Thank You Mom: How Kevin Durant’s speech to his own mother spoke volumes to me.

“Thank You Mom: How Kevin Durant’s speech to his own mother spoke volumes to me.”

This past Tuesday, Kevin Durant received 119 of 125 first place votes and was named MVP for the NBA 2014 season. With tears in his eyes he described all he and his mother had overcome in life. In that moment, this is what he said about his mother, Wanda Pratt: “When something good happens to you, I don’t know about you guys, but I tend to look back to what brought me here…We weren’t supposed to be here. You made us believe. You kept us off the street, put clothes on our backs, food on our table. When you did not eat, you made sure we ate. You went to sleep hungry. You sacrificed for us. You’re the real MVP.”

And a little over a month ago, Actor Jared Leto said the following while accepting his Oscar: “In 1971, in Bossier City Louisiana, there was a teenage girl who was pregnant with her second child. She was a high school dropout and a single mom, but somehow she managed to make a better life for herself and her children. She encouraged here kids to be creative and work hard and do something special. That girl was my mother and she’s here tonight. I just want to say ‘I love you mom, thank you for teaching me to dream.” Fellow Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey also talked about the incredible impact his parents had on him as both a person and as an actor that evening. He said, “Dad, you taught me to be a man and Mama, you taught me and my little brothers to respect ourselves and in turn we learned to respect others.”

Like many of you, one of the highlights of this past winter for me was watching the Sochi Winter Olympics with my children. Appearing throughout the games broadcast on television was a commercial sponsored by Proctor and Gamble, the self proclaimed “Proud Sponsor of Moms.” This particular ad featured the lifetime of falls experienced by a budding figure skater, skier and hockey player, and the equal number of times the athletes’ mothers were there to help them get back on their feet. I was so moved by this ad that I dashed to my computer to learn more about the campaign. I quickly discovered that there were several ads, all designed to serve as a reminder that behind every great athlete there is a mother who drove them to the 5:30 am practices, paid for their first lessons and cheered them on in both victory and defeat.

These ads and speeches invoke a tear in the eye of many who see them because they feature a basic premise that we all know in our hearts of hearts to be true – a loving, supportive parent is the key that unlocks a child’s full potential. Some of us learned this lesson from personal experience. Others had it reinforced by decades of brain science that stresses the importance of the parent-child relationship in human development.

But on this day of all days, shouldn’t we be asking ourselves these questions: What happens to the potential of the child whose front row seat on opening night is empty? What if that Olympic gold medalist had no one there when learning to skate for the first time? And does the NBA MVP ever realize his dream if there is not a mother there to remind him that anything is possible when you believe?

I for one believe that each and every child in this world both needs and deserves a mother. I know the incredible impact my own mother had on my life. Not a day goes by where I am not cognizant of the fact that she made me the woman I am today. So we have a choice to make. We can sit idly by while future Oscar winners, MVPs and Olympians slip through our fingers, or we can connect them to that one loving adult who will champion them and help make all their dreams come true.

By Kathleen Strottman

Adoption in the Media – Davion Only, Re-homing, Orphan Boom

Kathleen Strottman, CCAI’s Executive Director, is a regular contributor to Adoption Today magazine. This blog is her most recent published article. To purchase a subscription to Adoption Today magazine, click here.

Congressional Review and Response to Adoption in the News

Over the past several months adoption has been in the news a lot.  Perhaps as a result of the increased media attention, there has also been a corresponding surge in national conversations on the policy and practice issues raised by the various articles.  Below is a review of some of the recently published pieces and a brief summary of federal policy conversations they engender.

“Re-homing”

On September 9, 2013 Reuters and NBC published a five-part series, The Child Exchange, to bring attention to a practice since coined “re-homing”—when adoptive parents who have experienced challenges post adoption resort to privately placing their legally adopted children in the custody of another adult or family.   This series of articles not only brought public scrutiny to the practice but also prompted several other national news networks, such as Time Magazine and the Associated Press, to write stories on both what might cause a parent to consider re-homing their child and what might be done to ensure that the practice does not continue to put children at risk.

