April Dinwoodie: Hello and welcome to the very first episode of Navigating Adoption: Presented by AdoptUSKids and brought to you by the US Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, and the Ad Council. I’m your host, April Dinwoodie.
Liz: Her first Christmas was coming around, for a lot of kids, that can be a really nerve-racking time.
Ashley: I was thinking in my head, like, “Wow, this lady really adopted me, but she doesn’t know what happened to me, she doesn’t know what I’ve been through.”
April: Today, we’re going to tell you where to begin. You heard Ashley and Liz just now and they’re such a great family to introduce us to teen foster adoption. They’re down to earth. They’re funny, and as you’ll hear, a really great match. Here is their story.
Liz: From the very beginning, I made the decision to adopt from foster care, I had always wanted to adopt, and my social worker had been looking for me and we had seen Ashley.
April: Liz heard about Ashley through Wednesday’s Child, a nationally syndicated news segment that connects adoptive families to children in foster care. At the very same time, Ashley was in foster care and deciding what she wanted her path to be.
Ashley: When I first got into the foster care system, they had to go through if I wanted to stay with the system for a while, or do I want to go back home until they figured out how I can go back home. I decided that I wanted to stay with the system and proceed towards adoption. From there, they obviously just gave it to my social worker and that’s how they were able to match me with people like mom, just basing it on interests, obviously, her interests of age, hobbies, the type of size family, so if I wanted a single parent or an actual family with siblings and stuff like that. That was how I found out about Mom, it was mainly through contacts, social worker to social worker.
Liz: We decided to meet at a restaurant, which was about an hour away from me and it was a little awkward. Obviously, we’re meeting with a social worker. I’m meeting Ashley for the first time, she’s meeting me for the first time. It’s not a lot of deep in-depth questions, it’s more like, “Oh, hi, how are you? What’s your name? What do you like? Oh, you like ice cream? Oh, I like this type of ice cream, too.” It’s awkward, let’s face it!
Ashley: At the time I was what, 15? So I’m already in an awkward teenage stage and meeting a total stranger that wants to open their home for me, was just like, you have to be on your best behavior, just to make sure that you don’t screw it up. You don’t want to make the little slightest mistake or maybe react to something that might trigger you. I don’t want to make the wrong first impression.
To me, the first time we met, it went really well. The fact that she was able to drive me back home showed to me that she felt like she wanted to continue that relationship with me. I didn’t want to give up on something that I knew that was going to be the benefit for me, and also for her, because she seemed like she wanted to expand and have a family.
April: Since Ashley and Liz lived far apart from each other on opposite ends of Massachusetts, they began their relationship by talking on the phone. This proved challenging for Ashley.
Ashley: For me, particularly me, and it’s going to sound weird — even when I go through the drive-through, I don’t feel comfortable talking to someone through the intercom. When I’m trying to build a relationship, I want to talk face-to-face, one-on-one. It was just like a very common conversation you would have with anybody like, “How is the weather? What did you do today? What was the highlight of your day? The low point of your day?” We would constantly do that every single—you would say, every week or every other day? I can’t remember.
Liz: It was like every other day. We had made a decision that certain days Ashley would call me and then I would call her on certain days.
Ashley: We did that because we wanted to see if we both were interested to keep talking to one another, so both putting in the effort of picking up the phone and calling each other.
April: Once Ashley and Liz were able to take turns visiting each other, the awkwardness began to subside. Their weekend visits and fun outings became an addition to their phone calls.
Ashley: Going to the movies helped move on from the awkward stage because we felt more comfortable around each other once we did more things than just going to the movies. We got our nails done, we…-
Liz: Went shopping, new clothes. Ashley was old enough to voice her own opinion. She’s almost 16 and so she had the right to say yay or nay. At any point in time, she could have called her social worker and said, “Yes, this is not working out. I want out.” While maybe a six-year-old wouldn’t have done that.
April: After a month and a half of exchanging phone calls and weekend visits, Ashley continued to deepen her relationship with Liz, first through home visits, and eventually, by officially moving in.
Ashley: Home visits helped build a relationship and having to build that relationship from that just made me feel that it was time to comfortably move in with her. Moving to her home, it’s like having a new roommate in a sense. You don’t know someone’s daily habits or daily routines. She would wake up at 5:00 a.m. to work out and have the news blasting, and I mean blasting, and the way the house was, my room was closer to the living room area and the kitchen area. She would have the news in there and I would hear everything. I would hear her making breakfast, when she went out for a walk, I would hear everything.
