Michelle Chalmers, Executive Director
Delivered at Voice for Adoption Reception
Dirksen Senate Building, Washington, D.C.
November 15, 2017
Thank you to Schylar, Melinda and the Voice for Adoption Board for your work – and for recognizing ours. Thanks, also, to the North American Council on Adoptable Children for your nomination. To the congressional delegation who is able to be here today, thank you for your commitment to the children and teens who are caught up in adult problems that were not of their own making and who require a dose of hope.
It is with deep pride that I accept this award on behalf of the team at Ampersand Families – I want to acknowledge, by name, the people who actually do the barrier breaking work at Ampersand Families, Aubrey Haddican, Misty Coonce, Cecily Ferguson, Bridget Sabo, Renee Banas, Perry Huff, Kate Mejicano, Stacy Gehringer, and Gail Garner Swenson. They do the work with the support of our board of directors, our generous donors and Minnesota Department of Human Services’ innovative, outcome based permanency contract.
I have been thinking about what it means to “Break Barriers in Adoption” and have come to the conclusion that, for Ampersand Families, what it means is that we continually ask ourselves and the system in which we work “can we do better?” For sure, the permanency world is rift with barriers – people think teens are too old, too troubled, families don’t want them, teens don’t want adoption, glaring racial disparities, the finding the balance between guardianship and adoption as permanency options, unmanageable caseloads, inadequate training and development opportunities for the workforce.
When we come up against barriers like these we ask a several questions:
- Is the barrier real or perceived?
- Should we try to challenge the barrier? If so, what will it take to go around/over/under/through it?
- Did the system, itself, create the barrier? If so, can we partner with others to go back and fix some policy or process so that the barrier does not keep showing up over and over?
- AND, most importantly….. What approach to addressing the barrier will best restore a sense of belonging, dignity and hope to the youth involved?
That part is really important to Ampersand Families- our mission keeps us focused on championing practices in adoption and permanency that restore belonging, dignity and hope.
What I know after almost 30 years working in this field, and personally aging out of foster care, is that to work or live in the world of child protection, child welfare, reunification, adoption, guardianship and foster care means to routinely traverse a minefield. Everyone involved is either a decision-maker or the child
whose developmental path, personal identity and right to relationships and access to his or her own history are always at risk.
I am deeply honored to have the opportunity to share three of the things that Ampersand Families believes are critical to breaking barriers as we restore belonging, dignity and hope.
First, we trust that children and teens are capable of loving and being connected to more than one family. Most are going to remain connected in some way to biological families. Who better than a loving, well trained and well supported adoptive family to help them navigate those complex relationships? The teens we work with don’t say ‘yes’ to adoption until we say ‘yes’ to their relationships and to critical identity development that comes from being part of a history and a line of people.
Second, the teens we work with sometimes say ‘no’ to adoption when they realize that the very facts of their birth are going to be changed on the document that certifies that they exist…they are often offended to hear that their parents will be erased and that their accurate birth certificate will be sealed until such time their particular state authorizes them access. To maintain or restore dignity for our youth requires access to their own birth certificate….and if we are going to really address this barrier, states probably should look at changing the practice of altering them in the first place. It made sense at one time in our history…it might not make sense anymore.
Third, we know how bad the outcomes are for youth who age out of foster care without achieving permanency, and we have anecdotal evidence that the outcomes of adoption and guardianship seem to be better. But the reality is, that we need longitudinal research into how young adults and the parents who adopted (or accepted guardianship) of them are faring, and if the post placement supports and trauma-healing efforts we have implemented have been helpful. My agency is ready to partner with others to bring a study to fruition so that we can use proven practices with the growing number of youth coming into care today.
In closing, though I can’t speak to every project in every state, I can state unequivocally that Adoption Opportunities and Activities funding made possible barrier breaking work in my organization and in my state. Several hundred pre-teens and teens in Minnesota have joined permanent families as a direct result of the lessons we were able to learn and disseminate during The Homecoming Project, Minnesota’s Adoption Opportunities and Activities Initiative from 2003 to 2008. Ampersand Families was founded to implement the practices we tested and came to trust during that effort. Thank you to those of you in the room who have been part of securing the investments the Children’s Bureau has made into developing best practices.
And, thank you for recognizing the work of my organization and for allowing me the time to talk with you today.