Adoption Advocate No. 29: The National Council For Adoption: Celebrating 30 Years of Principled Adoption Advocacy: 1980-2010
Published November 2010 by Nicole M. Callahan†
Since its founding 30 years ago, the National Council For Adoption (NCFA) has established itself as a leading child welfare organization and the authoritative voice for adoption. Through its numerous and successful programs, educational initiatives, and public awareness campaigns, it has promoted a culture of adoption in the U.S. and abroad. NCFA has served and continues to serve as an outspoken advocate for birthparents, adoptive parents, and children in need of families.
Founded in 1980 as the National Committee For Adoption, NCFA owes its start to the efforts of Ruby Lee Piester, director of the Gladney Center for Adoption in Fort Worth, Texas. “She was truly the grandmother of adoption advocacy,” asserted Lou Stern, a charter board member of the National Committee For Adoption and four-time chair of the NCFA Board of Directors. “For Ruby Lee, adoption hinged on providing counsel to young women, birthmothers. She saw adoption as a ‘triangle of love’ between the birthmother, the baby, and the adoptive parents.
”Piester read a draft model of the State Adoption Act, which was being considered in Congress, and realized that, if passed, it would permit confidential adoption records to be opened nationwide, with no adherence to the principle of privacy or promises made to birthparents. She decided to organize a campaign aimed at revising this law to better serve birthparents and adoptive families, and approached Dr. William Pierce, then employed with the Child Welfare League. “I have a new challenge, a new job for you,” she told him. “I want you to help me create the National Committee For Adoption.”
Dr. Pierce, Ruby Lee Piester, and Lou Stern were among the handful of people present at the inaugural meeting of the National Committee For Adoption, held thirty years ago in a Dallas hotel.Others included Texas attorney and philanthropist C. Harold Brown, and adoptive parents Toni McHugh and Lou Davidson. Bill McKay, an adoptive father who ran a Chevrolet car dealer-ship and worked closely with the Gladney Home,served as the first Chairman of the Board.
It was Dr. Pierce who established the Committee’s first office in Washington, DC—named the Ruby Lee Piester Center for Adoption—to educate policymakers on the challenges posed by the current draft model State Adoption Act. “Without Bill Pierce, the original draft model State Adoption Act would have become law, ending the possibility of confidentiality in adoption for all birthparents, past and present,”said Lou Stern. “Because of his efforts, and the support of Ruby Lee Piester and the Committee, the State Adoption Act was instead revised to create an optional national registry, in which many states currently participate, and facilitated contact between birthparents and adopted individuals through third-party intermediaries. The legislation also included provisions to promote the adoption of children with special needs.
”Although the State Adoption Act had been successfully altered to protect promises of confidentiality made to birthparents, Dr. Pierce saw the need for the National Committee For Adoption to continue its advocacy on behalf of all members of the adoption triad. He began to solicit more adoption agency memberships, and monitored news and information relevant to adoption, sending out information each week to board members and agency partners.
“He brought a passion for the job, for children and birth-parents, for agencies, to his work with the National Committee For Adoption,”recalled Lou Stern. “He put together a small staff, and with their help continued to educate legislators and government officials about adoption.”
Thanks in large part to the efforts of Dr. Pierce and his fellow advocates, Congress voted in 1981 to provide a tax credit to families adopting children with special needs. This tax credit was increased in 1986, and further expanded in 1994 to apply to all adoptive families, not just those adopting children with special needs. Congress authorized the adoption tax credit in 1997 and later increased it under the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001, and has voted to extend it every year since; one of NCFA’s major policy goals is to make this credit a permanent part of the tax code, so that more American families can adopt without suffering economic hardship.
Other major legislative victories for the National Committee For Adoption—later renamed the National Council For Adoption—under the leadership of Bill Pierce included:
According to Kathleen Strottman, executive director of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption (CCAI), “We at the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute consider ourselves direct beneficiaries of NCFA’s 30 years of experience. When it comes to international, federal, and state issues, we trust NCFA for information about adoption in all the different countries and states they work in,because its member agency standards are so very high. NCFA is really our go-to source for adoption information and education that we provide to members of Congress. The CCAI and NCFA have complementary missions, and we share a commitment to promoting awareness of adoption in the public realm. We want to be sure that people are aware of adoption and the role they can play to help birthparents and children in need of families.”
