Richard Heyl de Ortiz
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.