says, "you need to offer more help."

Cindy Grill, Adoption Coordinator with Family Services in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, says the increase in international adoptions has also sparked a greater awareness of the need for postadoption services. "There are some things these families experience that love and care can't fix."

Although the need for services is recognized across the adoption field, and availability is improving, parents cite a lack of information about what services are available and high cost as the greatest barriers to receiving postadoption support, according to a 1996 study of 400 adoptive families in New York.*

Who Needs Postadoption Support?

Adoption is a lifelong process, and the need for services can arise at anytime. Adoption professionals say adult adoptees sometimes seek counseling for the first time when they are considering starting a family of their own and begin thinking more about birth and family connections. Some adoptees have a particularly hard time with the search for identity that is common in adolescents. Parents may seek help dealing with their child's desire to know his or her birthparents. Children adopted from the child welfare system, however, and their families, may need more help more often.

Howard and her codirector, Susan L. Smith, at the Center for Adoption Studies (an effort funded by the Illinois Department of Children and Families) recently surveyed families with children ages 6-18 who had been adopted from the Illinois child welfare system. More than 1,400 families responded to questions about their children's physical and mental health and how they were doing at home, in school, and in their community. "Kids were doing well," Howard says, "but they certainly brought their histories with them."

Those histories can include neglect, sexual and physical abuse, violent communities, different cultural backgrounds, trauma, a series of foster homes, or prenatal drug exposure. These early experiences mean children may enter adoptive placements with emotional and behavioral problems, learning disabilities, or attachment disorders. Some of these issues are evident at the time of placement, but others may arise later.

Grill says the Lancaster County program serves many families who adopted years ago but found issues around grief, loss, separation, and trauma arose as their children entered early adolescence. "They just didn't know where to turn for resources," she says.

In some cases, more severe emotional and behavioral problems come to light when kids enter school or begin to act out. Howard has seen families who are so frayed and frustrated they come into the program saying, "I can't do this anymore. I want this kid out of my home." Although they are feeling ineffectual and exhausted, Howard says these parents don't really want to be rid of the children, although it is not unheard of.

According to recent data compiled by the National Adoption Information Clearinghouse (NAIC), only 2% of adoptions are dissolved after legalization, but 10%-20% are disrupted before the adoption is finalized. Older children and children placed from the child welfare system have higher rates of disruption. The NAIC report says postplacement services can help decrease the risk of disruption and dissolution and bring needed help to adoptive families dealing with problems both large and small.

Counseling, Camp, and Connections

Therapy and support groups are among the most popular and widely available postadoption services. Groups for parents and children give both a needed opportunity to vent their concerns and frustrations, get questions answered, and seek advice. They also allow members of an adoptive family, even other siblings, to meet with others who share their experience. They "discover they're not alone in the challenges they're facing," says Joy Duva, Associate Director of Casey Family Services.

Counseling or referrals to therapists are available through many agencies. Adoption professional stress that families should find a therapist familiar with the unique issues involved in adoption. The Center for Adoption Studies is developing a system for training and certifying more mental health professionals. Howard says Illinois wants to develop more community-based practitioners trained in adoption. "Many families say they have sought help, but if [therapists] aren't familiar with adoption issues, with trauma, grieving, and loss, the counselors miss the mark."

Family Services in Pennsylvania also helps families find adoption-sensitive counseling, much of it home-based. They also help families select and pay for a summer camp for their adopted children. "It's a respite opportunity," Grill says. "It allows a break between the child and the parent and gives the children a chance to expand themselves."

Vermont Children's Aid Society--a member of the Vermont Post-Adoption Consortium, a group of agencies and organizations that work to improve the availability of postadoption services and family support in the state--also offers a camp. Camp for Me is a one-week program for adopted children of diverse backgrounds. Arlene O'Sullivan, Director of Counseling and Postadoption, says children start coming at age 7 and often continue until they are old enough to be counselors. Other short-term respite opportunities are available through many agencies for parents who have challenging adopted children.

Education advocates are another available service in some areas. Howard says that, in Illinois, advocates grew out of a program for children in foster care who weren't doing well in school. She says the state will now provide an advocate for adoptive families to help them get testing, push for special education, or mainstream a child. Many agencies have also started providing services geared toward the unique needs of multiracial families.

Adoption and Race

Beth Hall, Codirector of Pact, An Adoption Alliance, in Richmond, California, grew up with an adopted sister and is the adoptive mother of an African American son and a Latina daughter. Adoption has shaped her life professionally and personally, but she is the first person to warn a would-be adoptive parent that adoption is complicated and that adoptions involving race are exponentially more so.

The Multiethnic Placement Act (MEPA), enacted in 1994 and amended in 1996, prohibits agencies from using the race and ethnicity of the parents and the child to deny or delay an adoptive placement. Hall says the law gives adoption workers and families the impression that race doesn't matter, which she says is absolutely untrue. Even in a community as diverse as the San Francisco Bay area, "we don't live in a truly multiracial way," she says. People tend to socialize, practice their faiths, and live with or near people of the same race. These issues can make it difficult for multiracial families.

