Broadening teenagers’ horizons through extended family

It’s National Adoption Month and this year the focus is on teens. Teenagers make up almost one quarter of the children in the foster care system

Many teens in foster care develop a sense of hopelessness. They see themselves aging out of the system without good prospects—and the stats aren’t in their favor, 29% experience homelessness, 20% are likely to be incarcerated and 23% will become parents before turning 21 years-old. College enrollment is only 50% of the rate of the general population.

What’s missing is not only the love and stability of being in a family but the connections stemming from kinship that bring involvement in wider society. Sadly, for children over the age of 16 in foster care, less than half will leave by going into a family. This situation is actually worse than it was five years ago.

Downey Side started with a single teenage adoption. Father Paul Engel, placed sixteen-year-old Brian Champoux with one of his parishioners, Margaret Downey, in 1967 in Springfield, Massachusettes. The agency has steadfastly centered its attention on placing school-aged children into permanent loving homes ever since.

This year, Downey Side has already finalized 6 adoptions—2 boys and 4 girls—aged between 9 and 17 years old and we hope to add another 13-year-old boy and 9-year-old girl soon. This is typical for us. The average age of our adoptees is 11 ½ years old, twice the national average.

At the Downey Side barbecue for our families in Point Pleasant NJ at the tail end of summer, it was especially moving to hear the stories of grandparents in attendance. It brought home how families are a gateway to supportive relationships.

The grandparents all shared a keen interest in their grandchildren’s development, helping in all kinds of ways from simply giving parents a break or showing up for local team sports to using their social network to solicit opportunities such as getting part-time employment. Greater socialization is such a natural part of being in a family it’s easy to take for granted. And, it’s particularly important for teens, without it they are poorly equipped for adulthood.  

You can hear some Downey Side grandparents share their experiences along with other family members in this video.

How can you help Downey Side during National Adoption Month? 

When families adopt school-aged children, Downey Side charges them a fee, one that is much lower than most other adoption agencies. We can do this for two reasons, firstly, we keep all our overheads to the barest minimum, and secondly, through the generous financial support of people like you.

To donate to Downey Side click here

You can also help by spreading the word and sharing this blog post or encouraging your friends to follow us on social media.

-Ian Keldoulis,

Writer & Downey Side Board Member

All adoptions are an emotional roller coaster. But there’s something especially moving about how the Scull family in New Jersey adopted their two teenage daughters. Now you can read about their unique journey in the words of adoptive mother Lesli Scull. 

Brett and I have always been interested in adoption. We raised our two biological sons and enjoyed them so much and felt confident we had lots to offer another child. We knew there was space in our home and definitely in our hearts. Life is short, kids are the future. And way too important to be put on hold anymore. Somehow, we knew our child was out there….  We just needed to connect. 

The dream needed to come to fruition. We weren’t getting any younger and our child was waiting for us. We called around. We grew incredibly frustrated with the system—the obstacles and blockades between us and available children, not to mention the expense. Eventually, I called the New Jersey Division of Family and Child Services inquiring about becoming foster parents. We were on the fence with fostering, we really wanted to adopt but didn’t think we could afford an agency. It was during the pandemic and they were not accepting or training new people. We said we were interested in older children and they referred us to Downey Side and provided the number. 

The cost was reasonable. And right away they were ready to meet with us, explain the process and help us. We left the appointment and immediately made the decision we were going to be parents again!! How exciting! We searched through hundreds of kids and needed to be very honest with ourselves regarding what child would truly fit our family with us both working full time and being 52 and 54. After reviewing several case studies we found our daughter. She was a perfect fit. Her name was Jada.

Jada was 14 with green eyes, dark hair and cute as a button. Her case worker was wonderful, too. We got to meet her online, and so, the process began. One night we were talking to Jada on the phone at her group home in Georgia and her friend Shannun, yelled in the background, “You can adopt me too!” I just laughed. But it stuck in the back of my head. 

