Last night, The Donaldson Adoption Institute was delighted to celebrate it’s 12th Annual Taste of Spring event, celebrating food, fun and friendship.
Susan Notkin expressed her pride in all of the work DAI has done and for the help we have given to so many people in the adoption and foster care communities. She also expressed how in many ways our work is beginning again with a renewed spirit and sense of urgency.
“Together, we will show the world that adoption is not a mere transaction but a lifelong transformation,” said April Dinwoodie, DAI’s chief executive.
Thanks to everyone who helped to make our 12th Annual Taste of Spring the best one yet!
I think about my mom and my mother a lot. As a person who was adopted I think about the woman who raised me along with my dad and I think about the woman who gave birth to me. There are two times a year when these thoughts intensify; May, right around Mother’s Day, and October, right around my birthday.
My birthday is at times a bittersweet day. For many adopted people, the day you are born to one woman while being raised by another can be a tough one to balance. As a child, I could never quite put my finger on why it was tricky. I never had the language or ability to articulate the other “stuff’ in my gut that was swimming around with the cake and ice cream.
Does my biological mother my think of me on my birthday?
Did she love me?
Why did she leave me?
Does she have a gap in her smile too?
Do I have other brothers and sisters? Did she keep them?
On Mother’s Day, my first thought was not about me, it was about my mom. Especially as a young child, I was mostly caught up in creating the PERFECT gift for her–something to honor her, make her feel special and loved. At some point during the time leading up to Mother’s Day, or on the actual day itself, thoughts of my biological mother crept in. Once again, as a young person, I did not have the language to articulate my thoughts and feelings so I let them come and let them go. I was simply not equipped to do anything with or about them.
I am thinking about her on Mother’s Day; is she thinking about me?
Who will make her a Mother’s Day gift?
Does she miss me? Will I ever see her?
As an adolescent, my adoption experience amplified, as I navigated figuring out my identity, with the added complex layer of figuring out how adoption fit into who I was and who I would become. I realized then that thoughts of my biological mother were not limited to my birthday or Mother’s Day. Pretty much any time the going got rough, anywhere would be better than here. Since my reality included a “somewhere else,” I could “go” there in my mind, imagining that my biological mother would certainly understand me, would never tell me “no” and would simply be perfect in every way.
Sometimes, as self-absorbed adolescents tend to do, I did not see the perfectly imperfect mom that was right in front of me doing her absolute best. Because I could, I thought the other mother, the one I never knew, was probably, most definitely better. My friends and contemporaries were all bemoaning their moms, too, but for me the fantasy of having another mother was a reality.
As I entered young adulthood, I began to explore more deeply how my identity relates to adoption and started to understand the world in an expanded way. I began to appreciate and love the mom I knew and the mother I did not in ways I could have never imagined. As I found answers on my search, I found language for some of my thoughts and feelings related to adoption and I discovered a community of others (like me) experiencing adoption, all of which allowed me to process and heal. It became abundantly clear that the questions about my biological mother did not diminish the love for my adoptive mom. My questions and thoughts began to shift and were not coming in as heavy and punctuated by specific holidays. They still came, but things were balancing out a bit and I was gaining control of this part of my existence.
As my search and reunion journey unfolded, some parts were so painful I did not think I could bear it. And then, a new question emerged: How can I help other people who are having similar experiences? This spirit of humanitarianism and strength comes directly from my upbringing and the strength of my mom. With this spirit, I set out on a path to channel my personal experience to help others. This path began with a tiny, specialized mentoring program and ultimately led to taking on a larger role in helping children and families.
On this Mother’s Day I am thinking about my mom, the woman who raised me, and who I know fiercely loves me, as well as all of my siblings and countless others. The woman who told me about how in the first weeks I arrived she’d hear me happily playing in my crib—but when she entered the room and I saw her I would scream and cry. When she told me about this, I cringed and asked, “What did you do?” She said, “I kept on coming in and one day you smiled at me.” I think about the blessing of her strength, love and spirit that has been bestowed and passed on to me. I think of how deeply I love her.
On this Mother’s Day I am also thinking about my biological mother, who left the planet before I could see her again as an adult. I think about the decision she made and how isolated she was in this part of her adoption experience. I think about her strength and her pain. I understand her a bit and I am getting to know her through new connections to biological family members. While I may never fully understand or know her the way I want and need to, I think about the blessing of life she bestowed on to me.
All that I do and all that I am is wrapped up in two women; I simply would not exist without one and can’t imagine life without the other. All that I know and all that I am still discovering reflect both of my families, most profoundly in my commitment to children and families. As I move through spaces that are both professional and personal, I learn, I evolve, and I hope that my passion inspires others. It’s not always easy, but few things in life that we are truly passionate about ever are. But as I learned from my mom, you have to keep on coming in the room, until one day you smile and realize this is exactly where I’m supposed to be.
DAI is particularly pleased and honored to profile one of our own. Susan Notkin is President of DAI’s Board of Directors, bringing us wisdom and expertise from a lifetime in child welfare.
Susan is Associate Director at the Center for the Study of Social Policy (CSSP) where she manages their work in child welfare systems reform. In this capacity she advances CSSP’s role in promoting responsive, progressive public policies for children and families involved in the child welfare system. She leads CSSP’s Youth Thrive, a multi-year national initiative, which works to promote the healthy well-being and development for all youth, with a particular focus on youth in foster care. Prior to joining CSSP, Susan was the Director of the Children’s Program and of the Homeless Families Program at the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation. During her 17 years with the Clark Foundation, she created and implemented a ten-year $50 million grant-making program that pioneered public/private efforts focused on preventing and reducing child maltreatment through reforming the child welfare system. Previously, she designed the New York City Child Protective Services Training Academy and held positions in the Wisconsin Department of Health and Social Services, where she represented the rights of clients residing in mental health institutions, and directed the state’s policy agenda in child abuse prevention, child protection, early care and education and domestic violence. Notkin is a recipient of the LEAD! Award from Women and Philanthropy for her work to improve the child welfare system and combat domestic violence.
