CCAI Guest Blog Post: How DOMA Impacts Adoption

Athena Madison
Athena Madison

By Athena Madison

All I have ever wanted was to be adopted.

I have been in and out of the foster care system since I was eight years old. My mother passed away when I was seven and my father sulked in depression so much that he forgot he had kids and we became collateral damage. I became a mother to my siblings at a very young age.  My whole life, I have been an adult. I never had a childhood nor was I ever given the chance to be a teenager; I was too busy fighting off the sexual advances of my father’s drunk friends.

I never had parents although I have always wanted some. I still want a family, but at the age of nineteen, no one will adopt me. Every adult that I have met has said, “I’d adopt you in a heartbeat” but no one has ever followed through. That was always the worst feeling –to give me a bright red balloon and then in that same second pop it.

When I was fourteen, my mentor seriously considered adopting me. I cried tears of joy thinking about that possibility, a home, warm meals and a bed –the kind of safety that said I was going to be okay. She researched the possibility and what it would entail. Unfortunately what she learned was she shouldn’t bother trying; she wouldn’t be allowed to adopt me because of her sexual orientation.

I felt the pain and she felt the pain. The tears, anger and frustration held me hostage when I realized I was being denied a happy home with the only person I had ever trusted. I was being denied of a better life, because of logic that was simply discriminatory. The injustice overwhelmed me. I mourned. I have since mourned the life I could have had.

This summer, I am one of 16 individuals participating in CCAI’s Foster Youth Internship (FYI) program. As part of the program, we are asked to develop a Congressional report and propose a specific policy recommendation that would improve the child welfare system. I plan to present policy recommendations that remove barriers to individuals who are gay or lesbian adopting nationwide. No child should mourn a life they could have had.

This past Wednesday, the Supreme Court made a monumental step in the right direction when they struck down the Defense of Marriage Act.  In doing so, they recognized a simple fact:  that the law is meant to protect all people equally.  I think that people who are gay and lesbian should have equal rights both as spouses and as parents.

There are thousands of gay and lesbian parents who provide safe and loving homes. Words will never truly explain how much I would have picked two loving mothers or two loving fathers over being homeless and without anyone to claim me as their own. I believe that there is not a child in this country that would say “Oh! Can I have that parent there? Yes, the straight one to your right.” No child would turn down the opportunity to have a family to call their own. It’s about time we had some change.

Athena is one of 16 Foster Youth Interns who will be presenting her policy recommendations at a Congressional briefing on Tuesday, July 30. 

Former CCAI Foster Youth Intern Testifies Before Congress

This morning, former CCAI Foster Youth Intern (FYI), Talitha James, testified before Congress at the hearing Letting Kids Be Kids: Balancing Safety with Opportunity for Foster Youth. Below is Talitha’s testimony, which speaks to the importance of normalcy for children in care.

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Former FYI Talitha James (third from the left)

My name is Talitha James. I am a graduate of California State University of Fullerton, a former CCAI intern of the U.S Senate Committee on Finance and I am a former foster youth! I would like to share with you my life experiences while growing up in California’s foster care system in the county of Los Angeles. I am hopeful that this opportunity will help people within this forum to truly understand the struggle that many foster youth endure in their attempts to achieve “normalcy.”

I was declared a ward of the court at the age of two. Transitioning in and out of many foster homes became a way of life for me. I was placed into the homes of strangers who had every good intention of caring for me and became ticked off when they realized that the most important thing to me at the time were my friends, my biological family and my love for sports.

During my tenure while growing up in foster care I was not granted the opportunity to spend the night at my friend’s house because the county required that all persons over the age of 18 living in the home would have to complete and pass a background check, home assessment and sign documents that ensured they would not “run off” with me. I remember my friend wanted to know so badly why every time she invited me over to her house I declined the offer. I never told her back then the real reason why I couldn’t spend the night over her house.

Growing up in the foster care system, I felt like I was in captivity. Many times I was separated from the things that meant so much to me and the only reasoning that was given to me was, “ It’s the County rules” or  “ We have to get the County to approve.” This reference was towards the same County officials who skipped out on mandated monthly visits, placed me into foster homes that were unfit for any child to live in and overlooked my plea to play sports because it was more important for me to see a therapist. I remember the many different experiences that I had as a foster child where I would pray to God to take me off this earth because I wanted so badly not to be a foster child.

