Let’s Give Every Family the Chance to Be Strong

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Family is the foundation of humanity, binding us together, even with the nuances that make our experiences discrete. Family is also the fundamental building block of society. We all, for better or for worse, have people we call family. More than ever before, the landscape of family is changing, and supports are needed as individuals navigate the beautiful, yet complex relationships of today’s modern family. Particularly within the sphere of adoption and foster care, families may struggle at times to make sense of their blended experiences. The Donaldson Adoption Institute (DAI) in partnership with the Adoptive and Foster Family Coalition of New York (AFFCNY) is excited to launch “Building Strong Families: Advancing Post-Adoption Services,” a new initiative to provide education and advocacy surrounding the need for post-adoption support.

The research base is clear that families who come together through adoption and foster care adoption thrive when they are able to access quality post-adoption services and support. Yet, research also reveals a lack of adoption-competent options and an overall inaccessibility of appropriate services. Many families, particularly those who adopt from foster care, will benefit from counseling and other services to best meet their children’s needs. This is not because there is something inherently wrong with these families; rather the experiences that lead a child to experience foster care and subsequent adoption often include trauma. Although we may see this more commonly in adoptions from the child welfare system, the reality is all types of adoption require that parents are thoughtfully informed and prepared before an adoption is complete and that they have access to quality post-adoption services long after an adoption is finalized. Adoption is the essence of what is meant by the word “bittersweet”; it is filled with loss for all involved yet can also be filled with joy and healing. This type of experience naturally will require the right supports in order for all members of the extended family of adoption to make sense of their unique family and truly thrive.

When people reach out for help and find that it is difficult to come by, unaffordable or otherwise inaccessible, families are unnecessarily burdened. Although most families in adoption will ultimately manage these difficulties, many may struggle needlessly to overcome challenges that can be balanced when quality supports are in place. For some families though, the lack of support in the face of overwhelming hardship may lead to further disruptions and dangerous decision-making on behalf of children. The worst of these is seen in the case of unregulated child custody transfers, a process termed “rehoming” by the news media to capture instances where parents place children they’ve adopted with new caregivers outside of legal channels and without appropriate oversight. Although it would be unfair to say this behavior is common, even one child “rehomed” is one child too many. Surely, we can do better than this. And we must do better than this if we want to offer adoption as a solution that is in a child’s best interest.

“Building Strong Families” is an initiative with several key components that all serve to strengthen children and families. The “Building Strong Families” website includes information pertaining to relevant news and research in the area of post-adoption services, as well as resources that can help families gain access to existing services. In addition to this practical tool, “Building Strong Families” seeks to advocate for quality and accessible post-adoption services that are streamlined and appropriately funded. We are beginning in New York and hope to expand to other states as well. This advocacy effort will exist in partnership with organizations and individuals with both personal and professional connections to adoption and foster care adoption. It is within the experiences of those who have truly thrived when service provision was consistent with their needs that the strongest case for ensuring effective post-adoption services will be made. The New York advocacy effort will ideally serve as a model for other states to engage in similar efforts on behalf of their families, and regular updates on progress will be posted on the “Building Strong Families” website.

Under the best of circumstances, maintaining healthy family connections is challenging and requires preparedness, thoughtfulness and patience. For everyone in the adoption and foster care adoption communities, navigating this journey can be even more challenging. Access to quality post-adoption services is critical so families can thrive and children have all they need and deserve. To learn more about the “Building Strong Families” initiative, visit www.buildingstrongfamiliesny.org.

Strong families build strong communities and strong communities make a better world for all of us. Join us as we work to give every family the chance to be strong!

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Olympian Simone Biles Reminds Us: We Do Need to Get ‘Real’ About Adoption

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Simone Biles’ beam performance in the women’s individual all-around final at the 2016 Rio Games. Photo: Tatyana Zenkovich/European Pressphoto Agency

What makes the news in adoption? Most frequently, it’s the sensational. It is the “Either/Or” theme or “Us vs. Them” mentality that makes the headlines – either extremely good OR terribly bad; either this OR that. Rarely is adoption shown as the many shades of gray that more aptly depict this complex experience.

The most recent of these polarizing narratives surrounds Olympic gymnast Simone Biles, her kinship adoption, and the need society has to publicly and shamelessly call into question the diverse family connections that comprise the adoption experience.

