New Cooperative Adoptions
Help Children in Foster Care
Each year, nearly 75,000 American children are stranded in foster care, living year after year in what is supposed to be a temporary system.
Child welfare experts almost uniformly agree that children need permanent homes, but these children's chances of leaving foster care are slim. Unable to return to unsafe homes yet not free for adoption, they remained condemned to the insecurity of no permanent home and family.
To address the problem, the Clinton administration announced late last year an initiative to double the number of adoptions by 2002. Still in the planning stages, the effort has announced its intent to study how states are removing hurdles to adoption.
Experts acknowledge that a major barrier to reaching this target is the birth parent, who must relinquish parental rights before an adoption can take place. When the birth parent refuses, the only alternative is often an expensive, frequently unpleasant court battle that can take three years or more.
Even when drug or alcohol problems make them unfit parents, emotional bonds with their children can make birth parents unwilling to let go.
Already being tested by several states is a concept that may increase these children's chances for permanent homes. The new system, known as cooperative adoption, attempts to spare troubled birth parents the wrenching, all-or-nothing choice of having no further contact with their children. While giving up parental rights, the birth parents may keep up contact with their children by exchanging letters or phone calls and even visiting the child. Traditional adoptions deny all such contact.
Cooperative adoption programs are already showing promising results in Oregon and Washington.
"In some cases, if a parent can see their contact won't be severed, it may be enough for them to agree to adoption," said Kate Welty, a researcher for the North American Council on Adoptable Children.
Each year, almost 450,000 children live in foster care because of abuse, neglect or other problems in the home, according to the Clinton administration's recent Adoption 2002 report. Most of these children will be reunited with their families, but 100,000 will not. Of that number, only 27,000 will be adopted or placed in guardianships.
In Oregon, which has helped pioneer the process, there have been approximately 400 cooperative adoptions since 1992.
Both birth parents and adoptive parents spend 20 to 30 hours with a trained mediator. Starting with the birth parent, the mediator helps the parent decide what's best for the child. Then the mediator shuttles between birth and adoptive parents, arranging the adoption agreement.
The process isn't necessarily smooth. "Because we're working with people who haven't been successful in the child welfare system, there's typically conflict at first," said Jeanne Etter, director of Teamwork for Children, a private agency that developed Oregon's system with a state grant.
However, after working with the mediator, "most parents are able to change their thinking and begin planning for the child." Etter said.
A mediated cooperative adoption usually costs the state $3,500 and takes three to five months to complete. In contrast, said Etter, termination of parental rights in court costs at least $22,000 and takes two to three years, including appeals.
"There's nothing like the trials," Etter said. "You drag out every bit of dirt on the parents you can find. It's an incredibly dehumanizing and degrading process." The children also must remain in foster care until all appeals are resolved.
A number of states, including Colorado, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Idaho, have begun to set up a mediated cooperative adoption process like Oregon's.
Several other states, including Indiana, have established legal safeguards to ensure that even informal agreements allowing birth parents continued contact are enforceable. Parents there can go to court if the agreements are broken, just as divorced parents can when custody arrangements are violated. But even in the case of broken agreements, adoptions cannot be revoked.
Cooperative adoption is an outgrowth of the increasing openness in all areas of adoption. In years past, most adoptions closed off all connections between adopted children and their biological parents.
However, said Jan Stanley, a supervisor in New Mexico's Children, Youth, Families Department, adoption personnel frequently saw that "in closed adoptions, when kids get to be 18, they go looking for their parents."
Adoptions today frequently contain some degree of openness, ranging from birth parents providing health data and other information, which in the past often was not available, to actual contact.
"The secrecy behind adoption has lost its hold on the adoption field. People have realized it's okay to want to know where you came from," said Sarah Greenblatt, executive director of the National Resource Center for Permanency Planning.
Having contact with birth parents doesn't disrupt the new family, said Kelly Shannon, Oregon's Permanency and Adoptions program manager. "The fear was that if they knew their biological parents, they'd want to head back to them," he said. "The truth is, kids want to be safe, and they're pretty smart about that."
Children who don't know their birth parents frequently fantasize about them, adoption experts say. Sometimes the fantasies interfere with the child's new home life.
Charlotte Vick, assistant director of the North American Council on Adoptable Children, cites the example of her own adopted daughter. "She started blaming herself for losing her mother. It obstructed her ability to bond with us," Vick said.
After meeting her birth mother, the girl's feelings about herself changed and her problems at home diminished. "It was real healthy," said Vick. "Kids can deal with truth and openness a lot better than secrecy."
Cooperative adoptions are so new that little research has been done on them. Despite their apparent success, some adoption personnel say there are still questions to be answered.
Chris Robinson, Washington state's adoption supervisor, says cooperative adoptions may be more painful for biological parents than traditional adoptions. Birth parents normally grieve after giving up their children for adoption. The reaction dissipates with time, but Robinson is concerned that yearly visits may regularly reawaken it.
"The visits can be painful. It can be like opening up that grief reaction once again," she said.
However, Robinson and officials in other states say they will continue their cooperative adoption efforts as one way of removing children from the limbo of foster care.
Posted July 2, 1997
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