YES! Score one for us, I thought. The experts went on talking but didn't really get into the issue, though their comments indicate it was a given any supposed benefits from sealed record were imaginary and not worth debating. Was Governor Christie of New Jersey, I wondered, listening? Or one of our bugaboos in New York, Assemblywoman Helene Weinstein? What was so refreshing was that the question of adoptees and open records was treated as beyond debating, so clear was the case for them from a health standpoint to be opened.
Then later that day, with the cheese cake now congealing in the fridge, I opened the Jan. 10 issue of Time magazine and it feel to a story by novelist and journalist Curtis Sittenfeld titled: "Foster Care: Extreme Edition."
Well, imagine my enthusiasm as I read that an innovative program in St. Louis for getting older kids (ten and up), kids with special needs, and hard-to-place family groups out of foster care and into homes where they are adopted involves tracking down family members and seeing if there isn't someone in the extended family who could not only make a good home for a child in foster care, but who is willing. And you know what? The success rate for these kinds of in-family adoptions is huge.
Called Extreme Recruitment, the social workers and two private investigators locate a minimum number of 40 relatives per child, though the number is usually closer to 60. Find that many biological relatives and you are likely to come up with a good home for Jennie's niece or Gabriella's daughter. From Time:
"The old assumption was that if a child's parents couldn't care for her, everyone else in the family would have a similarly negative influence--that the apple didn't fall from from the tree. The new conventional wisdom is that having contact with family is critical to a child's identity, and if you haven't found any family members who can be a positive influence, then you haven't looked hard enough. 'There are. [Melanie] Sheetz says, 'a lot of apples.'"Pioneered by the Foster & Adoptive Care Coalition in St. Louis, Extreme Recruitment aims for a match with a biological family member in 12 to 14 weeks, and succeeds in 70 percent of the time. The typical wait for older and difficult kids to place--if they are to find a family at all--is one to five years. Before only about 40 percent of the kids found families; Extreme Recruitment finds families for 70 percent of the kids.
The biological connection is obviously what makes the difference. It's the glue that finds homes for these kids who would otherwise languish in foster care. As I read, all I could think was: Don't tell me biology doesn't make any difference; don't tell me that all these adoptive families I hear about with troubled kids might be less "troubled" if they were not cut off from their families. When I read an adoptive parents declaim: I love this child as much as one of 'my own, I want to say: Yes, but the rest of your extended family doesn't. You wait until it comes to carving up the family fortune, or parceling out the gold pendant from Great Aunt Julia. Does the adopted daughter get it, even if her mother had it for years? Or does a biological cousin and her family think it rightfully should go to them, as it is a family heirloom?
In 2008 President George Bush made "finding family" federal law, and different states have implemented the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act in different ways. Extreme Recruitment stresses the significance of finding biological family:
"'We're talking about these kids being reconnected to support systems, family, their roots,' says Sheila Suderwalla, a coalition social worker. 'For our kids, when they enter foster care, their primary label, their primary identity, is a foster child.' But a foster child reconnected to his family becomes Aunt Rita's nephew or Johnny's cousin. 'He is someone who's cared about,' Suderwalla says."She goes on to note that relatives are likelier than strangers to be unfazed by a kid's special needs, such as being bipolar, because it's likely the disorder runs in the family and the great grandmother considering the adoption is already familiar with the condition because her niece else has it too. Consequently, the family not only knows how to deal with it, but is willing to.
The piece includes a bit of data that further demonstrates the pull of "family" over bonding with genetic strangers. A recent Cornell University study showed that of people who take an adoption-preparation course, only 4 percent of those who do not have a prior connection to a child will ultimately go on to adopt, but the number jumps to 53 percent when there is a connection. As foster-care consultant Kevin Campbell, who is credited with inventing the practice of family finding puts it:
"'Before giving kids to strangers, we should be making sure they don't have family members who can take care of them. Children and young people need to be afforded the dignity of knowing their family story--where they came from, the strengths and challenges in the family. For me, it's a human rights issue.'"Sometimes the first placement doesn't work out, but with the number of family members found, the teams looks for second or third or even fourth possible homes--in the family. If a suitable family member isn't available to provide a home, the child still develops relationships with his extended family that would not otherwise and often receives the family's blessing for a non kinship relationship, and thus proceed willingly. Teens often feel guilty about being adopted outside of the family and claim they don't want to be adopted, but this eases the way for them.
There are 424,000 American children in foster care as I write, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Close to a quarter of them will remain in foster care for more than three years. One 2007 survey found that of the young adults who age out at 18, about half do not complete high school, about a third are arrested, and almost as many struggle with homelessness. These statistics tell a tale of innumerable human suffering and a million indignities, reason enough to hope other cities learn that the best way to find a child a family is to find his real family first. --lorraine