According to the Child Welfare League of America’s Missouri’s Children 2012 factsheet, while 1,236 children were adopted through the state in 2010, another 1,952 children were waiting in out-of-home care to be adopted. For those children who are in the custody of the state, the need to find them permanent, loving families is great, and local nonprofit organizations are working diligently to fulfill that need. “We all have a stake in their well-being—they are citizens of the state and we bear a special responsibility to make sure we do everything in our power to make sure they have healthy, happy lives and get a fair shake,” says Michael Meehan, executive director of Good Shepherd Children & Family Services, an organization created in 2006 through the merger of five former Catholic Charities agencies.
Through a contract with the state of Missouri, Good Shepherd provides foster care case-management services, taking on the responsibility for a number of children who are in the custody of the Department of Social Services Children’s Division because of abuse or neglect. “We serve as the de facto guardian for that child in place of the state. We assume all responsibility, including trying to get that case to permanency, whether that’s through reuniting the child with the family of origin, or through adoption outside the family,” Meehan explains.
Using a resource development team, the agency reaches out into the community looking for families who are interested in fostering or adopting. That recruitment usually starts with looking for any family connections to the child before searching other avenues to find a home. Good Shepherd’s church-based program, Fostering Faithful Families, provides an opportunity to use church connections to recruit foster or adoptive families and build support networks for those families. A case manager is connected to each family and serves as a source for information, encouragement and emergency help, while the organization handles every step from start to finish, including screening potential homes, training foster parents and working with the courts. “We try to build a close, supportive relationship between us and the families so they know they’re part of the team and they have everything they need to be the best foster/adoptive parents possible,” Meehan says.
With no shortage of families looking to adopt infants, Good Shepherd has to address the challenge of finding homes for older children within the foster care system. It is a crisis that the Missouri office of The Adoption Exchange focuses on, as well. “We do more diligent recruitment for children ages 6 and older—that is the majority of children in foster care,” says director of programs Joanne Shelton. “We partner with the state for children who are not as easily adopted. Age, special needs, sibling groups or even race make it more difficult to find forever families.”
Started in 1983, The Adoption Exchange also has offices in Utah, New Mexico and Nevada, with the headquarters in Colorado. As a connecting agency, it works to link families and children, providing services before, during and after the adoption process. Through a partnership with the state, the local branch of the nonprofit organization takes creative approaches to finding families for children. The Missouri Heart Gallery (moheartgallery.org) features photos and profiles of kids waiting to be adopted (currently that number is at 50 just in St. Louis city and county). In addition, Shelton utilizes television and radio spots that feature specific children, as well as profiles on local business’ websites. “We’re able to do some really specific recruitment that the state can’t for those children who may have been waiting for years,” she notes.
Instead of working with parents who are looking to give up their child for adoption, or specifically with children waiting to be adopted, the organization directs families to the proper channels for their particular needs, Shelton explains. “By helping to connect families, inform them of the process and joining them to the right agencies, we can help those children who are waiting.”
For example, if a family contacts The Adoption Exchange after seeing a child’s profile on its website, the agency will provide information to the family and transfer the inquiry to the child’s state caseworker, connecting the two parties. The organization may direct families to the state or an agency that fits their particular needs, whether it is a question about adopting infants, a birth mother looking to contact her child years later, or simply wanting to know how to start the foster or adoption process. In the past 30 years, The Adoption Exchange as a whole has helped connect more than 7,100 children with adoptive families, and with ongoing education, support groups and state subsidy assistance, it continues to provide services even after the paperwork is complete.
The importance of finding a permanent home for a child is not easily overstated. Those who spend their entire childhoods in foster care face great obstacles in adulthood, including homelessness, drug abuse and incarceration—completely unacceptable, says Meehan. “We need to redouble our efforts to make sure this vulnerable population—kids who have been through the wringer—get their needs met. A little investment now pays off in the long run in a variety of ways.”