Fifty years ago, “Betty” was a new mother unsure if she was fit to be a parent and provide the life her young child deserved. Faced with several challenges—including unemployment, lack of resources and a lack of family support—she considered putting her child up for adoption in hopes of placing them in a better situation. As she grappled with the many emotions that overcome birth mothers in this circumstance, she sought professional counseling services to be able to make as informed a decision as she could. Ultimately, she would choose to parent the child and do everything she could to give them the love and support they needed to prosper.
But she never forgot those who helped her along the way.
That’s why when her niece, who has dealt with her own challenges in life, was recently faced with an unexpected pregnancy, Betty decided to reach out to the same organization that once supported her, the Children’s Home Society of New Jersey (CHS of NJ). After receiving counseling from the agency, Betty’s niece made an adoption plan for her son. She met and selected the adoptive family and she continues to have a relationship with the child, who now also knows his extended family. The holidays, birthday celebrations and family reunions are much more festive—and larger—affairs now.
For Valerie Fiorentino, director of child welfare with CHS of NJ, having the opportunity to work with families like Betty’s and help children find their forever home is fulfilling validation for all the hard work the organization does.
“We hear from birth parents, adoptees and adoptive families several years after placement. We hear stories of adult adoptees who have connected or reunited with their biological family members and formed positive relationships. We hear from adoptees who have gone on to live successful lives and build families of their own. We hear from adoptive parents who feel their prayers have been answered and they are blessed to be parents through adoption,” Fiorentino says.
With National Adoption Month arriving in November, you’re bound to hear plenty of stories about people like Betty and her niece as organizations like CHS of NJ and countless others embrace that heightened awareness to get their message out to the public. But the truth is that advocates are laying the groundwork for successful adoptions all year long.
Fiorentino says this starts with educating others about what adoption means, using social media, community outreach and shared stories to help spread the word. By partnering with other nonprofit and social service agencies, CHS of NJ is able to advocate, educate and raise awareness of adoption. The organization is also a member of the Adoption Agency Council of New Jersey (AACNJ), a professional association composed of representatives from licensed adoption agencies in the state.
Fiorentino, who also co-chairs the AACNJ, says, “We meet on a monthly basis to promote meaningful and consistent adoption policy and practice and also effectively communicate our concerns to the legislative, judicial and regulatory bodies. Together we strive for professional growth, extending our networks in the adoption community, and bringing to light key issues that impact our staff and the families we serve.”
Clinton Page, deputy director, child protection and permanency with the New Jersey Division Department of Children and Families, is also quick to point out the tremendous work being done throughout the year and how rewarding it can be.
“There’s a lot of awareness that goes on this month, which is extremely positive,” says Page. “But year-round we have staff with the job of finding connections for these kids. … I see pictures of these kids in the cubicles of the staff, they are passionate about their job.”
Page also touts the child welfare agency’s significant decrease in adoptions in recent years. While this may sound like a strange thing to take pride in, he explains that it means fewer kids are being removed from their homes and are reunifying with their parents and guardians—his department’s primary goal. This allows them to avoid the trauma that comes with being separated from their loved ones.
“Adoption going down is a good thing from our perspective,” says Page. “I think one of the successes we’ve had here, 90% of the kids we’ve become involved with as a child welfare agency stay with their family. And that is a huge success. But, that 10% that do have to be separated from their parents, we are working really hard to reunify, but also making sure they are connected with their families if they do have to go to an adoption.”
Of course, it wasn’t that long ago that there was a certain social stigma surrounding adoption. Thankfully, that tide has turned as people’s perceptions have changed and there’s been an increase of single parents and same-sex couples also showing interest in opening up their homes and their hearts to children in need of a loving family.
“I think what you are seeing over the last decade or so is really more acceptance. The composition of what an ‘American family’ is has changed. People are much more accepting that families come in all shapes and sizes,” says Page.
But the road to adoption can be difficult to navigate and so it’s paramount for both prospective families as well as birth mothers to rely on professional counsel in order to manage expectations and provide guidance to help sift through the complicated challenges. While every case is different, Ted Baker, an attorney with Weinberg, Kaplan & Smith who has been practicing adoption law for nearly 23 years, estimates that the process generally takes anywhere from six to nine months.
“What needs to occur from the get-go is to set a client’s expectations,” says Baker. “The whole court system moves slow in some people’s minds, but this is a whole other level. And it’s not necessarily the court moving slow, but just the various steps of things that need to be taken care of—background checks, home studies and these other pieces of the puzzle that take time to get done.
“Setting those expectations from the start is important just so they recognize it will be a while. … While the clock is running in a client’s head, it’s not running in the court.”
For those who may not be ready to embark on the journey of becoming an adoptive parent, fostering a child can offer similar benefits and make a noticeable impact in a child’s life.
“When [foster parents] provide care, their role is to create a bond that will help children know they will be safe and cared for until they are placed with their forever families. Just as they naturally form bonds with their biological children, with foster children, they nurture and connect as parents,” Fiorentino says.
Donna Maccaroni has worked with CHS of NJ as a foster parent for more than a decade and describes the unique bond from her perspective.
“The key, I have found, is to be open to the pain of letting go, in order to bond fully with each baby that enters our lives. Some say, ‘Oh, I could never do that, I would become too attached.’ And my answer is, ‘Yes! That is the role! Each child’s life is worth the pain.’”
There are also plenty of instances when foster families decide to welcome children into their homes permanently through adoption, even when it wasn’t part of their original plan.
“People come to us for all different reasons why they want to be foster parents. Some specifically to help a child grow and they look at it as a short-term arrangement. The funny thing is when the knock on the door comes and you can see an immediate connection with the foster parent and the child,” says Page. “They have this certain perception—I want to do this and give back to the community, I want to take care of a foster child for a little bit. But when that kid comes and they have that daily contact, you see a lot of people change their minds. It’s a mutual love that grows and the perception changes and their mindset has shifted. To me, that’s a beautiful thing.”