Open Hearts & Open Doors

Open Hearts & Open Doors

— From the pages of FLL#18 • Written by Julie Fidler

[pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“Everyone had initial anxieties, but their desire to give children a better life, coupled with their own desire for a family, made the risks and time investment worthwhile.”[/pullquote]

It can be hard to grasp just how many children are in need of safe, permanent homes until you dig into the statistics. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Child Welfare Information Gateway, approximately 57,466 children were adopted through the foster care system in 2009, with another 114,562 children waiting in line for their own opportunity, including 3,016 youngsters in Pennsylvania alone.

May is National Foster Care Month, drawing attention to the youngest of those in need in our country. The children in the foster care system find themselves there for a variety of reasons. They may be removed from their biological family by the state due to abuse, neglect, or other family problems. Other times, they are placed in the system by their own families because they are unable to care for them. Parents who suddenly find themselves jobless, homeless, or in need of chemical dependency treatment might decide that foster care is the best thing for their child.

Regardless of the reasons behind it, there are thousands upon thousands of youths looking for a place to call home. There are also thousands of prospective parents considering their options and trying to figure out which path is best for them. Will they foster a child, or foster and pursue adoption? Many will bypass the foster care system entirely and adopt privately or internationally. There is no shortage of possibilities for those with the time to seek.

So how does fostering and adopting measure up compared to private or international adoption? What are the roadblocks that families are likely to encounter along the way? What are some of the myths about foster care and adoption that keep people on the fence? There is no perfect way to welcome someone to your family, but it also might not be as tumultuous as you might think.

Private Adoption

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Fortunately, there were no major hurdles to leap over as they arranged for their little girl to come home.[/pullquote]

Like many young couples, Brandon and Kristen Hershey dreamed of becoming parents when they got married. Also like many young couples, Mother Nature had other ideas and the Hersheys were unable to conceive. Unwilling to give up on their dream, they looked into other ways to have their own biological children, including in vitro fertilization. But the price and the risks were great and there were no guarantees, so they began to consider adoption.

They attended informational seminars at various adoption agencies but felt the most comfortable with Bethany Christian Services. Bethany, which has a branch office on Crown Avenue in Lancaster, is the largest adoption agency in the country. The agency manages international adoption, private domestic infant adoption, and works with county child welfare agencies in adopting out older children.

Little Mya Ann was born on November 4, 2010, and was placed in their arms a little more than three weeks later. She spent the first week of her life with an Interim Care Family, allowing her new parents to visit and become acclimated to their daughter before bringing her home, something many biological parents can only dream of. Fortunately, there were no major hurdles to leap over as they arranged for their little girl to come home, but that wasn’t to say the Hersheys didn’t confront any frustrations in the process.

It took about eight months for Brandon and Kristen to get on the waiting list, but that was to be expected. The paperwork, too, was nothing out of the ordinary. The couple was interviewed in 2009, as possible parents, for a child who was on the way, but they were not chosen.

“It was an emotional roller coaster knowing we were close to being chosen but we weren’t picked in that situation,” Brandon recalls.

Brandon said they will be open to other options should they decide to adopt again, but Bethany was a good fit for them because they knew that the infants’ birth mothers willingly came to them, instead of being forcibly removed by Lancaster County Children & Youth Agency (CYA).

“Bethany was more appealing to us and we were more comfortable (with them) knowing the birth mothers chose this and wanted to go through with it,” he explained.

It is for that reason that the Hersheys are comfortable with Mya’s birth mother staying in touch, and they are willing to be as open as necessary. They got to meet her before Mya was born, which only made them feel more at ease with their decision.

“It was very nerve-wracking, but very comforting. It gave us peace of mind that we could tell Mya a little bit about her birth mother.”

Right now, the Hersheys are required to provide Mya’s birth mother with one letter and ten photographs per month, which she can choose to accept or not. If she continues to want to be a part of Mya’s life, that’s just fine by the Hersheys. Mya’s adoption – which will not be finalized for a few months – will never be kept a secret from her. They are more than comfortable keeping the lines of communication open with the woman who gave them the greatest gift of all – a daughter.

Counting the Cost

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The hurdles associated with adoption are worth jumping because it means a life of hope and a proper upbringing for a child who would have no future otherwise.[/pullquote]

Without a doubt, most adoptive families come seeking babies and this is particularly true of couples dealing with infertility issues, says Mark Unger, director of Lancaster Bethany Christian Services. No doubt, Bethany seems like a better option for many of these families because there is less risk associated with their agency’s adoptions.

While Unger admits that most of the babies placed for adoption are there because the mothers’ crisis pregnancies, the fact that the mothers come to them instead of being forced to give up their child puts them at a great advantage. One such bonus is the fact that these mothers, in particular, are considerably less likely to change their minds and keep their baby than those under the thumb of CYA.

