Inside Look at Angels In Adoption (Photo Essay)

CCAI’s Angels in Adoption™ Program consists of three days of event in Washington, D.C. where those who have made a difference in the lives of children through adoption or foster care are celebrated by Members of Congress. Here are some of the highlights of the 2014 Angels in Adoption™ Program!

Our Angels were honored at a Congressional Pin Ceremony. Below, the Dille family is receiving their pin from Senator Vitter.

Each of our Angels were honored at a Congressional Pin Ceremony. Above, the Dille family receives their specially designed Angels in Adoption pin and certificate from Senator David Vitter (R-LA).

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Here, Senator John Boozman (R-AR) honors his Angels in Adoption nominees, the Creekside Center for Women at the Senate Pin Ceremony.

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CCAI Advisory Member, Congresswoman Karen Bass (D-CA), poses for a photo with the MacConnell family.

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National Angel in Adoption Honorees, Dr. Jennifer Arnold and Bill Klein of TLC’s The Little Couple, and Debra Steigerwaldt Waller, CEO of Jockey International and Paul Singer Award winner, met with Senators Landrieu (D-LA) and Grassley (R-IA) and CCAI’s Interim Executive Director Becky Weichhand on Wednesday to discuss adoption policy.

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Dr. Jennifer Arnold and Bill Klein are presented their Angels in Adoption pins from Senator Landrieu and CCAI Board Chair man, Jack Gerard.

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On the red carpet at the Angels in Adoption Gala!

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Representative Ted Poe (R-TX) joins the honorees on the red carpet with his family and adopted granddaughter.

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The gala began with a performance by Dove Award nominated singer and songwriter, Sara Groves.

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The atrium of the Ronald Reagan Building was transformed the evening of the gala.

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Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN)

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CCAI’s 2014 Foster Youth Intern, Amnoni Myers, received a standing ovation from the audience.

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Adoptive father Representative Tim Huelskamp (R-KS) presents Debra Steigerwaldt Waller of Jockey International with the Paul Singer Award.

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Dr. Jennifer Arnold and Bill Klein’s acceptance speech.

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The Little Couple’s fans taking photos.

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CCAI’s staff are big fans of Jen and Bill and their wonderful family.

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From Foster Care to Capitol Hill

2014 Foster Youth Intern, Amnoni Myers, so graciously shared her story of survival at the recent Angels in Adoption gala. Watch her video and read her speech below!

Good evening everyone. It’s an honor to be here with all of you tonight. This is an opportunity that I would have never imagined a few years ago. But it’s because of Angels like you in my life that made it possible.

Life was not easy growing up. My mother abandoned me at birth and trauma became the theme that impacted my life early. I was taken in by a caregiver who neglected to feed and properly care for me. By the time I was six years old I experienced sexual abuse, emotional abuse, and physical violence. Already vulnerable, I entered into state care where I was separated from my siblings. My sense of family and identity was robbed. During my time in care, I moved around 5 times, and foster mothers seemed more interested in the economic benefits of caring for me than unconditionally loving and treating me like I was their own.

Sadly my story isn’t so unique. Thousands of children experience these types of obstacles each day but the uniqueness of my story is—I survived. Though survival wasn’t always easy, I thank God for placing people in my life then I needed it most because strangers became my family. Strange, right? But if it wasn’t for those who decided to invest in me, I wouldn’t be here today.

I would also like to credit my story of survival to my faith in God and to my inner determination and strength to NEVER GIVE UP despite the many odds that were against me. It was during a very critical time when I heard these important words: Never allow your past to dictate your future.

This summer I had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to participate in CCAI’s Foster Youth Internship program. This program impacted my life tremendously. As part of this experience, I was able to develop lifelong friendships with people who had been through experiences that were similar to mine.  What I found to be unique about CCAI is that they see potential in every intern that comes through their doors no matter what they have experienced. In my time as an intern I found that my voice finally mattered and was valued. CCAI provided a wealth of opportunities that I was able to experience right at my fingertips!