Hall points out that multiracial adoptions are also very visible. Everyone, from teachers to neighbors to people on the street can tell the child has been adopted. As a result, she says, these families have "a lot of concerns about being judged by their community and the community to which their child belongs."

Judy Stigger, Community Adoption Counselor with The Cradle, a private adoption agency in Evanston, Illinois, says transracial families need to be prepared to respond to a host of intrusive and sometimes hurtful comments. Questions like, "How much did she cost?" and "Couldn't you get a white baby?" are not uncommon, according to Stigger. The two-hour Conspicuous Families course she leads at The Cradle and agencies nationwide teaches parents to deal with these remarks and to examine how well their home, social, and cultural milieu recognize and embrace the race of their children.

Another reason multiracial adoptions are more complex is that the belonging and identity issues most adopted children face become centered on race. "Race becomes the defining issue," Hall says.

The Vermont Children's Aid Society says that in addition to the grief, loss, sense of abandonment, and missing identity most adopted children experience, children adopted into a family of a different race may also experience a loss of "country, culture, [and] race," as well as "a sense of being different from those around them."

Hall fears MEPA can make adoption workers hesitant to bring up race and let the family know these issues may arise and that they may need extra help. The law also "doesn't recognize how important postplacement is," she says.

Pact has a number of postadoption services for multiracial families. Monthly workshops and conferences allow parents to discuss problems and have their questions answered, while their children can discuss issues of race, adoption, and birthparents. Fun activities like art projects provide kids an important opportunity to be around other kids "who share their life experience," Hall says. It also gives parents the chance to ask for help in a supportive environment. "It's very important to these families to feel that they have resources." Pact also matches multiracial families with a family of the child's race to provide them with mentoring and guidance on issues of culture, language, and ethnicity. The program also holds multicultural events for families.

Such opportunities are harder to find in a state like Vermont, which is predominately white. O'Sullivan says Vermont Children's Aid Society hosts multiracial teens' group to help young people sort out their feelings.

To help parents who are isolated geographically, The Cradle has created an interactive version of their Conspicuous Families course, available free on their website at, that enables adoptive families to walk through the course in their home, at their own speed. Pact's website includes an "Ask a Question" section, allowing parents to anonymously seek guidance on everything from explaining racism to their children to how to wash and style the hair of their African American daughter.

"They need support so badly," Hall says of multiracial families, but the question of how to provide services to everyone in need is always a problem. "Federal dollars would be immensely helpful."

Finding and Financing Services

Some federal money has been made available to support postadoption services through federal Adoption Opportunity Grants and other sources. Susan Orr, Associate Commissioner of the U.S. Children's Bureau, says "the fundamental commitment is there from the federal government," adding that money for postadoption services is also available through the Promoting Safe and Stable Families program.

But of the agencies interviewed, most mentioned a shortage of funds and resources as the major factor hindering their services--a complaint that is almost universal in the child- and family-serving field.

Family Services in Lancaster had what Grill called an "extensive program funded through the Children's Bureau for three years." Their funding has ended, however, and Grill says the agency is "trying to bridge those services" until they find another funding source.

The Vermont Post-Adoption Consortium has a federal and state grant that pays for some services. Meetings and support groups are available at no cost to any adoptive parents, but health insurance must cover other services.

Adoption subsidies can help cover ongoing counseling and support, Illinois's Howard says, but accessing services can be more complicated if a family moves. Although adoption subsidies are paid by the state that placed the child, available services vary greatly in different areas when a family relocates, and accessing services in another state can be more complicated. Howard believes uniformity of services is the most important issue.

"It would increase adoption if we could promise a certain amount of support," she says. "We've pushed for adoption, but we haven't had nearly the push for sustaining and supporting adoption, and they're really linked."

* Trudy Festinger. (1996). After Adoption: A Study of Placement Stability and Parents' Service Needs. New York University, Ehrenkranz School of Social Work, New York.

Kristen Kreisher is a graduate student, pursuing a master's degree in journalism at Columbia University in New York City, and former Managing Editor of Children's Voice.
Resources and Additional Information

* Casey Family Services
One Corporate Drive
Suite 515
Shelton CT 06484
888/799-KIDS or 203/929-3837
Fax 203/926-0775

* Center for Adoption Studies
Illinois State University
Department of Social Work
Normal IL 61790-4650
309/438-8503 or 309/438-8075

* Children's Bureau
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
330 C Street SW
Washington DC 20447

* The Cradle
2049 Ridge Avenue
Evanston IL 60201

* CWLA Adoption Services
440 First Street NW, Third Floor
Washington DC 20001-2085
800/ASK-CWLA or
Fax 202/638-4004

* Family Services
630 Janet Avenue
Lancaster PA 17601

* National Adoption Information Clearinghouse
330 C Street SW
Washington DC 20447
800/TO-ADOPT, 888/251-0075, or 703/352-3488
Fax 703/385-3206

* Pact, An Adoption Alliance
3220 Blume Drive, Suite 289
Richmond CA 94806
Fax 510/243-9970

* Vermont Children's Aid Society
79 Weaver Street
Winooski VT 05404
800/479-0015 or 802/655-0006
Fax 802/655-0073

Credits: Children's Voice

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