Profiles

In addition to data and research, narratives from those most affected by the availability or lack of post-adoption services – adopted people and children, adoptive parents and adoption professionals – about their experiences and needs are instrumental to illustrating the benefits of PAS in compelling, personal ways.

Melanie Chung-Sherman

Licensed Clinical Social Worker & Founder/Owner of a Private Practice
Melanie Chung-Sherman, LCSW, PLLC
Dallas, TX

What motivates your interest in working in foster care and adoption?

Starting in 1999, I have had the tremendous opportunity to work in child protective services as an investigator, public and private foster care, private, infant adoption, international adoption, kinship and step-parent adoption, and now as a licensed clinician specializing in post-adoption services. Naively, I entered the field filled with ego consisting of what I could bring, wisdom I could impart as an adoptee, and believing I could change an entire field. Years (and a multitude of rough learning curves later), it is the clients willing to share their deepest fears, sorrows, losses, and hopes that have humbled me in profound ways. Work in this field long enough and you will encounter moments in adoption and foster care that will bring you to your knees, but what continually keeps me coming back is the courage and self-determination that each client possesses. There is a hope that with each individual or system that I have had the privilege to work alongside that something greater than ourselves was left behind.

If you could change one thing about the practice of adoption/people’s attitudes toward adoption, what would it be?

There is a seduction to view adoption and foster care in binary terms as either good or bad, but that fallacy trap is dangerous because nothing in life is so concrete. There is enough room for a multitude of feelings and perspectives that will evolve over time. The ability to sit within the tension of those emotional and conflictual intersections is what creates change and insight. For fellow triad members who enter this field, it is critically important that we remain self-aware and accountable to continually do our personal work so that we can robustly engage each system free of our known and unknown agendas so that our work is transparent, ethical and grounded — so when those intersections collide, we can stand interdependently of each situation to create solution.

How do post-adoption services fit into your work to improve the adoption and foster care system?

Post-adoption (a passion of mine) is an extension of the act of adoption and is equally important within the entire schema of adoption and foster care. It is neither pre or post, but a fluid and ever-changing spectrum of experiences throughout the lifespan and intergenerationally. It is a specialized application that combines lived experience, research, best practice considerations, clinical acumen, policy and flexibility of adaptation to each situation.

In your opinion, why are post-adoption services important to building strong families?

Building stronger families also means long-term investment and commitment within our shared community to provide services throughout the life of a client that extends beyond placement. There is an ethical and moral obligation for those involved within this field to ensure that longitudinal services for all triad members are accessible, reputable and competent. Among professionals — particularly adopted people and first parents — who have worked hard to legitimately gain a foothold in this field, there is a need to share our knowledge, advocate and educate the next generation — as much as there is a need to thank those who came before us and carve out a place at the table. And I am thankful for every person and opportunity that has led me to this place today and tomorrow.

 

Melanie Chung-Sherman can be reached by phone at 972-998-6139 or email at counsel@mcscounsel.com. Check out her new website.

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Katy Perkins, LMSW-AP

President
Kingsman Consulting, LLC
Dallas, TX

WHAT MOTIVATES YOUR INTEREST IN WORKING IN FOSTER CARE AND ADOPTION?

Social workers are compelled to advocate for those with marginalized voices in order to ensure that all people have opportunities and tools to live their lives to the fullest. I believe passionately that all people deserve a world in which they can be their true selves and have their personal reality honored. If I could change one thing about the practice of adoption, it would be an increased focus on preparing families for the experience of holding more than one feeling at a time. Adoption is complicated and rooted in loss. To not acknowledge this sets all parties up for, at best, emotional distress, and, at worst, alienation from each other. Having conflicting feelings about the adoption experience is not a sign of a “bad adoption,” rather a normal reaction to extraordinary experiences.

HOW DO POST-ADOPTION SERVICES FIT INTO YOUR WORK TO IMPROVE THE ADOPTION AND FOSTER CARE SYSTEM?

As a reunited adoptee, I have seen firsthand the support that is necessary to navigate highly complex personal relationships. I continue to see how, in my own life, the experience of adoption evolves over time. Post-adoption services are important because adoption is not a one-time event. The implications of placement, adopting, and being adopted reverberate throughout the lifespan and generations. In order for change to be effective within power structures, it must occur at multiple levels: individual, relationship, community and society. That is how I approach post-adoption services – as one piece of a larger puzzle. By working to adequately prepare prospective adoptive parents, train the professionals and communities who care for them, and engaging in policy reform at the state and national level, I continue to work towards a more just and compassionate system.