With the passage of the Adoption Awareness Act in 2000, shepherded through Congress by NCFA, the nation’s first federal grants to promote adoption education and awareness through the Infant Adoption Awareness Training Program (IAATP) were established. In 2002, the same year in which NCFA acquired its own building and moved its headquarters to downtown Alexandria, Virginia, NCFA was awarded the original grant to plan, develop, and administer the federally funded IAATP. Paul Devantier served as the first director of the Infant Adoption Awareness Training Program, aimed at reaching those affected by unintended pregnancy and making them aware of the option of adoption. NCFA trainers — chosen from among the best and most experienced adoption agency representatives in the country — have trained thousands of counselors, health officials, and clinic and pregnancy center staff in all fifty states on how to present timely, accurate, and sensitive adoption information to women facing unintended pregnancies.
“From the very beginning, IAATP was an enormous success,” said NCFA president and CEO Chuck Johnson, a former adoption agency director and IAATP Master Trainer who later took over the role of IAATP director. “The program has consistently earned the highest ratings from all participants.”
The IAATP training also allowed NCFA to strengthen and expand its partnership with member adoption agencies. Several counselors from member agencies—including the Gladney Center for Adoption, which has had a close relationship with NCFA since its founding—were trained to become IAATP trainers, and assigned to specific regions throughout the country. “The program really helped enhance and draw attention to infant adoption throughout the U.S.,” said Mike McMahon, former president and vice chairman of the Gladney Center for Adoption. “Our IAATP trainers had the chance to meet other people and listen to their experiences as health practitioners,clinic staff, counselors. We were training them to discuss adoption with their clients, yet they also helped us better serve our own clients at the agency.
”The IAATP brought new social workers and agencies to NCFA as well. Tom Velie, president of New Beginnings International Children’s and Family Services in Tupelo, Mississippi, first became aware of NCFA when he and his wife became IAATP Master Trainers. “The Infant Adoption Awareness Training Program—now the Infant Adoption Training Initiative—was and is a wonderful program that had a tremendous impact,” noted Velie. “Because of the quality of that program, and meeting Chuck Johnson and others, we requested information about becoming a member agency in 2003.”
The Infant Adoption Training Initiative(IATI) curriculum was updated in 2005, and since2007, NCFA has shared the responsibility of training clinic staff and counselors with other IATI federal grantees, offering trainings in Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia,West Virginia, and the District of Columbia. Chuck Johnson estimates that by the end of 2010,NCFA will have trained over 20,000 individuals across the country since the first grant was awarded in 2002.
Another crucial area in which NCFA has taken on a leading role is in educating agency staff and prospective adoptive parents about the intercountry adoption process, particularly as it has changed since the U.S. came into full compliance with the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption. “NCFA was an early proponent of the Hague, as a way to promote transparency in the adoption process and ethical intercountry adoptions,” said Chuck Johnson.
NCFA’s web-based Hague-compliant adoption training curriculum, “The Intercountry Adoption Journey,” currently fulfills eight of the ten hours of adoption education required by the Hague Convention. Starting in 2011, the course will offer 10 hours of Hague Credit and 10 hours of professional CEUs from The Catholic University. “I think it’s a tribute to NCFA that they had the insight to produce the first accredited multimedia Hague-compliant training course in the U.S.,” said Dennis Hayashi,chief creative officer of aHa Communications,who produced the training segments for online viewing. “With the ever increasing time and distance challenges facing parents and adoption professionals who require quality educational courses, there is a real need for online distance learning. Under Chuck Johnson’s leadership, NCFA will continue to develop educational programs that engage, inform, and inspire people to adopt.It is extremely gratifying to know that we are helping parents comply with the Hague regulations, as well as provide meaningful information about the joys and challenges of intercountry adoption.”
