What is a family? The answer may seem simple, but for many people in the GLBT community, the definition of family extends beyond blood-relatives who share a dwelling space. It’s common to hear of chosen families, closely knit networks of people with whom we actively choose to connect and grow. As the number of rainbow families increases, one thing remains the same: the decision to add children to GLBT families is often an intentional choice, whether it be through adoption, fertility treatments, or surrogacy.
Because many people in our community have not been fully accepted or supported by their biological families, GLBT folks often have a stronger understanding about how important it is to belong to an intentionally chosen family. This awareness allows for a unique connection between GLBT people and children who are waiting to be adopted by parents who will love and support them unconditionally.
The need for adoptive families has never been greater. In Minnesota alone, there were 840 children under state guardianship last year. According to the Minnesota Department of Human Services, 73.6 percent of the waiting children were between the ages of six and 18. Unfortunately, school-age and teenage children are often overlooked when people plan to adopt, and many kids age out of the system without ever belonging to a family.
When folks are ready to become parents, it’s important to consider how adoption can play a role in building families. And Minnesota’s GLBT families are fortunate many agencies are clear that GLBT couples are wanted and needed as adoptive parents. Through the assistance of MN ADOPT, Ampersand Families, and The Adoption Programs of Children’s Home Society of Minnesota and Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota (CH/LSS), prospective parents are able to open their hearts and homes to children who need forever families.
MN ADOPT: Resources for Strong Families
Assisting many Minnesota adoption agencies is MN ADOPT, a non-placing organization whose mission is “to promote and support successful adoptions for Minnesota kids and families.” Rachel Walstad, executive director of MN ADOPT, says their status as a non-placing agency is intentional: “It allows us to partner with the counties and agencies to support and complement their services. We’re the bookends of the process; families are able to get a lot of front-end information from us…and we also have training, our HELP Program, and other post-adoption services.”
One large element of MN ADOPT’s organization is that they host the Minnesota Waiting Children list, also known as the State Adoption Exchange. This database contains a list of all the children who need homes in Minnesota, as well as the families who are looking to adopt or foster children. The list allows adoption agencies and social workers to more easily pair families to children, and Walstad notes that the ultimate goal is “to make sure that every kid in Minnesota has a home.”
In June of 2015, State Adoption Exchange successfully helped two-year-old Leland find a home with Dan and Tony Porter. Leland’s adoption team was familiar with the Porters and their previous adoption of their son Leon, and the team believed that Leland would be a great match. You may remember the Porter family from a previous issue of Lavender (August 21, 2014) since we have been following them through the years as they’ve navigated this process. Dan recalls the tense excitement of the possibility of adding another child to their family: “Leland’s birthrights weren’t terminated yet when we got the call. It was exciting but scary because we didn’t want to get our hopes up and have the adoption fall through.”
But everything went as planned, and Leland was officially adopted on March 24, 2016. Dan and Tony threw Leland an adoption birthday party, a tradition they started with Leon to celebrate his adoption day. Dan notes that the “second birthday is another way to show the boys just how special they are.”
For Tony, one of the greatest parts of parenthood is watching the boys bond. “Leon will sit and read to Leland. Just watching that bond grow is really rewarding…it warms your heart and brings tears to your eyes.” Dan adds that he enjoys seeing how Leland engages with other people: “He wants to share with other people who his family is, and he recognizes that he is part of it.” Even at his young age, Leland now knows that he is with a family that will love him forever and unconditionally.
But many waiting children aren’t as lucky as Leland. For older kids, especially those who enter the system at a later age, Walstad says the odds are stacked against them. The children who age out at 18 may not necessarily need legal guardians anymore, but Walstad adds, “the reality is, we all need families.” MN ADOPT’s outreach is therefore a crucial step in making sure Minnesota follows through on its commitments to find homes for children within the foster care system.
In addition to the Waiting Children list’s database of photos and brief biographical information, MN ADOPT has partnered with the Star Tribune to feature a waiting child each month. And starting in 2015, Twin Cities Live developed a segment called “Kid Connection,” which not only highlights children in need of homes, but also gives them a special experience they’ll remember forever. For example, one teen interested in fashion got to meet with a designer from Project Runway, and another child got some special time with the Minnesota Lynx.
Walstad reports that “Kid Connection” has been quite successful; in the first year, 10 of the 24 kids featured in the segment were able to find adoptive homes. Additionally, many adoptive parents have noted how “Kid Connection” has played a part in their decision to adopt a child. Walstad contributes this significance to the segment’s ability to highlight a child’s interests: “When you have a kid out there doing what they’re passionate about, their personality can really shine through.”
Through education and outreach, MN ADOPT’s goal is to “get as many families as possible to explore adoption through foster care.” While not every family will decide that it is the best option, they may discover another way to assist children in the system. For people who want to get involved without fully committing to adoption, Walstad suggests considering foster care. Currently, there is a huge shortage of foster families and respite care providers in Minnesota. The short-term care options greatly increase support for families in transition phases and provide safe places for children before they are permanently adopted.