Since the release of the Reuter’s series, several child welfare and adoption advocacy organizations, including CCAI,  have issued reports and statements about the practice of rehoming.  In addition to providing a review of existing laws and policies on adoption, CCAI’s policy brief suggests that federal policymakers should consider:

  • Reviewing existing federal laws and regulations to ensure that prospective adoptive parents are both well informed and properly trained before an adoption is finalized.
  • Providing federal financial support so that child-specific, quality and affordable support services can be provided to more families post-adoption.
  • Considering the ways in which the federal government might use the Internet to provide more information and better support to prospective and current adoptive families.
  • Strengthening enforcement of the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children, as well as child abuse, abandonment and adoption laws to ensure that the interests of children are protected.

Members of Congress have also taken notice of the Reuters series and the issues it raises.  In September, Senator Klobuchar from Minnesota introduced S. 1527, the Supporting Adoptive Families Act and in October Congressman Langevin from Rhode Island introduced the “Protecting Adopted Children Act.”  Both bills seek to curb the practice of rehoming through the provision of training and support services both before and after an adoption.  The House bill also calls for the General Accounting Office (GAO) to do an in-depth study of the practice of re-homing including how children are being “advertised” on the internet.

Discussions of the federal policy issues raised by the Reuter’s piece are expected to continue well into the next session of Congress.  While Congress has not announced any plans for a formal Congressional hearing on the issue, it is possible some aspects of re-homing might be addressed in this way.  To date, Congressional inquiries have been focused on to what extent state and federal child welfare laws protect against improper custody transfers of adopted children and how these laws might be strengthened to avoid future harm to adopted children.

The Evangelical Orphan Boom

In September 2013, the New York Times published an article written by author Kathryn Joyce entitled “The Evangelical Orphan Boom.”   Much like her book, The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption,  Joyce’s  NY Times article posits the view that the “orphan crisis” is not a global crisis worthy of our universal concern but rather a dangerous myth perpetuated by Evangelical church leaders as part of their conservative, “pro-life agenda.”  This movement she says “while well intentioned, has exacerbated a boom and bust market for children.”

The Joyce article also warns that the potential for fraud and abuse in the current international adoption is too high.   Specifically, she cites concerns with the use of UNICEF’s orphan estimates as an estimate of the number of children in need of adoption because such estimates include children who are living in the care of family members.  She also points to cases of children who were put up for adoption, without their biological parent’s full understanding of what adoption means, as evidence of a system gone awry.

Much like the articles on rehoming, Joyce’s book and subsequent articles have engendered responses from many in the adoption community, the most notable being the Christian Alliance for Orphans.  For the most part, these responses have acknowledged that there is a need to reduce the potential for fraud and abuse within the international adoption system, but have also cautioned against calls for reform that obscure the reality that there are millions of children living outside of family care for whom international adoption is the only real hope of a permanent home.

Congress has not responded to Ms. Joyce’s concerns over the role of the Evangelical church has played in promoting international adoption, but there is an ongoing federal policy conversation on how the United States Government might work more effectively to ensure that the instances of fraud and abuse in international adoption are rare.  In September of 2013, Senators Mary Landrieu and Roy Blunt introduced a bill called “Children in Families First.”   In October, Congresswoman Kay Granger and Congresswoman Karen Bass introduced the same bill in the House.  The two bills combined have over 40 co-sponsors.  Among other things, the bill seeks to remedy the existing confusion that stems from using UNICEF’s orphan data as a proxy for the number of children in need of adoption by calling for a separate and more appropriate means of assessing the needs of children without family care.  It also seeks to reduce opportunities for fraud and abuse by providing technical and financial support to countries looking to establish Hague compliant systems for international adoption.

Davion Only

In October, the Tampa Bay Times featured a story about a fifteen year old young man named Davion Only who took his plea for an adoptive family to members of his church. Within hours of the article on his plight appearing in the Tampa paper and online, the story went viral.  In the week that followed, Davion was featured on the Today Show, the View and in People Magazine. His name now generates 1.4 million Google hits and he has had over 10,000 families inquire about adopting him.  With all likelihood, he will be celebrating this Christmas with a family to call his own.

