Earlier this year, the Family to Family Support Network was featured in Adoption Today magazine. We’re reprinting here with permission.
Most people would say that when they became parents their lives were forever changed. For Rebecca Vahle, adopting her children not only changed her life, but gave her a new mission. Surprisingly, it wasn’t just her children who gave her that mission, but their birth parents as well.
When Vahle began to learn about the negative experiences of her children’s birth parents while in the hospital pre- and post-delivery, the longtime educator knew she needed to do something to change the way expectant parents were being treated by hospital staff.
For more than 10 years, Vahle was the adoption liaison for Colorado’s Parker Adventist Hospital’s Family to Family Support program. She spent years educating staff, offering classes to pre-adoptive parents and supporting birth parents through a most difficult decision. The program was designed to train hospital staff on adoption-competent care as well.
But ultimately, she decided it wasn’t enough. She has heard enough horror stories about nurses either begging birth mothers to parent their child, or pressuring them to go through with their adoption, or hospital staff who over supported the potential adoptive family, ignoring the birth mother or vice versa due to a lack of education. When offered, Vahle said she has found nurses and other hospital staff enthusiastic about receiving training, to help them better serve their patients in these unique circumstances.
For Vahle, it became clear there was not established “best practice” in hospitals for caring for these unique cases. Vahle said she needed to educate health care workers around the country, so these situations would no longer occur. In order to take on that hefty task, recently Vahle launched the non-profit Family to Family Support Network.
“The need to replicate the program was so great,” Vahle said. “I felt called to go out and share this. I’m traveling and sharing the program in hospitals. My goal is to help all birthing centers become adoption competent.”
Still very much connected to Parker Adventist Hospital, Vahle is just now concentrating on taking the adoption education program to a broader network. Already she has trained hospitals in Idaho and Maryland and is working with leaders around the country to expand this model of care.
Because much of what Vahle shares in her training can be easily applied to other areas, it allows hospitals to apply it for other uses as well. For example, St. Luke’s Health System in Idaho found that “Serving the Unique Family Training” offered by Vahle also helped them to better serve other populations, such as refugees, surrogates and intended parents, as well as incarcerated women. The goal of valuing and accommodating the patient became first and foremost, identifying and removing biases and judgement that may impact care.
“St. Luke’s Health System has taken it much further than just adoption,” Vahle said. “It’s really broadened the care offered throughout their system.”
The training helps hospital staff understand the history of adoption and the role nurses and doctors played in those historical events such as the Baby Scoop era. During those time frames much stigma was attached to unwed mothers and the children they gave birth to.
“Many of the misconceptions surrounding that era still impact the way mothers considering adoption are treated in today’s society,” Vahle said. “We talk about who had the power in those terms in history. And it wasn’t the birth mothers. We’re combatting this message about adoption. People have so many inaccurate assumptions.”
When working with hospital staff members, Vahle asks them to address their own bias around adoption, so they can recognize the baggage they need to leave behind before stepping into that hospital room. Vahle also helps hospital staff to understand the depth of grief and loss birth parents experience, so they can help those families navigate that grief in the earliest phases of relinquishment.
“We talk about ambiguous loss and the grief birth mothers face,” Vahle said. “We have to reframe adoption for health care workers to understand it is loss — much as a stillbirth or neonatal demise would be. There’s so much loss in all of this. Our main goal is neutral, compassionate care at the bedside, so it gives people permission to feel all of these emotions without them being shadowed in judgment.”
The placing parents are not the only ones with grief to address. Often potential adoptive parents bury their infertility grief and it comes out later in inopportune parenting moments. By understanding how to manage their own grief and loss, these parents become more attuned and adept at helping their children face their own adoption losses later on.
Now, through this training, Vahle is teaching staff how to empower mothers to have control of their hospital experience. She teaches the hospital staff how to remain supportive of all parties involved, but especially to honor the wishes of the mother as she is truly the hospital’s patient, first and foremost.
“The patients really benefit because they have more voice,” Vahle said. “We are making sure she has that time in the hospital to do what she wants. She makes the calls. We’re making sure she can craft her goodbye. There’s never any right or wrong answer for the time she has in the hospital and should she choose to parent, we are there to help her with resources and will help her navigate the support she may need.”
Doing this work for more than 11 years, Vahle has also recognized the challenges in her own adoption journey. In the beginning, Vahle said she thought the story started from when they took the baby home and lived happily ever after. What she didn’t realize was how the story really started much earlier with her own infertility journey and continues through today as she and her husband parent their teenagers.
“There were a lot of things I would have done differently in my own journey had I known better,” Vahle said. “I didn’t understand all the adoption shrapnel. I didn’t get that I needed to deal with our infertility. We often say adopting a child may solve the goal to be a parent, but it does not solve a couple’s infertility. No child should have that job.”
Vahle’s hope is that not only is she educating hospital staff on how to support patients making adoption plans, but also adoptive parents on how to navigate their adoption journey, including their own grief and loss.
“If we can all be aware, we can do it better,” Vahle said. “It’s proactive versus reactive.”
In launching Family to Family Support Network Vahle has had some criticism about how the program may be coercive to parents, trying to convince them to relinquish. However, because Family to Family Support Network is not tied to any agency and doesn’t receive any money from the adoption process itself, Vahle said the program has no vested interest in whether the prospective birth mother chooses to place or parent. The program is a training tool to teach hospital staff how to provide quality, neutral care to parents, extended family and potential adoptive families.
“We need to have these moms treated well regardless if they parent or place,” Vahle said.
“We’re constantly empowering the patient to voice her needs and wants. I don’t have a vested interest. I just want her to have peace with her decision.”
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