Additionally, Walstad emphasizes the importance of supporting adoptive families within our own communities. She encourages people to support existing families who have adopted children by offering assistance and showing them their families are not alone in this journey.
If people don’t know anyone who has adopted children, adoption and foster care agencies can always benefit greatly from people who want to donate their special skills, time, or financial assistance. Even if adoption isn’t in the plans for people, these options allow for Minnesota adoption agencies to place more kids with more permanent families.
Ampersand Families: Everyone Deserves a Family
One adoption agency that works tirelessly to place Minnesota children in permanent homes is Ampersand Families. Working exclusively with children aged 10 or older, Executive Director Michelle Chalmers says Ampersand Families is looking for “healing homes and people who are willing to make an unconditional commitment.”
Chalmers adds that Ampersand Families strives to finish the job of finding safe homes for kids, noting that while removing kids from unsafe homes is the first step for protection, it cannot be the only action taken. Instead, the organization strives to find homes for all kids who are under state guardianship. But despite their efforts, Chalmers reports that there are still at least 20–30 kids who age out “as a legal orphan with membership in no family…they have no parent, no grandparents, or even siblings, at least legally. We think it is ethically and morally wrong — we need to finish the job.”
This strong commitment to finding permanent homes has influenced Ampersand Families’ kid-centered approach. Each kid who works with the agency is asked about what type of family they envision for themselves. Based on what is comfortable for the child, Ampersand is able to match kids to families with similar values. Chalmers notes that a lot of GLBT people are initially concerned about whether a kid would want to join their family, but the reality is that most of the kids are open to being placed in a GLBT home.
It’s important to note that many older kids waiting to be adopted have experienced some form of trauma, and potential families need to be ready to make a different type of commitment — a commitment to help kids heal in a safe environment. Ampersand Families helps adoptive parents on this healing journey through countless support programs, such as family check-in retreats, trauma assessments, and the new Buddy Family program, which connects adoptive families to other families who are willing to provide formal support through respite care and frequent involvement in the child’s life. For the kids who get adopted, Ampersand Families “makes an unconditional, non-time-limited commitment to our families.”
One benefit of child welfare adoptions through Ampersand Families and other agencies contracted with the Department of Human Services is that there is no cost to the adoptive family. And Minnesota supports children who have been in the adoption system by providing full medical coverage, vouchers for additional aid, and maximum financial aid for college if the kids were in the system beyond the age of 13. This allows any approved and willing parents to open their homes to waiting children without jumping over significant financial hurdles.
Unfortunately, many older children are passed up because people don’t want to deal with their pasts, preferring the myth of a “clean slate kid” through infant adoption. But Chalmers reminds that there’s no such thing as a kid with a clean slate: “Even an infant born into your arms is not the clean slate you think it is. There’s a lot going on in there that you can’t control.” Instead of unfairly considering older kids to be damaged goods, many prospective parents are drawn to the social justice component of welfare adoption. It’s a chance to help a kid who may have given up hope of ever belonging to a family.
Mark and Timothy Ferraro-Hauck have given such hope to their two adoptive sons, Sampsen, 31, and Desmond, 17. Mark and Timothy found their way to being adoptive parents unconventionally; they adopted their first son after he had aged out of foster care. And two and a half years ago, Ampersand Families connected the men with Desmond at a time when the couple wasn’t planning to adopt. As they got to know the teenager, they knew Desmond belonged with their family.
For Mark, the most exciting part of parenting older kids is when he gets to “see the kids spark or find the thing that gets them excited about getting up in the morning. That means they are kindling a sense of hope and are wanting to pursue a future for themselves.”
Especially for older kids who may have extensive trauma, these little moments signify progress. Mark adds, “Teens in the system can be pretty hopeless about the idea that they can have a good life and a sense of agenc If you’re parenting kids who are traumatized, you have to be present to the loss and depression and not run away from it. Then, when you see them take steps forward, it’s just amazing.”
Based on their experiences with older kids, the Ferraro-Haucks acknowledge the courage of teens who are adopted: “It takes a lot to be willing to try to be part of a family again, to learn to trust a parent, to be willing to invest in a relationship after the kinds of disappointments and losses most kids in the system experience. People focus on the parents so much, but the kids are also taking huge risks and are putting themselves on the line.”
Like many other Ampersand Families, The Ferraro-Hauck understand just how vital the organization’s work is for kids and families: “If you need additional support or referrals for kids who have been through trauma, Ampersand is there to help. They are also good at helping families understand their kids.” With their commitment to helping teens find belonging, dignity, and hope, Ampersand Families helps adoptive families uphold the promise of unconditional commitment.