Another experience I would like to share was about a time when I wanted to play volleyball but couldn’t do so because of the unrelenting barriers that restrict foster children from being normal. As a foster child, I needed court approval to travel more than 100 miles outside of the county I resided in.  This barrier prevented me from playing sports. I went through most of my junior high school years yearning to play sports. It wasn’t until I was placed in the care of my aunt where I was granted the opportunity to play sports.  The same strict rules applied to me when my aunt became my caregiver, but she had seen my desire and allowed me to play sports. She knew that there would be consequences if anything were to happen to me while she was caring for me. I am thankful that she realized my desire to play sports and to be a part of a team was the best therapy that anyone could offer me at the time.

The late great Dr. King professed, “ I grew up in a family where love was central, and where lovely relationships were ever present. It is quite easy for me to think of the universe as basically friendly, mainly because of my uplifting hereditary and environmental circumstances.” The opportunity we have here today is to offer youth in foster care, regardless of their environmental circumstances, the dream that we have always hoped for, the chance to be normal again.

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Talitha and Chairman Reichert
Talitha and Representative Joe Lewis
Talitha and Representative Joe Lewis

In his Opening Statement, Chairman Dave Reichert of the Subcommittee on Human Resources also mentioned another former FYI, John Paul Horn, and incoming FYI, Georgina Rodriguez. Reichert said the following:

Entering foster care is a life-changing experience for children. Foster children are faced with a dizzying array of changes that are anything but normal. They are separated from their parents. They are often sent to live with a family they have never met. They may start attending a new school, have to make new friends, and make new efforts to participate in sports and other activities they previously took for granted.

On top of all of this change, we know some child welfare policies have the unintended effect of making life even harder for these children. Rules may keep them from spending time with friends, participating in sports, and even getting a driver’s license or finding a summer job.

To read Chairman Reichert’s entire Opening Statement, click here.

 

CCAI Holiday Newsletter Available Now!

December 2012_Page_01

The Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute’s Holiday Newsletter is available here.

Highlights include:

  • National Adoption Day 2012
  • CCAI/CASA Holiday Wish List Program
  • Kathleen Strottman: All I want for Christmas is a Family for Every Child 
  • CCAI Field Visit to Columbus, Ohio

Please note the pending adoption and foster care legislation is included on pages 8-18 and upcoming events are listed on page one.

During this holiday season, we are once again reminded of the important role family plays in our lives. On behalf of all of us at CCAI, thank you for supporting us as we work to ensure that every child has their right to a family realized.

Happy Holidays!

Senator Kerry Introduces Bill Based on Recommendation from CCAI Foster Youth Intern

As if graduating from Harvard isn’t impressive enough, former CCAI Foster Youth Intern (FYI) Maurissa Sorensen has yet another impressive accolade to add to her portfolio: Legislative Change Agent.

Each year the FYIs produce a legislative report in which they share their personal experiences with the child welfare system and present policy recommendations to address and improve adoption and foster care issues. In past years, these reports have generated both local and national attention to the critical issues facing the 408,000 children currently in the United States foster care system.

This summer, as part of her Foster Youth Internship report, Maurissa researched and provided concrete recommendations on how Congress could help make higher education more accessible to foster youth. As Maurissa explained in her report, “when I started community college, I was asked to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form, which included checking a box stating that I was a foster youth. I now understand that the purpose of this box is to separate out youth who will not be able to comply with the sections of the form that address parental income. I spent more than seven years in community college and filled out the FAFSA form each year.  Unfortunately, during this time, no one from the federal government ever used this information that I was a foster youth to bring attention to the U.S. Department of Education that I was a student who may need additional resources and supports.”

To address this, Maurissa proposed:

Congress should amend the Higher Education Act of 1965 (HEA), to allow foster youth to receive information about the existence of Chafee and ETV funds as federal grant programs. Currently the HEA only allows foster youth to check “yes” to question 52 on the FAFSA form in order to avoid  having to provide the income of their parents. However, it could serve the critical role of alerting  the youth that they may be eligible for Chafee and ETV funds.