We went on retreats where we could share our stories with each other, learned how to effectively tell our stories to people we would be working with on Capitol Hill, and spent a weekend at Deep Creek Lake where some of us experienced jet skis, boating, and tubing for the first time. Growing up in the inner city never afforded me these types of opportunities so it felt good to be able to check off so many excursions on my bucket list at once (despite crashing into a tree and falling off the tubes multiple times).

As a Foster Youth Intern, I was assigned to the office of Senator Chuck Grassley. Because the Senator is a leader on foster care issues, I was able to work on projects specifically related to federal child welfare policy and my firsthand perspective was valued in the office because of my journey in the foster care system. My supervisor, Kathy, encouraged me to not only share my perspective with her, but also with the other interns in the office.

The Foster Youth Interns develop a policy report, which we present to policymakers and staff. The CCAI staff spends many long nights helping us refine our recommendations. For my policy recommendations I chose to focus on the need to standardize trauma-informed care training for caregivers and to provide ongoing training in this area. I envision that one day my recommendations will be enacted into law!

Although I was anxious about whether I was equipped to handle the workload of a Congressional Internship, being here gave me the chance to develop a healthier sense of myself. It was people like the staff at CCAI, Senator Chuck Grassley and his staff, my mentor Aisha, and my Sara Start Fund mentor who not only believed in me, but also invested their time in me, loved me, and adopted me into their families.

To tonight’s Angels in Adoption honorees, this is exactly what all of you have done for children like me. You saw something special in them that others didn’t see, and you are making an impact not only in their life but in the lives of future generations to come!

My time here on Capitol Hill has prepared me for my future goals to change and impact policy. I am now participating in a fellowship program in California where I am working with underprivileged youth and their families. Speaking of future goals, I also applied for The White House Internship this summer and I am keeping my fingers crossed that someone in the audience has a connection they can send my way!

I am eager to return to Washington D.C. because I know my work here is not quite finished. CCAI gave me wings so that I could fly, and with the experiences I have gained, I will continue to invest in the lives of children in the same ways that CCAI and all of you have invested in me!

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A Reflection on CCAI’s Recent Trip to Haiti

CCAI’s Director of Programs, Allison Cappa Coble, reflects on her August 2014 visit to Haiti as part of CCAI’s 20/20 Vision Program:

The Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute’s (CCAI) most recent 20/20 Vision Program Delegation trip to Haiti was an unforgettable experience. It was heartbreaking and inspiring. It was a glimpse into the worst parts of human injustice and reminders that there are passionate people who are bringing hope to the orphaned. Joining CCAI was Representative Michele Bachmann (R-MN), Dr. Karyn Brand Purvis, Director of the Institute of Child Development at Texas Christian University, CCAI Advisory Board Member and Founding Executive Director Kerry Hasenbalg, Brooke Eastburn of Safe Families for Children Minnesota, and several friends supporting the work of Restavek Freedom Foundation in Haiti.  By partnering with both public and private entities, CCAI’s 20/20 Vision Program goal is to increase positive dialogue and the exchange of information among private sector individuals, foreign and domestic government officials and Members of Congress. And it is our experience that once these powerful individuals have met with the most vulnerable, they will speak and act on their behalf.

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Prior to working on child welfare issues, I, like many others, believed an orphanage provided safety from the streets, food for children who would otherwise go hungry and the possibility of an education. Our delegation to Haiti visited orphanages that spanned the entire spectrum; from well-resourced to under-resourced orphanages, to deplorable conditions – and each showed us that absolutely nothing can replace the love and security a family can offer. Yes, many of these children might have a bed and a roof over their head, but Dr. Karyn Purvis  taught us that if you listen and watch closely you’ll see these children are deeply traumatized. You’ll notice that laughter is missing, you’ll see babies that remain listless as you enter the room and when you go to hold a young child he will stiffen rather than know how to melt in your embrace. These are children who have not been loved well, but, rather, have experienced the severest types of abuse and/or neglect.