The program can be completed in easy,convenient installments from users’ homes or offices. “It has become the standard-bearer in intercountry adoption training,” said Johnson.“So far, over 9,000 people have successfully completed the online course, benefiting from the expertise of dozens of adoption agency staff,adoptive parents, and U.S. and international adoption officials.”
When it comes to international adoption advocacy, Johnson acknowledged that the role of adoption advocates is fraught with new challenges. “The number of orphans worldwide continues to grow, and Americans’ interest in adopting hasn’t waned, but intercountry adoption is in need of both reform and assistance in complying with the Hague regulations,” he said.“Intercountry adoption has to remain a part of any truly complete, holistic child welfare continuum. It’s unfortunate that we have seen so many shutdowns and failures to comply with international standards.” For this reason, NCFA has strengthened its international adoption advocacy, partnering with other key stakeholder groups as part of the Families for Orphans Coalition.
Johnson emphasized NCFA’s belief in “responsible advocacy”: NCFA strives to be a principled champion for children and families worldwide. “After the recent earthquake in Haiti, while some called for loosening of adoption regulations to allow more children to be placed with adoptive families, NCFA was among the first to urge caution and proper adherence to the adoption procedures in place in Haiti,” said Johnson. “We have been a voice for adoption reform in Guatemala; we have helped other countries, such as China and Vietnam,develop policies to promote their own domestic adoption programs and programs for the adoption of children with special needs. During the recent case of a Russian-born child being abandoned by his adoptive family in the U.S., we served as a source of information for both the Russian and American governments.”
NCFA has also hosted numerous international delegations—from Russia, China,Guatemala, Vietnam, Cambodia, Peru,Kazakhstan, South Africa, Nepal, Belgium, and Mexico. “Our mission goes far beyond the placement of children in need of families,” asserted Johnson. “We have always called for laws to provide counseling and assistance to birthparents, as well as ongoing support and services for adoptive families and children.”
In recent years, NCFA has also become an outspoken advocate for foster care reform. “There are over 123,000 children languishing in foster care who are eligible to be adopted,” said Johnson. “The foster care system was never intended to be a long-term state for children, and yet every year, thousands ‘age out’—reach the age of 18—having spent years of their young lives moving from placement to placement, withno permanent family of their own.”
“Studies indicate that 41% of Americans are open to adopting,” he continued. “This is something we can and must work to fix—which is why NCFA created our Families for All initiative to focus on the need for foster care reform at the federal and state levels, and to promote adoption and foster parenting through increased awareness and parent recruitment efforts.We must work harder to find and retain more foster and adoptive parents, and to help these children and families get the support they need to be successful post-placement.
”Thanks in part to NCFA’s advocacy on behalf of children in foster care, the Foster Families to Success and Increasing Adoption Act was passed in 2008. NCFA’s 2009 “Families for All” public service announcements, featuring NCFA spokesperson and award-winning singer/songwriter Rodney Atkins—himself an adopted individual—we recreated to educate the public about the plight of children in foster care and promote the adoption of eligible children.
Earlier public awareness campaigns aimed at promoting adoption awareness and reaching out to prospective birthparents—including “Great Expectations” in the 1980s, “Thanks for Considering Adoption” in 2003-2005, and “iChooseAdoption” from 2008-present—have also met with great success. The “Thanks for Considering Adoption” and “iChooseAdoption” are both award-winning campaigns, consistently ranking in the top 10-15 percent of all PSAs aired nationwide and representing a combined $13 mil-lion or more in donated air time and advertising space.
“Clearly, there is much still to do in increasing adoption awareness and education,”said Lou Stern, who has served on NCFA’s Board of Directors continuously since its founding in 1980. “As much as we have accomplished, there is a greater need for NCFA’s leadership than there has ever been, as adoption is constantly changing. We aren’t content to rest on our laurels; we are keeping a very watchful eye open and working harder than ever to address the needs of all members of the adoption triad.”
Johnson and others at NCFA are quick to give credit to NCFA’s member agencies for their support and principled advocacy, as well as their leadership and counsel among their own clientele. “Agencies are the principal provider of adoption services, and they keep NCFA in touch with the practice of adoption and what’s going on with individual clients and families,” said Johnson.