The Adoption Programs of Children’s Home and Lutheran Social Service: Options for Every Family
For people who are looking for options other than foster care adoption, The Adoption Programs of Children’s Home of Minnesota and Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota (CH/LSS) also include infant adoption and international adoption. Kristina Berg, Director of Marketing and Global Family Support, notes that regardless of which adoption option people choose, the CH/LSS staff work diligently to make sure children are placed in homes where they can thrive. She adds, “We want to make sure any match with a family is in the best interest of not only the family, but also the child. The child is at the center of our work.”
While foster care adoption is most common among GLBT families, there are many people who choose to adopt infants or participate in the relatively new international adoption options. CH/LSS has recently developed strong ties with adoption programs from Brazil and Mexico; both countries are willing to support adoptions by GLBT couples.
Additionally, for parents who want to adopt infants, CH/LSS offers an open adoption program that matches expecting parents with adoptive families. The open adoption option allows for adoptive families and birth parents to develop a relationship that extends beyond the birth of a child, advocating for transparency about the child’s adoption and continual contact with the birth family. CH/LSS believes this “contact with the birth family allows children to grow up with a full awareness of the love that went into their adoption plan.”
Regardless of the type of adoption people choose, Berg acknowledges that there can be a “unique understanding and some shared struggles” between GLBT people and children who are up for adoption. “In general, there can be a shared bond over choosing or being part of an intentionally created family versus a biological family. There can be shared struggles with rejection and feelings of abandonment. The more any parent can identify with the struggles of the child they are adopting, the better equipped they may be to meet that child’s needs.”
The need for adoptions through Minnesota’s foster care system is most significant, yet some people are reluctant to adopt older children due to fears that the child may not easily bond with the family. Berg adds, “This fear may be shared by both the child and the family.” CH/LSS helps to ease the transition by introducing the child and family through short visits, then moving to an overnight or weekend stay when everyone is more comfortable.
CH/LSS also provides support for families through all the stages of adoption, beginning with free informational meetings and initial home studies. Berg explains that these initial processes help families develop “a realistic picture of what struggles may come…we never want a family to take on more than they are prepared for.” Because many of the children they place have histories of trauma, CH/LSS ensures that adoptive parents have the support and the tools they need to help children heal and grow within their new homes.
This support never goes away; Berg notes that CH/LSS believes adoption to be a “lifelong journey.” Through support groups for parents and children, adoption camps, and ongoing educational programming, CH/LSS ensures that families have the resources they need to grow stronger together.
Mothers Kim and Angie know first hand of CH/LSS’s support through the adoption process. After having one biological son named Trysten and fostering 20 children with a variety of needs and backgrounds, Kim and Angie connected with CH/LSS and offered to provide emergency placement or respite services for kids in need. In September of 2013, Kim received an email from their social worker with “HELP!” in the subject line; two little boys needed emergency placement, so Kim and Angie took brothers Tayvean and Kody in for the night.
But what initially was supposed to be a temporary placement in a dire time of need turned into something more permanent. Kim recalls, “Right away on the following Monday, I called our social worker to tell her that the kids weren’t going anywhere. We wanted to keep them…I even asked her how we could get them passports in time for an upcoming family vacation to the Cayman Islands because they belonged in our family!”
With the help of CH/LSS, Tayvean and Kody were able to go on the family trip, and the family’s adventures continue to develop as their bond becomes stronger. Angie and Kim foster the boys’ love for history by traveling around the United States. The next stop on their travel itinerary is Mexico, where the family intends to explore Mayan Ruins.
In addition to traveling around the United States as a family, the boys have become strongly involved in sports. Tayvean is particularly talented at hockey, and Kody seems to do well at many sports as well. The family also enjoys going to professional games with other families from CH/LSS, allowing for friendships to form between their boys and other adopted children.
Most of all, Kim and Angie are working hard to help the boys grow and develop. In addition to meeting with a family therapist to strengthen their family bond, Kim and Angie practice reading with both boys and are excited to see their progress in school. Kim adds, “Kody was initially labeled as learning-disabled, but now he is right at the expected level. The boys go to a STEM school, and it’s wonderful for them because they think science is so interesting. The hands-on experience is great.”
Although Kim acknowledges that sometimes the boys’ needs are greater than they initially expected, she is confident that they boys are finally where they belong. She encourages people who are thinking about adoption to volunteer for respite in order to get some experience with the system: “It’s not easy, and I don’t think people realize that…but everybody needs a home and there are so many people who need help.”
According to CH/LSS, “A family consists of two or more people, whether living together or apart, related by blood, marriage, adoption, or commitment to care for one another.” Through adoption programs, children in Minnesota and across the globe are able to find the love, commitment, and support they deserve. As many GLBT people know too well, every person deserves a family, regardless of their age. As parents-to-be consider their options for building a family, it’s important to remember the countless children who are waiting desperately for a place of healing and love, a place they can call home.