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Dr. Karyn Purvis visiting a child in an orphanage

We think sometimes that poverty is only being hungry, naked and homeless. The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty.” Mother Teresa

Thankfully, we did visit some organizations that are doing incredible work on the ground. Restavek Freedom is standing up for the 300,000 child slaves, known as restavek, in Haiti. It is through their tireless efforts that enslave children who have not only been pushed beyond their physical limits, but struggle to know their worth, have found freedom and a better life. Healing Haiti’s Grace Village is a faith-based organization whose orphanage prioritizes reunifying children with their families if and when at all possible by providing employment opportunities and school fees to families in poverty so that children can remain with their biological families whenever safe and possible to do so. They also are open to children being adopted when adoption is in the best interest of the child.

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Additionally, the delegation met with IBESR (Haiti’s Institute of Social Welfare), USAID and UNICEF. The dialogue between the delegation and these government officials was very positive. It was encouraging to see a sincere emphasis being placed on deinstitutionalizing children whether through reunification or adoption efforts, as well as making strides to eliminate the corruption, bureaucracy and abuse of power that too often keep children in harm’s way.

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Representative Michele Bachmann at a meeting with IBESR officials

As I reflect on all that has been accomplished through this delegation, I am most proud of the fact that CCAI exists to be the storyteller of the vulnerable. That the children who are living in constant fear and whose voices have been silenced are now being heard. And not heard by just anyone, but by influential lawmakers and private sector leaders who have the power to protect the powerless. Their stories will break your heart. But they will also change you. And we believe that if Members of Congress and influential leaders take the time to hear and experience them, they will take steps to protect children and to make it easier for loving families to come together. While CCAI has worked tirelessly for thirteen years fighting to make a loving family a reality for each and every child, we realize this is a daunting task and there are many forces working against this vision. But within us we have faith, love and a family comprised of advocates who feel as strongly as we do that we must respond to the desperate pleas heard by orphaned children around the world. So just as we have done in Haiti, we’ll continue to share their stories. Because they’re worth it.

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A loving caregiver at Redeemer Orphanage

Photo Credit: Erica Baker

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2014 Foster Youth Interns Release their Report to Congress

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We are pleased to share with you the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute’s (CCAI) 2014 Foster Youth Internship (FYI) Report Shaping Tomorrow with Today’s Minds.  In it, former foster youth share their personal experiences and creative federal policy recommendations that address a range of child welfare issues, including:

  • Giving Youth a Voice: Contact After Involuntary Termination of Parental Rights
  • Increasing Stability for Infants and Toddlers in Care
  • Essential Documentation for Youth in Care
  • Addressing the Trauma: Treating Children’s Mental Health with Screening and Assessments
  • Creating Best Practice Standards for the Intersection of Immigration Enforcement and the Child Welfare System
  • Renewing the System’s Commitment to Child Well Being: Fostering Resilience through Trauma Informed Training
  • Providing Comfort and Information to Children Transitioning into the System
  • Stolen Pasts, Corrupted Futures: Preventing Identity Theft for Youth in Foster Care
  • Empowering Foster Youth through Case Plan Trainings to Increase Youth’s Acceptance Rate of Extended Foster Care
  • Helping Foster Youth Overcome Barriers to Employment
  • Improving Educational Outcomes for Foster Youth: Special Education and Mental Health

In past years, the Foster Youth Interns’ reports have generated both local and national attention to the critical issues facing the nearly 400,000 children currently in or transitioning out of the United States foster care system.

“A core value of our work at CCAI is to bring those with experiential knowledge of child welfare policy and practice to Washington, D.C., to share their firsthand accounts with policymakers such as the 150 Members of Congress in the Congressional Coalition on Adoption. The Foster Youth Internship program is designed to do just that. Once again this summer, our interns have combined their individual life experiences in foster care across the nation with what they have learned about federal child welfare policy during their internships in the U.S. Congress. The result is this report filled with their innovative ideas to solve challenges they and other children in foster care face growing up in the system,” CCAI’s Interim Executive Director Becky Weichhand wrote in the report.

The electronic copy of the Foster Youth Interns’ 2014 report is available here!

