“And I could hear the system’s clock ticking. I knew that the older I got the less likely I would be adopted. Everyone wants cute. Everyone wants a blank slate. And as my case file began to overflow with problems, I could feel my value shift.” — Story of Tim McAdam* in America’s Youngest Hostages(*name changed for privacy) 

Tim was formally adopted at age 10. This puts him very close to the average age of Downey Side adoptees, just over 11 years old. The age of the children we find permanent families for is the most distinctive characteristic of the agency, it’s been our focus for over fifty years, ever since our first placement with Margaret Downey in 1967 of 17-year-old Brian Champoux. While we often hear people say, “they’re almost adults!”, we believe that the primary task of a young human being is to form relationships that will last until they are seniors, that’s called family. Everybody needs one.  

Our approach is unique because the typical age of adoption in the US is less than 6 years old. In fact, 56% of adoptions from foster care are of children under 5. And of those children, two-thirds are 1, 2, and 3 years old. Past 3, there’s a steady decline in the number of children adopted. Exactly what Tim observed when he was placed almost twenty years ago. Nothing has changed. Today, 17-year-olds make up a paltry 1% of adoptees. 

Preventing homelessness through relationship

So, while the odds of getting adopted decrease, the longer a child stays in foster care the chances of harmful long-term outcomes increase. Every year, over 20,000 children age out of foster care according to a study published by the National Institutes for Health prior to the pandemic, and the impact on them is dire. 20% become homeless immediately, 60% of young women wind up in the sex industry and 70% get pregnant before turning 21, less than 3% will earn a college degree while 25% will be incarcerated within 2 years. To say the odds are stacked against them is a massive understatement. 

Not surprisingly, that story changes radically when kids are in loving permanent families. And being “permanent” is just a big a part of the story as “loving”. We’re not saying adopting teens and tweens is a walk in the park. But Downey Side makes sure from the outset that parents know they’re in it for the long haul. Sending kids back to foster care is devastating on children. Can you imagine what it does to their self worth when they think nobody can love them, ever? 

While we go to great lengths to help families establish permanent relationships, occasionally families can’t go forward with the adoption. The technical term for this is “disruption”. At Downey Side our “disruption rate” hovers around 10% of all our placements. The national average is about 4 or 5 times higher, 40%-50%. 


How does Downey Side do it? 

Importantly, we don’t set up an expectation of failure—either for the parents or the kids. When parents are searching for kids, we won’t allow them to meet each other unless the parents are already committed. They aren’t shopping for shoes, after all. 

Dashing kids’ expectations over and over again is part of what makes foster care so cruel and traumatizing. So we ensure the parents understand all the information provided by the authorities which invariably includes assessments of mental health issues. But even before it gets to that stage, we thoroughly check out parents. We trust our parents because we know them. Proper preparation helps most inappropriate applicants decide against proceeding. 

 

Knowing people thoroughly is not the same a judging people 

There is no such person as “the perfect parent”. And we don’t waste our time trying to find parents who fit some imaginary profile. Our procedures are preparatory not investigatory. We’re way too busy paying attention to the needs of the child. For us the child’s interests always come first. Once a child is placed, because we trust the parents, we can get out of their way as much as possible. Of course, we’re ready to help and give advice at any time, day or night. 

Ordinarily, people don’t choose their family, their family chooses them. And still, family life gets messy, especially once kids hit their teens. And that will never change. 

Yours for children,

Br. Terry Taffe, ofm Cap., MA, LMSW & Ian Keldoulis

Adoption Done Right
By Br. Terry Taffe ofm Cap. & Ian Keldoulis

 

Adoption, done properly, yields miracles. Adoption, done improperly, frequently leads to disappointment for potential parents and ongoing misery for children in foster care. So, what’s the surest path to take? Downey Side’s fifty-plus years of experience creating forever families makes us uniquely qualified to illuminate the journey. Just beware, there are no shortcuts. 

It’s best to know in advance, once potential parents make the life-altering decision to adopt, it typically takes between 18 and 24 months to fully realize their dream. The major steps along the road are: 

  • Inquiry
  • Screening & home study
  • Searching & matching
  • Transfer
  • “Supervision” 
  • Finalization

The following is an introduction to these stages. Future blog posts will dig deeper into each phase. 

The journey is more akin to a maze full of baffling bureaucratic twists and turns than a linear path but rest assured thousands of families get through it each year. And one of the key things Downey Side does is encourage successful families to share their experiences with newcomers.  


Inquiry

This is really just an eye-opening moment. For people with little awareness of the world of child welfare, it’s time to understand what you’re in for. After potential parents make an initial inquiry, there’s a window of about two months to take in the adoption landscape and decide once and for all you’re going to do it. Meeting and talking with adoptive families is vital.  It’s equally important to be comfortable you’re equipped with all the tools needed to make a good decision. Remember, being a forever family, is well, forever. And the more parents know, the more power they have. This is an appropriate time to bring up ‘issues’ in your own past that you’re embarrassed about or you think might prevent you from being approved. At the end of the day, parents not social workers raise adopted children.  

 

Screening & Home Study

Downey Side trusts the families that come to us. We’re not trying to predict the future, we’re just helping prepare for it. We definitely aren’t interested in perfection, we “screen in” not “screen out”. We’re focused on the family’s commitment to the children as they are, not as we want them to be. That is, we look at families from the child’s point of view, “do they have what children need?”, rather than focusing on the family’s issues such as fertility.  

There’s a mountain of paperwork including fingerprinting and background checks that must be submitted to multiple levels of government.  We write the reports, but mostly we’re handholding families to get through the ordeal instead of being judgmental. 

