Adam Pertman on Supporting Adoptive Families

You might think that once adoption papers are signed and the child has a forever family, that’s the end of the story. Guest poster Adam Pertman stresses that while finalization is the end of one journey, it’s also the beginning of another.

Permanency for Children & Support For their Families

adam pertman adoption permanencyFinding safe, permanent homes for children in foster care — usually through adoption when they cannot return to their families of origin — has become a federal mandate and a national priority during the past few decades. That’s obviously a very good thing, but there’s a too-little-discussed downside to this positive trend: Far too little attention is being paid to serving children after placement to ensure that they can grow up successfully in their new families and so that their parents can successfully raise them to adulthood.

Notice the use of the word “successfully” twice in the last paragraph. It’s the key. It’s also the founding principle of a new organization I’m proud to lead, the National Center on Adoption and Permanency (NCAP). Our mission is to move policy and practice in the US beyond their current concentration on child placement to a model in which enabling families of all kinds to succeed — through education, training and support services — becomes the bottom-line objective.

Because of the traumatic experiences most children in foster care have endured, a substantial proportion of them have ongoing adjustment issues, some of which can intensify as they age. And many if not most girls and boys being adopted from institutions in other countries today have had comparable experiences that pose risks for their healthy development.

Preparing and supporting adoptive and guardianship families before and after placement not only helps to preserve and stabilize at-risk situations, but also offers children and families the best opportunity for success. Furthermore, such adoptions not only benefit children, but also result in reduced financial and social costs to child welfare systems, governments and communities.

We Need Services ASAP

A continuum of Adoption Support and Preservation (ASAP) services is needed to address the informational, therapeutic and other needs of these children and their families. The overall body of adoption-related research is clear on this count: those who receive such services show more positive results, and those with unmet service needs are linked with poorer outcomes.

adam pertman on adoption permanency

Our nation has made a concerted effort to move children into adoption and other forms of permanency because we understand the value for girls and boys who cannot remain in their original homes. This value is rooted in the belief that all children of every age need and deserve nurturing families to promote optimal development and emotional security throughout their lives.

Indeed, while child welfare systems in many states are still experiencing a variety of problems, it’s also true that a combination of federal funding and other resources has made a significant difference. Due to these resources, there has been a huge increase in the number of children moving from insecurity into permanency over the last few decades, from an average of 21,000 annually for FY 1988-1977 to an average of 52,000 annually for FY 2002-2012.

Furthermore, an analysis conducted by the Donaldson Adoption Institute indicates that, as a nation, we have made some progress in developing ASAP services, particularly in 17 states rated as having “substantial” programs. At least 13 states, however, have almost no specialized ASAP programs, and even the most developed of them often serve only a segment of children with significant needs. For example, many of the specialized therapeutic services have limits in duration or frequency or serve only children with special needs adopted from foster care in their own states, and some serve only those at imminent risk of placement outside their homes.

To enable families to succeed, ASAP services must become an integral, essential part of adoption. Just as the complex process of treating an ongoing health issue requires continuing care, as well as specialists who understand the complications that can arise and how to best address them, the adoption of a child who has endured trauma and with complex special needs requires specific services and trained professionals to address the challenges that arise over time.

Not an Add-On

When families struggle to address the consequences of children’s early adversity, they should be able to receive — as a matter of course integral to the adoption process, and not as an “add-on” that can be subtracted — services that meet their needs and sustain them. Adoptive families, professionals, state and federal governments, and we as a society share an obligation to provide the necessary supports to truly achieve permanency, safety and well-being for the girls and boys whom we remove from their original homes.

Given the profound changes that have taken place in the field today, especially the reality that most adoptions in the US are of children from foster care with some level of special needs, permanency for them should focus on more than just sustaining their original families when possible or finding new ones when necessary. We must also provide the resources and supports that will allow them to — here’s that word again — succeed.

A version of this article appeared previously on The Huffington Post.

After leaving his position as Executive Director of the Donaldson Adoption Institute in 2014, Adam Pertman founded NCAP, The National Center on Adoption and Permanency. He spent 20 years as a senior reporter and editor with the Boston Globe, where his honors included a Pulitzer Prize nomination for his writing about adoption. He and his family make their home in Massachusetts.

