Mothers Making a Difference

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CCAI Executive Director Kathleen Strottman

Tennis legend Arthur Ashe once said, “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” I have always loved this quote and have tried to make the sentiment behind it part of the mission and work of CCAI.  If you look at what we do, hopefully one message is clear: everyone can play a role in ensuring that all children have a family to call their own. In honor of Mother’s Day, I would like to highlight the power and conviction of three amazing adoptive mothers (all I might add Angels in Adoption) who every day use what opportunities they have to make a tremendous difference for children. I am so proud to know them all and so grateful for all that they do.

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Jane Aronson

Angel in Adoption 2000

Best known as the “Orphan Doctor,” Jane Aronson is the adoptive mother of two boys, Ben and Desalegn. As the Founder of the Worldwide Orphans Foundation (WWO), Jane works to transform the lives of orphaned children. WWO examines the medical and developmental conditions of children who live in orphanages, and identifies immediate healthcare needs and advocates for their well-being through the Orphan Ranger Program.

As an adoption medicine specialist who has evaluated more than 4,000 children, Jane has been in private practice and serves at the Director of International Pediatric Health Services in New York City. As if these roles don’t keep her busy enough, Jane has just published a beautifully touching book, Carried in Our Hearts, which provides first-hand accounts from parents and children whose lives have been touched by adoption. The book’s title is taken directly from the mouth of a five-year-old girl, Bailey, who was adopted from china. “My mommy didn’t carry me in her tummy, she carried me in her heart,” explains Bailey.

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Deborra-Lee Furness Jackman

Angel in Adoption 2013

Recognized by the Film Critics Circle of Australia as a best actress, Deborra-Lee Furness Jackman’s stardom didn’t make adopting from her home country any easier. After encountering insurmountable challenges when trying to adopt a child from Australia, Deb and her husband, Hugh, decided to begin the process in the US.

Despite the fact that her story had a happy ending—Deb and Hugh are now the proud parents of two children, Oscar and Ava—Deb has not stopped advocating for children in Australia who do not have a family to call their own. As the founder of National Adoption Week in Australia, Deb personally calls on individuals to become champions of children without families. She is also the Director of Worldwide Orphans Foundation Australia, a World Vision Ambassador, and the Patron of the Lighthouse Foundation, an organization in Melbourne that works with homeless children.

Deb’s passion for ensuring that every child has their basic human right to a family recognized is best summed up with a quote from a column she authored in the Australian Women’s Weekly:  I can’t think of anything more important than ensuring that every child in this world has at least one person who has their best interests at heart, someone who cares about them so they know they are loved and valued.

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Nia Vardalos

Angel in Adoption 2011

Those who had the pleasure of watching Nia Vardalos star in My Big Fat Greek Wedding will be pleased to know that she is just as charming and hilarious in person as she is on screen. Nia and her husband, Ian, adopted a little girl, Ilaria, from the US foster care system. As the National Adoption Day spokesperson, Nia used her personal story to inspire thousands of other prospective adoptive parents to consider foster adoption as a wonderful way to build a family.

In her new book, Instant Mom, Nia chronicles her journey to parenthood and beyond. Perhaps the most priceless gifts that Nia bestows upon readers are honesty and humor. Nia describes the first couple of months after Ilaria became a member of her family and admits that there were many moments when the scene inside her house wasn’t picture-perfect, like when her daughter would throw her toys in frustration. But she also  describes such touching memories like when, for months, she and Ian took turns sleeping on a cot in her daughter’s bedroom so that she wouldn’t wake up afraid—they literally texted each other when the one on “cot duty” had to go the bathroom in the middle of the night! Ilaria woke up one evening to find her mom sleeping next to her and rubbed her hand against Nia’s cheek. These highs and lows are what all adoptive parents experience when they bring  a child into their family, and Nia reminds us all that this process is normal, unpredictable and, most importantly, transformative.

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On this Mother’s Day, I would like to thank all of the moms out there who started where they were, used what they had and did what they could to ensure that every child has a family to call their own. And a special thank you to my own mother who inspired me to do the same.