“We need each other,” agreed Mike McMahon of the Gladney Center for Adoption.“NCFA does a great job representing the interests of all parties to adoption at the national level.For our part, I think the agencies help NCFA stay in touch with the needs of real families and children, so it doesn’t become one of those national nonprofit organizations that loses track of what goes on in practice. NCFA listens to the input ofits member agencies, and because of that, theyare also in touch with the people we serve—the birthparents and adoptive families.”
Tom Velie of New Beginnings is grateful for NCFA’s adoption advocacy at the national level. “NCFA advocating for adoption with government and private agencies makes adoption better for everyone across the country, and our agency relies on them for information and leader-ship,” he said. “On a day to day basis, our agency isn’t able to devote the time and resources necessary to have an impact on legislation and policies that affect adoption all across the country. That is a major thing that we depend on NCFA to do,and that’s why it is so important to have a representative like NCFA working at the national level.”
Velie also expressed his appreciation forthe many training, education, and collaborative opportunities resulting from his agency’s NCFA membership. “The trainings, classes, conferences,and webinars provided by NCFA are some of the best, and the information that is disseminated weekly—sometimes daily—by NCFA through its adoption agency listserv makes us immediately aware of important events in the adoption world,”Velie said. “We also have the opportunity to work with other agencies when we need information about a certain country or program. When we’re trying to find an agency to work with in another state, NCFA is one of the first places we check. ”
While the National Council For Adoption takes the opportunity during this 30th anniversary year to celebrate its history and its many accomplishments, the staff and board of the organization remain focused on the future of adoption.
“Both the federal and state governments set laws that influence adoption, and so it’s very important for NCFA to continue to advocate for professional adoption agencies doing what is right — making sure that adoption is a good, safe, ethical alternative if biological parents are unable or unwilling to parent,” said Bill Blacquiere, president of Bethany Christian Services, who has served on NCFA’s Board of Directors since 1995. “NCFA has made the difference in so many ways,from confidentiality to tax credits, from inter-country adoption reform to safe haven laws. We will continue to play a role making sure that the government and local agencies enact policies and practices that are in the best interests of children.”
“In addition to serving children and birth-parents and families, we must promote a positive culture of adoption, in the U.S. and abroad,” said Chuck Johnson. “Thanks to our history and our record, NCFA has become an organization others are eager to consult and collaborate with—our agency membership continues to grow; we field dozens of media requests for information each month; we have a good relationship with the past several presidential administrations; we have built a diverse coalition on Capitol Hill in support of adoption; and we work with many stakeholder groups to advance causes such as foster care reform. NCFA has really become the leading voice in adoption, and as adoption continues to change, at home and abroad, there will be more and more work for us.”
“There is so much that still needs to be done,” noted Kathleen Strottman of CCAI.“There are way too many children in the U.S. and abroad living without parental care. Many organizations are focusing on different and important strategies, but no other organization could do the kind of work NCFA has done with their PSAs, infant adoption awareness training, foster care advocacy, intercountry adoption education,agency networking—they seem to be everywhere,all at once. We will certainly continue to look to them for collaboration and guidance.”
For Lou Stern, who has been with the organization since the very beginning, it is impossible now to imagine adoption without NCFA’s principled advocacy. “There is a bigger need for NCFA now than there has ever been,” he said.“Thirty years ago, I never could have imagined all the great things NCFA would accomplish for children and families. I feel so fortunate, and so grateful for all the people I’ve gotten to know and work with in this wonderful organization. It’s been a real thrill to participate in all the work we’ve done. Thanks to NCFA, I know that in another thirty years, adoption will only be stronger.”
†About the author: Nicole M. Callahan is a writer, editor, adopted individual, and NCFA’s former Assistant Communications Director. She would like to thank Sen. Mary Landrieu, Lou Stern, Chuck Johnson, Bill Blacquiere, Dennis Hayashi, Mike McMahon, Kathleen Strottman, and Tom Velie for consenting to be interviewed for this article.
For 33 years, NCFA has been the authoritative voice for adoption. Our research and education programs have led the way in promoting sound, ethical adoption policies and practices that have enabled children to find nurturing, permanent families through adoption.