After a few months, we got word we were able to travel to Georgia to see if we were a good fit. If we were, we could bring our girl home. We took both girls out to lunch and returned Shannun to the group home afterward. Shannun was so sweet, red hair, blue eyes, a special smile, and yet a typical teenager. She started to cry when we packed up Jada to leave for home. 

My daughter kept in touch with Shannun and approached us months later about potentially adopting her. This was ironic because my husband and I had already started to inquire about Shannun. We were told she had taken herself off the adoption sites because she felt like she was older and it was too late to be adopted. When my husband and I approached Shannun about adopting her she was so excited and got teary eyed. The process definitely took longer with Shannun, between caseworker changes and paperwork challenges. It was one hurdle after another. 

Shannun was 17, so we wanted her with us as soon as possible. She needed SATs, senior year, a driver’s license and college applications. Thanks to Downey Side and their help navigating an incredibly complicated system we finally have our two daughters. They are thriving and we are all learning every day. 

The system that was created to help kids doesn’t do nearly the job Downey Side does. Granted the purposes are different but these kids are individuals and deserve to be treated as individual kids with a problem that needs to be solved. That’s exactly what Downey Side does.  They help one kid at a time find their forever family. They provide resources that are so valuable for the journey of adoption. 


— Lesli Scull


The Sculls aren’t the only family to have adopted more than one child with the help of Downey Side. But typically, the kids are siblings rather than best friends. Of course, Jada and Shannun are now sisters, too. That’s the magic of family. 

It’s National Adoption Month. But you don’t have to adopt a child to help out. (Of course, it’s beyond wonderful if you can.) Anything you do to support Downey Side’s mission is an enormous contribution.

Because Downey Side is a lean, truly grassroots organization, however you choose to participate has an outsized impact. In fact, some of the simplest actions are hugely beneficial. Here are a few ways you can make this month matter.

Spread the word
Tell all your friends, family and associates about us. They’ll listen to you and you’ll save us a ton of money in advertising and publicity costs. It’s especially helpful if you get them to sign up for our newsletter here.

Become an ambassador
What does an ambassador do? Open doors. At Downey Side, we’re super focused on helping kids and families so knocking on doors takes us away from what we do best. When you introduce us to your union, HR department, professional association, fraternity, sorority, or other organization you not only connect us to resources you help us “jump the line”. We don’t like to admit we’re competing for attention but that’s the reality.

Why not organize a mini fundraiser? Do what you enjoy—run a race, host a bake sale, throw a party, whatever, use your imagination—and raise money and awareness for Downey Side while you’re at it. Plus you can close the communications loop by tagging us on social media when you publicize your event.

Upgrade our (non-existent) tech
Getting kids into permanent families is possibly the most human activity imaginable. However, every step of the way involves serving a laborious bureaucratic machine. At Downey Side, that humungous paper trail is literal. We need someone who can analyze our manual processes, then help us select the right combination of hardware and software to digitize our workflow while remaining fully compliant plus preserving the privacy of our families. If that’s you, or someone you know, please get in touch. (Okay, this last one isn’t so simple.)

Just remember, when you’re helping Downey Side you’re part of the solution to a huge problem—finding permanent families for the 500,000 kids in foster care. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by this situation but don’t be. Every small action counts and they all add up.

Even if you don’t do any of the above, you’ve still got Giving Tuesday to look forward to. That’s right, November 29th, the Tuesday after Thanksgiving is the national day for charities. And we’ll be making it easy for you to participate.

Finally, we’d like to give a big shout-out and congratulations to our sister organization, the Adoptive and Foster Family Coalition of New York . For almost as long as Downey Side they have been working to ensure no foster, adoptive or kinship care family in New York feels alone. On October 20, they put on a superb night of storytelling, featuring the real-life experiences of adoptive children and parents.

Naturally, throughout National Adoption month, the simplest and easiest way to show you care is to make a donation to Downey Side.

Yours for children,

Br. Terry Taffe, ofm Cap, and Ian Keldoulis

“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.  


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, 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. 



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.  



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”.    



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.