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Mark Lacava

Clinical Director, Spence-Chapin’s Modern Family Center
Spence-Chapin Services to Families & Children,
New York, NY

WHAT MOTIVATES YOUR INTEREST IN WORKING IN FOSTER CARE AND ADOPTION?

I believe that children only have one childhood and good permanency options need to be provided sooner rather than later when children and their parents need services. This has turned into a personal life mission with my work in foster care and adoption for over 25 years. Working at Spence-Chapin has allowed me to put this mission into action by working with biological, foster and adoptive parents, and their children. I lead a team of experienced mental health professionals who are trauma-informed and adoption-competent to provide robust pre- and post-adoption support.

HOW DO POST-ADOPTION SERVICES FIT INTO YOUR WORK TO IMPROVE THE ADOPTION AND FOSTER CARE SYSTEM?

Despite tremendous efforts, many foster care agencies lack the capacity to effectively intervene, treat and transition children in foster care (ages five and up) with complex behavioral challenges to permanent families. I am, and my team is, committed to helping the children in foster care who have the most complex needs to transition and remain in permanent families. I provide comprehensive, evidence-based therapy and case-management for the most complex cases. My clinical team builds customized interventions and works closely with children, their foster families and siblings, doctors, teachers and schools to build a network of support and consistent, effective care based on the child’s needs. We provide one-on-one counseling and support to children and their foster parents at a critical time as they consider adoption. Through this pilot program, I have developed foster care staff trainings on navigating open adoptions, common mental health diagnoses, the effects of trauma throughout developmental stages, typical childhood development and permanency planning. My team’s work is focused on helping children be adopted into their foster families, ultimately creating a sense of permanency and a foundation for good health and lifelong success. Our clinical team currently helps over 300 children across New York City and is seeking to expand the program to additional agencies to support a greater number of children and families.

Spence-Chapin’s mental health clinic is dedicated to supporting the adoption experience both emotionally and educationally. My work at the Modern Family Center provides numerous programs to support the life cycle of adoption and the adoption constellation. We have adoption-competent therapists to support difficult issues around adoption for all members of the adoption community. We have social and educational post-adoption services to create a connection to the adoption community.

DO YOU HAVE A PERSONAL CONNECTION TO ADOPTION OR FOSTER CARE? IF SO, HOW HAS YOUR PERSONAL EXPERIENCE INSPIRED OR INFLUENCED YOUR WORK?

Although I do not have a personal connection to adoption, the work has become very personal to me and is a part of what defines me as a person.

IF YOU COULD CHANGE ONE THING ABOUT THE PRACTICE OF ADOPTION/PEOPLE’S ATTITUDES TOWARD ADOPTION, WHAT WOULD IT BE?

Part of my work is putting adoption out there as a part of the normal human experience. Throughout history and in all cultures around the world, children grow up outside of their biological family and it is a normal fact of life. In this country many generations ago, it became imbedded that adoptions should be secretive. Secrets mean there is something off or something to be kept silent. A part of a person’s life as big as their origin should not be kept secret.

IN YOUR OPINION, WHY ARE POST-ADOPTION SERVICES IMPORTANT TO BUILDING STRONG FAMILIES?

All families need help at some point or another in the life cycle. We need to better support all families and the adoption community needs support that is unique to their life experiences. Individuals need therapists, support groups and peer communities that understand them and their connection to adoption. It is important for people to have a place to express their family without having to explain the adoption aspect. Post-adoption services provide these wrap-around supports that are unique to the members of the adoption community. We at Spence-Chapin have been part of the adoption community for over 100 years. I work to see more openness in adoption and less secret and shame. Our team works to increase access to post-adoption services by normalizing the experience of seeking help when needed.

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MN ADOPT

Staff
St. Paul, MN

WHAT MOTIVATES YOUR INTEREST IN WORKING IN FOSTER CARE AND ADOPTION?

The MN ADOPT organization was founded in 1980 by a group of adoptive and foster parents. The founding mission was focused on advocating for the rights of every child to ensure they find a permanent and nurturing home – this mission still holds true today! Over the years, MN ADOPT has expanded its programming to support the adoption and foster care community regardless of where people are on their journey. Our team is composed of professionals who have dedicated their careers to this work and are deeply committed to supporting those touched by adoption.