 

The home study is an 8 to 10-page report Downey Side writes on the family. It’s what families need in order to be considered potentially permanent by state authorities. It’s a time when we look at families “warts and all” to paint a portrait. We talk about any “blemishes” that exist. In fact, this is really helpful, sometimes families’ past difficulties can bridge cultural gaps with children emerging from foster care, after all, they are likely to have had similar experiences. It’s extremely rare we uncover something during a home study that prevents a family from moving forward. 

 

Search & matching

Much like dating in the twenty-first century, finding children begins online. The starting point is adoptUSkids.org, a national registry of children up for adoption. Also, like online dating, you can view pictures of kids and find out very rudimentary information about them. Typically, the fun stuff. And then… there are loads of glitches. Often listed children aren’t actually available—they may have been returned to their parents, for example. Only expect success after about 50-75 matching attempts. Stay calm and don’t get your hopes up too much. (Just like dating.) 

The stakes are higher for the children than the family if the placement blows up (often referred to euphemistically as ‘it didn’t work out’.) Children lose home and family but the family stays put.  As adults we’re capable of making a permanent commitment – children by definition are not. For these reasons we respectfully request that our families make a permanent commitment before they meet the children. 

Downey Side helps potential parents understand the information that comes with a match. Much of it is medical, and overdiagnosis of mental health conditions is par for the course. Virtually all children in foster care are diagnosed with ADHD and attachment disorders. Some of this is true. And some only partially true, and some is downright false. Often in foster care, medicating children is the easiest way to manage them. Frequently, once kids are adopted we help parents ween their children off unnecessary prescription drugs or find that the drugs are no longer needed because the children’s general environment is no longer stressful. 

 

Transfer

Getting children from one state to another (the bulk of the adoptions Downey Side handles) is a logistical and legal challenge. In practice, this means we arrange approval by the receiving state while maintaining the responsibility of the initial state toward the children until finalization occurs. Most agencies don’t do this.  Although Downey Side is contracted by the states and handles the details with legal authority, we make sure the family is fully in charge. We’re here to help, not run the show.  

 

‘Supervision’

Similarly, during the 6 to 9 months or so before finalization, Downey Side plays an emotionally and practically supportive role. The technical term, “supervision”, is really a misnomer. We’re focused on assisting parents to maintain their commitment through a period of radical upheaval in their household. It’s not about judging whether parents or their new children are doing things “correctly”.    

 

Finalization

This is when parents receive full authority over their adopted children. Again, there’s a lot of paperwork to handle. So, we tackle the bulk of it and help parents stay on track with the really important stuff, creating a permanent home for their kids. 

 

Throughout the entire process, Downey Side manages expectations and keeps things in perspective. It’s difficult for adoptive families to grasp a true understanding of the roles and relationships between themselves and the system. This lack of experience with bureaucracy masks the fact that the state is subordinate to the parents. It’s vital to keep at the forefront of everyone’s mind that the “best interests of the child” are only fulfilled when the family creates a lifelong relationship with the child. 

 

We know our placements work because over and over again, we watch children grow into fully functioning adults. 

Spring is almost here, so while there’s still snow on the ground, I thought it would be good to look back at the highlight of the winter season for Downey Side—the annual Race For Kids held at Stowe Mountain in Vermont. The event, organized by the Financial Communications Society, has jumpstarted our fundraising for 22 years. That’s an entire generation! 

 

The race took place on Saturday, January 8, but the focal point for us was the big charity event the night before. It’s really the only time where one of our families, this year that was the Perone family, come face-to-face with one of the pillars of our financial support, the FCS community. And what’s really interesting, at least to me, is that the entire weekend is very much a family affair.  Many of the FCS members bring their families every year and their children have grown up witnessing the impact that the organization has not only on Downey Side but also the local chapters of Hope & Heroes and Make A Wish. 

The courage of the Perones to bear witness to everything they’ve gone through was just incredible. Selena Perone, 13 years old, told the story about her journey in foster care, describing in heartbreaking detail the hardships she endured as she was shuffled from placement to placement almost 10 times. What came across was her acute need for parents. For stability. For a permanent family. And from her parents’ perspective, it was understanding how Selena challenged their attitudes and what they had to change in themselves. 

 

This made me wonder what effect does attending the Race for Kids have on the FCS families? What does hearing these kinds of stories every year do to the children who are from secure, permanent homes? Does it make them appreciate what they’ve got? Do they have a better understanding of what it means to be in a family? Especially now that many of them are grownups themselves. 

 

Charity is of course a two-way street. People give not just to improve the lot of the unfortunate but also because it makes them feel good about themselves. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. But it does much more than provide a dopamine rush. It’s a mirror through which you can examine your own life and your intentions. It’s also a mirror on society, why do we have a foster care system like the one we’ve got? 

 

My hope is that when the next generation of young FCS skiers mature the foster care system will have disappeared like snow in the spring. And that the current crop of young people are the ones motivated to make that happen.  

—Br. Terry Taffe

We are proud to say that our families fight to keep brothers and sisters together. It’s not uncommon for Downey Side families to take in two, three, or more, siblings at the same time. As you can imagine, this has a tremendously positive impact. It also means that children adopted through Downey Side skew older, with an average age over eleven compared to the national average of under six.

Downey Side began in 1967, when Father Paul Engel brought Brian Champoux, aged sixteen, into the home of Margaret Downey. With this act, Brian gained a permanent family and Margaret became a single mother, at the age of fifty-eight. We’ve always understood that love gives families their shape. Today, across America there is a tremendously urgent need for adoption. The stability of family life—regardless of race, ethnicity, marital status, sexual orientation or identity and any other labels attached—is the anchor children need.