While many are calling Davion’s story a success story, it has also raised many important policy questions. First, what can we do to help people better understand that there are 9,999 other children just like Davion waiting for a family?  Should we need to have the type of media attention that his story generated for this message to break through?  And similarly, would some of the 10,000 people who stepped up for Davion be willing to commit to one of these other youth instead?

Also on people’s mind is the most basic of questions: why did it take so long for him to get to where he is today?  According to the original article, Davion has been in foster care since his birth and available for adoption since he was 7. What about our current foster system needs to be improved so that the “Davion Onlys” out there do not have to spend a lifetime looking for the love and support they so clearly need and deserve?

Federal policymakers have made several efforts this year to better address the need for permanency among older youth.  Most notably, they are expected to reauthorize the federal Adoption Incentive program as well as make efforts to better focus this program on the needs of older youth.

Conclusion

The media can be an important and powerful tool for raising both the public attention and political will necessary to bring about change.  Over the past several months, the above stories on adoption have stimulated important conversations and brought wider public attention to the needs of foster and adopted children.  CCAI looks forward to continuing to play a role in ensuring that the federal policy conversations that result from this coverage are both thoughtful and informed.

Giving Thanks

Giving Thanks

By Kathleen Strottman

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Despite the daunting winter weather, today millions of Americans will take to the roads, the air and the rails to travel home in time for the Thanksgiving holiday.  I cannot think of a better example of how ingrained the ideal of family is in our society than Thanksgiving, a day when we come together to share in a bountiful meal and give thanks for our collective blessings.  Like many of you, I will begin and end Thanksgiving Day with an overwhelming amount of gratitude for the blessing of my own family.  And if tomorrow is like most of my other Thanksgiving celebrations in recent years, I will revel in watching my children build lifelong memories with their grandfather, aunts, uncles and cousins.

At some point tomorrow I will observe what has become another annual tradition.  I will pause and say a prayer for the millions of children all over the world who will spend this holiday alone.  There is not a day that goes by my heart does not ache for these children, whose dream of a family to share holiday traditions with seems more like an unreachable dream than a soon-to-be reality.  Yet on a day designed to serve as a reminder of just how much having a family means in our lives, it aches all the more.

CCAI was founded on the simple yet profound belief that every child needs and deserves a family to call their own.  We go to work each day with the hopes of identifying the legal and policy barriers which prevent children from realizing their basic right to a family.  While we still have a long way to go before we reach our goal of a family for every child, we have taken many steps toward making this dream a reality this year.  For this I am incredibly grateful.

More specifically, this year I will give thanks for:

10. The Adoption Tax Credit Working Group and the Save the Adoption Tax Credit Campaign.  There is no doubt in my mind that this organized, effective campaign played a major role in making the adoption tax credit a permanent part of the tax code. This means more children will find families.  I also firmly believe this group has what it takes to convince Congress to make the Adoption Tax Credit refundable.

9. Senator Charles Grassley (R- IA), who has been a leader in the Congressional Coalition on Adoption for over a decade, and who recently reminded all in attendance at the Voice for Adoption Portrait Project reception of how important the goal of a family really is when he said, “We must always remember that foster care is meant to be a layover, not a destination.”

8. The Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption and Wendy’s Wonderful Kids who continue to prove there is no such thing as an unadoptable child.  I am particularly grateful for their recent video, which reminds us that meeting your child for the first time, no matter when that moment occurs, is always a once in a lifetime experience.

7. Leigh Anne and Sean Tuohy, who served at this year’s Angels in Adoption Gala emcees.  Their passion for adoption, their giving hearts and their unmatchable wit made this year’s gala one to remember.

6. Dr. Charles Zeanah of Tulane University, whose passion and commitment to deinstitutionalizing children and improving foster care is second to none.   CCAI was very fortunate to have Dr. Zeanah join us on our 20/20 Vision Program’s Congressional delegation to Korea, Cambodia and Vietnam in February.  Additionally, his presentation to a key group of Guatemalan officials in April during our Pathways to Permanency training moved some in the group to tears.

5. For Pat O’Brien and his legacy at “You Gotta Believe,” an organization wholly committed to finding forever families for older children.  This recently posted YouTube video is just one example of the thousands of families who have been born as a result of Pat’s tenacity.