What inspired you to dedicate your career to improving child welfare? ?
I have worked on a wide range of social reform issues for almost 40 years. In 1980 I was working for the Wisconsin Department of Health and Social Services, overseeing the State’s child protection and child abuse and neglect prevention programs. The more I looked at the research and talked to workers, parents, advocates and children, the more I was convinced that a family’s ability to nurture their children was at the heart of preventing most of the social problems we face as a nation. And the more I learned the more I perceived that most families want to be good parents and have high aspirations for their children and that the State was no substitute for a family. Children need to be raised by families–ideally their own biological family but where that was not possible they need to be connected to a life-long family either through adoption or guardianship. Working to make that happen has defined the work that I do.
Tell us little about CSSP and how foster care adoption fits into its reform agenda.
The Center for the Study of Social Policy (CSSP) is a nonprofit public policy, research and technical assistance organization. We work with state and federal policymakers and with communities across the country. Our mission is to create new ideas and promote public policies that produce equal opportunities and better futures for all children and families, especially those most often left behind. CSSP’s work includes promoting public policies that strengthen vulnerable families; reforming child welfare and other public systems, mobilizing a national network to prevent child abuse and promote optimal development for young children; assisting neighborhoods with the tools needed to help parents and their children succeed; and educating residents to be effective consumers.
Much of our 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 almost 30,000 youth exit from foster care without a permanent family. The outcomes for these young people are dire: higher rates of homelessness, criminal justice involvement, teen age 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 exists 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. Some states preclude LGBTQ people from adopting which significantly restricts the pool of adoptive families. In fact LGBTQ individuals are more likely to adopt a child from foster care than others . Another barrier is that 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.
If you could change one thing about the practice of foster care adoption what would it be?
I would make openness in adoption an option that is more often considered, implemented and enforceable. And that means ensuring that children’s ties to siblings and other family members are protected and maintained.
As April draws to a close, the weather is warming and all around us nature is flourishing from the early spring rains. May is a month dedicated to raising awareness about children in foster care and foster families. Children deserve to flourish in the same way our Earth does, not only in the spring, but all year round. Our laws, policies and practices in foster care and adoption must be dedicated to ensuring this outcome. This requires us to treat all families as equal and focus on expanding opportunities for children to join qualified, loving families. It will be difficult though to achieve healthy outcomes for children and families when some states continue to uphold same sex marriage bans, and other states seek legislation that would allow agencies to judge potential parents not on their qualifications, but their sexual orientation and gender identity.
On April 28th, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case Obergefell, et al. v. Hodges, et al., which challenges the constitutionality of same-sex marriage bans in states under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. In states that uphold same sex marriage bans, the harms to children are many, including health and safety, economic security, and psychological well being. These parents and their children are denied access to privileges and critical resources that support families and enhance stability for children. Marriage bans can also significantly limit children’s opportunities to join potentially willing, qualified and loving families.
Meanwhile other states, such as Michigan, Florida and Alabama, have or are considering laws that would allow agencies providing foster care and adoption services to discriminate against qualified prospective parents based on the agency’s religious beliefs or moral convictions. The bills would extend even to agencies who receive public funding. These laws have been termed ‘conscience bills’ and in effect legalize discrimination under the guise of ‘religious freedom’.
It seems that some individuals believe that personal convictions should trump an abundant research base that supports lesbian and gay parenting as well as the dire circumstance of the hundreds of thousands of children in the foster care system in need of homes. This need is critical. Right now in the United States, the most current statistics indicate that 402,000 children are living in foster care; 102,000 of these children are awaiting the permanency of adoption. At the end of 2013, over 23,000 children aged out of the foster care system without having the support and stability of a family. As you can imagine, the outcomes for many children who age out of foster care without a permanent family are grim, and can include homelessness, unemployment, involvement with the criminal justice system and poverty.
DAI has conducted research that demonstrates that children growing up in lesbian and gay headed households show similar patterns of adjustment as those raised by heterosexuals. These findings are in keeping with a quarter century of research that has found that children raised by lesbian and gay parents fare as well as those reared by heterosexual parents. Major professional groups, including the American Medical Association and the American Psychological Association, as well as national and state child welfare organizations, overwhelmingly support adoptions by qualified same-sex parents.
Given the ever growing need for qualified foster homes, all states should be creating pathways to increase their pool of qualified parents, not limit them. And all states should ensure that children being raised by same sex parents are entitled to the same rights, privileges and protections as children being raised by heterosexual parents.
We cannot, as a country, espouse the principle of equality in theory only; our actions must always reflect this core value as well. DAI urges our supporters to stand with us in opposing any law, policy or regulation that treats families unequally and harms children.
Changes in laws and policies are a critical first step to address these issues; even then that doesn’t guarantee a change in behavior. So from there we must all actively engage in changing our attitudes and beliefs about adoption, foster care and what it means to be family. It is within this notion of transforming our consciousness that we will effect the most profound and lasting changes to the system that engages in adoption transactions. The landscape of the American Family is changing every day, with diversity in structure, form and appearance. Ideally we will not simply tolerate these differences, but embrace them for the richness that diversity brings to our lives. This is how we will act in good conscience towards our children. And they deserve it.