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Senator Grassley’s Speech on the Senate Floor Highlights CCAI Foster Youth Intern

Last night, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) gave a floor speech highlighting Amnoni Myers, a member of CCAI’s 2014 Foster Youth Intern Class, and her experience in the United States foster care system. In the blog below, Amnoni tells her story—the adversity she faced in the system and her experiences this summer on Capitol Hill. We are so proud of you, Amnoni!

Senator Chuck Grassley with Amnoni Myers

My Story

Growing up in the Department of Children and Families (DCF) was not an easy experience. I became a ward of the state the day I was born, addicted to drugs and abandoned in the hospital as a result of my parents’ involvement with drugs, criminal activity and poverty. My Great Aunt took my two siblings and me in and cared for us for ten years. Not having the opportunity to be raised by my biological parents was extremely difficult because I did not have a natural support system to aid me in my success. I encountered trauma at a very young age resulting from various types of abuse and neglect. At the age of ten, I was reunified with my mother but after a short two years, my mother voluntarily returned my siblings and me back to the state without notice. Because incidents of abuse and neglect persisted, DCF took permanent custody of us. At the age of 12, I was placed in non-relative foster homes, where I then continuously moved around until the age of 18. Growing up with so many challenges made me unable to see how my life would eventually be used for good.

My Experience as a Foster Youth Intern

I feel very fortunate that despite the challenges I had to overcome, I was able to attend college and recently graduate with a degree in Social Work and Sociology. Having a college education gives me more opportunities to advocate and give a voice to those without one. In addition to my degree, my life experiences also prepared me for my time as a CCAI Foster Youth Intern this summer. When I applied for the Foster Youth Internship, I was initially afraid of the possibility of opening up and facing my past, but I quickly recognized that this opportunity would be a life-giving experience as I would finally have the chance to give voice and perspective to the challenges that foster youth face. My time on Capitol Hill has been amazing thus far—I have been able grow both personally and professionally. Although I was anxious about whether I was equipped to handle the workload of a Congressional Internship, being here gives me the chance to develop a healthier sense of myself. CCAI’s staff challenge me to reach my maximum potential by putting in my best effort as I write my policy recommendations for Congress and work hard to achieve maximum results while I’m here in the program.

Interning with Senator Grassley

Interning for Senator Chuck Grassley also provides me with an opportunity to develop professionally. The Senator provided a platform for me to share my unique experiences in a way that brings firsthand perspective to the job. I have been able to work on special projects specifically related to federal child welfare policy because the Senator is a leader of the Foster Care Caucus and my perspective is valued in the office because of my journey in the foster care system. My supervisor encourages me to not only share my perspective with her, but also with the other interns in the office. The skills I am learning through CCAI and in the Senator’s office are very transferable, and are preparing me for the next season of my life.

My Future

After my summer here with CCAI, I will participate in a fellowship with Bayshore Christian Ministries in East Palo Alto, California, working in community development and serving underprivileged youth and their families. My time here on Capitol Hill has prepared me for this, because I am now able to see how policy directly affects lives. I faced many challenges growing up, and until working in the Senate I was unable to see how Members of Congress advocated for people. But since working with Senator Grassley, I can now see and appreciate all the hard work Members of Congress do. My experience here with CCAI and Senator Grassley give me confidence to continue my advocacy efforts in California. I hope to return to Capitol Hill in the near future because I would like to continue to invest in others in the same way CCAI invests in me!

To read the full transcript of Senator Grassley’s speech, click here. To watch the floor speech, click here.

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CCAI Releases 2013 Annual Report

Annual Report

The Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute (CCAI) is proud to announce the release of our 2013 Annual Report. As we reflect on 2013, we are proud to highlight CCAI’s involvement in raising awareness of the millions of children in our nation and around the world without a loving family. From hosting a delegation of Guatemalan judges and child welfare professionals on a three city tour of the United States to organizing Congressional briefings and honoring the inspiring stories of adoption and family through our 15th annual Angels in Adoption Program, we believe we accomplished our mission to break down the barriers which prevent these children from realizing their basic right to a family. We hope you enjoy this brief review of all that last year entailed for CCAI!

To read CCAI’s 2013 Annual Report click HERE!

To make a donation in support of CCAI’s work or learn more about our partnership opportunities, click here or contact info@ccainstitute.org.