4. The USG Action Plan for Children in Adversity – the first ever federal policy to acknowledge that reducing the number of children outside of family care should be one of our universal foreign policy goals.  The release of this important plan has opened the minds of many federal policymakers to the idea that food and shelter do not make children thrive, families do.

3. For Dr. Sharen Ford, who retired this year after nearly 30 years with the Colorado Department of Health and Human Services.  Ralph Waldo Emerson once said – “to know that even one life has breathed easier because you have lived, that is to have succeeded.”  Dr. Ford, tens of thousands of our nation’s most vulnerable children have breathed easier because of you.

2. For the Foster Youth Interns (FYIs) from this summer and every summer before.  Not a day goes by that I am not inspired by their example.  I am so proud to see you each grow into the leaders you were always meant to be.

2013 Foster Youth Interns on the steps of the Capitol

1. For my incredible staff who every day make me proud to be the Executive Director of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute.

CCAI staff with 2013 National Angel in Adoption Deborra-lee Furness and husband Hugh Jackman
Not Pictured: Our awesome Director of Operations, Dan!

 

Celebrate Family

Celebrate Family
By Kathleen Strottman

The word for family in Spanish is “familia”, in Mandarin Chinese its “jia”, in Russian its “sem-ya”, in Indonesian its “Kelurga” and in Swahili the word for family is “jah-mee.” In all 6,500 spoken languages in the world, there is a word for family. While the word family is said differently in each, its importance to children is universal.  Everywhere in the world, the family is known by all as the very basic unit of society, the unit into which children are born and through which they are meant to reach their full human potential.

When speaking of family, American comic George Burns once said, “Happiness is having a large, loving, close-knit family …who lives in another city.”  And humorist, Erma Bombeck described the family as “a strange little band of characters trudging through life sharing diseases and toothpaste, coveting one another’s desserts, hiding shampoo, borrowing money, locking each other out of our rooms, inflicting pain and kissing to heal it in the same instant, loving, laughing, defending, and trying to figure out the common thread that bind us together.”  Former First Lady Barbara Bush put it perfectly when she said “family means putting your arms around each other and being there.”

These heart-felt tributes to family are matched equally by scientific evidence that a loving family plays a fundamentally important role in the development of a child.  Co-founder of Head Start, Dr. Urie Bronfenbrenner put it this way: “In order to develop normally, a child requires activity with one or more adults who have an irrational emotional relationship with the child. Somebody’s got to be crazy about that kid. That’s number one. First, last, and always.”

I have been blessed to attend some of the best schools in the United States.  And in the 25 years of my education, I have learned many of life’s certitudes.  I learned that the square root of 144 is 12.  I learned that every sentence must have a subject and a verb.  And I learned that the force that takes an object from a higher point to a lower one is called gravity.  I cannot tell you precisely when it was that I learned that family matters.  Maybe it was through the countless times that my parents demonstrated their “completely irrational love” for me.  I never once doubted that they would be there for me. I grew up completely secure in the idea that they would always protect me. And because they showed me every single day how special I was, I grew up believing that I could do anything.

Maybe I have learned how much family matters when I became a mother to three children. Like my mother before me, I would go as far as to lay down my own life for my kids. Believe me, Dr. Brofenbrenner, I know what you mean by CRAZY.  Is there a parent reading this blog who would not admit to being crazy in love with your children?  What makes the love we feel for our children so amazing is that it is a pure and unconditional love, like no other we have experienced.

And that is why CCAI exists.  Because we believe with all our hearts that every child in the world not only deserves to know that kind of love, but needs to.  We know that a nurturing relationship with a parent is not a luxury meant only for a precious few, but a biological necessity of all children everywhere.  And our heart is heavy with the knowledge that there are children all over the world who because of cultural and policy barriers don’t know that kind of love.  Some don’t have it because they have a disability and their parents live in a place where they are told to believe these children are cursed.  Others don’t have it because they are older, and society has told them to just hold on for the day that a family is no longer necessary.

And we think that is simply unacceptable.

In 2011, the almost 700 people in attendance at our 13th annual Angels in Adoption dinner were brought to tears as national award winner Scott Fujita, a six foot five, 250 lb. linebacker for the Cleveland Browns talked about what his five foot two Japanese American parents meant to him.  He said, “you can’t put a face on love and you can’t tell me what a family is supposed to look like, but we all certainly know what a loving family is supposed to feel like.”