Guatemala Delegation: Lessons Learned

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CCAI Executive Director, Kathleen Strottman

I remember well how I learned that when it comes to the welfare of a child, a single committed person can make a difference.  I was in my first year at law school, having just left my Jesuit Volunteer work in some of the roughest parts of Chicago, and I had the chance to sit in the courtroom of Judge Roosevelt Dorn.  Judge Dorn was feared by just about every young teenager in Inglewood because he was known for being a no-nonsense judge who would go as far as putting a status offender in prison if it meant saving them from a life of crime. That day, I saw a grandmother weep while thanking him for saving her grandson, because his unusual judicial orders to stay in school, respect his elders and take the trash out nightly had in fact worked to keep him out of trouble.  He smiled and said to her “There’s no need to thank me ma’am, I will go as far as I can to save a child. It’s why I am a judge.”

It was this lesson above all that I hoped we might impart to the 14 child welfare leaders we invited to take part in our Pathways to Permanency project.  I hoped that each of them would leave the experience knowing that they were empowered to help kids, even if doing so required that they push the limits.  Over the now 15 years I have now spent as a child advocate, I know it is those who “think outside of the box” who make the greatest change.

And I am thrilled to tell you that we succeeded.  In our last two hours together we asked our new friends to share some of the lessons they learned from this experience.  As we began this conversation I expected their replies to be things like “I learned that the United States spends $25 billion on child welfare” or “I learned that the federal agency in the U.S. that handles child welfare is called the Administration of Children and Families.”  But what emerged was much more powerful than I had imagined.  Below are just some of the lessons our delegates reported learning:

  • Institutions Harm Children:  Anyone who has ever seen Dr. Charles Zeanah, one of three lead researchers on the groundbreaking Bucharest Early Intervention Project, speak will not be surprised to learn that he had the audience in tears by the end of his presentation.  One judge said “ having seen this scientific evidence, I am clear we are hurting our children not helping them. More people in my country need to know this truth.”   CCAI has already been invited by officials in Guatemala to do a follow up training for key leaders on the harmful effects of institutions.
  • There is great value to partnership: During the panel presentation by key leaders in Texas’ Child Welfare System, one of the delegates asked what percentage of the funds the state had was used to support partnerships with community-based partners.  The entire group was clearly struck by the answer that 90 percent of the state’s funds are used in this way.  The group was equally impressed by Colorado’s success in partnering with the faith-based community to reduce the number of children in need of family.  As one government official said, “When I get back to Guatemala, I will start to look for the people who can help me, because I now know I cannot do it on my own.”
  • Children have a basic human right to a family:  After watching a hearing in the DC Superior Court and spending the day with judges from all over Louisiana, delegates noted that a major strength of the U.S. system is its adherence to the believe that children have a basic human right to a family and at some point that right supersedes a parent’s right to parent.  They were also struck by the lengths to which our legal system goes to protect that right.
  • Real reform requires the law and leadership:  In welcoming our group to the Superior Court of D.C., Judge Zoe Bush credited the federal government’s passage of the “Family Court Act” as the catalyst that started the important work seen throughout the courthouse today.  Bryan Samuels, Commissioner of the Administration of Children and Families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, pointed out to the delegation that the federal government’s focus on safety, permanence and well-being as well as the Adoption and Safe Families Act’s clear timelines are constant guides to the work that state child welfare agencies do on behalf of children.  And without exception panelists throughout the visit said that the biggest differences come from a leader who has a vision and the passion needed to make others follow. 

Delegates said these lessons are ones that will stay with them forever.

“I strongly believe that the 14 people that had the opportunity to spend this week in United States, had an experience that changed their minds, beliefs and hearts for the good of the children.  I know many of them are already applying the information and are working hard to begin with the changes that need to be done.  We know is not overnight, but we already began. “                                  -Delegate Karla  Moldanado de Molina

 

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Members of the Guatemala Delegation with CCAI Staff

 

CCAI Welcomes Delegation of Guatemalan Officials

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CCAI Executive Director, Kathleen Strottman, on a delegation to Guatemala.

Three months after I became CCAI’s Executive Director I received a call from a frantic mother whose son’s orphanage, Casa Quivera, had been raided by the Guatemalan authorities the night before.   The raid, she was told, was a part of the Guatemalan government’s effort to investigate the orphanage director whom they believed engaged in corrupt practices. Over the next year, I met hundreds of other parents whose adoptions had become immersed in a sea of similar investigations while their children languished in orphanages.

