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, ( 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.

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

Strange Birds and Birds of a Feather

Strange Birds and Birds of a Feather 

A Guest Blog by Mark Moore

Last week in the journal Science, a team of Spanish and Swiss researchers published the results of a 16-year-long study of two strange birds. The great spotted cuckoo and the crow have long enjoyed an interesting relationship, to say the least. Their relationship goes something like this: the spotted cuckoo sneaks in and lays its eggs in the nest of the crow. The crow then raises and feeds the cuckoo’s young, feeding and caring for it until it leaves the nest. Scientists called this a parasitic relationship, where one benefits greatly and the other sacrifices greatly in the relationship. At best it is a commensal relationship, meaning one benefits and the other is not significantly harmed. At least that was conventional wisdom for the last 50 years or more.

Conventional wisdom, that is, until last week’s paper turned it all on its ear. The Swiss and Spanish researchers noticed something interesting about nests that contained a cuckoo egg. The crows in that nest actually did better! Much better, in fact. At first the researchers suspected that perhaps the cuckoos had some innate ability to pick winners and lay their eggs only in high-performing crow nests. Eventually however, the truth came out; the crows, left to their own devices had poor outcomes in regards to survival of young, but a crow nest with one of those extra cuckoo eggs had young that thrived because of that cuckoo. In reality the crow/cuckoo arrangement is a symbiotic relationship – both benefit because of it.

In my former years working at CCAI, I learned a lot. I learned from my colleagues who, unlike myself, came to the adoption world with substantial awareness, expertise and training in adoption issues. But I learned the most from adoptive parents. I spent hundreds of hours on the phone and in face to face meetings with adoptive parents who taught and inspired me. One reoccurring theme from these parents was a tendency to dismiss any soft soap about what wonderful people they were for taking in an orphaned child. Over and over again, I would sit with moms and dads who sincerely and emphatically said something like, “We may have thought we were doing a good deed when we adopted our son or daughter, but the reality is that it is us who have been blessed.” Turns out it was the old crows who really benefited and their other young were actually saved by the little cuckoo in their nest.

Like any analogy it breaks down fairly quickly, since adoptive parents actually chose to adopt their children and do not just find them in the “nest” one day. In that regard, I should probably note that the researchers discovered that the baby cuckoo’s life-saving effect on a crow nest comes from the fact that they emit such a bad smell that all predators are repelled. That may actually be a handy nature fact to mention someday if your little adopted cuckoo takes too much pride in knowing that his or her presence “saved” your family. Just remind them nicely that it is the odor, not the sweetness, that makes the cuckoo so special. But I’m guessing you will take more joy in telling them the truth about their role in your family; that even if conventional wisdom says, “You were lucky to be adopted,” they should always reply with…“Maybe so! But it was pretty nice of me to save that family! Wasn’t it?”

 Mark Moore crowed proudly in various roles for CCAI from 2006 until 2008. He later founded and now runs MANA Nutrition, a company that makes emergency therapeutic food for severely malnourished children.  He and his wife Marnie and their entire cuckoo family live in Charlotte, NC.

World Social Work Day – Story of one incredible social worker

CCAI would like to take a moment to honor the tens of thousands of social workers who dedicate their lives to protecting our world’s most vulnerable children. We also will continue to fight for the policies and programs social workers rely on to ensure that each and every child has a safe, loving and permanent family. 

In honor of this special day, we are pleased to share the story of one such hero, Scott Lee, and the immeasurable difference he made in the life of his daughter Mary, a CCAI Foster Youth Intern alumna.

Children have many superheroes such as batman, he-man, superwoman, spiderman and even their parents. But what about the 400,000 children in foster care? Who are their superheroes? We know that many of these children experience multiple placements, separation from siblings, changes in schools and trauma. As a former foster youth, I can say that my superhero was my case manager, Scott Lee. He was the one person who I felt like I could trust, that went out of his way to make sure I was doing well and encouraged me to pursue my educational goals. As a case manager he had lots of children on his caseload, but he always took the time to check in on me. In fact, he would pick me up from school and drive me home just so he could ask about my foster home and how school was going. There were times he gave up his weekends with his family to transport me to various events. When I decided that I wanted to be adopted, he supported my decision and encouraged me not to give up on finding a forever family even though I was a teenager.