It was just hard for me to adapt to waking up that early. I mean, I still struggle a little bit, I won’t lie. Moving in with her helped in a way, like getting to know her because I was able to see what she does on a day-to-day basis. I don’t think I ever had someone to sit down with me and show me the schoolwork, like work with me even with math. She would do that with me after school. At first, I was like, “Oh my gosh, why are we doing this? It doesn’t make sense, especially I just got off of school.”
She would sit down with me and go over everything that I needed to get done for the week or even the month. She cared not only about my health, but about my future, my career, she wanted me to grow. I just thought it was very nice. That’s when I felt most comfortable being around her.
April: Liz and Ashley share moments, some big, some small, that meant a lot to them and laid the foundation of what would become their family.
Liz: When Ashley, her first Christmas was coming around, obviously the first big holiday coming around, I would say that for anybody that Christmas or the holidays, whatever you celebrate during December, is huge. For a lot of kids, that can be a really nerve-racking time.
Ashley: I just had gotten adopted in November. Like she said, in her words, Christmas, that holiday time of year, it’s very big, especially for families. I had just spent two years in the foster care so Christmas, to me, was a lot different than what I was experiencing the first Christmas with her was. My first Christmas with her felt more of a family. So I felt that it was the right time to tell about myself. Also, deep down, I was very overwhelmed of all the emotions. It felt weird for me to sit there and not explain to her my background.
I was thinking in my head like, “Wow, this lady really adopted me, but she doesn’t really know me, know me. She doesn’t know what happened to me. She doesn’t know what I’ve been through.” It was just very tough for me to open up. And when I did, it just blew up. Everything came out. And her hugging me…I think that was the first time you ever hugged me, honestly. Christmas was real for sure.
April: You don’t quite know someone unless you go on vacation together. They both decided to go on a trip to Puerto Rico to visit some of Ashley’s birth family.
Liz: I think we should back up a little bit just to say that when Ashley was adopted, part of the reason we went to Puerto Rico is she needs to know her own family. I didn’t want to take away Ashley’s heritage. I’d wanted Ashley to show me Puerto Rico. I wanted to get to know where Ashley had come from. We made a decision to go to Puerto Rico and we were also going to go visit some of her extended family.
I’m going to say, I think we both were very nervous. For me, it was extremely nerve-racking because I was really worried that Ashley would be like, “Well, I’m done with you and I’m going to stay here in Puerto Rico.” We didn’t tell each other our fears because I didn’t want Ashley to think I was fearful. She didn’t want to tell me that she was nervous to meet them and have any relationships that she had with them.
Ashley: I just didn’t know how everybody would react. I was just a little bit weirded out when everybody was getting along because I just didn’t know the outcome of it. Little did I know that mom and I felt different things during that trip. She felt that I would love it so much and stay there and I felt, “Okay, I like it here, but I want to go back home with mom.”
April: In the spirit of discoveries and new beginnings, Ashley decided to get something special for Liz to commemorate a holiday and maybe not the holiday you’d expect.
Ashley: You’re the one that received the call!
Liz: You are the one that bought the card!
Ashley gave me a card on Father’s Day, and I was really surprised but she made the point. She’s like, “Mom, I wanted to get you this Father’s Day card because you are both a mom and a dad to me and you represent everything. You do so much for me that I wanted to celebrate you both on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.”
Ashley: I feel that mom is both a mom and a dad towards me because she supports me mentally and financially. I can always come here to her for advice.
April: Sometimes, it’s the smallest gestures that leave the biggest impressions.
Ashley: I think I felt at home when I noticed that she would make me breakfast every morning.
Liz: Get that brain going.
Ashley: You did though. That was really nice. I don’t think I ever really ate breakfast before living with you.
Liz: See, I learned something new. I didn’t realize that making her breakfast every day was something so powerful.
April: In addition to hearing directly from teens and families, I am so thrilled to be sitting down with some of the most knowledgeable professionals in the field of teen foster adoption today. A little later, we’re going to hear from Debbie Riley, CEO and co-founder of the Center For Adoption Support and Education, but with me right now is Kamilah Bunn, CEO of the National Adoption Association, and Bob Herne, the National Project Director for AdoptUSKids. Thank you both so much for joining me.
