Foster care adoption: What prospective parents should know
Kevin and Rhonda Birchard wanted a child, period.
Both couples turned to adoption – in both cases, adoption through the foster care system, with help from Boys & Girls Aid of Southwest Portland.
The private, nonprofit agency is looking toward its 130th anniversary in 2015 of supporting children in need. It places about 100 children each year in adoptive homes while also operating two youth shelters, a residential program for girls in the custody of the Oregon Youth Authority, and a transitional living program for teens and young adults who won’t be reunited with their families or adopted.
It’s perhaps best known for its foster care adoption program – it’s the lead agency, and the oldest, in Oregon’s Special Needs Adoption Coalition. Children in the foster care system are considered children with special needs – statistics from DHS show that about 91 percent of children adopted from foster care have some form of emotional need, often related to having been removed from their home, while about 13 percent have a mental or physical disability or impairment.
Putting those children’s needs first can make the process and procedures of foster care adoptions a test in patience for prospective parents.
“We want to find families for kids and not kids for families,” said Cheri Partain, an adoption clinician at Boys & Girls Aid.
That means foster care adoption isn’t for everyone, said Thom Tessandori, of Portland, whose journey, with his wife, from deciding to adopt to being matched with a child took nearly four years. “If there’s any doubt in your mind, don’t do it,” he said.
But for those who persevere, the reward is priceless. Said Portland-area resident Kevin Birchard, who with his wife tried for 14 years to either conceive a child or adopt privately: “We have a family now that we may not have had otherwise.”
Boys & Girls Aid is one of 13 adoption agencies in Oregon that works with DHS to place foster children in adoptive homes. On any given day, there are roughly 8,000 Oregon children in some form of foster care, according to DHS, of whom about 200 are waiting to be adopted. Since 2006, the department has recorded between 667 and 1,104 finalized foster care adoptions each year since 2006.
To reach that happy ending called finalization, would-be parents have to pass multiple checkpoints. Here’s what Boys & Girls Aid, Tessandori and the Birchards say is important for families considering foster care adoption to know.
Love is just a start. Agencies have a checklist of attributes that make a family a good candidate for adopting a foster child, said Partain. Those attributes include flexibility, the ability to be a strong advocate, a strong support system, a sense of humor, willingness to accept the child’s background and to be open with the child’s biological parents, and resolution of any grief related to infertility or prior unsuccessful attempts at adoption.
Parents, meanwhile, have to understand that they won’t succeed simply by loving the child. “I had this mindset of ‘Love conquers all’ and I believe that ultimately is true, but it’s with therapists, with physicians, with counselors,” said Rhonda Birchard.
Nor will parents succeed if they themselves are facing challenges, Tessandori said. “Make sure that you’re strong in yourself first and that you’ve figured out whatever you need to figure out in your relationship,” he said.
There will be a lot to learn. Partain said prospective parents are required to undergo training that is both a screening tool and an opportunity for them “to see what they’re really getting into.” DHS typically offers the training once a week for 12 weeks, while Boys & Girls Aid compresses it into a single weekend.
Though “screening tool” can sound like a roundabout way of saying “weeding out people,” Ryan Imondi, development and communications director for Boys & Girls Aid, said it’s really more about helping prospective parents understand what they need to work on. The idea is that “we’re preparing families for this really big change in their lives,” he said.
The process is complicated enough that Tessandori was inspired to create a website, Adopting in Oregon, to explain the process to others in plain English.
There will be a lot to reveal. Those seeking to adopt must undergo rigorous assessments known as home studies. “When they say they’re going to tap your finances and check your credit and check your Facebook page, they do it,” Tessandori said.
“You cannot do anything without an approved home study,” Partain said. At Boys & Girls Aid, that includes criminal background and employment checks, a safety checklist of the prospective parents’ home and a 128-item questionnaire that asks, among other things, how long a couple has been married, how they first met, how they communicate with each other, how they express anger and frustration, how they themselves were raised, their views on parenting, their religious or spiritual life, and how they feel about birth parents and their own infertility, if that’s relevant.