HOW DO POST-ADOPTION SERVICES FIT INTO YOUR WORK TO IMPROVE THE ADOPTION AND FOSTER CARE SYSTEM?

Post-adoption services are a major component to our organization’s programming and is an area that we are passionate about and excel at providing. The supports available through the HELP and Training programs are major contributors to our state’s ability to provide responsive, robust and easily accessible post-adoption support. These programs work closely together to provide well-rounded, innovative, adoption-informed services that are applicable to families and individuals across their lifespan.

We are longtime advocates in identifying barriers to adoption and family stability. Through our collaborations with many organizations, both locally and nationally, MN ADOPT attempts to shed light on the unique needs experienced within this community and advocate for needed systemic change. MN ADOPT was honored to be a 2015 recipient of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute’s Angels in Adoption award. While in Washington, D.C. to receive the award, MN ADOPT was invited to meet with leaders at the U.S. Department of State to share information on our programming and discuss post-adoption needs.

DOES YOUR STAFF HAVE A PERSONAL CONNECTION TO ADOPTION OR FOSTER CARE? IF SO, HOW HAS YOUR STAFF’S PERSONAL EXPERIENCES INSPIRED OR INFLUENCED THEIR WORK?

Many of our team are personally connected to adoption and foster care and have chosen to focus their career on this imperative work. In addition, the MN ADOPT staff brings extensive working histories across various adoption and foster care organizations and programs to their current roles. Having a team that has myriad experiences, both personally and professionally, aids in our immense repertoire and ability to approach programming in a well-rounded, adoption/early trauma/attachment/identity informed way.

IN YOUR OPINION, WHY ARE POST-ADOPTION SERVICES IMPORTANT TO BUILDING STRONG FAMILIES?

Post-adoption services are not only important to building strong families; they are absolutely essential. It has been an incredible disservice to families and individuals that adoption was, and arguably still is, seen in society as an event (transactional) versus a lifelong experience. The complexities of adoption and foster care are multifaceted for all those touched by the experience – not just for the adoptive parents. Locating resources with the expertise and experience in assisting adoption-related nuances is crucial to establishing and supporting stable home environments.

Individuals and families across the country deserve easily accessible, adoption-competent, expert support and guidance to resources tailored to the person/family’s unique situation regardless of their role in adoption (i.e. adoptive parent, adopted person, first/birth parent). MN ADOPT approaches this need by having programming that is able to provide unbiased, knowledgeable support (both pre- and post-adoption) to adoption/early trauma/attachment/identity informed resources.

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Richard Heyl de Ortiz

Executive Director
Adoptive and Foster Family Coalition of New York
New Paltz, NY

Tell us a little about the Adoptive and Foster Family Coalition of New York. How does Building Strong Families fit into your work to improve the child welfare system?

The Coalition was founded in 1975 when adoptive parents throughout the state came together to support one another and to create a statewide voice to work for change in our child welfare system. Realizing that many of their concerns were shared by foster parents and professionals in the foster care field, the organization expanded its focus. More recently, our umbrella was broadened to include the growing number of kinship parents – relatives raising children who have been removed from their parent’s care.

For us, Building Strong Families is all about advocating for improvements in our system and promoting best practices. As conceived, the initiative will help spread the word about the realities of the adoption, about what is working and, most importantly, what we still need to change.

One of your major interests is ensuring that adoptive families have the support they need. Why is this so important?

Our organization’s vision is very clear: That no foster, adoptive or kinship care family in New York State will feel alone or unsupported and that all such families will have the tools, support and community they need to nurture their children and be role models for others.

The common belief is that adoption is the end of the story. This is far from the truth. Adoption is significant and powerful. It changes the lives of children and families, but the reality is that adoption is just part of the journey. This is not just my professional experience talking. As an adoptive parent, I have lived this.

Families need support on their terms and in their time. Our organization’s work and my personal experience as an adoptive parent have shown flexible post-adoption services that can be easily accessed may be the difference between keeping a family together and watching it fall apart.

What can be done to help children and families?

There are things we can do to help support adoptive children and families. First, make sure they have a connection to other families and children like them. Finding or starting a parent support group is one way to get this support.

Second, services and support must be provided how and when the child and the family need them. This is not a one-size-fits-all model. That said, there is a growing body of research and the example of successful post-adoption support programs in other states to guide us.