Former CCAI Foster Youth Intern, Maurissa Sorensen, presents her recommendations at the report briefing in July.
Former CCAI Foster Youth Intern, Maurissa Sorensen, presents her recommendations at the report briefing in July.

Fast forward four months later to this afternoon when Senator John Kerry introduced the Foster Youth Higher Education Opportunities Act.  Here is an excerpt from Senator Kerry’s floor speech about the bill, which would ensure that FAFSA is used as a tool to notify foster youth when they are eligible for education assistance programs:

I am greatly concerned that too many of our nation’s foster youth are unable to appropriately access critical federal programs that provide assistance to help increase their educational opportunities.  Higher education can hold the key to a future of stability and it is unacceptable that many foster youth who are eligible for higher education funds, such as Education and Training Vouchers (ETV) and support through the John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence Program, are never told about these programs. 

 This is why I have worked with my colleagues to introduce a bipartisan bill to direct the Department of Education to fully utilize the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) as a tool to notify foster youth of all federal funds which may be available to support their pursuit of higher education, and include information specifically for foster youth on their agency website.  The Foster Youth Higher Education Opportunities Act will automate the notification to foster youth of their potential eligibility for programs that serve as a lifeline to a better future. 

According to CCAI Executive Director Kathleen Strottman, “It has been my experience that the voices of foster care alumni are the ones we should be listening to more than any others. When they speak, things actually stand a chance of getting better. Not because their stories remind us of how far we have yet to go, but because their ingenuity and passion for making a difference show us just how far we can reach.”

Truer words have never been spoken.

 

Click here to read Maurissa’s full report: http://bit.ly/OrS96H

 

It’s official!

In celebration of National Adoption Month, CCAI asked former Foster Youth Intern, Ashley Lepse, to share about the day the judge and her family finalized her adoption.

Then: Ashley (left) and her sister and brother.

“Can I hit it again?!” I asked the judge as I held the gavel with excitement. I had been anticipating this day for four years, and wanted to make sure it was official—I would forever more be a Lepse.  “Sure,” she said smiling with compassion in her eyes. I hit the gavel one more time and the courtroom exploded with clapping and cheering.

It was official, my siblings and I were apart of the Lepse family.

We walked off the stage and into our family’s arms.  My siblings and I smiled at each other with a sense of belonging that at the ages of nine, eight, and five we had never felt. Our past was filled with neglect, and dominated by parents scarred by domestic violence and drug abuse.  When we were removed we were placed in two foster homes that just perpetuated those memories and added a new layer of abuse. But finally— we were brought to loving people who took care of us and became our parents.

Now: Ashley (middle) and her sister and brother.

Now on August 20th 1998 it was official, we are a family.  My sister Gabby and I in our pretty matching green dresses and my brother in his spiffy new suit had much to look forward to the next few days. After much paper work earlier that morning, then the court appearance, and the lunch at the Walnut Room in Marshall Fields, we would be the guests of honor at our adoption party the following day.

My parents had rented out the YMCA for a party with family and friends. We had spent many months preparing and planning the biggest party our family would ever throw. We each got to pick our favorite food to be catered and we created a special family program. My sister and I had decided that we wanted to do a duet to “Sisters, Sisters” by Irving Berlin, and practiced this for a month before the big day.

After a beach day at Foster Beach, we were excited to be on our way to the party. A bit late, we showed up and were showered with an immeasurable amount of love. In retrospect, it seems like an even bigger deal at 23 than it did when I was nine. We got there just in time for our hour of swimming— my parents had worked hard to rent out the entire pool. Following the swimming was food and the program. My sister and I went up there and performed our duet, which was the closest I ever got to a singing career. Family and friends filled the room, all in tears as my dad and mom told the story of us three little child coming into their homes and filling their lives with more joy and love than they ever could have imagined.

Their words and sincerity will forever be imprinted in my memories. The party had finished quicker than we all wanted it too, and it was time to go home–our forever home. Later that day we were told that my grandparents on my dad’s side had planned a special family reunion to Disney World for the following November. Our adoption day was and forever will be the happiest day of my life.