The first question is where are we? What is the landscape of foster care and adoption?
Bob Herne: Hi, April. The latest statistics show that there are over 400,000 children and youth who are currently living in the US foster care system, and of those, there are over 120,000 of those children and youth who are currently waiting to be adopted.
Kamilah Bunn: Yes. Hi, April. It’s so nice to be with you. Just most recently, the national count showed that we had more than 66,000 adoptions finalized. That’s great news. However, we also know that teens do have lower adoption rates than younger children, and they often wait far longer to be adopted. We also know that no matter their age, all children need a supportive, loving family. It’s incredibly troubling to know that more than 16,000 young people, again at a very vulnerable age between 18 and 21, aged out of the foster care system, without that love, commitment, and support of an adoptive family.
April: Thank you so much for enlightening us to what is happening when it comes to data and statistics. That’s so important. Right next to that, we have to really talk about how to be engaged in the process of adopting a teen from foster care.
Bob: The first step is really gathering information. What’s wonderful is in every community, there are monthly orientations about foster care and adoptions. We really encourage people to go to one of these information sessions to learn more about who are the children and youth who are living in foster care in your community and what are some of the ways that you can go to help. The process of becoming an adoptive parent or an adoptive family really starts with gathering that information, going to those orientation sessions.
Kamilah: What I think is really also important to remember for prospective families who are listening today is that it all comes down to relationships and the youth, of course, has a voice and they are empowered to share who they feel most comfortable being in a relationship with, and being connected to, and which families they choose to want to join.
April: Bob, can you go into a little bit more detail with the transformational elements of this that are right next to the transactions that have to happen in order for this to work?
Bob: I think many times families come to want to adopt because they want to expand their family. They want to do something, they’re very much thinking about their family and not necessarily about the child or the youth that will be entering their family. It’s how can our family assist this child or this youth or these siblings in order to give them this amazing opportunity of feeling that unconditional love and support and that safety of a family. I think that’s the big change that I see in almost all of our families as they’re going through that process.
People think they need to be perfect in order to be that resource for somebody in foster care and it’s really the challenges that you’ve gone through in your life and that you’ve been able to overcome, that provide the strength that you need. It’s those challenges that give you that empathy and that understanding for that other person. That’s really what you are going to need in order to bring that journey of that child or youth that’s coming into your home.
April: Tell us a little bit about that, about what families need and how important it is to make sure the services and supports are available to families.
Bob: The support system should really start at the very beginning. Before a child is even placed in your home, you should be going to your family, your friends, your community organizations, gathering your support, figuring out who could be a support in different areas of your life for different issues that might arise. Part of that support system should really be a support group of adoptive families.
We really recommend that even as you’re starting the process to reach out to other adoptive families, to join a support group, to build your community. That’s important, not just for you, but it’s also important for that child or those children that you’re bringing in. For them to be able to see children who have similar experiences to what they’re going through helps them. We all need to seek people who are like us, who understand us, who understand the unique situations that we’re going through.
Kamilah: Just thinking about the whole concept of adoption, being addition, not subtraction, we want families to know when they begin to process that this is adoption, that is addition, not subtraction, and that youth who join your family through adoption have many, many, many people who are also important to them, including their birth family. When a youth joins a new family, it should not necessarily lead to severing of ties. It should really be an expansion of relationships that are important to the youth.
Youth are in the driver’s seat when it comes to this and we do need to listen and learn from our youth about what are those relationships that are key and important. We want our families to really enter the process, understanding and identifying ways to support the youth and maintaining the relationships, including, grandmas and aunties and uncles. Whether they be aunties that are fictive aunties or grandmas that are grandmas, extended relatives, siblings, birth parents, yes, all of that truly matters and that’s really the philosophy that we want our families to enter this space with that in mind.
April: What are the things that you would ask our listeners to do as first, second, third steps? What does that look like?
Bob: I think the first thing to do is to start to have that conversation with your family, and your friends, and people in your community that are important to you, and just have that discussion. I think to help with that discussion I would encourage people to gather information. Adoptuskids.org has a great website that talks all about the steps of adoption, as well as having the national photo listing of over 5,000 children and youth who are waiting to be adopted, to get an idea of who those children and youth are.
