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Fostering Families 

An award-winning Vermont program provides another adoption option

Diane Dexter and her daughters.

Courtesy of Lund Family Center

Diane Dexter and her daughters.

Families turn to adoption for many reasons. Some have hit a biological barrier: trouble getting pregnant or carrying a baby to term. Others want to help a child in need or to grow their own family tree in a different way.

Whatever the motivation, it's harder to adopt a child today than it was years ago. Access to family planning services and the destigmatization of single motherhood have resulted in fewer U.S.-born infants available for adoption. And fears of fraud and human trafficking have led some foreign countries to discontinue the practice; international adoptions in the U.S. have declined to their lowest rate since 1994. Vermonters adopted 30 kids from other countries last year, compared to 86 a decade ago.

The result: More families are exploring the foster-to-adopt option, which allows children whose birth parents are unable or unfit to care for them to become part of a more functional family. Here in Vermont, an award-winning public-private partnership called Project Family facilitates the process, with a special emphasis on kids formerly considered "unadoptable." 

Foster-care adoption has a lot to recommend it: It's local, cost-effective and can strengthen communities in which some children lack parental love and guidance. But there are risks involved, too. Children in the system might have social, behavioral or developmental problems. And until birth families' parental rights have been legally terminated, they have the right to change their minds and reclaim a child on track for adoption. That can be heartbreaking for families who have grown attached to children they had hoped to adopt.

Beth Truzansky and her partner Tracy have experienced all the variations on the foster-to-adopt theme. They signed up to be foster parents, knowing the risks involved, and were matched with their foster daughter, April, whom they eventually adopted. First, though, they had to endure a torturous process during which her biological mother's parental rights were terminated. They were in the midst of that ordeal when another fostering opportunity came their way: a two-week-old baby boy, Isaiah.

The Truzanskys brought the infant home and spent six months feeding, diapering and bonding with him. Although Beth and Tracy knew there was a chance Isaiah might go back to his birth family, "it was heart wrenching" when it happened, Beth says. Preschooler April still draws a baby brother when asked to illustrate her family tree.

Tracy was still grieving when she called the caseworker one day, to ask about Isaiah's welfare. Although the caseworker had promised herself she wouldn't, she told Tracy about another child. The Truzanskys jumped at the chance to foster a second daughter.

"We had just deconstructed the crib and here we were, four hours later, putting it back together again," says Beth.

Were they ready?

"It felt like she was meant to be there," she says of the little girl, whose adoption proceeded much more quickly than April's because her parents voluntarily relinquished their rights to claim her.

"It's been a phenomenal journey," says Beth.

Fixing a Broken System

click to enlarge Wanda Audette, Lund Family Center
  • Courtesy of Cat Cutillo
  • Wanda Audette, Lund Family Center

Vermont wasn't always at the forefront of foster-child adoption. In 1999, the state had 396 kids in state custody, most of them in foster care, who were legally available for adoption. Meanwhile, the Lund Family Center — Vermont's oldest non-profit adoption agency, which is also a residential treatment facility for pregnant women — was importing foster children from other states to meet the instate demand for adoptable children.

Say what?

That was the reaction of Diane Dexter, the adoption chief at Vermont's Department for Children and Families (DCF), during a Vermont Adoption Consortium meeting more than 10 years ago.

"Look at this list!" she exclaimed, holding up a report showing nearly 400 children in need.

The list was news to Wanda Audette, the Lund Family Center's director of adoption services. According to the state, she told Dexter, no Vermont children were available.

Audette and Dexter, both adoptive parents themselves, recognized a major problem. No one had connected the dots between Vermont families looking to adopt children — even older children — and Vermont children in desperate need of families. The next spring, they pulled together a team and applied for a federal grant to build a solution.

From that three-year grant came Project Family, a partnership between DCF and Lund that changed the way the state handles adoptions.

DCF administers many state services, such as child support and protection, food-stamp programs, foster programs and adoption. Previously, a DCF caseworker would be assigned to a child when he or she came into state custody. Then, another DCF staffer — an adoption social worker — would take over the case to find a family, begin the adoption process and then go to court to make it official.

In the new system, Project Family-Lund Center staff review children's cases as soon as they enter the foster system. DCF controls the front end of the process, while the Lund Center helps with the back end. The goal is to seek reunification with the birth family while developing an alternate adoption plan.

In short, Project Family pairs the DCF's experience in caring for abused and neglected children with Lund's adoption expertise.

It may not sound revolutionary, but "change is hard," Audette notes, especially when you're dealing with a bureaucracy. Lund's first step was to establish a relationship with the DCF workers. It was all about persistence, she says.

Audette and the Project Family staff began trekking to the 12 regional DCF offices around the state, offering their services. Some Project Family staff work alongside DCF personnel, helping to answer phones or attend meetings. Others drop in as "visitors" to get updates and help with specific challenges. Whatever works.

