Adoptions go virtual during pandemic

By Debbie LaPlaca
Families are turning to Zoom to finalize adoptions amid the pandemic.

While the pandemic has complicated the work of finding temporary or permanent homes for kids in care, one agency is reporting that “people with more time on their hands” are showing a greater interest in both foster care and adoption.

November is National Adoption Month. This year, many of the ceremonious court proceedings that finalize adoptions have been moved to ZOOM with the official documents arriving later in the mail.

Susan and Wilson Molano received the adoption papers for their 7-year-old daughter by mail on May 29. 

“We were thinking March or April to finalize the adoption but that’s when the pandemic hit, and everything shut down,” Susan said. “We were given the option of waiting or process through the mail. We wanted to get that uncertainty settled so we chose the mail.”

The Northampton area couple talked about adoption on and off for years. When their two biological daughters reached their teens, talks turned to action. After considering the options, the Molanos chose adoption from foster care and contacted the state Department of Children & Families (DCF).

“Private adoption is very expensive and there are a lot of restrictions,” Susan said. “We really wanted to help someone who was in the system to have a different fate.” 

DCF cares for children from infancy to age 18 and from all ethnic and economic backgrounds.

When called upon, the agency arranges shelter for children in need. Placement with relatives is the preferred outcome but when that isn’t possible, children enter foster care or residential homes. According to the DCF, most of the children in such care are ages 6-12.

DCF continuously recruits to maintain a large and diverse community of foster parents so children can be matched with families they relate to and who can meet their needs. While the advent of COVID-19 has brought about unprecedented circumstances for everyone involved, the work has continued by transitioning to virtual operations.  

The agency contracts with 10 nonprofit adoption organizations to help facilitate the adoption process. 

Additionally, DCF works with Newton nonprofit Massachusetts Adoption Resource Exchange. MARE holds the only contract in the state to conduct child-specific recruitment of adoptive parents for children in DCF custody. In other words, MARE is a matchmaker and is credited for bringing the Molano family and their daughter together. 

“Our focus is on adoption from foster care and we try to have an influence,” MARE Executive Director Lisa Funaro said. “You don’t need to go to China. We have 1,200 kids who don’t have an identified family right here in the Commonwealth, and it’s our responsibility to take care of our kids.” 

During the pandemic shutdown in Massachusetts from March 13 through October 1, Funaro said, 220 Bay State families have adopted kids virtually.

“Overall, the interest among the public for foster care and adoption has actually increased during the pandemic,” she said, adding, “People with more time on their hands are thinking about the important things in life such as starting a family. Plus, the virtual process has become timelier and more sensible.”

While the number of finalized adoptions in the state has increased by 31% since 2016, the COVID-19 riddled fiscal 2020 saw 400 fewer adoptions than 2019.

The most significant downtime was from mid-March to mid-May, when state agencies were figuring out how to safely handle the “kids in care.”

Today, according to MARE, more than 3,400 of the 8,400 or so children presently in foster care are seeking adoption.

The path to adoption differs for every prospective parent but the regulatory requirements are the same. 

In Massachusetts, it begins by undergoing a home study by a licensed professional. This essential early step in the process is to ensure children are placed into safe and prepared homes by verifying the adoptive parent is mentally, emotionally, financially, and physically ready to raise a child.

Once approved, it’s time to select one of three adoption options: from foster care, a domestic infant, or intercountry.

When adoption from foster care is the path, MARE offers pre-placement and post-placement services. They provide personalized matching of children with families across the state.

“We are often the first contact for families considering adoption. We help families navigate the process,” Funaro said.

As for the most difficult foster children to place, Funaro said those who wait the longest are over age 13, have special needs, are in sibling groups, or are children of color.

DCF services and those of its nonprofit partners, such as MARE, are at no cost to the adoptive family.

The private adoptions associated with the two other options carry fees.

Those seeking to grow their family with a domestic infant would work with a private agency to adopt a newborn. The chosen agency would provide all the services associated for the prospective parents and the pregnant women considering adoption, including working with the attorney involved.

On this path, there are varying degrees of openness between the adoptive parent and the birth family. The fees also vary but may include birth parent expenses.

Intercountry adoption also involves working with a private agency. Families must meet the Massachusetts adoption requirements, those of the foreign country, and the U.S. Immigration Service. This method entails fees that could include travel expenses.

November also holds National Adoption Day. In years past, more than 100 kids in Massachusetts were formally adopted during a ceremony at Bay State courts. This year, National Adoption Day will be celebrated on November 20, but COVID-19 restrictions will move the former in-person proceedings to ZOOM, or to administrative processes in drive-by fashion.

To add a bit of pomp and circumstance back to the time-honored tradition, MARE is hosting a virtual National Adoption Day celebration for 58 or so of the families who are unable to have that special day in court.

More on MARE may be found here <web@mareinc.org>. MARE’s waiting child profiles, a resource for getting to know some of the children and teens awaiting adoption, are also online here <www.mareinc.org/waiting-child-profiles#gallery> 

To learn more about becoming a foster parent visit mass.gov/foster-care