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Children / Colorado Livin' / Special Needs / Teens/Tweens

Thousands of kids are adopted from the welfare system

Images of children from distant countries, from Bulgaria to China to Russia, have been the public face of adoption in America.

But that picture is overdue for an update.

Most kids adopted by U.S. families now come from the child-welfare system: about 52,340 in 2010, up from 15,000 in 1988.

In Colorado, the number has increased 125 percent to 1,044 in 2010 from 465 in 1995.

The consensus is that it’s good to get children out of “the system.” However, such adoptions can bring with them unanticipated physical and emotional challenges that require ongoing support.

“The nature of adoption is changing pretty radically,” said Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute in New York.

Since the federal Adoption and Safe Family Act of 1997 passed and offered states financial incentives to encourage public adoptions, about 750,000 children have been adopted from foster care in the U.S.

Most children adopted from the foster-care system are trans racial or older, and about 60 percent have serious health issues such as asthma, HIV exposure or developmental delays, or are at risk of future illnesses because of prenatal exposure to drugs and alcohol, Pertman said.

The majority of these adoptions work well. But Pertman said a small minority of children have intense needs that can create family stress, marital problems and, sometimes, the dissolution of the adoption.

“It’s not just about numbers but about the success rate,” Pertman said. “Some of these kids were sexually abused or beaten daily, then put into adoptive homes.”

A recent survey by the North American Council on Adoptable Children found that 90 percent of the children had significant difficulties in school and 54 percent had difficulties in the community. Forty-three percent of the parents said they couldn’t find the services they needed to help their children.

“They are coming with trauma (to a family) and don’t know how to be part of what you’d consider a normal family,” said Colleen Tarket of the Colorado Coalition of Adoptive Families. “They don’t have social skills because of their previous background, and they’re behind in school. Emotionally, they are a wreck. They require therapy, sometimes numerous different kinds, and not just for a year or two.”

Network of resources

A nationwide network of post-adoption services has evolved to meet these needs, including information, referral, therapy, crisis intervention, support groups and mentoring.

But fiscal problems in recent years have caused many states to cut post-adoption support. And without that support, advocates say, parents can feel abandoned and desperate.

“We think they all deserve a great family, but our fear is that the family won’t have the services they need and so (the adoption) will fail,” Tarket said. “Then these children will have another layer of things that didn’t work for them.”

When the needs of a child adopted from foster care can’t be met at home, that child is at risk of returning to foster care or moving to a residential or psychiatric program, where costs can run as high as $100,000 per year, according to Joe Kroll, executive director of the North American Council on Adoptable Children.

“Trying to help”

Donna Vail of Grand Junction had four biological boys, then adopted three girls from foster care.

She was told that the girls had had some tough times in their biological homes. But, like many adoptive parents, she thought that with enough support and stability in a loving family, any potential problems would be nipped in the bud.

When the girls were young, there wasn’t much trouble. But when they hit puberty, the family was turned upside down.

Vail said the girls had reactive attachment disorder, which can affect children who have been neglected, abused or orphaned, and can permanently change a child’s growing brain, hurting the ability to establish future relationships.

“We had a tankful of fish, a kitten and two birds that were killed by the youngest child,” Vail said. “There is a lot of ugliness in there with RAD kids. Not all of them do that. Would I have expected that? No. These are things you never think about.”

Children adopted from foster care are covered by Medicaid, but many parents say it is hard to find Medicaid therapists trained in trauma and adoption issues, particularly in rural areas.

“Many of them are like, ‘Why is this kid like this? It must be something you’re doing.’ They don’t realize they came to us that way and we’re trying to help them,” Vail said.

To help parents who adopted from the child-welfare system, the state has partnered with the Adoption Exchange to create the Colorado Post Adoption Resource Center (COPARC), which provides information, referrals and up to $500 per child per year to spend on expenses such as tutoring.

“We help families keep the commitment they made by understanding the complexity of the situations and by giving them tools, resources, information and support,” said project director Lisa Tokpa.

They also work with schools, mental-health centers and faith-based groups to help them be sensitive to the needs of children adopted from foster care. They have alternative assignments for teachers to give, instead of having kids bring in baby pictures or family trees.

“Those could create inner turmoil or get them acting out in class,” Tokpa said. “Rather than retraumatizing them, we (suggest things) like behavioral-management tools for children who have experienced trauma.”

COPARC’s budget was cut 5 percent last year, to $475,000 from $500,000, Tokpa said.

Advocates are concerned about future cuts.

Already, it is increasingly tough to get residential treatment for children and adolescents because many facilities have closed in recent years. The number of psychiatric beds in state hospitals for children also has plummeted.

A “whole-family thing”

In Colorado, post-adoption services are supervised by the state but administered by the counties, and each county has different rules and requirements.

Some have begun to pull back on offering adoption subsidies that were created to help special-needs children, said Deborah Cave of the Colorado Coalition of Adoptive Families.

“Counties are hurting financially, and families are hurting financially,” Cave said. “We need to balance the needs in families with the needs of the counties.”

State and county governments in Colorado understand the need for post-adoption support, said Liz McDonough, spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Human Services.

“Counties are working very hard to get kids into good homes and to provide the supports to allow those kids to thrive in the new family,” she said. “The needs and dynamics of each individual family are different, and we focus on the individual family.”

With the right amount of support, these families can thrive.

“We’re doing great,” said Jen Street, who with her husband, Jerry, has four biological children, five children adopted internationally and three adopted from foster care.

Jerry and Jen, who was adopted from foster care when she was 8 years old, adopted their first child from the foster system when he was 16. He’s now 20, a high school graduate enrolled in a machinist program at Job Corps.

The two other children adopted from foster care are siblings born to a meth-addicted mother.

“They were both on antidepressants and anti-psychotics,” Jen Street said. “But they don’t need medication anymore or therapy.”

There have been some hard days, she said, but they have a solid support system.

“All our immediate family lives within 10 minutes. We have a phenomenal church, an extremely good marriage and biological children who are willing to do this.” she said. “It’s a whole-family thing.”

Still, for many parents, post- adoption services are essential.

“There is a concern around the country that legislators in this very tough economic time are going to say, ‘Here is a place we can cut,’ ” said Dixie Davis, president and executive director of the Adoption Exchange.

It’s important to keep funding intact, she said, “because a little bit of help goes so far for these families.”

By Colleen O’Connor

Mile High Mamas
Author: Mile High Mamas

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