A foster family can't accommodate a child because the house is too small? Project Family finds a builder to donate an addition. A child being adopted by an out-of-state family would be re-traumatized by returning to Vermont for a court hearing? Project Family facilitates a way to hold the adoption proceedings using Skype.

When Project Family's federal grant ran out, the state picked up the program — both an acknowledgement of its success and a key to its sustainability. In October, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services awarded Dexter and Audette a national Adoption Excellence Award, citing several measurable accomplishments. Among them, Project Family has shortened the average length of time between a child's entry into state custody and adoption, from four years to less than two. Studies show the longer a child spends in temporary care, the greater the negative impact on his or her development.

Contributing to that time frame is the waiting period between termination of parental rights and adoption. Project Family has got it down from 26 months to between four and six. Dexter's goal: 90 days. "The state makes a lousy parent," she says.

Another surprising statistic: Since its inception, Project Family has found adoptive homes for 329 older youths who, due to their age and circumstances, would previously have been deemed "unadoptable."

Probate Court Judge Susan Fowler oversees a large percentage of Vermont adoptions each year from her bench in Chittenden County. Praising Project Family, she proclaims, "It was massive, what they did."


click to enlarge feature1-1.jpg

The systemic changes Project Family has engendered aren't all that's changed in Vermont adoption. The Green Mountain state has steadily expanded the definition of "family" as it relates to adoption eligibility.

"We've been ahead of the curve in terms of allowing adoptions by good people regardless of their sexual orientation," says Fowler, noting that Vermont is as progressive about adoption as it is about many social and political ideas.

The same goes for single or divorced adoptive parents, older families — and relatives. Where the court might have once avoided tapping family members to care for a niece, nephew or grandchild, there's more appreciation now for "kinship care" — a fancy term for guardianship by extended family. All of the above have become more acceptable adoption options.

Lori Thibault raised her own biological family and ran a home-based daycare for years before she decided she was ready to adopt. She and her husband have grandchildren the same age as the foster sisters they hope to make a permanent part of their family, just in time for Christmas — a 9-month-old and 2-year-old twins.

After her own children were grown, Thibault says, "I just didn't feel like I was making that much of a difference anymore. I love the fact that I can help these kids."

Before their birth mother relinquished her parental rights, Thibault maintained regular contact with her. That's another huge trend in contemporary adoption: Experts see the birth family-adoptive family connection as a key to success, both for the family and the child.

Thibault and her foster kids visited their birth mother and they shared photos and mementos. Their relationship was strong enough that the original mom waived her visitation rights during the Thibault summer vacation. The families kept in contact via twice-weekly calls.

"It's a very emotional and painful thing to give away a child, no matter how convinced you are it's the right thing to do," Fowler says. "So to get the sense that these people will love the child, and to have some contact, is huge."

It's paying off for Thibault. She retained the first names the birth mom gave her twins, but they didn't have middle names, so she asked the woman for ideas. The mom's suggestion to Thibault: "I have faith in you, so let's go with that." Faith.

This kind of interaction would not be conceivable — or possible, for that matter — 50 years ago. Vermont's 1996 rewrite of state adoption law gives adoptees, adoptive parents and birth families greater access to information about adoptions taking place in Vermont.

More openness, agency collaborations and connecting birth parents with adoptive parents — the trends, as Fowler sees them, are challenging old stigmas. There's a practical result, too: Only 8 percent of Vermont adoptions fail, compared to the national average of 15 percent.

Risks and Rewards

As the Truzanksys learned, adopting a foster child is not all warm and fuzzy. Project Family's "dual-track permanency planning" requires foster folks to be prepared for at least two scenarios.

"What we've asked them to do," says Dexter, "is take a child in and love them as if they were their own, and then help them to go home to their own home. And when that's not possible ... we ask those people to step up and become that child's 'forever family.'"

While it may be tempting to condemn or avoid discussing an abusive or neglectful parent, both Dexter and Audette speak of the need to honor a child's roots.

During training for adoptive families, attendees are taught to celebrate the child's past. "You cannot fear where the children have come from," Audette says. She encourages families to talk to fostered or adoptive children about being thankful to their birth parents.

Why thank them? Audette tells adoptive parents to say: "They gave you what no one else could, the gift of life."

As children grow, they naturally explore who they are, where they came from and who they will become. Kids who get the sense that they came from a bad place, a bad family, may see themselves as bad.

Tracey Lee braced herself for the worst when she and her husband went to pick up their soon-to-be-adopted son from his foster family. But she had reason to be hopeful. The little boy had the same name — Connor — they had in mind for the son they couldn't conceive after C-section complications.

Like most adoptive parents, they called on their heads and hearts to conclude that their "constructed" family was meant to be after eight years of miscarriages.

But in recounting their first meeting with Connor, Lee tries hard to remember her doubts. Would he cling to his foster mom? Would he scream or cry? Should she have brought her 10-year-old son? Lee needn't have worried. She says that when the door swung open, the two-year-old ran out with his boots on the wrong feet. He promptly threw himself into her husband's arms, shouting "Daddy! You finally came!"

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