“Bethany provides pregnancy counseling and works with mothers and couples during the second and third trimester to hopefully help them decide what is right for them: parenting or adoption. Then, when deciding to make an adoption plan, they can be more resolute in that decision,” Unger says.

Even so, one of the anxieties prospective parents have is that they are not financially prepared enough to start a family and believe that private adoption is too far out of their price range. That, unfortunately, is a reality in many cases. Unger estimates that the average private domestic infant adoption can cost anywhere from $12,000 to $22,000. A lot of families don’t have such a substantial chunk of money to put down on anything, including a child. Yes, having children is expensive but not usually that much up front.

What about international adoption? Families all over this country turn on the news every day and are horrified by the images on the screen. The plight of Haitian children, orphaned by the 2010 earthquake, has been well documented. These children represent only a small fraction of youths—around 163 million and counting— who are without parents worldwide.

The idea of reaching out to orphaned and impoverished children and bringing them to the wealthy, prosperous American shores for a shot at the good life is very appealing, but that doesn’t make it easy. Unger points out that, for one thing, if you think domestic private adoption is expensive, brace yourself. International adoptions cost in the range of $22,000 to $45,000, which includes travel costs.

There are countries that are closed to international adoption, while others have pretty steep requirements for potential families. According to Unger, some countries require that families already have a certain number of children in their family or no children at all; some will turn down anyone with mental health issues, regardless of how slight or how well it is being treated.

It seems the hurdles associated with international adoption are worth jumping because it means a life of hope, adequate healthcare, and for many, a proper religious upbringing for a child who would have no future otherwise. People with the time, patience, and those who meet international requirements can be heroes from thousands of miles away.

Local radio personality and family entertainer Fred McNaughton knows a thing or two about international adoption; he has adopted children from all over the world five separate times with his wife Sharon. His kids ranged in age from 16 months to 9-years-old at the time of adoption. The McNaughtons also have three biological children – a special blessing, considering they were told they would never be able to conceive.

Yet even though they already had a family in place, Fred and Sharon felt that things were still incomplete. They believed that God had planned a family for them, but not all the members of that family were in the same place at the same time.

“We felt very strongly that God had children that belonged to us that we needed to find. They were ours, they just happened to be born to other people in other parts of the world.”

They adopted their children through various agencies and handled the process a little differently than most. A local agency did their home study, and then they worked directly with the different international agencies representing their children. Fred explained, “We decided early on that we were our own best advocates.”

The McNaughtons experienced firsthand how challenging international adoption can be. It took as long as two years to adopt one child partly because of various international rules and regulations and, as Fred puts it, “our country dealing with other countries.”

Fred is quick to point out that miles, nationality, and biology don’t matter in their home. “We don’t often think of ourselves as ‘an adoptive family’. Our kids are just our kids.”

Many families would agree that love determines a family and little else, but what about people who have the love and the space, but don’t have tens of thousands of dollars at their immediate disposal?

Big Kids in Need of Big Hearts

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]If you can be understanding of what the kids’ past situation was, you can overcome [the] hurdles.[/pullquote]

Dawn and Gary Deupler are the proud parents of a grown biological son and daughter. Dawn’s age made it impossible for her to have more children, but the Deuplers weren’t quite ready to have an empty nest. Through the encouragement and example of another couple, Dennis and Ann Saylor — good friends who had fostered 54 children—they began to consider the possibility of becoming foster parents themselves.

“We saw how they took care of the children and how their life was, and we just felt inspired between (their example) and the signs God gave us,” Dawn said of their decision to pursue adoption.

As they considered the possibility of filling their home once again, they received what they believe were signs and messages from God. They read about foster care in the Merchandiser and heard ads about it on WJTL, the local contemporary Christian radio station. The Deuplers eventually decided they were not quite prepared to have babies in the house, but they could easily accommodate older children.

They began fostering a 9-year-old girl through COBYS (Church of the Brethren Youth Services) Family Services, and adopted her about a year later. A short time later, they turned down the opportunity to foster an older boy out of concern for their daughter’s safety and the appropriateness of the situation. As a result, they changed their target age range from 10-13 to 6-9. They are currently fostering three boys, ages 5, 7, and 8 who are biological siblings, and intend to adopt them.

The Deuplers say the kids have adjusted incredibly well to each other, exceeding their hopes, though things are not always easy. Older kids do come with years of baggage, after all.

“[The adjustment] has been relatively smooth. They do have their ups and downs like any normal child. Sometimes their downs are a little more than what a ‘normal’ child would go through.”

Adopting through the foster care system may have its risks, but Dawn says she and her husband are undaunted by it. The challenges are worth it, and for those who feel called to be foster and adoptive parents, she hopes they proceed with confidence in what they’re doing. “If you can be understanding of what the kids’ past situation was, you can overcome those hurdles. If God puts love in your heart for a child, He’ll make it happen.”