Although NBC announcer Al Trautwig ultimately deleted the tweet in reference to Simone’s parents, in which he insisted “they may be mom and dad but they are NOT her parents,” it’s true that nothing ever really disappears in the vast land of social media. Commentary continues in the wake of his ignorant remark, as the public weighs in with their opinions surrounding the authenticity of Simone Biles’ family connections, and how this reflects on their own family experience.

It is incredibly sad that something so personal as an adoption experience is being debated in the public sphere, as though any of us have a right to comment on how Simone chooses to reference her own family connections. Indeed, nothing seems to be sacred when it comes to using adoption as fodder for dramatic headlines, inappropriate punch lines or click bait. As two adoption professionals, we choose to comment on this recent media buzz simply to use what others have made public in the hopes of educating. Within this teachable moment, we wish to share three critical elements:

Adoption is Not Either/Or

The extended family of adoption include biological parents, parents through adoption, the child and the family members connected to each. In many ways, all families contain people who have multiple roles in our lives. An uncle can also be a godfather. Family roles need not be mutually exclusive, nor do they need to be in competition with one another. And while all people have parents we are born to, some people also have parents we know through the experience of adoption. One would think that as adults, who likely have some experience with complex family structures such as blended families and step-parenting, we would easily be able to make sense of these intricacies. Yet the conversation surrounding Simone Biles’ family says otherwise.

It is critical that as adults we learn to make sense of multiple family connections, value them all equally, and recognize that our responsibility is not to make ourselves feel better about these intricacies that sometimes push conventional ideas; rather, it is to ensure that a child can feel proud of whoever is a part of their family and validated in whomever they wish to call mom or dad. A child, young person or adult that has been adopted into a new family structure or system, even one that has biological connections through kinship adoption, need not be forced to choose between the two or have to decide which is better or what is “real.”

It IS What You Say

The overwhelming chatter surrounding Al Trautwig’s tweet focused on an issue that continues to deeply wound people connected to adoption – the language we use when talking about adoption and foster care experiences. It was not the fact that Trautwig insisted on referring to Simone’s parents via their ancestral connection to her; rather, it is what his comment implied about the meaning of parenthood when the role is not defined biologically or traditionally. In the articles and blogs that followed Al’s transgression, you could feel the pain such an implication generates. Adults who had a connection to adoption for many years continue to feel the sting at the idea that they are not “real” parents or that their parents are not “real.” We often completely ignore the biological parent in these conversations – a group that is often marginalized in these discussions.

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There are many divergent opinions on language in adoption, with no easy solutions to the challenges we face when trying to figure out the “right” way to discuss adoption. It’s probably because there is no one way to have this conversation, but there should be a healthy way. As adults, we must work to better respond to this issue on behalf of the youngest among us, in a way that speaks to their needs. Too often, children are trying to make sense of their experiences in a world that has stigmatized adoption and painted it as second best. Within this debate about language, we must consider how the competing interests of adults impact the developing needs of children. When considering the wide range of words that can be used to describe the complicated and unique experiences in adoption, it’s important that our vocabulary should not be about what makes adults more comfortable, but rather, what is healthy for children. And it wouldn’t feel good for anyone to think that their parents are not “real.”

We Do Need to Get ‘Real’ About Adoption

There was a particularly insightful piece on Vox which candidly (and fittingly) pointed out that the most sensational aspect of Simone’s experience was the fact that the child welfare system managed to keep a family of color together through the beauty of kinship adoption. We know that children and young people of color are over-represented in foster care, often remain there for far longer than is appropriate, and frequently age out to live a life riddled with hardship.

The realities of the adoption and foster care experiences are far from the images most people have in their minds. While the extremes that headline in the news are the exception, it is a mistake to believe that these experience are without challenge, particularly for children who are waiting in our foster care system for a permanent family connection. Creating resources for these children, including a thorough exploration of existing family connections, should be our top priority. If we want to learn anything from Simone Biles’ experience, let it be that.

The adoption community comes together very quickly when public misperceptions wound the very core of what grounds us – our families. Meaningful change though will only occur when we can organize and align ourselves with one another to educate society in a healthy and realistic way about adoption and foster care. We need to increase these educational efforts across the board as well as access to quality pre- and post-adoption services for families. We owe it to our children to do so.

As two professionals in adoption, we offer this piece because we believe there is a pressing need to encourage a more evolved conversation about adoption and foster care. Within this need, we all must mindfully consider the language we use when discussing these deeply personal experiences and we all must work harder at shifting the focus to the realities of our experiences, not just what makes the headlines.