Take a minute today to watch the video. I hope it reminds you of how important family has been in your own life and inspires you to do more to help every child in the world know this kind of crazy love.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jfht4VrIWzM

CALL TO ACTION: IT’S TIME WE DEMAND A FAMILY FOR EVERY CHILD

In April of this year, at little girl named Daria, who would have turned 3 in May, died from an undiagnosed heart ailment in her orphanage in Nizhny Novgorod, a city about 250 miles east of Moscow.  While the death of any child is a tragic event, what makes Daria’s passing all the more heartbreaking is that she died alone, instead of in the loving arms of her American family that had hoped to adopt her but couldn’t because of the Russian adoption ban.  When I heard the news that a waiting child had died, I could not help but cry.  My tears were for the life she would never live, but they were also for the thousands of other children who, like Daria, have had their lives ended by the stroke of a government’s pen. Over the last ten years, children in Russia, Guatemala, Kyrgyzstan, Vietnam, Haiti, Kazakhstan, Nepal, Ghana and Rwanda have lost the right to find a family through international adoption.

As if this is not enough to invoke tears, countries that close their doors to international adoption too often struggle to provide family based alternatives for their children.  They soon realize that it takes time and resources to build a child welfare system in which families are able to stay together and provide alternative loving homes for children whose families’ were not.  Some never get to the point of realizing that truly protecting a child’s right to a family requires both legal and cultural change.  And so it is that millions of children are condemned to life in prison for the simple crime of being born.

For fifteen years, I have had the honor of fighting for these children in Congress.  I have begged people to consider the fate of the hundreds of Cambodian children whose families were ready to care for them, I have cried with the families whose children were trapped in Guatemala and have flown half way around the world to implore the Government of Vietnam to provide their children with all options for finding a home.  But we cannot keep fighting this battle a country at a time.

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I have also read everything I can find on how human relationships affect human development, especially in early years.  It is amazing how much scientific evidence there is to support the notion that children not only deserve a family, but they NEED one.  Children who have a secure, stable relationship with a parent thrive, and those that are deprived of this type of relationship deteriorate.  It is really that simple.

For these reasons, I am convinced the time has come for all those who believe in their core that children have a basic human right to a family to stand up and be heard.  If we don’t, there is no doubt in my mind those who have obscured the world’s view on international adoption will succeed in eliminating it as an option and most governments will just continue to rely on orphanages to raise their children.  Scarier still, we will continue down a path which ends with tens of millions of children whose development has been hindered: making them more likely to engage in crime than finish school, more likely to be a government dependent, than a productive member of society.

This week Senator Mary Landrieu and Senator Roy Blunt called on Congress to change the way the United States Government views the welfare of children abroad.  Their vision is to move the United States away from a system that views children as an immigration enforcement issue to a system that embraces the opportunity to protect their right to be safe from abuse and to be loved by a family.   Their bill, Children in Families First, would align the United States Government’s efforts around what most Americans agree is a core value of our society: family.

For those of you who have not spent the last fifteen years working on adoption issues, let me try and summarize what this bill does.  Right now, neither the State Department and the USAID, which are the two agencies responsible for advancing child welfare issues abroad, have a high level office that focuses on the welfare of children.  At State, if a child is a refugee, they would be covered under the Bureau that addresses refugee issues; if they are a victim of trafficking, they may benefit from the work done by the Office to Combat Human Trafficking and so on.  The same is true at USAID, if they are in need of immediate health care, they will likely get this assistance from the Maternal and Child Health Integrated Program, if they are a victim of AIDS, and their assistance will be spearheaded by the Office of the Global AIDS coordinator.  And if you are a child who is outside of family care, you better hope you fall into another covered category because otherwise no one in our government is responsible for developing policies and programs on your behalf.

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You do not need to be a policy expert to appreciate the flaws in such a system.  Practically speaking, what this means is that a United States Ambassador working in a country like Vietnam might know very well what the USG could do to help reduce the number of children living outside of family care in Vietnam, but he has no counterpart in his own Department to turn to for assistance and no resources at USAID dedicated to such work. As we well know, a common reason given for suspensions and closures of international adoption is the need to create better systems for safely and ethically processing adoptions, a need that cannot be met on a wide scale basis without US leadership and support.

