Archive for the 'Child welfare' Category

An Opportunity for Virginia to Celebrate Adoption

No matter how you lean politically, it must be admitted that Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell loves adoption. Back in May he launched a his “Virginia Adopts: Campaign for 1,000″ initiative, which aimed to find adoptive homes for 1,000 children in foster care. In July, he added a social media campaign called #100Kids100Days, where each day for 100 days the administration shares the photo and story of one child who is in foster care in Virginia awaiting adoption.

Encouraged by the success of these initiatives, today Governor McDonnell launched a new social media effort with the purpose of increasing support for adoption in Virginia. The new campaign, which is called #IHeartAdoption, invites Virginia families who support adoption to tell the world about how adoption has touched their lives.

Any Virginian can participate in the campaign by printing out this template and writing in why you love adoption. The official website isn’t completely clear, but it sounds like you’re then supposed to take a photo of yourself holding the printout and email it to You can also post your photo on Twitter or Facebook using the hashtag #IHeartAdoption. Before sumbitting it, understand that all submissions could be included on the Virginia Adopts website, Facebook, Twitter or other promotional material. They plan to get the word out widely about how much adoption rocks!

I especially love that the campaign doesn’t limit participation to adoptive families. Any Virginian can share why they love adoption, including birth parents, adoptees, siblings of adoptees — anyone. I hope that this will send birth parents the message that Virginia supports the heartwrenchingly hard decisions they have made. I hope this will send adoptees the message that Virginia supports and cherishes them. I hope this will send foster children the message that Virginia has not given up on finding permanent homes for them. I hope this will send everyone the message that adoption is all about love!

Do you have more questions about adoption? Contact The Vaughan Firm to speak with an adoption attorney.

In Finland, a Complete Newborn Kit – Just Add Baby!

From the “great ideas” department, I just learned from this article that in Finland, every expectant mother gets a “maternity package” – a box containing diapers, bedding, clothing, bathing supplies, outdoor gear, and a picture book. The box that it comes in has a small mattress in the bottom so it can be baby’s bed. Expectant mothers who visit a doctor before their fourth month of pregnancy have a choice between the box or a cash grant of 140 euros (about $186), but most choose the box, because the contents are more valuable. Why give the box during pregnancy, rather than when the mother is discharged from the hospital? It encourages expectant mothers to get obstetrical care during pregnancy. Not surprising, then, that Finland has one of the lowest infant mortality rates in the world. What a smart way to give babies the right start in life!

Another thing I love about this idea is that it highlights how very little babies truly need. While the baby-stuff industry would like us to believe that babies need wipe warmers and head bows and crib bumpers and singing night-lights, the truth is that all babies really need is milk or formula, something to wear, a safe place to sleep, a little wash now and then, and lots and lots of love.

Do you have more questions about adoption? Contact The Vaughan Firm to speak with an adoption attorney.

Why This Straight, Married Virginia Lawyer Supports LGBT Families

The website Mombian has organized their 7th annual Blogging for LGBT Families Day, when bloggers are invited to show their support for LGBT families on their blogs, and I’m proud to take part.

People are often surprised when I tell them how many billable hours I give away for free to LGBT couples building or protecting their families. Why would a straight, married lawyer in a conservative state like Virginia make this her cause? Let’s talk about that. There are two reasons.

Reason #1: I believe that LGBT equality is the major civil rights issue of my generation. When I was in law school, I took a class on the role of lawyers in the American civil rights movement of the 1950′s and ’60′s. Much of the important work of gaining equality for black Americans was accomplished in the courts. I so admired the brave lawyers (black and white alike) who fought these legal battles for no other reason than that it was the right thing to do. They lost a lot of cases. It must have been incredibly discouraging. But they didn’t give up, because what was at stake was basic human dignity. I believe that the same is true of LGBT equality. There is a significant portion of our population whose families are simply not legally recognized in a majority of states. I believe that this is going to appear just as horrifying to future generations as segregation does to us today.

Reason #2: I believe in protecting children. Whatever you may feel about adults and their intimate relationships, I think we can all agree that children ought to be protected. In states where gay and lesbian relationships are not legally recognized, children are left frighteningly vulnerable. Here is just one example. Say a gay or lesbian couple has a child via sperm donation, or one parent adopts a child (since state law does not allow them to adopt as a couple). The parent who has not given birth to or adopted the child has no legal relationship to that child. None. So, if the birth or adoptive parent dies or becomes incapacitated, the child has (ready?) no legal parent. The child could very well go to foster care and be raised by a stranger rather than the person who has been a de facto parent for all of his or her life. I have to think that even if you are against gay marriage, it’s hard to view that scenario as being in the best interests of the child.

