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Foster care system puts adoption on table

By Brenda Charpentier
Sunday News Correspondent

December 23. 2011 10:45PM
Jessica and Steve Vespa knew soon after Gavin, now 6, came into their Franklin home for foster care that they would love to adopt him. He became a member of the Vespa family on May 19, the day this photo was taken. (Courtesy)

FRANKLIN - When Jessica and Steve Vespa opened their home to provide foster care for a little boy named Gavin, they knew social workers were striving to reunite him with his mother. They also knew that should all efforts at reunification fail, they would adopt Gavin and make their growing love for him a permanent legal bond.

Social workers asked the Vespas early in the foster care licensing process whether they would consider adoption. 'We didn't even think twice about it. We were just, like, of course, if the kid is a good match for our family,' Jessica Vespa said.

Had the Vespas said no, Gavin would have had to go to another home when he became available for adoption, even though he had spent more than a year with the couple. Because they said yes, he was able to stay in a familiar place with people who already knew and loved him.

'Always in the back of our minds we wondered, 'Could we possibly be lucky enough to get to keep this little boy?' We were just blessed, we really were,' Vespa said.

Gavin officially became a Vespa on May 19.

The Vespas exemplify a push within the state's network of child welfare agencies toward adoption and a turning away from the traditional temporary nature of foster care.

'Now, from the start, we're being more intentional in saying, 'Would you consider adoption for a child?'' said Cary Gladstone, a member of the Mayor's Task Force on Foster Care and Adoption in Franklin and a family support specialist with Casey Family Services, a nonprofit child welfare agency that licenses and trains foster parents statewide.

Called 'concurrent planning,' the idea is to strive for two goals at the same time. The primary goal is to reunify the children with their families. The second is to simultaneously put a back-up plan in place so that if children became available for adoption, a permanent home would be ready. Foster parents are increasingly providing that home.

The dual goals are part of the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, which sets time lines for permanent resolutions for children.

The result has been kids going back home faster or getting adopted faster, according to Maggie Bishop, the director of the New Hampshire Division of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF).

'More timely adoptions have occurred as a result of this,' she said. Getting a child into an adoptive home used to take five or six years after they entered the foster care system, she said.

'Today, that happens in less than two years, typically,' she said.

Traditionally, families interested in adoption were not able to become foster parents because the idea behind foster care was to offer a temporary place to stay until a child was either reunified with the family or made available for adoption. Moving away from that model benefits the kids tremendously, Bishop said.

'What we have learned over the years is that instability is not good for kids,' she said. 'Kids who enter the (child welfare) system don't deserve to stay in that system.'

For foster parents, concurrent planning means they may face an emotional roller-coaster ride. As they care for a child during reunification efforts, they don't know whether they will end up providing a permanent home.

'We didn't know until right up to the very end,' Vespa said of their experience with Gavin. 'It was tough, a lot of ups and downs,' she said.

Even so, Vespa said it's better for the grownups involved to feel that uncertainty rather than the child.

'I think it's really important to keep in mind that it's not about you. It's about the kids and what's best for them,' she said. 'They go through so much. They don't need the additional stress of wondering where am I going to stay, what am I going to do?'

When they learned they would indeed be able to adopt Gavin after his mother gave up her parental rights, all the waiting and wondering was worth the joy of his 'Adoption Day' last spring. Gavin went with the Vespas to see the judge.

'He wanted to be called Mr. Vespa,' Jessica Vespa said. 'It was wonderful.'

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