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Adopting and adapting 

Jeremy Alford on why foster care adoptions in New Orleans have hit their lowest point in recent memory

click to enlarge Kim Shultz gave up a baby for adoption when she was 15 but stays in touch with the child and his adoptive parents. - PHOTO BY THERESA CASSAGNE PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Photo by Theresa Cassagne Photography
  • Kim Shultz gave up a baby for adoption when she was 15 but stays in touch with the child and his adoptive parents.

Kim Shultz stacks four photo albums in front of her, each representing a different couple who wants to adopt her unborn child. She has been pregnant for six months and it has all come down to four photo albums.

  Shultz places the first album on her belly, which is now big enough to both get in the way and be useful. Inside, the prospective family has chosen to include photographs of themselves in what must be every room of their home. Each crinkle of cellophane and turn of the page further suggests this family may never leave its home.

  This is not what Shultz wants in a family. She wants people who are active and involved in their community. But she can only blame herself.

  She had only one request for the adoption agency orchestrating the arrangement. "I just want him to have siblings that were adopted," she told her adoption counselor a few months earlier. "I want him to have siblings who will share the same experiences and understand what he's going through."

  The second album was everything the other was not, with several images of a mother and a father and two daughters, all with sunshine on their faces. Here is everyone at the beach. They're fishing. Baking cookies. Playing. At 15 years old, with some close to her urging for an abortion she did not want, it had all the makings of a life Shultz would have wanted for a younger version of herself.

  As she gets deeper into the album, it suddenly bounces and shifts, however slightly. Then again. And again. Finally Shultz takes a firmer grasp of the album with one hand and brushes her tears away with the other.

  The baby boy she calls Evan, but who eventually will be named Matthew, is kicking. Maybe punching, too. "I hear you," she says rubbing her belly between sobs. "I hear you."

If you want to adopt an infant in the greater New Orleans area, you are not alone. Ten or 20 years ago, people could get through the adoption process with a little bit of patience, says Danna Cousins of Catholic Charities Adoption Services in Metairie. These days, though, it takes a lot of patience. "There are more loving families looking to adopt infants than there are infants available for adoption in the region," Cousins says.

  Foster care adoptions in New Orleans have hit their lowest point in recent years. According to statistics provided by the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), 72 foster care children were adopted by 53 New Orleans area families between July 1, 2011, and June 30, 2012 — down from 129 adopted children and 88 families during the 2009-2010 fiscal year. (In 2010-2011, 75 children were adopted by 54 families in New Orleans.) These figures do not include private or intra-family adoptions, only foster care adoptions managed by the state, which can include ages ranging from a few months to 17 years.

  The reasons are varied. Societal norms have been shifting for generations, Cousins says, and there is a greater acceptance of teenage mothers and more support for related resources. These factors, among others, are why adoptive parents often have to wait years to embrace a child of their own.

  But children of all ages also can be adopted through the local foster care system overseen by the state. Whereas infant adoptions are declining due to fewer available babies in the private-adoption sector, foster care adoptions are down because interest in the public system has waned.

  Trey Williams, DCFS' director of communications and government affairs, says it is a simple matter to explain: Fewer people in the New Orleans region express interest in public adoptions. "This is something that we are seeing in regards to foster parents as well," Williams says. "The number of people wanting to become foster parents is decreasing. We are working on some outreach in the next year to address both of these concerns."

  Regarding the need for more foster care families, Williams says the agency plans meetings and recruitment efforts on the community level. While there are more than 4,000 children in the Louisiana foster care system, there are only about 2,000 certified homes.

  Unfortunately, the potential for growth is limited. Only 350 applicants began the process of becoming a foster family over the past four months.

  Williams points to the state's online adoption portal, which has helped transfer 64 children from foster care to permanent homes, including some cases in Orleans Parish. The portal connects foster children from each region with potential adoptive families by featuring and profiling the children on the DCFS website.

  Last month, potential adoptive parents were introduced via the site to Brandon, an "energetic Star Wars fan" who excels academically, among other things. In November, it was a 4-year-old who's described as "lovable" and "enjoys chicken nuggets and giving hugs"— a child who is now in the process of being adopted, Williams says.

In December 2012, just two weeks before Christmas, an infant was introduced into the home of Bruce and Stacy Montesano — but only for eight days. Nonetheless, it was an unforgettable Yuletide experience. "We were called and asked to be a foster family," Stacy says. "They told us they were looking for an inn. I mean, come on. What were we supposed to say?"

  The Montesano home in Breaux Bridge was briefly transformed into a holiday holding station of sorts, a safe transition for the infant to move from the foster care system to its new adoptive family.

  When it came time for the child to be handed over, Stacy says she and her husband realized that the experience was worth it for three reasons: Amanda, 18, Stephanie, 17 and Matthew, 14.

All three were adopted by the Montesanos when they were infants, and over Christmas the teenagers were able to see how their own stories began.

  Their son Matthew is the same baby who kicked and punched a 15-year-old Kim Schultz from inside her womb while she was viewing photographs of the Montesano family fishing, baking cookies and vacationing on a beach almost a decade and a half ago.

click to enlarge Kim Shultz with 14-year-old Matthew Montesano, the son she gave up for adoption. - PHOTO COURTESY KIM SHULTZ
  • Photo courtesy Kim Shultz
  • Kim Shultz with 14-year-old Matthew Montesano, the son she gave up for adoption.

  Even though they took the initiative to change their lives, with the help of Shultz and two other birth mothers before her, the Montesanos are not eager to take any credit. That's because they ended up with something more lasting in exchange.

  "We get praise for being willing to adopt, but we don't feel like we deserve it," Stacy says. "The praise goes to these children, who are really responsible for changing our lives. They have no idea how lucky they make us feel."