Recognition of gay marriage would provide a host of other benefits for children of same-sex couples, including allowing them to be covered by both parents’ health insurance, giving clarity to custody disputes in the event of a breakup, allowing them to inherit from both parents, and much more.

Speaking of children’s best interests, it makes no sense to me that with over 5,800 children in foster care in the state of Virginia alone, gay and lesbian couples are not permitted to foster or adopt.

I have heard the argument that refusal to recognize LGBT parental rights is to protect children; that being raised by same-sex parents makes children gay or teaches them poor moral values or subjects them to teasing by peers. However, I take an evidence-based approach to most things in life, and all studies conducted on same-sex families show that children of same-sex couples do as well or better on measures of academic achievement, development, behavior, and self esteem than children of heterosexual couples (you can read more about that here). In fact, most of the time when you hear statistics claiming that children do better “with both a mother and a father,” the studies are comparing outcomes between two-parent families and single-parent families, not between heterosexual parents and homosexual parents.

Today when I was talking to my hairdresser about this issue, she remarked “I wonder if Virginia will ever come around and recognize gay families.” I told her “yes, they will. Because I won’t give up until they do.” It happened in the sixties, and it will happen again. Because basic human dignity is too important to let go.

Do you have more questions about adoption? Contact The Vaughan Firm to speak with an adoption attorney.

Understanding the Science of Child Neglect

Time Magazine has an excellent article this month about the physical and psychological effects of childhood abuse and neglect. While most people know intuitively that being abused or neglected as a child puts the child at risk for psychological and behavioral problems, many don’t realize that the effects are actually have biological origins and have been proven by studies in both monkeys and humans.

Severe, chronic stress is bad for the health of both children and adults, but children are especially susceptible to long-term damage because in very early childhood (from birth to about age 3) the human brain develops faster than at any other time in life. When children are exposed to chronic, severe stress, they have elevated levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, which has been linked to both physical and mental illnesses throughout life. I wrote about this in this post in March 2011, but it continues to amaze me that a child’s environment has such a huge impact on his or her later health and development.

The article also references the groundbreaking research of Harry Harlow regarding the importance of attachment (read: love!) and the studies on the effect of neglect on children in Romanian orphanages. The Romanian study showed that children who were placed in foster care rather than an orphanage developed normally, including having, better attentional skills and a 9-point higher IQ on average, compared with children sent to Romania’s famously stark orphanages. Follow-up studies found that the children raised in the orphanage were more than twice as likely to develop mental illness, compared with the foster-care group. Perhaps most chillingly, more than half of the orphanage group was diagnosed with at least one mental illness.

While these studies are absolutely heartbreaking to read, they were revolutionary in changing the way orphaned and abandoned children are cared for in the United States and many other countries. Make no mistake: seemingly warm and squishy concepts like love, trust, cuddling, soothing, and providing a secure and interesting environment are scientifically proven to be not just important, but crucial to normal child development. If you think the work you do as a parent is not important, science begs to differ.

All this is not to say that if you have adopted a child who was abused or neglected earlier in life, that all is lost. The research simply highlights the importance of getting help for abused and neglected children as early as possible. Parents of children with a history of trauma should educate themselves fully about how to help their child at home (The Adoptive and Foster Parent Guide by Carol Lozier is an excellent resource), and the help of an experienced therapist is also highly recommended. Some children may need medications such as antidepressants to help reverse the chemical changes caused by early childhood trauma. Support is available, and the sooner it gets to the children who need it, the better.

To read the Time article, click here.

Do you have more questions about adoption? Contact The Vaughan Firm to speak with an adoption attorney.

May is National Foster Care Month.

May is National Foster Care Month. Over 400,000 children are currently in the U.S. foster-care system, and about 30,000 of them age out of the system each year without ever being adopted. The bottom line: We as a society need to do more to support families and children, both to keep kids out of the system and to offer them the services they need once they are in the system.

If you are a foster parent, thank you. The love and support that you give to foster children makes a tremendous difference in their lives. I believe that getting each foster child in a loving family that is educated about how to best meet children’s needs is the best hope we have, as a society, to end the cycle of abuse and neglect.

Of course, being a foster parent is not for everyone. If it’s not for you, know that there are many other ways that you can help foster children. The organizers of National Foster Care Month have created this list of things you can do if you have a few minutes, a few hours, a few weeks, or a lot of time to devote to helping kids in foster care. I especially love the idea of mentoring and tutoring foster children and those who have aged out of the system and are on their own for the first time.