The Lepse Family.

Kathleen Strottman: Giving Thanks

Like most Americans, I spent today reflecting on the many blessings in my life.  Not the least of which, is my family with whom I enjoyed today’s Thanksgiving feast.  Yet, this is also a day where I stop to reflect on the importance of the work that we do at CCAI.  Today, perhaps more than any other, I cannot help but think of the millions of children around the world who have yet to know the joy that comes with having someone on the other end of that wishbone. It is with them in my heart, that I want to share five things that I am most grateful for today.

5) For Those Who Show Us Why Family Matters: Last month, Nicholas Kristof called on President Obama and Governor Romney to take notice of research that shows a child’s early beginnings, and in particular the quality of the relationship with their parents, was at least as good a predictor as I.Q. of whether he or she would graduate from high school.  He is not the first to bring this simple truth to light.  Nobel prize-winning James Heckman and Harvard’s own, Dr. Jack Shonkoff have been leaders in the development of a strong scholarly basis for investments in early childhood.  What’s more, Dr. Charles Zeanah, Dr. Charles Nelson and Dr. Nathan Fox have demonstrated for the world that the nurturing, consistent relationships a child needs to thrive are not found in institutions, but rather in families.

4) For Those Who Remind Us You Are Never Too Old to Need a Family:
The entire U.S. Foster Care system continues to operate under the assumption that an 18 year old is a fully functioning adult who is able to live life independently of others. Until we change that, we will continue to produce young people who are unable to reach their full potential. We can no longer accept the fact that 25,000 children a year meet this fate.  We also cannot be complacent as tens of thousands of children are told that long term foster care is a better option than a family.  Today and every day, I am grateful for programs like Wendy’s Wonderful Kids, Extreme Recruitment, You Gotta Believe and the Wait No More campaign that are proving that there is no such thing too old. Our fellow advocates, most notably Nicole Dobbins with Voice for Adoption, are giving policymakers the information and inspiration they need to make “unadoptable” unacceptable.

3) For Those Who Remind Us That One Person Can Make A Big Difference:
In September, we celebrated our 14th annual Angels in Adoption.  At this year’s gala, we proudly honored Katherine Heigl, Josh Kelley, Ne- Yo and People Magazine for their extraordinary contributions on behalf of children in need of families.  But the stars of the night were actually, Karen Parker and RJ Sloke, whose tearful embrace reminded us that a single act can change the trajectory of a young person’s life forever.  Ms. Parker, a 9th grade computer teacher, took notice of RJ, a young man who was so let down by the system that he had to repeat 9th grade three times. She made the conscious decision to become his life-long advocate and mentor.  RJ, a member of the FYI class of 2012, is due to complete his Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work at GMU this year.  Karen, thank you for being a shining example for us all.


2) For Those Who Have Changed Lives:  This summer we were graced to have 15 young leaders join the ranks of our Foster Youth Internship (FYI) program. I have learned a lifetime of knowledge about what it means to be a leader from these incredible young people.  Their wisdom, tenacity, courage and hope are indescribable.  While I could give a shout out to each and every one, my thoughts today are of Talitha James, who at the end of the summer told her Congressional audience that the key to reforming foster care lies in our remembering one thing:  successful children grow into successful adults.  She is so right.  As Marc Parent, author of Turning Stones, put it: Children are like cups and the mistake we sometimes make is to think our job as parents is to give children the patience, love, courage, hope and insight that they need to become adults.  The truth is they are already filled with every one of these things.  And our role as their parents, teachers and mentors is to make sure not one drop of this potential gets spilled.


1) For Those Who Make the Work of CCAI Possible
:  As you may or may not know, CCAI does not have a large budget or an army of staff. We excel because of the generosity and commitment of so many incredible people it would be impossible for me to mention them each by name.  I can only pray that every measure of goodness that you have brought to us or the children we serve will come back to you tenfold. I would however like to take the opportunity to single out my staff without who not only make the mission of CCAI come alive every single day, but as people make the world a much, much better place.

May you all have a wonderful Thanksgiving!