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Supporting Adoption Placements in Hospitals: Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute

CCAI Angel in Adoption Rebecca Vahle

CCAI Angel in Adoption, Rebecca Vahle, is an Adoption Liaison at Parker Adventist Hospital where she works on the Family to Family Adoption Support program. We asked Rebecca to write about why she decided to start this initiative and her experience with the program.

The Family to Family Adoption Support program at Parker Adventist Hospital in Parker, CO, just southeast of Denver, is the only established and comprehensive hospital-based adoption support program in the nation.  Over the past eight years, our goal has evolved and expanded.  The program’s core mission is to ensure that mothers who desire to make an adoption plan have access to trained nurses and doctors during this emotional and complex time.

As an adoptive mom, I have welcomed two of our children home as infants. Both hospital situations, while very different, were extremely emotional and unnecessarily chaotic.  It was evident that the staff had a wide range of opinions about adoption, and the hospital policies were unclear.

After our two experiences, I started talking to other adoptive families and birth families.  I found that hospital placements were described by all families involved as wonderful, horrible, humiliating, shame-filled, beautiful, etc.  And sadly, some of those words, such as wonderful and shame-filled, were used to describe hospital placements at the same facility, all dependent on the “nurse you got” or if a staff member had a positive or negative adoption experience.  I also heard from nursing staff that they felt uncomfortable since they didn’t have any formal training as to how to best handle the complexities of an adoption placement.

We started our program in 2005 with mandatory training for our staff, and in time, training for our doctors.  Little did we know that the program would evolve to a service and support model that included education for those both considering adoption and preparing for an adoption, as well as awareness of post-adoption resources.

As the only hospital in Colorado that offers services to all members of this population, our outreach efforts also include adoption education throughout the community.  A clear understanding of adoption has allowed us to help women like Karen*.  Karen was driving through the Denver area on her way to her home state when she went into labor.  Her contractions got too strong for her to continue, and no one back home knew she was pregnant.  She followed the “H” signs on the road and entered Parker Adventist Hospital in the early morning hours.  She told the nurse her plan: to leave once the baby was born and give the baby to the state.  The nurse, trained in adoption, simply mentioned that she could choose to do an adoption plan instead, and that she could choose an agency and meet with a counselor. She was made aware that she could pick a family, even meet them if she’d like, and would still be able to leave that day.  After choosing the family for her child after delivery, she told me, “I had no idea!  I didn’t even know this was an option.”

Twins born at Parker Adventist Hospital and later adopted because of the Family to Family Adoption Support program.

Sometimes we get connected with patients considering adoption early in their pregnancy.  We are able to connect them with adoption-sensitive doctors who are aware that they are simply considering adoption and that their care will continue with that doctor regardless if they choose to parent or make an adoption plan.  This is beneficial as they do not have ER deliveries, but are offered consistent prenatal care and ongoing support regardless of their ultimate decision.

Another recent patient didn’t have much warning and also came into the Parker BirthPlace ready to deliver.  She, however, announced when she came in that she was planning to do an adoption.  She had been living in her car and had not been able to meet with a counselor.  She was able to step into a program in the BirthPlace that understood her wishes and had the resources and infrastructure to meet her needs.  She told me, “It was just really important to me that she not go into foster care. I really wanted her to go straight to her family.”  This time in the hospital would hopefully be the beginning of a lifelong relationship with her adoptive family.  We are so honored to share this precious time with our patients and the families involved.

Imagine how the adoption community would be different if there was a Family to Family Adoption Support program in every hospital?  What if nurses and doctors felt empowered to care for their patients in a way that honored their decisions? What if hospital professionals clearly understood their adoption policies and guidelines and had an opportunity to explore their own thoughts about adoption?  What if there was a place for families to go where they could receive care from healthcare professionals who better understood the logistical complexity and emotional impact of an adoption plan?

I was asked recently why a hospital wouldn’t have a program like this one.  I believe there are two reasons:

 Hospitals don’t believe they see “enough” adoptions to fund mandatory training.  I would challenge that with this fact: we were seeing an average of one adoption a month when this program was first launched in 2005.  In 2013, we started off the year by having seven babies placed in seven weeks, serving patients ages 14-42.  The mother of a 14 year-old patient told me, “Without Parker Adventist Hospital, we would be taking this baby home.  Not because she is ready to be a mom, but because we wouldn’t have even known where to start when considering adoption.”  One of our doctors told me, “I now do not hesitate to discuss the option of adoption with my patients.  If they want more information, I know I can send them to the Adoption Liaison.”

Hospitals don’t recognize how much adoption has changed.   In the “old model”, the hospital stay was very different.  A woman delivered a baby, the baby was taken out of the room and given to a social worker, who then delivered the baby to his or her new family.  The mother was told to forget about the baby she just delivered and move on.  The adoptive family was coached to not address the child’s loss of his or her first family.  This approach is contrary to the model we embrace at Parker Adventist Hospital.  With the changes toward open adoption, our program embraces the patient and supports her with compassionate care while acknowledging her loss.  We also recognize that the extended family will naturally be affected by the adoption and may be present. The patient and her family are encouraged to define the woman’s time in the hospital, and if the baby’s father is present also, we do our best to support his unique emotions as well.  Our goal is to support that baby’s parents with not only excellent medical care but also compassionate emotional support.

I truly believe we must challenge our hospitals to do three things: become knowledgeable about adoption issues, require mandatory training regarding current adoption practice, and learn  how professionals can best support patients during their hospital time, empowering them to make the choice that is best for them.   As we see our community utilizing our Family to Family Adoption Support program at Parker Adventist Hospital, we see how having adoption-sensitive care and providing adoption resources can change the community’s approach and understanding of adoption.

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