One sentence that struck me as so important on the National Foster Care Month website is this: “Many children would not have to enter foster care at all if more states provided support and services to help families cope with crises early on.” I am a firm believer that supporting children means supporting families, and the best way to help at-risk kids is to keep them out of the foster care system in the first place, by providing services such as mental health counseling, parenting support and education, job-search assistance, low-cost child care, etc. When budget issues are up for debate in your community, let your legislators know that these services are important to you.

Do you have more questions about adoption? Contact The Vaughan Firm to speak with an adoption attorney.

The Wall Street Journal on Adoption from Ethiopia

The Wall Street Journal has done a thorough and thought-provoking piece on adoption from Ethiopia. The article highlights the serious ethical problems that can arise when there is not careful oversight of adoption. For example, the WSJ interviewed an Ethiopian father who was told by a middleman that if he placed his daughter for adoption in the U.S., she would send money back to the family. Stories of families being pressured to relinquish their children, or even of child abductions by foreign agencies and middlemen, have caused authorities in Ethiopia and the U.S. alike to scrutinize international adoptions more carefully. Ethiopia is not a signatory to The Hague Convention, an international treaty that puts safeguards in place to ensure that adoptions are conducted ethically and in the best interests of children.

Of course, this is not to say that all adoptions from Ethiopia are unethical! However, it certainly highlights the need to proceed cautiously and with the help of an agency that you trust. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about what safeguards are in place to make sure that the adoption was ethical from start to finish. The more adoptive parents demand integrity in adoption services, the more agencies both at home or abroad will provide them.

I believe that an ethical international adoption is one where:
1. The birth parents gave free and informed consent to the adoption because they truly felt that they could not parent,
2. Efforts were made to place the child in his or her country of origin,
3. The parties were given the option to have an open adoption, and
4. Efforts were made to obtain a thorough medical history, and this history was disclosed to the adoptive parents.

What do you think? Is there anything you would add to or subtract from this list? Post in the comments or email me at evaughan (at) vaughanfirm (dot) com.

You can read the Wall Street Journal article here.

Do you have more questions about adoption? Contact The Vaughan Firm to speak with an adoption attorney.

Voluntourism: Doing Good for Kids?

I recently heard this interesting show on my local NPR station about “voluntourism,” the trend towards devoting all or part of one’s vacation to volunteer work. Like this 2010 NPR piece on voluntourism, there was a particular focus on whether volunteering in orphanages is a good idea. The consensus: Probably not. Although at first blush it seems like a noble idea to go abroad to help needy children, there are several serious problems with foreigners volunteering in orphanages.

  • Attachment issues Orphaned and abandoned children are already at extremely high risk for attachment disorders and separation trauma. Less clinically put, the heartbreak of getting attached to and separated from multiple caregivers can damage children’s mental and physical health for life. This is especially important for those who are thinking of volunteering in another country before adopting there. While this may seem like a good idea on its face, please consider that you might be causing more trauma than you are doing good, as all the children you do not adopt see you come, choose a different child, and then leave. A well-meaning foreigner who brings attention and affection into a child’s life only to leave after a few weeks is, in a very real way, causing more harm than good.
  • Lack of oversight Most people who try “voluntourism” truly do have good intentions. But many, myself included, find it extremely disturbing that anyone can go volunteer in certain orphanages abroad, without a background check or other oversight. Being orphaned and in need should not make a child exempt from protection from predators.
  • Corruption It’s tempting to believe that all orphanages are run with good motives, but the reality is that this is just not true. Many countries are infamous for orphanages that coerce birth mothers into relinquishing their children, or even outright kidnap them. Such organizations may try to extort money as well as time out of well-meaning volunteers, who should devote neither to such organizations.
  • Economics Orphanages that rely on volunteers to keep running are less likely to hire from the local community, which can perpetuate economic hardship in some places.

What do you think? Is orphanage “voluntourism” ever a good idea? Post your thoughts in the comments or email me at evaughan (at) vaughanfirm (dot) com.

Do you have more questions about adoption? Contact The Vaughan Firm to speak with an adoption attorney.

Bikers Against Child Abuse – What Do You Think?

As a lawyer practicing child-welfare law, I hear about a lot of interesting organizations that support vulnerable kids, but none has fascinated me quite as much as one I learned about today: Bikers Against Child Abuse International (BACA). My first reaction was “this can’t be for real,” but the more I read, the more interested I became.

BACA’s mission is “to create a safer environment for abused children.” They do this by forming a visible support network for abused children in their communities. When they learn of a child who has been abused, they first verify the complaint through law enforcement and Child Protective Services. Then they get the parents’ permission, get a group of BACA members together, and go to the child’s house to meet him and offer him their support and protection. They give the child a badge, a jacket, and a number to call, and they offer to come back any time that child feels frightened, 24 hours a day. They will escort the child when she feels afraid, attend court hearings with her, and stay with her when she is alone. They also make themselves visible in the child’s community by going door-to-door and explaining their mission, as well as conducting community events and fundraisers.