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Sharing the Perspective of Prospective Adoptive Parents with Disabilities

Last week, the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute was honored to co-host a policy briefing with the Bipartisan Disabilities Caucus, National Council on Disability, Child Welfare League of America, National Association of Social Workers, and the American Psychological Association.

The briefing focused on adults with disabilities as a recruitment resource for children in need of families, and highlighted Chapter 10 – The Adoption Law System of the recent report by the National Council on Disability (NCD) titled “Rocking the Cradle: Ensuring the Rights of Parents with Disabilities and Their Children”. The report details how prospective parents with disabilities are often denied the opportunity to open their hearts and homes to children who desperately need them.

One of the panelists, Colleen Gioffreda, has been the Little People of America’s Adoption Coordinator for the past ten years, and has helped facilitate the adoptions of over 200 children with dwarfism.  She created the Little People of America (LPA) Adoption website, as well as the LPA Adoption Facebook page which educates potential parents about adoption in general, children with dwarfism who are currently available for adoption, and what resources are out there to help make an adoption possible.

Colleen’s testimony at the briefing was quite compelling, so we want to share it with you here:

Good morning,

My name is Colleen Gioffreda, and I am the National Adoption Coordinator for Little People of America, or LPA.  LPA is a nonprofit organization that provides support and information to people of short stature and their families. We have more than 6,000 members, and are the world’s largest organization for people with dwarfism and their families. Founded in 1957, LPA strives to offer the support and resources necessary to empower all people with dwarfism to reach their full potential.

The LPA has had an adoption coordinator position since 1961.  Adoption has long been a significant part of LPA’s culture.  Within my generation of LPA, approximately 40 percent of the children who have parents with dwarfism have been adopted.  Compared to the approximate rate of 2.5 percent of all US children adopted, (http://www.pbs.org/pov/offandrunning/adoption_fact_sheet.php) 40% is a much higher portion of adoption children within my generation of LPA.

My personal story is that I kind of fell into adoption after getting a phone call one day that a little girl with achondroplasia needed a family – were we interested?  My husband and I had not considered adoption at that point in our lives – we frankly thought that we couldn’t afford it yet.  But, it was meant to be, and we adopted our now 12 year old daughter, who is amazingly smart and compassionate and who cannot wait to be a teenager, although her parents certainly can.  I ended up helping out the adoption coordinator for LPA a few months later, and then eventually took over the position around ten years ago.

There are many reasons why people within LPA want to adopt.   One reason is that it is difficult for some people with dwarfism to carry a pregnancy, because of spinal stenosis or other health issues.  Another reason is that average stature parents decide to adopt a sibling for their child with dwarfism so that they may grow up together and have similar experiences.  Other adoptive parents make a connection through our adoption website with a particular child and feel that they are destined to be a part of their family.  The main theme that I see, however, is that people with dwarfism are proud of who they are, and want to share their positive lives with their children – adoptive and biological.

Regarding domestic adoptions, I have been involved with several adoptions where the parents with dwarfism met challenges along the way.  Allison and Tom, from Georgia, were interested in adopting their 4th child, and were on my “Waiting Parents” list.  I received a call from a foster care agency in Denver, who had a little boy with Spondyloepiphyseal Dysplasia (or SED), who also had a tracheostomy.  I talked at length several times to the social worker, who was enthusiastic about hearing about the couple, and who expressed that she thought they were a great match.   She changed her mind a few days later, after discussing the types of dwarfism they had, and told them that they were not going to be a match after all.  She called me and told me that she didn’t think that they could “handle” a child with a tracheostomy – since they were so short, they wouldn’t be able to help him with his equipment.  I do not believe she thought that I had the same type of dwarfism that they had.  They appealed, and then appealed again, but lost both times because we were told the foster mother apparently wanted to adopt him after all.  This was years ago, and I believe that he never was adopted by his foster mother.