To my surprise, Scott and his family became my forever family when they adopted me one week before my 18th birthday. As my case manager, he knew everything about me including the complaints from my foster parents. But he and his wife opened their hearts and home to me anyway.  For the first time in my life I felt like I belonged and that I was loved.  I feel so very blessed to have found permanency with such a wonderful and caring family. I know that this is not the norm for many children in foster care, but we’re making progress with finding life-long connections for our young people. In the meantime, case managers can help ensure that children have a positive experience during their stay in care.

Mary Lee

Even today my dad is still my superhero. He is always there when I need him, and he continues to support me and my goals. I am in awe of the work he has done as a father and case manager. I hope the work I do has as much impact as his has and that I too can be a superhero for the children and families I work with.

My dad is not only a superhero to me, but also to his church, community, friends and co-workers. His super powers include compassion, selflessness, dedication, and sharing joy with others. Like many case managers he has a desire and calling to help foster children, and will go out of his way to make sure they get the care and attention they desire and deserve. To all social workers out there – I applaud you. I know it can be a tiresome and thankless job, but I can assure you that you are making a difference.

As a call to action, I ask legislators, child advocates, child welfare leadership and the public to continue the discussions around how we can best support case managers whether it is through increased training and supervision, smaller caseloads, and/or competitive salaries so they too can be superheroes, like my dad, for the vulnerable children they serve.

Mary R. Lee works as a National Transitional Living Coordinator at Youth Villages in Memphis, Tennessee. She is also a Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute Foster Youth Intern Alumna.

Give the Gift of Family

Give the Gift of Family

By: Kathleen Strottman

“Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before! What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store?  What if Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more!”  — Dr. Seuss

One of the fundamental traditions of the holiday season is the practice of giving gifts.  Despite the best attempts of retailers to convince us otherwise, deep in our hearts we know that the true meaning of this holiday season is discovered more through the act of giving than in any one particular gift.

Perhaps there is no better example this spirit of Christmas than the famed O. Henry short story about the very poor young married couple who each sells their one and only most treasured possession to secure the funds to buy a gift for the other.   Although the story ends with each of them left with gifts that neither one can use, they realize how far each was willing to go to show their love for each other and how priceless a gift of love really is.

This is one of the few times each year that people all over the world are reminded of the need to stop and celebrate what really matters in life;  to focus less on the quantity and quality of our material gifts and more on life’s  more precious treasures such as faith, love and family. For me, the mission of CCAI seems all the more urgent at this time of year.  Maybe because the children we are blessed to spend the year advocating for have but one wish on their list: a family.  What their heart yearns for most is something that cannot be purchased, wrapped up and put under a tree.  Or maybe because all year long their faces are constant reminders of one basic truth:  that lasting happiness does not come from having things, but rather from having people to share our lives with.

As you finish your own preparations and get ready to spend the holidays with those you love, consider making a donation to CCAI.  With your help, we can keep the important lessons of the holiday season alive all year round.  Because of the gifts we have been fortunate enough to receive in years past:

  • 2,000 Angels in Adoption have come to DC to be honored for their work and left with a renewed passion for serving children in need.
  • 1,000 D.C. foster youth have had their Christmas gift wish lists filled by Congressional staff.
  • 150 former foster youth have had the once in lifetime opportunity to spend a summer interning for a Member of Congress and making a direct impact on Capitol Hill.
  • 12 countries have been visited by Congressional delegations with an interest in promoting a family for every child.

While these numbers bring us great pride, there is only one number that in the end matters to us: zero. We believe there should not be one child living outside the love and support of a loving family. Help us reach this goal by donating to CCAI.

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!