April: This is great. For anyone who is listening now and who has stayed with us for this conversation, and they are thinking about taking a first step, what would you say to them?
Bob: You have so many conversations with people and they’re like, “Oh, I’ve been thinking about this for a long time. Oh, I’m really thinking about it.” You will get the information you need if you go to an orientation. Continue that journey. Don’t stop. If it’s going to an orientation, if you’ve gone to an orientation, go through the training, go to a support group and talk to people who have actually done foster care and adoption. Wherever your personal journey is, make an agreement, a commitment to yourself to at least take that next step forward.
Kamilah: I would just say really taking the time to talk to your family and friends to develop your circle of support for yourself is definitely a step that I would recommend parents take, and then just getting to know the youth in care. Some agencies offer mentoring or other opportunities to volunteer. If they do, definitely do those things. Let’s all take a moment to think back to those teenage years. What a vulnerable age to be without a consistent, committed parent. That’s why we do this work. That’s why we’re so committed to these young people — to ensure that they can have someone honor them when it’s time for them to graduate from high school, be there cheering for them from the bleachers, help them go to prom. All those milestones are so, so important to our teenagers and our children absolutely deserve to have a committed, consistent parent and so hoping that the listeners will get excited today, April, and take that first step.
Debbie Riley: I’m Debbie Riley. I’m the co-founder of the Center For Adoption Support and Education, which is located in the Washington, DC, metropolitan area. I’m a licensed marriage and family therapist of almost 40 years and an adoptive mom. My son is domestically adopted and almost 30.
April: Back to the theme of the podcast which is where to begin, it’s really important, I think, for the listeners to understand the idea of a child’s life beginning when they’re born, not when they’re adopted. What would you say when we talk about how to begin to think about this experience of a young person who is separated from their family of origin and how that can impact their life, their mental health, their identity? Help us have some context for that.
Debbie: Sure. I think that of all the types of losses or separations, the most profound for a child is the loss of a family, the loss of the birth parents. The power of that loss resonates to me. A lot of times we talk about trauma and then we talk about loss. I see this loss as traumatic. Children grieve behaviorally. It really is their way of letting us know that they’re hurting, that they’re suffering, that they’re in pain, that there’s been this significant grief that’s surrounding and absorbing them and they can’t articulate it.
It’s not like you and I can sit down and I could if, let’s say, a parent of yours recently passed away, you and I would talk about it and I would say how sorry I am that you’ve experienced this loss and how are you doing and you would tell me how you’re doing. Children can’t necessarily articulate it in the way that adults can but they can show us through behavior.
April: Can you say more about the extended elements of loss that may come into play for children and teens?
Debbie: There are so many losses when you think about it. Not only the loss of the birth family, you may have racial losses, you would have loss around medical information, cultural losses, peers, coaches, teachers, schools, a pet, traditions, a genetic connection with someone. That’s so powerful to think about that for many of the young people we work with, when they look in the mirror they don’t know anyone else who’s genetically connected to them. I think too often families are wanting to erase the past. That was the past and this is the present and now you’re with us.
But when you’re thinking about embracing older teens, you just can’t ask someone to just erase a certain part of their life and expect that they’re just going to transition into this new family as if they didn’t have a past.
April: What are some of the similarities of parenting through adoption and foster care that any parent might encounter? What are some of the ways in which this parenting experience is the same?
Debbie: Being there through the tough times and the good times, the love, the nurturance, the guidance, knowing when to give direction, when to step back. Some of the teens say, “I never had anybody there to help me change my hairstyle, or I never had anybody to teach me how to talk to somebody that I’m interested in in a different way, or I never had anybody there to sit with me when I felt really sad or to watch a funny movie,” or all kinds of things. Those are the kinds of losses that I think a lot of our kids have had — that there weren’t people there for them.
One loss, in particular, when you’re speaking about parents adopting teens from foster care is the loss of not spending the first 13 years of your life with you. I’ve lost that. I can hear from you what it was like, I can imagine what it was like but there are things that I would have loved to have done with you and for you.
April: What are some hopeful things that you can share with the listeners about this journey of adoption from foster care? What gives you hope?