Kim Shultz, now 30, lives in Mandeville. Recalling the decision that led to her son's adoption still brings tears, particularly the moment when her unborn child jostled around in her womb. "That's why I always tell Matthew he picked his own family," she says. "But he just confirmed what my heart already knew."

  Shultz says the birth father was "not a good person" and her home life was "terrible" as a teenager. She felt that an open adoption — a private process where the birth mother knows the adoptive parents and can change her mind late in the process — was the right thing to do.

  For Shultz, it is a testament to the power of adoptions. "Matthew never has to wonder why I did what I did," she says. "It was a decision I made for Matthew. If I had kept him, he would not have had such a life full of the opportunities he has had."

  For the Montesanos, it is a testament to how far a little bit of patience and a whole lot of faith can go. It was the same way with the other open adoptions they participated in before welcoming Matthew into the family.

  "We were somewhat resistant at first, but it was only because we weren't educated on the process. We didn't know what was coming." Bruce Montesano says. "You just have to realize that you're not in control. Nothing you can do or say will change the outcome."

What is especially sad about the decline in foster care adoptions in the greater New Orleans area is that the rest of the state is posting record adoption numbers. Statewide there were 654 children adopted by 468 families last fiscal year — an all-time high. In the Lafayette region, which is leading all other metro areas, 154 foster care children were adopted by 102 families during the last fiscal year — an increase of 41 adopted children compared to the 2009-2010 fiscal year.

  While declining figures are evident in New Orleans, Slidell attorney Laura M. Borchert says the number of private cases she is picking up out of the city remains steady.

  But there are still obstacles to overcome.

  Borchert says the most common fears involve open adoptions, which are not technically covered under Louisiana law. Why? Because the birth mother can always change her mind. "You never know what's going to happen when the baby is born and the mother takes that first look," she says.

  As for barriers that have been removed, Borchert says families are learning new ways to deal with the costs involved in adopting a child. There are more firms that offer pro bono services, she says, and there is a federal adoption tax credit available that Congress renewed as part of the so-called fiscal cliff deal last year.

  While the $10,000 tax credit was made permanent and is not subject to renewal again, adoption supporters were unable to make it refundable for families whose tax liability is less than the credit. U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat from New Orleans, worked to expand the adoption tax credit. She currently co-chairs the Congressional Coalition on Adoption.

  "For families who have generously opened their hearts and homes to a child, the adoption tax credit gives them important assistance along the journey," Landrieu says.

  The senator has her own story to tell. Her husband, Frank Snellings, was adopted from an orphanage in Ireland at a young age, and the couple are adoptive parents themselves.

  "My husband and I are blessed with two precious adopted children, and I am hopeful that this credit will encourage others to consider enlarging their families through adoption," Landrieu says.

  Landrieu herself has more conventional roots in New Orleans, being the fifth of nine children. But that has helped inform her politics on the issue, too. "I grew up in a loving and large family and know how important it is for children — and adults — to have a family they can count on," Landrieu says.

In addition to traditional public and private options, local families often pursue international adoptions, the popularity of which has helped decrease domestic adoption figures. Each year, American families open their homes to approximately 1,000 Russian children through adoption. But a new Russian law banning American adoptions took effect Jan. 1 and keeps Russian children and American families in limbo as interested parties seek a compromise.

  Landrieu and fellow U.S. Sen. David Vitter, a Republican from Metairie, are appealing to Russian President Vladimir Putin to reverse his country's adoption ban, to no avail so far. The State Department estimates that 350 to 500 active adoption cases involving Russian children matched with American families were in process before Russia's ban.

  The Russian ban is known as the Dima Yakovlev law, named for an adopted child that had the American name of Chase Harrison, and whose adoptive father from Washington, D.C., left him in an overheated car before he died of heat stroke. Russian officials have used the ban as a way of encouraging its citizens to adopt more native infants and children.

  But Vitter says Putin's ban actually was issued in response to Congress' decision to prohibit human rights violators from entering the U.S. and, if needed, freeze their U.S. assets. The provision was included in December as part of the Russia Permanent Normal Trade Relations bill, which also removed some of the remaining Cold War-era restrictions on trade.

  "Putin's ban is simply retaliatory," Vitter says. "We need to stand up to this ridiculous order, stand by our support for human rights, and continue processing the adoptions that have already been matched."

  If a compromise is not brokered on Russian adoptions, it will mean Louisiana families have fewer options than ever. Considering the unwillingness of Congress to expand financial assistance to adoptive families, the lull in interest in regional foster care children and the lack of infants available through private means, adoptions may become more difficult than ever.

  But advocates and others who have successfully navigated the system know there is something else waiting on the other end of the trials and tribulations for adoptive parents who stay the course.

Shultz sees Matthew at least twice a year and has stayed at the Montesanos' home on several occasions. It is an unconventional family, but one that works, with Shultz finding some of the compassion that was kept from her in her youth ("I kind of wish they would have adopted me," she jokes), and Matthew getting the upbringing his birth mother wanted.

  Shultz has a family of her own now, with two boys, ages 2 and 5. Matthew is always a phone call or brief drive away. "Once during the summer and once at Christmas, that has been the arrangement so far," she says. "And we all talk on a regular basis."

  She says she regrets having to make the decision, but not the decision itself. "It was some pretty hard lessons to learn at 15. I was in a maternity home with six other girls for four months until I delivered," Shultz recalls. "But I did it all for Matthew.

  "I'm just so happy to see how much love he has in his life. It's overwhelming, really."

Jeremy Alford is a freelance journalist based in Baton Rouge. You can reach him at jeremy@jeremyalford.com.

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