Third, therapy, which is crucial, must be adoption-competent. Adoption brings unique issues into the family and therapy. Health and behavioral health care providers need to have expertise related to adoption in the same way that a provider might specialize in the treatment of addiction or in a specific diagnosis such as autism spectrum disorder.

What are the impediments?

From our perspective, there three fundamental impediments facing adoptive families in need of support: an acknowledgement of the need; a lack of relevant training for mental health providers; and funding.

The Building Strong Families initiative is a tool to help address the lack of understanding surrounding this issue. In this arena too, we need to change the myth of adoption – that the act of a court, while profound, is the end of the story. Children have wounds. Families struggle. We have to make this – not the myth – the story and we must support children and families.

We are plagued by a lack of adoption-competent training for mental health and health providers. Discussion of adoption is too often a footnote in even Masters level programs. Professionals with little or no experience in adoption are being placed in positions of extraordinary responsibility when working with families. This is not fair to them or to the children and families who so desperately need help. We must change this.

There is simply not enough funding for the provision of post-adoption support services. Despite inducements in recent federal legislation, the reality is that for too many states, post-adoption support is not a priority. New York has just begun to change that paradigm in a meaningful way that has the potential to positively impact children and families across the state. We need to support this and encourage more states to do the same.

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Gary Mallon

Julia Lathrop Professor of Child Welfare
Silberman School of Social Work, Hunter College and Executive Director, National Center for Child Welfare Excellence, New York, NY

What motivated your initial interest in foster care and adoption?
As a kid, I was part of the CYO (Catholic Youth Organization) and we did social justice work at a place near where I lived called St. Dominic’s Home in Blauvelt, NY. We called it an orphanage – but it was a child welfare agency, we had no idea at the time. I thought after volunteering there, this would be a great place to work, helping kids and families. I then went to Dominican College and while going to college, I started working as a child care worker in a cottage with what we called in those days, “the baby boys” – ages 6 -13 years old. Working as a child care worker was very different than I thought it would be. The kids had lots of challenges, all the kids were African American and Latino and the staff were all white.  We had, in those days, no cultural competency training and there was a lot of ignorance on our part about the families of the children.

How has your personal adoption experience inspired or influenced your work?
I am deeply affected in my work, by my own personal experiences with foster care and adoption. I have been a foster parent and I am an adoptive parent, so I always say that I talk, the talk and walk the walk. Doing it and talking about it are two very different things. I feel like, I know about foster care and adoption on a much deeper level than the person who “studies” adoption and foster care – not to say in any way I am better than they are, not at all, but my personal experience has informed my work in deep and meaningful ways. I am still affected every day when of my former “kids” reaches out to me on Facebook or when my daughter calls me to tell me something that happened to her that day.

If you could change one thing about the practice of adoption/people’s attitudes toward adoption, what would it be?
I would LOVE to get professionals to believe that youth really need permanent, loving, lifetime families. I still hear way too much – “Oh, these kids don’t want a family, they want to be out on their own.” I know some of my former kids who at 33 and 43 are still floating out there, like a boat without an anchor, because we did not do our jobs and connect them to lifetime families. So, yes, if I could change one thing it would be to change our professional colleagues’ mindsets that older youth do not need or want families.

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Susan Notkin

Associate Director
Center for the Study of Social Policy, President of DAI’s Board of Directors, New York, NY

Tell us a little about the Center for the Study of Social Policy and how foster care adoption fits into its reform agenda.
Much of [the] Center for the Study of Social Policy’s system reform work focuses on improving how public child welfare systems and its partners address the safety, permanency and well-being needs of the children, youth, and families that they serve. As an organization, our focus is on ensuring that families receive the help they need in their communities so that they never need to come to the attention of the child welfare system in the first place. When children do need the State to step in to ensure their safety, we promote policy and practice changes to ensure that families are helped to reunify quickly with their children whenever possible. When that is not possible, best practice suggests that children should be placed with relatives through kinship care. Only when that is not possible should children be placed in foster care with non-family members. And no child should grow up in foster care or exit care on their own without a family to call his or her own. That’s where adoption comes in. Adoption from foster care represents the biggest mode of adoption in this country. Notwithstanding this fact, too many children in foster care are in need of adoptive families. And too many youth end up exiting from foster care to independence without family permanence.

