2021-11-30-CHAPMANCOLPIC1

The Pittsfield office of the state's Department of Children and Families celebrates National Adoption Day. 

PITTSFIELD — COVID-19 changed society in 2020, as the world reacted to the highly-transmissible virus that we initially knew little about. Things have gotten a little better this year, but the pandemic has dragged on, with the coronavirus still alive and well — including Pittsfield, which reentered the state’s “red” list of communities with high risk for coronavirus transmission before Thanksgiving — and as such, good news and stories of human compassion are always welcome.

The Massachusetts Adoption Resource Exchange and the Department of Children and Families’ National Adoption Day event, which I was invited to view virtually for the second straight year, highlighted a lot of those stories — more than 200 of them, in fact. To be more specific, according to MARE, since November 2020, more than 220 Massachusetts families have finalized adoptions, about 60 of which happened preceding the ceremony on Nov. 19. It aims to show appreciation for everyone who is a part of the adoption process, while also raising “awareness among the general public about the importance of adoption from foster care and the opportunity to become an adoptive parent,” according to MARE, claiming that there are 8,398 children are in foster care in the state, 3,236 of which have a goal of adoption, and 1,708 are in need of adoptive parents.

It’s important work, as the foster care system is one with a myriad of needs that are often under-reported in the media and that the general public doesn’t always necessarily understand or acknowledge. Adoptive parents and foster parents are one of the most important needs of the system, and there is often overlap between the two, as the Department of Health and Human Services’ Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System report for fiscal year 2020 found that in 54 percent of all adoptions in the country, children were adopted by their foster parents. To put that in perspective, only 11 percent of children were adopted by nonrelatives and 35 percent of adoptees were adopted by other relatives.

The simple explanation for this is foster parents get attached to the kids they take care of — it’s really hard not to in that line of work. And when it’s apparent that it’s not possible to reunify a foster child with their biological parent, it’s hard to leave someone you’ve been taking care of for years at the mercy of the system. I think MARE’s event did a great job of highlighting just how important it is for youths to have a permanent parental figure as they go through adolescence at their event:

“Adoption gives children a home base for a lifetime,” DCF Commissioner Linda Spears said during the event. “Because of you, they will have a place to spend the holidays, [and] a fierce advocate — not only in their childhood, but as young adults, and as grown adults. That’s what we call permanency.”

I highlight adolescence in particular, because it’s a time where foster kids transition from having some form of a support network that often includes their caseworkers, foster parents and any additional help the system provides, to being completely on their own. Growing up in a landscape transformed by the pandemic is hard enough; doing so as a foster kid aging out of the system is impossible. Shaheer Mustafa, president and CEO of the New England-based foster care company HopeWell Inc., recently noted in CommonWealth Magazine:

“Eighteen-year-olds with few family supports and resources are expected to secure housing, a job and live independently, often with little preparation. Teens who age out of foster care often experience homelessness, unemployment and poverty. The National Foster Youth Institute estimates that one-quarter of youth formerly in foster care experience homelessness within four years of aging out of the child welfare system and are arrested within two. About half of youth emancipated from foster care have chronic health conditions like asthma, post-traumatic stress, malnutrition and dental decay and up to one-third lack health insurance.”

Mustafa has some great ideas in his piece about what can done to help those aging out of the system outside of the limited Earned Income Tax Credit that former foster kids ages 18 to 24 can claim, from a form of Universal Basic Income to helping those that go to college pay for room and board and textbooks (Massachusetts has a tuition and fee waiver program for former foster youths, but those costs are excluded, and it’s also common for former foster kids to struggle with housing and food when school is not in session).

MARE’s event highlights stories of human compassion and resiliency during a time of isolation and economic volatility, and the families that pushed through adversity and completed the adoption process provide glimmers of hope and inspiration during a prolonged public health crisis. But more must also be done especially for those that adoption and reunification is not an option — those that need a helping hand as another pandemic winter greets us.

Mitchell Chapman is an Eagle page designer/copy editor and columnist. He is a foster care alumnus.