Let me be clear, while the bill is calling for a new approach and clear leadership on behalf of parentless children, it is not suggesting we increase the role or size of the federal government. Since it is Fall, let me use a football analogy to explain this further. CHIFF is not saying we need another tight end  or a receiver. It is saying that if you think you can win a football game without a quarterback, you are sorely mistaken.  Under the current structure, we are without the leadership needed to help protect children who need our protection.  As a result, we are throwing incomplete passes instead of making touchdowns.

And finally, why should you care?  If you are reading this and you care about the welfare of children who have no families, for whatever reason, we need you.  Battles in Washington are won when a group of convicted people use a unified voice to call for change.   If we do not speak out now, I am not sure we will have the opportunity to do so again, the battle will be lost, and the children like Daria will continue to die alone instead of in the loving arms of a mother.

Don’t waste one more minute – visit www.childreninfamiliesfirst.org and learn what you can do to make a difference.

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Kathleen Strottman with son Noah

Punching Holes in the Darkness: U.S. Foreign Assistance for Children in Adversity

Come Share Your Dreams
Photo Credit: Christian Alliance for Orphans Summit 9
May 3, 2013 Nashville, TN

As a boy, renowned author Robert Louis Stevenson lived on a hillside in Scotland, his family’s home overlooking a small town below. Robert was intrigued by the work of the old lamplighters who went about with a ladder and a torch lighting the street lights for the night. One evening, as Robert stood watching with fascination, his parents asked him “Robert, what in the world are you looking at out there?” With great excitement he exclaimed, “Look at that man! He’s punching holes in the darkness!”

Three years ago, CCAI set out to punch holes in the darkness. Frustrated by the fact that the United States Government, a leader in so many other areas of global concern, lacked a clear and effective strategy for reducing the number of children living without the support of a family; we started by asking why? Why was it that a value so clearly a part of the U.S. Government’s efforts to protect children had not made it into our foreign policy?  Why was such a fundamental American value, the value of family, not better represented in our programming abroad?

The more we learned, the more our concern grew. We learned that while an estimated $2 billion dollars a year was reportedly being invested in international programs focused on the care and support of orphans, little to none of this funding was being spent on preventing orphanhood. We learned that despite overwhelming scientific evidence that institutions seriously damage children, our lack of advocacy for family based care was resulting in an increasing number of children being confined to a life in them.  And perhaps one of the hardest lessons we learned: despite national experience with international adoption as a worthy and effective way of securing a safe and stable family, we watched as global leaders suggested otherwise.

And so we had a choice to make. We could stand idly by and allow the futures of millions of children be cut short by this darkness or we could punch holes in the darkness in the hopes that bringing light to these issues would inspire change. We chose the latter.  We began by educating federal policymakers on what emerging brain science tells us about how urgent the need is for global policies to better reflect the right to a family as a basic human right.  We also outlined how U.S. policies, programs and priorities might be improved to better protect this fundamental right. Finally, we hosted two national and one regional convening to engage foreign leaders in a concrete conversation on moving their child welfare systems away from orphanages and toward families.

Our Haiti Convening illustrated that it is not only possible but preferable for the Government of Haiti to focus on rebuilding its families instead of rebuilding its orphanages. Our Way Forward Project sought to stimulate dialogue among the world’s experts on both the need for family-based care but also the ways in which laws, policies and programs might be developed or expanded to support the use of family-based care for children in need of it.  And most recently, our Pathways to Permanency Project provided permanency training for 15 key leaders from Guatemala.

Today, the U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs held a hearing on the newly launched USG Action Plan for Children in Adversity (APCA).  In providing testimony to the committee, Deputy Administrator Donald Steinberg acknowledged that APCA is the first ever high-level USG policy that acknowledges that children need families to thrive.  He also acknowledged that the Action Plan is a critical realigning of U.S. investments in children abroad around three key objectives, the second of which is to reduce the number of children without families.

Today, Mr. Stevenson, I felt like that lamplighter.