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Mass Bank Reducing Barriers to Adoption With New Loan Program

Mass Bank Reducing Barriers to Adoption With New Loan Program
By Greg Sukiennik

There are grown-ups in Massachusetts who, for a variety of reasons, want to adopt children, give them loving, happy homes, and build a family.

There are kids in Massachusetts who, for a variety of reasons, some of them unimaginable, need a safe, loving place to call home — and a grown-up they can call mom or dad.

Putting those two groups of people together and creating families seems like it ought to be a simple process.

If only it was that easy.

If you or a family member or friend have adopted a child, then you know it’s rewarding — and that completing the process can be an emotional struggle. You might also know that the cost can easily climb into the thousands. And the cost varies greatly depending on factors such as location and whether the adoption is from a public agency, a private agency, or overseas.

Think about it this way: Do you remember what you spent on your wedding, the cost of a new car, or the down payment on your house? The cost of adoption can easily equal or exceed all of those.

But two officers at Massachusetts-based Citizens Bank know first-hand how adoption changes lives. And when they were advised of an opportunity to address that financial barrier in conjunction with the National Adoption Foundation (NAF), they built a loan program they say is designed to humanize what can be a difficult, emotional process.

“We feel very strongly that financing or the ability to afford adoption should not get in the way of bringing families together,” said MK Fiorille, vice president of unsecured lending at Citizens Bank.

For Fiorille, making adoption financially accessible is a personal passion as well as a professional challenge. She and her younger sister Judy were adopted by a family in Rochester, N.Y., and she knows personally what an impact her parents’ decision had on her life — and theirs.

“We had such an amazing upbringing, and my parents were just so incredibly thrilled to have a family,” Fiorille said of her parents, Bob and Kay Headley. “Throughout our entire upbringing, they would talk so positively about the adoption process and having adoption be an option to them when they found out they couldn’t have biological children. It’s always something I’ve been personally proud of.”

She’s not alone in that commitment at Citizens. Brad Conner, the bank’s vice chairman of consumer banking, is the father of two adopted children and a board member of the Dave Thomas Foundation, which was established by the late Wendy’s founder — himself an adopted child.

So when Fiorille advised Conner that there was an opportunity for Citizens Bank to provide a financial product that made adoption easier, she quickly gained his support for the initiative.

“As an adoptive parent myself, this partnership means a lot to me personally,” Conner said. “I’m happy that Citizens can play a role in future adoptions.”

According to the NAF (fundyouradoption.org), the average cost of a domestic private agency adoption is about $30,000; board member Tom Alfredo said it can range from $20,000 in rural areas to $50,000 in cities. “People freak out,” he said. “That’s a lot of money.”

A 2014 study by the Rudd Adoption Research Program at the University of Massachusetts reported the average cost in the Bay State is about $40,000. International adoptions can cost even more, depending on the country and the cost of travel.

A second Rudd study showed that many children adopted from foster care in Massachusetts — in some cases, children who have endured emotional trauma — have educational, developmental, and emotional needs that aren’t being detected or diagnosed until after their adoption, adding to the emotional and financial cost.

Through its partnership with NAF, Citizens Bank established a flexible, low-APR personal loan program for adoptive parents, and took care to make the program responsive to their specific needs, Fiorille explained.

She saw the stress that some of her friends and colleagues experienced as they entered the adoption process. And along with the money that’s required for private, for-profit agency fees, home studies, lawyers, court costs, and, if needed, travel, there is also a significant time commitment.

To afford all that, Fiorille said, her friends made trade-offs to secure the needed funds.

“In some cases, the tradeoffs weren’t good ones,” she said. “But the families felt so passionately about making the adoption process work they were willing to make the sacrifice. In my mind, the question became why does someone have to sacrifice in order to afford to become a part of a larger family? We built out the program to meet the ability for families to afford adoption without making huge lifestyle changes.”

Alfredo said the NAF was unhappy with its previous lender’s approach in dealing with clients: “There was no hand-holding in the process. There was no heart in it.” When NAF reached out to Citizens, officials realized that Conner and Fiorille had personal interest in adoptions.

“They received us with open arms,” Alfredo said.

The loan program is built on the same platform as Citizens Bank’s personal loans, Fiorille said. But the adoption loan call center is specifically trained to answer questions that families looking to finance an adoption might have — and to treat prospective adoptive parents with understanding of their circumstances.

“There’s a lot of emotion that comes along with whether or not a family would be approved for financing,” she explained. “So the contact center needs to be able to recognize that these applicants are not applying to buy a refrigerator or purchase a car — they’re making a life decision to adopt a child.”

Furthermore, for every adoption loan it writes, Citizens is donating at least $100 to NAF — money that will be used to help families meet the cost of adoptions. Alfredo said NAF is pleased with the ease of the online application, the personal care extended to its clients, and the speed with which Citizens is responding to applications.

That said, it’s still a loan, and in some cases, extending credit just isn’t possible. But “if there’s a yes to be had, we’re going to find it,” Fiorille said. Most of the adoption loans Citizens Bank has written so far range between $18,000 and $20,000, she added.

The Rudd Adoption Research Program study at UMass surveyed 121 parents who had adopted 163 children through public and private agencies at home and abroad between 2010 and 2014. The results? The average adoption cost in Massachusetts ranged from $867 for domestic child welfare adoptions to $40,851 for domestic private agency adoptions and $42,344 for international adoptions. Those figures closely mirrored results of a larger study conducted by Adoptive Families Magazine in the same timeframe, according to the Rudd program.

Massachusetts has a long history with legal adoption. On May 24, 1851, the Massachusetts Adoption of Children Act, the nation’s first adoption law, was enacted. That law made county probate courts the legal authority for adoptions and tasked judges with determining whether adoptive parents had the ability and the means to take on the responsibility.

If you’re thinking of adopting …

There are many helpful resources available to prospective adoptive parents in Massachusetts. Here are just a few:

  • The Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF) offers a PDF adoption guide (mass.gov/eohhs/docs/dcf/adoption-guide.pdf), which discusses the process and the requirements set by the Commonwealth to assure positive outcomes. The state Executive Office of Health and Human Services also offers a page of online resources and answers to frequently asked questions (mass.gov/eohhs/gov/departments/dcf/adoption/).
  • Masachusetts Adoption Resource Exchange (mareinc.org) is a private not-for-profit partially funded by DCF. It acts as a bridge between DCF, adoptive parents, and foster children in need of homes. It is not an adoption agency, but acts as an information and referral service.

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