As two adopted people, we find it incredibly sad that an individual’s very personal situation continues to fuel a public debate that brings us back to the same tired place – whether an adoptive family is as good as a biological one. Nowhere does this debate seem more charged than within our very own adoption community.

We get that the words hurt. Believe us – it’s even harder when you’re a child who has been adopted and at every turn you have to defend how you wound up with a family you weren’t born to. At a very young age, we receive a loud and clear message from society that this is not an optimal situation to be in, and this is a message that continues throughout our lives.

But as adults, if we can’t move ourselves to a place where we all feel secure in our roles, where we own this experience in a way that our validation comes from within, it will be impossible to generate a much needed shift in this conversation with others. And so the cycle will continue, creating more hardship for the youngest among us. And in another 18 years, the next Olympic hopeful who also shares an adoption connection will generate the greatest buzz not about her amazing talent or effervescent spirit, but rather about who makes up her family and what she calls her parents.

We admire you, Simone Biles, for your beauty, and your power, for your breathtaking abilities and your grace. Thank you for representing the United States of America at the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics.

Adoption in America Today: The Good, the Bad, and a Path to Reform

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Our Let’s Adopt Reform initiative continues with an important message shedding light on perspectives surrounding adoption, foster care adoption and family. Please click below to view the SlideShare and please be sure to view in full-screen.

The presentation is a jumping-off place that outlines key issues and sets up our vision for a path to much-needed reform. We believe that what we already know from our decades of research, combined with what we discovered through our public opinion research and what we discussed on our National Tour about family, identity, human rights and education will serve as a foundation for the path to reform.

Read more about “Adoption in America Today: The Good, The Bad, and a Path to Reform” on The Huffington Post here.

If you believe in reform as much as we do, please share this important message with your network and help DAI continue our vital work by donating today.

If you are unable to view the presentation, please click here.

Our Differences: Let’s Celebrate Instead of Shame

Bullying is far from a childhood rite of passage – it’s a public health issue. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, “one out of every four students (22%) report being bullied during the school year.” With more research reframing bullying as an epidemic infiltrating our education system, it’s no surprise that the Centers for Disease Control and U.S. Department of Educated released a bullying surveillance and prevention report in 2014.

Generally, the targeted student is different from the majority student population by race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, physical disability or cognitive disorder. The common denominator between these bullying incidents is the emotional wounds that negatively impact the delicate shaping of a young child’s identity. While there isn’t enough evidence to cite bullying as the cause of suicide, StopBullying.gov notes that the majority of youth who commit suicide have several risk factors including “emotional distress, exposure to violence, family conflict, relationship problems, lack of connectedness to school, and alcohol and drug use.”

High profile suicides of American youth like 13-year-old Emilie Olsen continue to sensationalize the relationship between bullying and suicide. In December 2014, 13-year-old Emilie Olsen, who was adopted from China at nine months old, shot herself with her father’s gun at home. In an 82-page federal lawsuit against Fairfield City School District, administrators and Emilie’s alleged bullies, the Olsens hold the school district accountable for their daughter’s tragic death. Emilie allegedly experienced online and physical bullying and discrimination because of her race and perceived sexual orientation at Fairfield Intermediate and Middle School in Ohio.

The majority of media reports overlooked Emilie’s transracial adoption experience. Amid the predominantly white student population at her school, Asian American students were allegedly perceived as “too smart” and taunted for their “slanted eyes.” Legal documents revealed that Olsen suffered from depression and self-mutilation, and even asked her parents to dye her hair to resemble her white classmates. Clearly, Emilie wrestled with dual identities as a racial outsider in her hometown.

It is common for transracially adopted children to experience identity challenges – especially in geographic locations where they represent a different race than the majority population. While transracially adopted children may be aware of their physical differences, they still identify with “members of the majority culture due to their adoption.” As discussed in The Donaldson Adoption Institute’s “Beyond Culture Camp: Promoting Healthy Identity Formation in Adoption” report, this transracial adoption paradox entangles youth in an identity web where they often feel as outsiders to their family and peers with no direct connection to one race. Their different skin pigmentation and physical traits prevent transracially adopted children from sharing their feelings openly with their different-race parents and underlying fear that their parents will be upset if they express interest in their biological roots.

Like Emilie and many transracially adopted children, I grew up in a predominantly white town in Long Island. While I couldn’t change (nor desired to) my physical appearance, I did my best to camouflage into my white surroundings. Still, my chameleon-like superpowers did not insulate me from racial discrimination. As a shy third grader in 1992, I experienced my first racial bullying incident by a black child. The student consistently taunted me for my “slanty eyes” by giggling, spewing racial slurs and stretching his eyelids horizontally both in and out of the classroom. Since we represented the few minority children in our elementary school, I secretly hoped we would unite instead of become enemies.