When I first read about this, the problems leapt out at me. Wouldn’t a group of bikers showing up at a child’s house scare the living bejeezus out of him? Is “visiblility in the community” really code for “vigilante justice against the abuser?” How are these volunteers screened to make sure they are not child abusers themselves? However, BACA seems to have thought of most everything. They have annual trainings with a social worker to learn about abused children and how to work with them. They have strict policies regarding contact with abusers — if the abuser’s identity is even known to BACA, they withdraw their physical presence to avoid any contact with the abuser. They also require a criminal background check of all members, and all members must attend at least 80% of monthly chapter meetings and be voted in by the other members in order to join. The site really answered all of my questions except what (if anything) BACA does if it is a custodial parent who is the abuser.

While I still see potential for problems if members weren’t adequately screened, didn’t follow the rules about having no contact with the abuser, or otherwise weren’t good role models, I really admire these bikers for stepping up and taking some real action against child abuse. In a world of scarce resources and bureaucracy, sometimes the legal system alone fails children. It brings tears to my eyes to think of a vulnerable child being able to sleep soundly knowing that she has a strong group of mentors surrounding and supporting her. BACA seems to be a well-run organization with excellent rules to prevent potential pitfalls. I’m just about the furthest thing from a biker that you could imagine, but whether you are dressed as a biker or Mother Theresa, if you support children, you have my support.

What do you think? Is BACA the real deal? Leave your comments below or email them to me at evaughan (at) vaughanfirm (dot) com. If you are a member of BACA or have ever seen them in action, I’d especially love to hear from you.

Do you have more questions about adoption? Contact The Vaughan Firm to speak with an adoption attorney.

Can a Traumatic Childhood Make You Sick?

This week’s New Yorker includes an article that will be especially fascinating to adoptive and foster parents. It’s about research on how childhood trauma affects life-long health (the full article is available only to subscribers, but this synopsis is fairly good). The article focuses on the work of Dr. Nadine Burke, a pediatrician at the Bayview Child Health Center in San Francisco, California. Dr. Burke noticed that many of her patients, most of whom come from low-income, inner-city families, displayed the same laundry list of ailments. Most also had suffered abuse, neglect, trauma, and loss throughout their childhoods, many while in the foster-care system. Dr. Burke began to be convinced that there was a connection between childhood trauma and long-term health problems.

Dr. Burke found support for her theory in a study by Vincent J. Felitti and Robert F. Anda In this study, members of the Kaiser Permanente HMO in the San Diego area were sent a questionnaire that evaluated their “adverse childhood experiences” or “ACE” (negative childhood events like abuse, neglect, parental drug use, etc.). They then compared the survey responses to the patients’ medical records. Felitti and Anda found that patients with higher ACE scores (indicating more childhood trauma) had higher incidences of chronic disease, such as heart disease and cancer. Even when they screened the results to eliminate behavioral factors like drug and alcohol use and smoking, the patients with higher ACE scores still had more health problems.

Several other studies have supported the one by Felitti and Anda, including one from Dunedin, New Zealand that found that adults in their thirties who had been abused as children were twice as likely to have high levels of an inflammatory protein in their blood, which is a predictor of cardiovascular disease. It is also supported by research on rats, showing that traumatic experiences cause changes in the rats’ brains that leave them unable to regulate their stress responses. This effect is reduced by parental nurturing. Burke also did research using the ACE questionnaire on her own patients, and found that learning and behavioral problems were much higher for kids with high levels of trauma (3% for children with ACE scores of zero to 51% for children with ACE scores of 4 or higher out of 10). Wow! In case you didn’t feel important as a parent, this research suggests that how you nurture and care for your child can actually change his or her brain chemistry and life-long health. As Dr. Burke says in the article, “you can trace the pathology as it moves from the molecular level to the social level.”

The good news for foster and adoptive parents is that there is strong evidence that these health effects can be lessened or reversed, even among older children and adults, although scientists are still studying which interventions are best. Cognitive-behavioral therapy, stress reduction, and medication are all methods that are being tried, and a study in Oregon also suggests that secure emotional attachment with the child’s current caregivers makes a big difference. While therapy is unquestionably important for kids who have experienced trauma, your instinct to nurture, love, and reduce stress in your adopted or foster child could be, quite literally, just what the doctor ordered.

Do you have more questions about adoption? Contact The Vaughan Firm to speak with an adoption attorney.

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