It was under this lens that our focus on the child welfare system in Guatemala began. We would soon learn that the passage of the 2007 Adoption law, although a necessary step, has presented two very real challenges for the Guatemalan government.  First, it left hundreds of children whose international adoptions were not complete in legal limbo.  Without a clear path forward, these cases underwent investigation after investigation. Six years later, approximately one hundred of these adoptions remain incomplete today.  Secondly, it required that the Guatemalan government invest time, money and resources in developing domestic alternatives for children in need of family care.

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Our first step was to raise awareness among Members of Congress about these challenges and to enlist their support in advocating for change. We are proud to have partnered with the Joint Council for International Children’s Services (JCICS), the National Council for Adoption (NCFA) and Guatemala 900 to host several briefings on the status of pending cases.  Once we had the support we needed from the US Department of State, US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and nearly 100 Members of Congress, we began to bring this support to bear in Guatemala.

Over the past two years, CCAI has been part of five high-level delegations to Guatemala.  Through these visits we have not only had the chance to advocate for the rights of the children unnecessarily trapped in orphanages, but we have also had the chance to learn more about the Guatemalan government’s efforts to build a Hague-compliant system of child welfare. There is undoubtedly a lot that still needs to be done in this regard.  Yet at the same time, the Guatemalans have been aggressive in their efforts to put in place a new system, one that is less reliant on institutional care.

Late last night, CCAI welcomed 14 delegates from Guatemala’s courts, governmental agencies and universities to Washington, DC. We have invited these individuals to participate in our Pathways to Permanency project because of their direct involvement in the welfare of children in Guatemala.  Our hope is that this exchange will inspire these individuals to become agents of change in their own communities.  The week ahead will be filled with presentations by US experts in child welfare; conversations among judicial colleagues; meetings with Members of Congress and the Administration and lessons in best practice from other regional models.

I have many hopes for the week ahead, but chief among them is this: that everyone who participates in this week comes away with a deep desire to see every child in Guatemala have a safe, loving and permanent family to call their own.  I hope that they will see that achieving this goal requires the use of all options for permanency.  And most importantly, I hope that like those of us at CCAI, they will be willing to work to remove every barrier that stands in the way of this hope becoming reality.

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Investing in the Future of our Children

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Image Courtesy of The Next Generation

Yesterday, the Washington Post, The Next Generation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation hosted the “Children and Families Summit 2013,” a convening of parents, policymakers, and experts unified in their belief that our nation not only can, but must, do better at investing – personally, privately and publicly – in the future of our children. The day’s agenda focused on a relatively simple and yet profound question: How can we as a nation strengthen support systems for those young people and parents who desperately need them?

As this important conversation continues,  we must remember that hidden within the millions of children who live in poverty, lack access to a high quality education, or suffer unnecessarily from chronic health conditions are our nation’s  half a million foster children. In taking these children into our governments’ care, do we not also make an implied promise to provide them the attention and support they need to become successful, stable adults?  Most would say the answer to this question is unabashedly yes, and yet what research shows is that foster children are chief among those falling through the gaps in our current system.

Here are just a few sobering facts: according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, compared with children from the same socioeconomic background, children in care have much higher rates of serious emotional and behavioral problems, chronic physical disabilities, birth defects, and developmental delays. Educational attainment studies reveal that less than 50% of youth in care graduate from high school and only 3% go on to get a college degree. As if those statistics are not compelling enough, studies also show that as many as one in four foster youth will end up homeless, in jail or die within a year of leaving care.

There are many reasons why children in foster care are not achieving their potential; I would like to focus on just two. First, as Paul Tough explains in great detail in his new book, How Children Succeed, “what matters most in a child’s development… is not how much information we can stuff into [a child’s] brain in the first few years. What matters instead is whether we are able to help [them] develop a very different set of qualities; a list that includes persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self-confidence.”  According to Tough, it is these skills, and not the accumulation of book knowledge, that are what allows students to maintain focus during a difficult exam or get noticed for having a “good work ethic” in the workplace.

And who is it whom most often helps cultivate such skills in children? Good parents.  In fact, one of the most compelling parts of yesterday’s events for me came during the remarks of sixteen year old Alfa Lopez who introduced the Secretary of Education to the audience. Lopez said what an “only in America” moment it was for her—a  Los Angeles teen who hails from a low income neighborhood with a school dropout rate over 50%—to be in Washington, D.C. and introducing such an important government official. She opened with “Thanks to my parents, who sacrificed everything to give me what they never had.”