Adopting foster children has been impossible for LPA members, so far.  We have had a total of 12 foster children that had families through LPA, but none were adopted. Not for not trying several times, though.  One boy, Jonathan, was from Texas.  He was 15 when Mike and Kim began to attempt to adopt him.  He aged out of the system – they attempted to adopt him for 2 ½ years, but he never got out of foster care.  We don’t know if it was because Mike and Kim had dwarfism, or if it was because Jonathan had numerous social workers that never seemed to talk to each other.  Mike and Kim were extremely disappointed, and then turned to International adoption, where they eventually adopted 3 additional children, making their family complete at five children all through adoption.

Rachel and Joseph are a couple who live in North Carolina, who have been on my waiting parent list for many years.  They are licensed as foster parents, and have told the agencies that they will take any type of child with any type of special need.  They have fostered a child only once, and he was placed back with his birth parent soon after they began to foster him.  They have been waiting for 17 years to adopt a child.  17 years.  You can imagine the frustration that they have experienced – they have done everything that they have needed to do for their paperwork, and yet they still wait.  Rachel has an undiagnosed type of dwarfism and Joseph is average stature.

LPA has found many more children adopted through International adoption than through domestic adoption, but even that has proven to be difficult at times.  LPA has had adoptive children through over 20 different countries – the highest numbers of children who are adopted internationally come from China, Korea, the Ukraine, Bulgaria, and Russia, previously.  China has a special needs program which includes dwarfism.  Chinese children with dwarfism available for adoption are typically abandoned between 6 – 12 months, when the diagnosis of dwarfism becomes apparent.

Although China has strict eligibility requirements to adopt, we have found very good agencies that have been able to work around China’s requirements, just as long as the parent’s disability matches the child’s disability.  In other words, a person with achondroplasia, like me, would be able to adopt a child with achondroplasia, but not a child with Downs Syndrome.  The agencies that have helped us ensure that the parent’s disability matches the child’s disability on paper – for example, even if the child really has achondroplasia, her paperwork may say that she has Rickets, or dropsiness of foot ( a diagnosis I’ve seen in a child’s file before) or something else.  The parent will have that diagnosis too – perhaps in parentheses next to their true diagnosis.  We have also helped to get around the BMI requirement by using BMI curves specific for people with dwarfism, instead of using standard curves.

We have come across agencies that are not willing to fight these small battles.  Sharon and Joseph, who had paid about $10,000 to an agency to adopt their daughter Ying, were told that China denied them to adopt her.  The agency refused to appeal, saying that China’s rule was the rule, and that they should not pursue another child through China.  Instead, Sharon and Joseph waited until their daughter was not exclusively represented by that agency, and found her again through another agency, which had no issues in explaining the situation to the CCCWA. (China’s child protection agency in charge of adoption).  Ying has now been with her parents for 3 ½ years, a very happy and very expressive 9 year old American girl.

Another couple, Matthew and Charlotte, who adopted from China 2 years ago, had a similar experience with an agency, and were told that it looked like they wouldn’t be able to adopt from China after all, after spending thousands of dollars toward adopting their daughter.  They went to a different agency, and with some ingenuity, sent pictures to China from the chest up, because they were fearful that china would reject them due to Matthew’s very small stature.  Their daughter Lillian is a beautiful, happy little girl who is thriving in school.  In China, she most likely would not have had the opportunity to go to school, due to her dwarfism.  In the United States, she can become a doctor, or a lawyer, or anything else she chooses.

In China as well as other countries, sometimes discrimination can be a problem, but also, just getting around the country itself can be the challenge.  We have many members in LPA with mobility issues, and being able to navigate inaccessible sidewalks and streets proves to almost be impossible.  Notice I said almost.  Still, our members overcome these challenges in order to bring their children home.  International adoption, with all its challenges, is still easier in the long run than adopting children out of foster care.  And I really hope this changes someday.

Although we have faced many challenges with adoption in our community, adoption is still a huge part of our culture.  In the past ten years, we have helped approximately 200 children with dwarfism find their families.  LPA is proud of our community and view raising children with dwarfism as an amazing and wonderful privilege and experience.  I’m in the middle of raising four children, all with dwarfism, and I wouldn’t want my life any other way.  Except maybe the amount of laundry.

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