The process of adopting or fostering a child is a complex procedure. Along the way — as well as afterward — a number of issues arise. But where does a parent or guardian go for help? The local department of social services seems a logical choice, but can a governmental agency really offer a family the advice that’s best for their particular situation?
The Adoptive and Foster Family Coalition of New York, headquartered in New Paltz, is an independent, not-for-profit organization that serves as a voice for foster, adoptive and kinship parents throughout the state, and provides support, information and resources for them; unique in being the only non-governmental entity providing this service in New York State.
“We provide information that is parent- and family-friendly,” says Executive Director Richard Heyl de Ortiz. “We’re not providing foster care, so we don’t have a stake in the game.” The group does receive some state funding but are not part of state government. “And that is an important distinction,” he adds. “From the very beginning we have been parent-led and very much parent- and family-focused.”
The coalition has existed in some form since 1960, beginning as a grassroots effort among adoptive parents throughout the state who came together to advocate for resources for their families on a statewide level, in a way they felt they couldn’t do as effectively isolated in their own communities.
An office was established in Ithaca, and a helpline set up to field questions. (Heyl de Ortiz learned about the organization when he was seeking answers himself as an adoptive parent.) After becoming the group’s executive director in 2015 and opening the office in New Paltz, he changed the name to The Adoptive and Foster Family Coalition of New York to better reflect their constituency.
The organization has grown significantly since then, now employing eight people in the New Paltz office. Services have been expanded, including making the helpline available seven days a week, 24 hours a day.
The calls that come in vary quite a bit, covering a range of situations from someone exploring the possibility of becoming a foster parent or an adoptee searching for their birth family to a foster parent encountering problems with the system.
There is no cost to utilize the helpline or for any of the services provided by the Coalition, which are available to anyone in the state.
Post-adoption and post-guardianship services now available
The Adoptive and Foster Family Coalition of New York is now one of 12 or 13 agencies who received funding to provide post-adoption or post-guardianship services to families. The Adoption and Guardianship Assistance Program for Everyone (AGAPE) was launched last year, a free educational program open to all adoptive families and caregivers with custody or guardianship of children, staffed by adoptive parents and social workers with specialized training and experience working with families formed through adoption and guardianship.
Heyl de Ortiz notes that the Coalition has been advocating for the past decade that the state provide this kind of support to families after adoption or “permanency” (meaning custody or guardianship).
AGAPE is funded by a grant from the New York State Office of Children and Family Services. “The money results from a change in federal regulation that allows states to recoup more of the cost of children placed in foster care,” he explains. “The federal government changed the guidelines with the condition that states use the savings for post-adoption support or preventative support offered to families so that children don’t end up in foster care. New York State already spends much more than most on preventative services, so most of the savings, once the state was able to quantify that, were devoted to this program.”
Prior to the establishment of AGAPE, there was some limited funding available for post-adoption services, but there were severe income restrictions on those seeking help. “Which was not logical. The issues that families encounter after permanency often have very little to do with financial resources. So having that as criteria [to receive help] didn’t make sense.”
The AGAPE program has no income restrictions, “which allows us to create our program as we feel it would be best for the areas we’re serving. What we did as a coalition was to really advocate with the state not only for the funding but for what this type of program should look like.”
One of the things the group wanted was for services to be provided by community organizations, not by governmental entities. “Adopting, particularly from foster care or in the case of a relative who becomes a guardian, is a complicated process, and it’s not easy. By the time many families get to the point of resolution, with adoption or custody, they’re kind of burned out on the system. We didn’t want that negative feeling about the system being an impediment for families to get services.”
The AGAPE program provides a range of services tailored to the individual family’s needs, and the services are provided for as long as a family needs them. “It’s not a program that’s meant to create long-term dependence, but rather to focus on what the issue is the family is having, resolve the issue, and then the family is always welcome to come back,” says Heyl de Ortiz.
Promoting best practices
In its ongoing effort to promote what it feels are “best practices,” the Coalition encourages open adoptions. “It is our belief that no one really benefits when adoption is a secret,” says Heyl de Ortiz. “We believe that children can better understand the relatively complex family situation around them when they have a connection to their biology.”
The Coalition has also been advocating for adoptees to have access to their original birth certificates “as a component of understanding their whole story,” he adds, and they work with foster families to help them understand that “becoming a foster parent means being open to many different outcomes. It is not necessarily a path to adoption, although for some it can be.”
Children in foster care are better served, they believe, when there is a relationship between the foster parent and the biological parent, regardless of the eventual outcome. “The concept of shared parenting and communication and collaboration is much more meaningful for families and can support parents and children better than our current system,” Heyl de Ortiz says, “which tends to isolate the foster parent from the biological parent.”
Another aspect of best practices for the Coalition is ensuring that relatives who become guardians of children are informed that they’re entitled to the same financial support that non-relatives who take in children are entitled to. “We’ve heard from so many families on our helpline who have taken in relatives who, months or even years down the road, learn that they were entitled to financial support that no one ever told them about. And that should not happen.”
Relatives who become guardians are less supported in general from the very beginning, and less prepared, says Heyl de Ortiz. “The way I describe this to legislators, is to ask them to think about how when a person becomes a foster parent, it’s a deliberate decision. You think about it, you decide if it’s something you can do, you apply, you go through a 10-week training program and your background is checked. It’s a very deliberate process. But when you’re a relative caring for a family member, that journey often begins with a phone call – there’s no time for deliberation.”
The New Paltz office of the Adoptive and Foster Family Coalition of New York is located at 108 Main Street. The free, 24/7 statewide helpline is available at (888) 354-1342. Hudson Valley residents may reach AGAPE by calling (845) 679-9900. The Coalition’s comprehensive website is at http://affcny.org/.