Not only do foster children not have the benefit of being raised by the type of parents who lead to success stories like Alfa, we are also failing to provide too many youth that type of parenting while in care.   We currently have one foster family for every four children who need care and a high number of those who are fostering are doing so for all the wrong reasons.  Foster children move from home to home almost as often as the seasons change and the vast majority of teens in foster care are growing up in group homes, many of which resemble prisons, not families.  One way to bring about change for children  would be to invest in systems that allow children to go from broken homes into supportive settings with caring adults who are willing and able to build the skills celebrated by Tough.

The second reason foster youth continue to struggle is that major federal programs designed to meet the needs of disadvantaged children in general too often miss the mark in meeting the needs of children in care.  Here are just some examples: one third of all children in foster care are under five years old when removed because of abuse and neglect.  Because they are in care they are categorically eligible for Head Start Services, and yet according to the National Study on Child and Adolescent Well Being, only 6% of children in foster care are enrolled in this important program. Similarly, although foster youth are three times as likely as the general population to be identified as being in need of special education services, they are half as likely to receive them.  Foster youth are less likely than their counterparts to be enrolled in federally-supported, school-based enrichment programs such as after-school activities or mentoring initiatives.

Why is this?  Again, there are many reasons but one of the main problems is that most of these programs rely on a parent—or at least an adult acting like a parent—to enroll these youth in these programs.  Youth in care are most often represented by social workers who have a long list of things they are supposed to be doing for the children in their caseload and often lack the time, expertise and resources needed to accomplish these goals. Foster parents, as discussed before, are also not ably fulfilling this role.  So the programs exist to help youth in care, they are just not currently doing so.

These are the types of questions CCAI strives to provide answers to everyday.  We look forward to working with Next Generation, the Washington Post and all of the committed partners who attended the event yesterday.   As my former boss Senator Landrieu used to say, “Children might only constitute thirty percent of America’s population, but they are undeniably 100% of America’s future.”

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!

Adoption Today Features Article on Angels in Adoption™

Nominate an Angel in Adoption™!

By Kathleen Strottman and Allison Cappa

“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope.” Robert F. Kennedy said so eloquently what we at the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute (CCAI) try to uphold daily and who we hope to esteem through our Angels in Adoption™ Program.

The Program began 14 years ago when a few Congressional offices began to brainstorm about the good that could come from honoring deserving constituents from their state and/or district who had impacted the life of a child in need of a loving family. That first year, in 1999, an awards ceremony was held on Capitol Hill to celebrate those very constituents. As co-founding Member of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption caucus and adoptive father Rep. Jim Oberstar puts it, “the first event was sparkling. There was so much enthusiasm and love.”

Since that time, Angels in Adoption™ has grown to be three days of events with over 1800 individuals, couples, and organizations recognized for the incredible work they have done to highlight the issue of foster care and adoption.  The Angels are invited to travel to Washington, D.C., where they learn how to advocate on behalf of children around the world waiting for a loving family to call their own. Additionally, they are honored at a prestigious Congressional Pinning Ceremony and at a very special Gala attended by senior members of the Executive Branch, US Senators, US Representatives and National Angels, like Kristin Chenoweth, First Lady Laura Bush, Patti LaBelle and Al Roker, who are using their celebrity status to promote adoption on a national and even global level. Furthermore, Angels in Adoption™ seeks to increase the public awareness of these individual deeds that profoundly impact a child’s life. The press from this event has spurred hundreds of human interest stories with the hope of inspiring others. Since the program’s inception, more than 1,800 Angels have been honored for their contributions to the cause of finding every child a home.

We all know the miraculous effect adoption has.  Because of Angels in Adoption that message is spreading. As 2011 National Angel in Adoption™, award winning actress (star of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”), former National Adoption Day spokesperson, Nia Vardalos, said of the adoption of her daughter, “My husband and I were matched with our daughter via American Foster Care, and the minute we met her, our lives changed forever.  At three years old, our perfect little girl walked into our house, and turned it into a home.”

Do you know of someone you would like to nominate to a Congressional Office because adoption or fostering children has changed their life forever? Nominate them as an Angel in Adoption™ by visiting www.angelsinadoption.org. You can also complete a nomination form online for submission which will be passed along to an appropriate Congressional office. The deadline for this year’s nomination is July 6, 2012. 

The preceding article was featured on page eight of the June 2012 Issue of Adoption Today. See Adoption Today.