The agency also interviews couples both individually and jointly as well as any other children in the home. “If they’re younger than 5 it’s more of an observation,” Partain said. Older children will be asked questions such as “What do you think might be hard for you?”
There could be a lot to pay. There is no charge to adopt a child through DHS, but private agencies charge for their services. Among Oregon agencies, fees range from $2,000 to $10,000, according to Partain; Boys & Girls Aid charges a total of $5,000, with a “pay as you go” model.
Some employers’ benefit packages include reimbursement of adoption fees, Partain said. The Internal Revenue Service offers adoption tax benefits for qualifying taxpayers and the state of Oregon has a financial assistance program for eligible families that adopt children from foster care.
Don’t give up. Kevin Birchard said he and his wife had nearly given up hope of becoming parents when they were finally matched with their older daughter. “Likewise, we had given up any hope that we would have a newborn baby,” he said. “Seven months later, her sister was born.” The Birchards became the baby’s foster parents and eventually were able to adopt her as well.
Tessandori said he and his wife spent their first three years in the adoption system submitting for various children and being passed over every time. Finally, they caught a break when the Oregon Adoption Resource Exchange was created.
The online photo and profile gallery features foster children waiting to be adopted and helps families who have been approved for adoption to connect with case workers. The Tessandoris put up a profile on OARE that caught the attention of a case worker in Eugene who contacted the couple’s case worker, a connection that eventually brought the couple their son.
Support is crucial. Kevin and Rhonda Birchard said that while they know families who adopted through DHS and had a good experience, they were happy they worked with a private agency and would recommend that route to others. “It’s so helpful because you now have an advocate who supports you, who can inform you,” Kevin Birchard said. Noting that DHS’ role is to advocate for the child, he said, “It’s nice to have someone on your side of the table.”
Kevin Birchard also said that if he had it to do over again, he and his wife would have joined support groups going into and coming out of the adoption process. Meeting other families like theirs would have given them quicker access to health care professionals and counselors with expertise in adoption as well as parenting tips and tricks that could be tailored to their situation, he said.
The Birchards did find informal support from friends who had a child around the same age as their older daughter when they adopted her at 19 months. “Because we had never been parents before, we had no clue,” said Rhonda Birchard. “They opened their cupboards and they showed us what a 19-month-old needed. When you have a baby you can find all these books that tell you exactly what you need to outfit your home – there’s no such book for a 19-month-old.” The friends also allowed the Birchards to watch their bedtime ritual, she said.
Then there’s respite care, which allows parents to take a break for a few hours while others watch their child. Rhonda Birchard recommended that parents build it in from the beginning and not wait until they’re desperate for relief. “These little people are so intense and it’s constant. Their neediness, their clinginess, their anger is so draining,” she said.
“Take a break before something happens, before you’re so stretched out or you react,” Kevin Birchard said.
And it’s not advisable “to have some random 15-year-old girl down the street to babysit,” Birchard said – these children need to be cared for by adults who understand them. She recommended the monthly Foster Parents’ Night Out, which the nonprofit Embrace Oregon runs at 11 churches in Multnomah, Washington and Marion counties, using volunteers trained by DHS.
The system does work. “It’s fraught with uncertainty,” said Kevin Birchard, but “there is a process and it does move along. It’s a known process that you can follow and check off where you are. … It could be your friend. It could be the structure in a crazy situation that you can hold onto.”
Tessandori agreed that it’s important to just roll with the process despite its rollercoaster feel: “There’s so much of a buildup and then there’s this huge letdown when you’re not chosen.” And the reasons for being passed over can seem capricious – “Judge No. 2 didn’t think you had a big enough backyard,” he said, tongue-in-cheek.
The thing to remember, Tessandori said, is that “your biggest success comes after your biggest failure.” For him, that success already has a name: Jordan. On Friday, Dec. 12, 4-year-old Jordan becomes, officially, part of the Tessandori family.