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Heather posing in between a mini golf game with her friends in 1994

Being cast as an outsider and shamed for my eye shape confirmed my worst fear. I became invisible to my fellow students and teachers. I kept my head down as I zigzagged through the hallways. Although I knew the answers to questions in class, I refused to raise my hand and doodled on my notebooks.

Despite the incessant taunting and tear-filled nights, I proudly claimed my Korean heritage. While playing with Barbies in the basement with my sisters, my default choice was my Korean Barbie in her magenta, green and gold Hanbok. When my third grade teacher assigned a report on any country of our choice, I naturally chose South Korea. I quickly dived into the card catalogs of the school library to research the geography, political structure, culture and history of my birth country.

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1988 Korean Barbie Doll

My second exposure to racial bullying occurred in fourth grade. One of my white classmates refused to hold my hand in practice when we gathered in a circle at the end of our immigration play. During the final performance, she finally held my hand in the closing joint circle and quickly released it as the curtains closed on the stage. At that point, I knew my different racial characteristics – not cooties (an imaginary childhood disease) – made her hesitant to hold my hand.

Although I never desired to resemble my parents and siblings, I displayed serious withdrawal and low self-esteem issues. I hid from my peers underneath desks. I hid behind my countless drawings of Disney Princess characters. I also cried in class almost every day. I felt more comfortable confiding in my 4th grade teacher than my parents out of fear that my outsider feelings might hurt them.

This is a common fear among transracially adopted children who are unable to speak with their parents about their inability to unravel their dual identities to both their birth and adoptive countries and shame in racial discrimination events. Parents must understand the importance and become educated in order to create an open and safe environment for their children to effectively communicate their loss of connection to their birth families and cultures and racial dualities.

This includes training from adoption professionals on the proper preventive and adoption-competent therapeutic resources to ensure that racial discrimination does not hinder their identity. DAI’s “Beyond Culture Camp: Promoting Healthy Identity Formation in Adoption” report provides the effective strategies for positive identity formation among transracially adopted children including “lived experiences (managing life as adopted people of color in a predominantly white society),” visiting their native country and attending racially diverse schools.

Our differences must be celebrated rather than shamed. This responsibility falls upon both the parents and schools. Adoption professionals must make it a priority that parents are educated about what it means to be a transracially/transcultural family and what they must do to ensure healthy identity development in their children. Academic institutions must foster a supportive, open and safe environment with diversity and bullying prevention workshops and enforce a written zero tolerance policy towards bullying. In return, each parent must demonstrate a willingness and respect to their child’s country of origin like my mother.

After my first trip to South Korea in 2014, I discovered how my mother honored my heritage in her journal. In preparation for my first birthday on July 4, 1985, my mother researched the significance of the first birthday (dol) in Korean culture and dressed me in a traditional outfit and served fruit and rice cakes.

In a journal entry on my first birthday, my mother shared her commitment to the preservation of my Korean roots:

“I wanted your birthday to be traditional because we think it’s important for you to experience your own culture. It may not be important to you now but when you grow up, I want you to know we respect your culture and want to show that it is just as important to us as it will be for you in the future.”

This is a manifestation of celebrating versus shaming and just one example of how one mother – my mother – made it her business to honor my birth culture.

How I Learned to Embrace Both Identities as an LGBTQI and Adoptive Parent

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Gabriel Blau

This guest blog post was written by LGBTQI equality advocate and Let’s Adopt Reform panelist Gabriel Blau. Known as “A Dad fighting for all dads,” Gabriel has represented these issues on television, in newspapers, and in front of legislators. If you’re interested in guest blogging for The Donaldson Adoption Institute, please email Chief Executive April Dinwoodie at adinwoodie@adoptioninstitute.org.

It is hard to write anything without acknowledging the massacre of 49 LGBTQI people in Orlando on June 12. Such a savage event in a place of respite and safety, and on a night specifically for the Latino community will leave a scar on this nation and on our hearts. In sitting down to think about my own family this Pride season, I cannot help but think of all the parents who lost children, all the lives cut short, the families that were devastated and the love that was lost.