Debbie: Every day, I have hope. I see young people finding the love, the nurturance, the connections, filling huge holes in their life with people that want to be part of their life. I’m a family therapist. I have spent my whole career in helping families, helping relationships, helping people heal from all kinds of life situations, and I’m an adoptive parent. The rewards outnumber the challenges. Children need to be in families and there are so many people in our world that can be exceptional parents.
April: Thanks so much for that, Debbie. As we continue exploring the first steps of adoption, I get to speak with Liz and Ashley together, as they share more of their unique story. Ashley, it’s so good to talk with you in a little bit more detail about your experiences of moving from foster care to adoption. I appreciate you for sharing the way you do so openly. Thank you in advance for that. This podcast is really rooted in the theme of where to begin. Do you remember what you were thinking and maybe a moment where it became clear to you that it’s time to really begin this process of thinking about a new way to look at family for myself?
Ashley: I was only 12, almost 13 at the time. One of the first questions they asked me was, “Well, do you want to go back to your family or do you want to stay in the system? Like, what do you want?” Because of what I just went through and me specifically taking myself out of my situation, I knew that I didn’t want to go back home. That was never an option for me. My other option was be on my own or be with another family. And I thought to myself, that being with another family gives me better chances to be successful in life.
April: Beautiful. I want to go back to something I heard you say, and you were talking about food, and one of the best ways to start your day, they say, is with a healthy breakfast. Tell me about what it felt like for you, for Liz to make you breakfast every morning. What was that like?
Ashley: It felt that she actually cared for my health, not only me mentally, but she cared for me physically. Growing up, I didn’t have that. My biological mother would cook, but not typically breakfast. I would be on my own morning till afternoon. I had to get up on my own, get myself dressed, get myself breakfast. I had to learn how to cook. I started to cook when I was eight. I learned how to make rice, I learned how to make eggs, stuff like that. It just felt really weird that when I moved in with Liz, she would cook for me, and so for me, I know breakfast is such a simple thing, but it’s one less thing that I had to really worry about on my day-to-day.
April: I found that to be so powerful and poignant. Love shows up in so many different ways, in the little things, the big things. I want to talk a little bit about going back to Puerto Rico and having Liz there with you to be reintroduced to your family of origin and Liz was being introduced to them for the first time. Can you share how you were feeling and how much it meant for you to do that with Liz?
Ashley: Awkward because I haven’t seen these people in a long time and they obviously didn’t know what I’d been through, and having a white woman come in okay, they’re confused. I didn’t know how to go about it, but Liz made it very comfortable for me and them. Even though she felt a certain way about the whole situation, she put me first and that is what a mom does. It just felt amazing.
Then I would say exciting because it was a new chapter in my life that she opened up. She started this chapter by just simply saying, “Okay, let’s go visit your family.” It ended up being that I have a really close relationship with people that I didn’t think I would have, especially, I learned things that I did when I was younger that I didn’t even know about. They had pictures of me as a child, and I didn’t really have pictures of myself. Having to see their album of a family and having myself in it was very nice. Even mom doesn’t have baby pictures of me so it was really cool to get that connection with them.
April: It’s about addition, not subtraction. It really speaks to how both you and Liz have approached this extended family through foster care and adoption. One question I would have is, if a young person in foster care is thinking about where to begin this thought process and thinking about what adoption might mean to them, what would you say to them?
Ashley: I wouldn’t second-guess it. When I thought about, “Oh my gosh, it is officially happening,” the first thing in my head was, “I won’t have to ever feel fear. I won’t ever have to feel that I’m alone. I will always have someone there to support me.” At first, I was like, “I don’t even know what that feels like.” I never had that, so in my head, I’m like, “Okay, this is a good thing. I’ll have someone that I can go to regardless of what I need.” I’m just very glad that I had met Liz, my mom. I think adoption really helped me grow. I’m just very happy that I have someone that I can look up to every day.
April: Ashley, I will tell you that I look up to you. You are such a shining example of everything that’s good in the world. Thank you for being so open and honest and helping us understand what it’s like to think about where to begin in the process of adoption from foster care. Thank you so very much.
Ashley: Thank you.
April: A big heartfelt thank you to Ashley and Liz for sharing their experiences today. If you are interested in adopting a teen from foster care, AdoptUSKids has adoption specialists ready to guide you through that process, right now. Learn more by visiting adoptuskids.org.
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