Chris and Jennifer Ruch, on the other hand, weren’t actually planning on becoming adoptive parents when the opportunity presented itself, but they serve as further proof that if someone is meant to be an adoptive parent, the obstacles are worth it.

The topic of adoption had arisen in the past but no definitive plans had been made to pursue it. Jennifer was a “big sister” to Amanda (a teenage girl getting ready to enter the foster care system) through Big Brothers Big Sisters of Lancaster County. Rather than watch Amanda go into foster care and possibly get bounced around from family to family right up until adulthood, the Ruchs decided they could be the stable, loving home that Amanda needed.

This, however, would not be a fast or easy process. The Ruchs didn’t have the room for a child and needed to both save money and buy a home before Amanda could arrive. In the few years it took to prepare, Chris and Jennifer also prepared themselves by attending classes through Bethany Christian Services, who orchestrated the adoption, and doing home studies and interviews. Amanda lived in two different foster homes while the details were ironed out. After much work and perseverance, Amanda came to live with the Ruchs when she was 15, and the adoption was finalized when she was 16.

Infant Adoption:
Not Necessarily A Fresh Start

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Adopting a child through foster care can cost as little $100, compared to the thousands of dollars required for an international or private adoption.[/pullquote]

There are an overwhelming number of older children in the foster care system, in part, because many parents come seeking an infant or very young child. The younger a child is, the more time a family can expect to have with him or her. But parents who adopt infants with the belief that babies come “baggage-free” need to know that is not always the case, according to Mary Sourber, Director of Placement Services for COBYS Family Services.

Sourber says it doesn’t really matter if a baby is adopted privately, internationally, or through the foster care system, they still come with a history. Though an expectant mother may willingly give her child up for adoption, it does not change the fact that it is a crisis pregnancy. Children born overseas are either orphaned due to tragedy or they were born directly into an orphanage. Babies born domestically in the foster care system were either born into the system or placed in it due to unsavory living and family conditions. What all of this means is that either these babies were under duress while still in-utero, or their first few days and weeks were stressful and tumultuous, all of which can negatively impact the development of the brain. They likely suffered neglect, whether intentional or not. That, unfortunately, is just a part of not being born into a stable environment.

“Parents think it will be great to adopt a baby with no baggage,” Sourber explains, “but that’s just not the case. I mean these babies are born into neglect.”

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””][Lancaster] county provides a stipend to help foster families, as well as a subsidy for adoptive families that continues until the child reaches the age of 18.[/pullquote]

Just as smoking and alcohol or drug use can harm brain development in fetuses, so can stress, trauma, and crisis. A tiny brain can continue to develop improperly when a baby is born into neglect or instability. But this information should be taken as a warning that there is no perfect child and no perfect adoption… not as a warning not to adopt. Even in the best of circumstances, there are no perfect circumstances. Parents will always be imperfect human beings, and no one is born with flawless genes. Certainly raising a child in a stable, loving environment from a young age does give him a far better chance at a successful life. Don’t think that adopting an infant will ensure not having to deal with the consequences of how he was conceived, or the situation he was born into. Internationally, privately, or foster care, no child is completely immune.

Many of the risks are the same regardless of whether a child was adopted privately, through the adoption system, or from somewhere else around the world. Fostering and adopting is often more realistic for those wanting to build a family. The county provides a stipend to help foster families as well as a subsidy for adoptive families that continues until the child reaches the age of 18. Parents must pay for criminal and child abuse clearances but very little else. In total, adopting a child through foster care can cost as little $100, compared to the thousands of dollars required for an international or private adoption.

Counties also typically offer extra financial assistance to people who adopt special needs children. Bethany Christian Services has a fund set aside for special needs adoptions in both their domestic infant adoption program and through their international program.

Worth the Chance

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Don’t let fear get in your way. There are children out there who need you.[/pullquote]

Despite the paperwork, classes, red tape, and financial strains that were necessary to foster and adopt, none of the families interviewed for this article had any regrets. Everyone had initial anxieties, but their desire to give children a better life, coupled with their own desire for a family, made the risks and time investment worthwhile. Their advice to prospective families is unanimous: be prepared.

“I would encourage [parents] to make sure this is something they are committed to. It’s just like giving birth, except with lots more paperwork.” Fred cautioned.

Chris Ruch agrees. “Parenting an adoptee will be similar in many respects to parenting a biological child, but will also have its own unique set of needs and challenges. Expect the unexpected, both good and difficult. Be committed to serving, loving, and helping—regardless of problems, stresses, schedules, and emotions. Be willing to postpone some personal pursuits to free up some valuable family time. Rely on trustworthy friends for help and don’t go solo in this adventure. Don’t expect ‘perfection’ from the child … or from your parenting skills.”

And if you think you have what it takes to be a great parent, don’t let fear get in your way. There are children out there who need you. Anticipate a thrilling, imperfect journey capable of opening up the world to you and a young person.