Whenever I speak in public, I try hard to say “I am gay. I am a parent. I am Jewish. I am your neighbor.” The Orlando massacre is a terrible reminder why we need to name our identities and embrace all of the challenges that all of our communities and identities face. In a world where homophobia and transphobia, racism, and anti-Semitism are so prevalent, our creating a family and becoming parents happened through those lenses. So when my husband and I decided to add to our family and adopt our son, we saw ourselves as part of the LGBTQI community, but it took time to fully realize we are part of the adoption community too.

We always knew we would adopt. We met in 2003 and, as children of the 80s and 90s, being two gay men meant that the default for us was to not have children. But here we were, part of a new generation, two men in their 20s, on a first date, walking through Central Park, and talking about marriage and children. (The usual first date stuff right?)

When I was coming out, most people had never even heard of an LGBTQI person with children. And neither had I. But in my heart I knew we could do it.

When the time came, we did everything we could to educate ourselves about what it meant to become a family, what it meant to be gay men becoming parents, and what it meant to adopt. We built a small community of other adoptive LGBTQI parents, we listened, we talked and we explored. Adoption felt right for us with all of its blessings and challenges. But if I’m truly honest, I think we were LGBTQI parents-to-be first and adoptive parents second. We chose adoption intentionally and learned what we could about what being adoptive parents meant, but the social and legal barriers we faced as LGBTQI people were front and center.

We confronted these barriers in every way we knew how. We learned about our rights, we engaged in community and we planned. Back then, we weren’t legally married, we couldn’t necessarily adopt in every state, and it was unclear whether being gay would mean that a mother who felt adoption was her child’s best option would choose us as her child’s parents. But we proceeded and, faster than we imagined we were parents in a multi-racial, LGBTQI, adoptive, Jewish, middle-class family. And, as any parent can attest, parenting in any situation is all consuming. You are literally figuring out how to keep a person alive. And how to get some sleep. Never mind all the social, cultural, and legal challenges you need to be preparing to face.

Our LGBTQI friends and communities were ecstatic, mostly. It was 2008 and LGBTQI parents were still novel to most Americans. And so that became the focus of our identity. We were 27 and everyone, from social workers to attorneys to sheriffs, commented on us being the youngest adoptive couple they’d ever met. The nurses and midwife at the hospital where our son was born were mostly excited about being part of the process and the relationship we had with our son’s birth mother. We and most of the people around us saw the process through an LGBTQI lens: exciting, groundbreaking (not actually, but perceived that way), challenging the status quo.

For sure, not everyone was on board – some friends thought we were rejecting our LGBTQI identities. We were conforming to something that wasn’t meant for us. For some of them, it was the painful confrontation of watching something that they had finally made peace with, not having children, become an opportunity for others.

Choosing to adopt, while natural for us, was clearly not seen by others the way we saw it. What we hadn’t anticipated is that while we were just parents living out our family’s truth, others drew lines in the sand. More than one person told us we were “brave” and that they couldn’t do what we did. They couldn’t imagine parenting children who “weren’t really theirs.” They needed their own “real children.” This came from all kinds of people – straight and LGBTQI.

At one difficult moment, I was in a meeting – a meeting about securing lived and legal equality for families like mine – when the person I was with suddenly said they really couldn’t relate – “I have two perfect white children who are really mine.” And then he laughed a little. I smiled uncomfortably and nodded. “You know what I mean,” he added.

In other meetings, I learned that people were all for securing the rights to have children, but not addressing the needs of our families beyond legal rights. Supporting children as they come to terms with being adopted, or have an anonymous egg donor, or sharing a sperm donor with a handful of other kids they didn’t know? These were for other communities to address, not us. These weren’t LGBTQI issues. But of course they are, because these are the stories of our families.

Over the last eight-plus years, we’ve learned, of course, about what our son and family needs from us. We’ve opened our eyes to see how we’re part of a larger adoption community defined not just by being with others whose families are adoptive, but by the beauty and complexity of what our family story means for our son.

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Gabriel Blau (left) with his husand, Dylan Stein (right), and their son, Elijah Blaustein (middle)

Sometimes these still feel like two different communities, but more and more we see them converge and are finding places where we can be our whole selves. And rather than see the complexities as things to avoid, we are realizing that the more we lean in, the richer our family is.

So during this bittersweet Pride season, let’s embrace all of the communities we need to be part of. Let’s see what LGBTQI issues what our families face because of their whole selves, not only what we face because of our gender and sexual identities. For me, that means embracing our story as an adoptive family truly and fully in addition and in connection to our transracial and LGBTQI stories.

I am gay. I am an adoptive parent in a transracial family. I am Jewish. I am your neighbor. And this is my Pride.