11 thoughts on “Adam Pertman on Supporting Adoptive Families”

  1. I didn’t know they now haveserices to assure success. Do they have them in Missouri? I may have said this before. I was a visiting parent to a little girl in a children’s home before I was married. She was the sweetest thing and had a little brother in the same home. She had been in several foster homes and promised to be adopted but then they would back out. Well, one day they called me and said don’t come because Robin was going to be with her adoptive parents. I had no idea. I asked if I could see her one more time to say goodbye because I didn’t want her to think I was deserting her. They set it up. I think they thought I’d give up because they weren’t home for about an hour or so but I waited and got to see her. She was so excited because they’d bought her new clothes and a new bedroom set. But I noticed every other word was “adopted”–her new brother there was adopted, the dog was adopted, etc. Being adopted I didn’t like that. They did bring her to my wedding. We had invited kids from the home to come too and they told me Robin only asked about her brother at the home. She had told me she didn’t mind being in the home so much but she hated it that her brother was there. And the adoptive parents did not want her talking about him or asking about him. We saw her once or twice after that but they made it clear they really didn’t want us in her life anymore so we quit trying. Years later I was working as the secretary in a school and one of the mothers was a social worker and we were talking one day and discovered she was the social worker who arranged for Robin’s adoption. She told me that was the one adoption that she should not have done. She said the mom was a teacher and expected Robin to be a good student and she just wasn’t and Robin ran way when about 16 and no one knew where she went. I will always wonder what happened to her. I have a couple pictures. She was such a sweet loving little girl. Maybe if there had been some classes or services for them, she would be okay today. Breaks my heart! It’s hard enough of some who are adopted as a baby but you can’t erase 12 years from a child’s life and expect them to not ask questions or wonder about a sibling.

    1. I’m sorry to hear that Robin seems to have disappeared from your life. I’m glad she had the connection to you, and I hope that somehow one day you are reconnected.

      I believe this is a state-by-state issue, and this is all I was able to find in Missouri: https://dss.mo.gov/cd/adopt.htm

      I believe Adam Pertman is making the case that states should help out during the early stages of adoption to prevent bigger costs years later. Like that old oil change commercial: “pay me now or pay me later.”

  2. How can I begin to thank you for these services! I had no idea anything like this existed, even though it is clearly needed. My question is is there an age limit? Can adult adoptees access these services? My nephew went through the foster care system prior to being adopted and the family is beginning to realize (and be open to) that he is struggling with all of this process. Where to begin will depend on him, but knowing such services exist is an important first step.

  3. I have some not-so-fond memories of the foster care system in Massachusetts from the 70s – my parents were short term foster parents to a couple of girls around the same age as my younger sister and me. I’m happy to hear there is now a push to provide after services to help families succeed when the fostering leads to adoption. Great, informative guest post!

  4. Such a fascinating article! Adam Pertman is a man after my own heart. I would like to see the valuable services not for just children adopted from foster care. I read the article a couple of times to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. I believe there are adoptive parents out there just like mine who are overwhelmed with what to do under such a difficult set circumstances, for example, like with my messed-up brother who was adopted at birth and my stepfather’s daughter who suffered from serious mental illness and also was adopted at birth. Grant you neither of them was a hands-on parent but I still do understand as the sibling, no matter what, it would have been a difficult journey. There was no easy fix; both my adopted brother and stepsister deserved the same services that are becoming more available for foster care children placed in permanent homes.

    1. Knowing much of your story, JoAnne, I wonder alongside you what would have happened had the parents you mention been more attuned to adoption issues, to mental health issues, and to anything more complex than the Beaver Cleaver/Father Knows Best templates they had for family life back then.

  5. I encourage anyone looking for services (a comprehensive system is not yet in place) to search for the state involved plus the term “post adoption services” or “child mental health services.”

    Example: Missouri child mental health services

  6. I am frequently amazed at the dearth of services available to adult adoptees. A simple Google search of any zip code will turn up a wealth of resources for prospective adoptive parents. However, even the most extensive searches will provide extremely limited resources for adult adoptees. Why is that the case if adoption is such a “permanent” solution for children in need? Children-in-need grow up into adults-in-need.

    Despite our agreement on the pervious point, your comment that “most adoptions in the US are of children from foster care with some level of special needs” doesn’t ring true to me. Can you provide statistics to back up this claim? I was under the impression that the most desirable adoptions sought by Americans were for newly born infants.

    1. Hi Torrejon. First, to clarify, we’re talking about all adoptions EXCEPT for those by stepparents (who make up about 40% of total adoptions annually). The breakdown of non-stepparent adoptions — in round figures — is about 7,000 from other countries (see http://www.adoption.state.gov); 14,000 domestic infants (see https://goo.gl/Etw0Gi) and about 50,000 from foster care (see https://goo.gl/l5mvl6). There’s lots more info on NCAP’s website, http://www.ncap-us.org. I hope this helps. Adam

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