One of your major interests is children aging out of foster care. How serious is this problem?
Each year, over 23,000 youth exit from foster care without a permanent family. The outcomes for these young people are dire: higher rates of homelessness, criminal justice involvement, teenage pregnancy, and lack of an education and skills to meet their financial needs. This isn’t surprising. Just imagine any 18 or 21-year-old – even youth who have had all kinds of advantages – being on their own without a family to rely on for advice, comfort or support. Succeeding without family support would be difficult for any young person. I firmly believe that we have a moral responsibility to these young people to ensure that they have the relationships and opportunities that all youth need in order to thrive – and the number one thing that the research says youth need is a lifelong caring adult in their lives.

What can be done to help these children and young adults?
The first thing we need to do is to ensure that no child spends their childhood in foster care and that no youth exits foster care without a family. All efforts should be made to help strengthen families to care for their children. And for those children who need to come into foster care, all efforts should be made to reunify the child with his/her family. States need to offer subsidized guardianship programs for families who are taking care of their relatives. But when reunification is not going to be possible, we need to move towards some kind of legal or relational permanency for the child. In many of those situations, birth parents can often play a role in preparing the child for a new permanent family. For older children and youth, we need to explore whether it would be better for them to stay connected in some way to their family of origin. Too often, we set up youth to reject adoption as an option because they see it as a rejection of their family. This is where open adoption needs to become a real option for youth. We also have to stop accepting a youth’s rejection of adoption as definitive. Workers need to keep returning to this option. Sometimes the way we ask a question dictates the answers we get. So instead of asking youth whether they want to be adopted workers need to ask: Would you like someone to celebrate your birthday? To support you through your triumphs and challenges? To be with you at high school graduation? To be there during times of need? And we need to ask these questions over time so that youth have the time to consider their options and understand the possibilities that adoption presents.

What are the impediments to adoption out of the foster care system?
There are many barriers to adoption out of the foster care system. Many prospective parents always imagined adopting a baby and they may not even have considered adopting a 5-year-old or an 18-year-old. Families are often hesitant to adopt a child who may have suffered from abuse and neglect and who has spent multiple years in foster care. They may understandably worry about the impact of these experiences on the child’s development and life chances. And, unfortunately, few states provide adoptive families with the physical and mental health supports that these children and their adoptive families may need. That’s why post-adoption services are so necessary. Finally, many child welfare systems haven’t figured out how to balance the fact that while we don’t want courts to create legal orphans, we also don’t want children to wait unnecessarily long when an adoptive home is available and when reunification is not possible. That’s where court reform plays a role. Courts need to aggressively and more intentionally pair services to the individual needs of families to give them the best chance at reunification, and when that is not possible, to move swiftly to another permanency option.

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Marie Dolfi

LCSW
Glenmont, NY

What is your connection to adoption, foster care and/or post-adoption services?
My connection to the adoption community began when I become involved with my local adoption support group in the early 1990s. This was followed by becoming a member of New York State Citizens’ Coalition for Children [now the Adoptive and Foster Family Coalition of New York] whom I have helped with their advocacy agenda for over 15 years. Seven years ago, I started my private practice as a social worker specializing in adoption issues. Additional post-adoption experience includes being on the advisory board of Parsons Child and Family Center’s post-adoption program. More recently, I joined Voice for Adoption and the American Adoption Congress.

In your opinion, why are post-adoption services important to building strong families?
Love, commitment, and traditional parenting methods are not a magic wand to remove the emotional scars of neglect, abuse, fetal alcohol exposure, and other difficult early life experiences. Adoptive parents need a bigger toolbox of parenting skills on adoption issues, trauma, attachment, and other mental health issues. Post-adoption programs are needed because the average community does not have parent support groups, respite [care], and adoption-competent mental health providers.

What do you think are the biggest barriers to post-adoption services being available?
The initial barrier is to educate individuals that while many children who joined their family by adoption do not need specialized services that [those] children [who have] had difficult early life experiences have unique mental health needs that require specialized services. Once you start talking about the different populations within the adoption community, most people understand the need. Another barrier is post-adoption services are competing with other child welfare services for funding and many people are hesitant to take away funds from other programs to fund PAS.

Where do you turn for information on post-adoption services?
To stay current on post-adoption services, research and legislation, I subscribe to a number of e-newsletters. The best e-newsletters are The Donaldson Adoption Institute, Voice for Adoption, North American Council on Adoptable Children, and Adoptive and Foster Family Coalition of New York.

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