The family orchard: Adoption through Catholic Charities

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1022914_88441964By Jennika Baines
Sun Associate Editor

The origins of the term “putting a baby up for adoption” go back to the days when trains would stop in dusty back towns and women who couldn’t care for their babies would hold them up in baskets — literally putting them up —  for travelers to take through the windows.

Adoption has come a long way since then.

First of all, the term “putting a baby up for adoption” is out. So is “giving up” and “giving away.”

Instead, birth mothers and adoptive parents make what’s called an adoption plan: a clearly-laid out plan that respects the needs and preferences of all involved in the adoption. This increased respect and dignity are important to the adoption philosophy at Catholic Charities.

“Respecting people’s choices and being responsive to the family are our starting points,” said Dr. Joe Fanelli, director of mental health services at Onondaga County Catholic Charities.

Catholic Charities in Onondaga County is the former House of Providence in Syracuse, an orphanage that could hold hundreds of children.

For some, adoption was the only choice.

Next to the old St. Mary’s Hospital on Court Street in Syracuse was a house called Villa Gerard. The house had six to eight beds in it and served as a maternity home. “Women could live at Villa Gerard, have their baby and then the baby would be adopted and the mother would go back to her life,” Fanelli said. “And the women could go totally confidentially.”

This was an important feature during a time when teenage or unmarried pregnancy was a social taboo. Fanelli said that women could even tell their friends they would be visiting family in another state and any mail sent to her there would arrive at the area’s Catholic Charities agency and would be forwarded back to her secret location in Syracuse.

“The culture at the time was that this was a terrible, terrible stain on the family,” Fanelli said. Adoption laws favored the protection of the adopting family over the rights of the birth mother. Ties were severed, often leaving lingering wounds for both the birth mother and the child.

Even now, Fanelli said, he’ll get an occasional phone call from someone who was adopted wondering if there are any medical issues they should be aware of or saying, “I have blonde hair and blue eyes, do I look like my mother?” Sometimes a woman will call telling him she left a child at Providence House 40 years ago, “And she wants to know, ‘Did he live? Did he die? Was he adopted?’ Clearly out of sight was not out of mind,” Fanelli said.

“The social stigma then was that you have no right to ask,” he said. “But things have changed.”

Now, Catholic Charities throughout the diocese offer everything from information sessions and classes to personal therapy sessions available even years after the adoption.

Beyond the emotional reinforcement, the process also involves home visits where adoption coordinators get to really know the adopting family. There are also criminal and child abuse background checks. This investigation shows that the adopting couple is financially stable as well as emotionally and physically healthy. And while there are fees involved with the adoption, no money is exchanged between the adoptive parents and the birth parents.

Fanelli said that because of abortion, birth control and even competing adoption agencies, Catholic Charities in Onondaga County usually only handles around one adoption a year.

Catholic Charities in Oneida and Madison Counties handles an average of four adoptions a year and only coordinates adoptions for infants up to 18 months old.

“Usually our birth mothers come to us because they find they’re not in a position to parent,” said Mary Anne Young, adoption coordinator for Oneida and Madison Counties Catholic Charities. “Our birth mothers are almost always older. Teenage girls parent because they don’t realize the responsibility and the demands that a child makes on them.”

Young said that young women are rarely encouraged by family or friends to consider adoption. “Our experience has been that most of the time the birth mother is in this alone,” she said. “We really work as advocates for the birth mother. Our mission is to support the young woman and let her know that making an adoption plan is being a responsible, loving parent.”

Birth mothers have two options in the Oneida-Madison Catholic Charities: either choose the adoptive family themselves or allow Catholic Charities to choose for them. There is no exchange of names or addresses but adoptive parents are required to send a yearly letter with photos of the child up to the age of five. Birth mothers are able to see these letters and can send letters and small gifts of their own. The exchanges are always handled by Catholic Charities.

“The letters and pictures are so important because it visually shows the birth mother that the life she wanted the child to have is actually happening,” Young said.

Orientation meetings for couples in Oneida and Madison Counties who are interested in becoming adoptive parents are held twice a year, and couples are told that while the office will try to place a baby with them within two years, this outcome is not guaranteed because birth mothers may choose a family that has been on the register two weeks over one who has waited two years.

Adoptions with the Cortland County Catholic Charities are contracted through the Department of Social Services which requires that couples become foster parents first. Children through the age of 18 can be adopted through this program. Marisa Scott, adoption coordinator, said that the office handles around four adoptions a year.

Oswego County and Chenango County Catholic Charities do not handle adoptions.

In Broome County, Catholic Charities handles an average of two to four adoptions a year. As with the other counties, there is a home visit as well as physicals, letters of reference, autobiographies and background checks. “Birth parents put a lot of trust in us that we’ve done our homework and that this really is a good family,” said Shelly Kaminsky, supervisor of pregnancy, parenting and adoption.

She said her office offers a wide range of adoption plans ranging from no contact or information exchanged to open adoptions with phone calls and meetings after the child is born. Kaminsky said the preferences for both parties need to match before an adoption goes through.

She said she also strongly suggests to parents that they be open with their children about the adoption right from the start. This can happen through having books on adoption in the home, celebrating the day the child came into the home each year and telling them the story of how they became a part of the family. “If you wait for that perfect day to tell them, that day is never going to come,” Kaminsky said. “You don’t have to agree with everything we say, but we’ll talk about how that will impact the child in the future.”

For Fanelli, this openness and increased sensitivity makes it a privilege to be able to help in the creation of families. “It just reinforces the idea that it’s not always a family tree,” Fanelli said, “sometimes it’s a family orchard.”

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