by Chuck Johnson, President and CEO, National Council For Adoption
With my daughter Gracie, who joined me as a chaperone on NCFA's cultural trip for people adopted from China in 2012. Gracie worked for a year in the field of adoption and now works as a middle school guidance counselor.
Today marks my 30th anniversary working in the field of adoption. Other than part-time jobs in high school and college, I’ve never worked outside this field, and have often joked – although it’s probably more true than I want to admit – that adoption is the only thing I know anything about. Not only has the practice of adoption been my vocation, it has also contributed to my identity as a father by adoption and the son of an adopted person. After 30 years – the first 17 spent in direct practice with expectant parents, adoptive families, and adopted persons, and the last 13 in advocacy on behalf of all touched by adoption – I can honestly say that my passion for adoption is stronger than ever.
I’ve thought about my first day on the job a thousand times, and after all these years it still makes me smile – and I’ve never been able to say, in many times of struggle and hardship, that I wasn’t immediately warned about what a wild and unpredictable journey awaited me from my first hour on the job. A diligent new employee, I arrived at work more than 30 minutes early, planning to set up my desk and get acclimated to my surroundings before I officially started. Instead of settling in at my leisure, however, I arrived to see my boss, John Carr, already waiting for me at the front door. “Don’t even go inside,” Mr. Carr told me. “Two babies have been born out of town and are being released today. Hop in the car. I’ll need your help discharging them and caring for them on the long ride home.”
Hours later, I was standing in a hospital room before a young mother and her family, listening to Mr. Carr reviewing with them – in great detail and with amazing compassion – what was happening and where we were taking the baby, answering all of their questions. It would have been easier in a sense, and certainly more pragmatic, to rush through this process and travel to the next hospital to see the next client, but he gave them his full and undivided attention.
|My mentors Wales Goebel (left) and John Carr (right) presenting former AL Sen. Jeremiah Denton with NCFA's Friend of Adoption Award in the 1980s.|
I took care of the first newborn baby for several hours while Mr. Carr visited with the second mother and worked with the hospital staff to discharge her baby, presumably giving her the same attention and time he had given the first mother. After a long ride home, stopping frequently to feed and change the babies, we arrived back to the office well after dark (having missed out on my scheduled plans to have dinner with friends, a pattern that would be repeated again and again over the 17 years, much to the frustration of my wife and children), and arranged for the babies to be placed in two short-term foster homes. I went home exhausted, but thrilled that my first day as a social worker had such significance.
I learned so much in those 17 years working in the agency setting. I saw the sacrifice many young women and men made in relinquishing their children for adoption, placing them in the love and the hope that their children would have beautiful lives. I saw the absolute need for counseling for expectant parents – not only during the pregnancy, but also in the months, and sometimes years, after the adoption. I formed strong opinions about the rights of biological fathers and the long-term value of collecting accurate and detailed health and social information, both for consideration by the prospective adoptive families, and for the adopted person for whom this information could prove essential. I understood the critical importance of effectively evaluating families that wanted to be adoptive parents as well as preparing, educating, and supporting adoptive families before and after finalization.
In my first year with the adoption agency, I was asked to develop the pilot program for this new concept of “open adoption,” which allowed the pregnant client to help select the family that would adopt her child and potentially create and foster varying levels of future contact between birth and adoptive families. Over the years I saw how immediately healing this could be for the birth parents, as well as the ongoing benefits for adoptive parents and the adopted child. The early fear of some people that open adoption practices would destroy adoption proved to be unfounded, and seeing how well it could work in practice convinced me that adoption was a venerable institution that could adapt to changing times. Adoption can only grow stronger when adopted people, their birth parents, and their adoptive families are all given a voice.
One of the hardest lessons I’ve had to learn is that not everyone who claims to be an adoption professional is truly a “professional” – and some are not even ethical. It wasn’t an everyday occurrence, but I was sometimes shocked to learn how some agencies and attorneys treated biological and adoptive parents, particularly after the adoption. Birth parents weren’t counseled; there wasn’t a diligent search for the biological father; social workers completed shoddy and incomplete home studies and post-adoption reports; little in the way of professional post-adoption services were offered, even for struggling former clients. Often, my agency would provide free post-adoption support to clients that had worked with other agencies, because they clearly needed it and the agency or attorney that facilitated the adoption was not willing or able to provide follow-up services and care.
|My first public appearance with NCFA in 2005.|
It was my joy and privilege to work with and serve the needs of many hundreds of clients over the years – and ultimately, it was this work that led me to join the staff at NCFA. While a majority of the biological parents, adoptive families, and adopted persons I worked with over those 17 years had rewarding and positive outcomes, I could never forget those that had not seemed to benefit from their experience with adoption. So I uprooted my family from our home in Alabama to move to Washington, DC, and work for NCFA, motivated by my passion for adoption, my belief in its potential, and the core concerns and ideas for needed reform that spurred the move. I asked my wife to give me two years in DC, and now – over 11 years later – here we are, still talking about returning to Alabama one day, still working to support children and birth and adoptive families.
Through all the years spent working in this area, I’ve lost none of my commitment to or belief in adoption. I know that adoption is the only real hope for a permanent family for millions of children worldwide. A milestone like this one, my 30th anniversary, provides an opportunity for me to reflect on the years I’ve spent in this field. I have crossed paths with some truly amazing colleagues and fellow advocates across the adoption spectrum that educate and inform my positions. I would be remiss not to acknowledge the support of my wife, Susan, and also mention how blessed I was to have the excellent example of two great mentors early on in my career. The first was John Carr, my former boss, the best example of service and leadership I’ve ever known, who set an example I’m still trying to live up to after all these years – he always gave his clients (and us, his employees) his very best, sometimes at great personal sacrifice, and I’ve never forgotten his exemplary service to others. The second was Wales Goebel, a founder and board member of the agency, whose insistence on absolute integrity, even when others weren’t watching or it was terribly inconvenient, is something I often recall when wishing there were easy shortcuts.
I’ll leave it to those who know me best to grade me on my own legacy and example, but I know I am the one who has been blessed for the past 30 years to work for something I believe is good and noble and makes a life-changing and life-saving difference in the lives of so many people. I’m grateful for these past 30 years, and I’m not done yet! I’m still learning and forming my vision of what the future of ethical adoption practice could look like, and the ways in which I can be most effective in advancing and discussing critical areas of reform. There’s much more work still to do on behalf of children and families, and I plan to eagerly, thankfully report to work tomorrow – the first day of my 31st year advocating on behalf of the children, birth parents, and adoptive families we serve.