About 15 years ago, as I was approaching 50 and after a personally rewarding quarter-century as a journalist, I decided the next chapter of my life would be dedicated to my children. So I did what any good father would do for his kids: I quit my job without knowing where the next paycheck would come from. Seriously.
And then, with my wife’s loving support, I found my encore in the world of child welfare, working to improve that world for the tens of millions of Americans who inhabit it.
The reason I decided to jump without a net is rooted in the way my wife, Judy, and I formed our family. We have two sons, Zack and Mason, now 22 and 19, whom we adopted as infants. What I learned as a result of adopting – and even more from writing my first book, Adoption Nation – was that the legal, social and moral playing field in the realm of child welfare (including adoption) is not level or fair to any of the parties involved, especially not adoptees or their birth/first parents.
So I wanted to do something to alter that reality. As luck would have it, about a year after leaving the Boston Globe, I became Executive Director of the Donaldson Adoption Institute, where I spent a decade shaping research and advocacy that I’m very proud to say had concrete, positive impact. But I also came to believe that we need more than just incremental progress in child welfare; we need a fundamental overhaul. So, two years ago, I embarked on my next encore, founding the National Center on Adoption and Permanency (NCAP).
Here’s why. Formal adoption in the U.S. began in the 20th Century as a process by which white infants born to white unwed mothers were adopted by white married couples. In communities of color, relatives like aunts or grandmothers generally cared for babies when their mothers could not, and there were very few adoptions from foster care.
Shoot forward to today, and the vast majority of out-of-family adoptions are from the child welfare system. A disproportionate percentage are children of color, most are older and have some level of special needs, and the adopting parents are gay and straight, married and single and co-habitating, and very often of a different race or ethnicity than their kids. The same description applies to children adopted from abroad as well.
Bottom line: Our current system was created for a very different population than the one it is now supposed to serve. So incremental progress simply leaves tens of thousands children and families struggling each year – and, as a society, we’re not keeping the implicit promise that, when children are placed into new families, they will have the opportunity for better lives.
In a nutshell, NCAP’s mission is to move child welfare policy and practice from the longstanding “child placement” model to a new “family success” paradigm that always includes the education, resources, services and supports that children and families touched by the child welfare system need. That must include families of origin, too.
I believe deeply that, with this new approach, our nation’s most vulnerable children and youth will finally get the chance to have their encore.