STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

Here's what Michigan is doing to reduce the rate of broken adoptions for foster care youth

Jennifer Guerra
Michigan Radio

The goal for children in foster care is to find them permanent homes. If they can’t live with their birth parents, the next best thing might be adoption. But the road to adoption can be bumpy, and for some children their dreams of a permanent family are dashed before the papers are even signed. 

"I refuse to sink"

Nineteen year old Candice Sponaas is a blonde tomboy with a 1000-watt smile. 

Like a lot of teenagers, Sponaas is really into tattoos. She designed the one on her forearm. It’s a big, floral infinity symbol with an anchor on one end and a rose on the other. In between are the words “I refuse to sink.” As she starts to talk about her broken adoption, I notice her glance down at the tattoo on her arm. It seems to give her strength just looking at it. 

Sponaas moved in with her soon-to-be adoptive family just before she turned 18.  They planned to adopt her in a year or two. But ten months in, things were not going well – especially between Sponaas and the mom of the house. So Sponaas moved out.

"And then we just stopped talking," says Sponaas. "And then she said I think it’s better if we just don’t try to force everything here. I wish you nothing but happiness, but that’s all that there is. So, that adoption is never going to happen."

Credit Jennifer Guerra / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Candice Sponaas designed her own tattoo

Sponaas and the woman who almost adopted her never went anywhere for help to try to repair the relationship. When I spoke to the mom she said it all just spiraled out of control so quickly there was no time to try and fix it.

It’s hard to pin down how many foster care adoptions fall through. National studies are all over the place; the rates range anywhere from five percent to 25 percent, with the majority of studies falling somewhere around 10 percent.

President Barack Obama recently signed a bill making it mandatory for states to track the types of failed adoptions -- "disrupted" adoptions that fall apart before the papers are signed, and "dissolved" adoptions that fall apart after the papers are signed. It's worth noting that disrupted adoptions are much more common than dissolved ones. Michigan doesn't track dissolved adoptions, but they tracked 17 disrupted adoptions in 2013, less than one percent of the more than 2,000 total adoptions last year.

Pinpointing the reason why adoptions fail is also difficult. Attachment issues are often cited. Sometimes parents have problems dealing with the emotional and behavioral issues many foster care youth experience.

If there’s a silver lining to this story, it’s this: help is available.

Jane Cullen works at Orchards Children’s Servicesin Southfield, where she runs a post-adoption resource center. The whole point of the center is to help adoptive children and families get the services they need, and cut down on the number of broken adoptions.

Cullen says families call the center "all the time" asking for help. "We have been so successful going in, providing concrete services and really having things stabilize," explains Cullen. 

The Michigan Department of Human Services opened a handful of post-adoption resource centers (PARC)around the state in 2012. Before that, there was really no one place adoptive foster families could go for help. (Court monitors in charge of following DHS' reform efforts after the agency was sued in 2006 described the state's pre-lawsuit post adoption resources as "very thin and often non-existent.")

Before the PARC program came online, Jane Cullen thinks "families could’ve gotten the message: You adopted this child, adoption is forever, here’s some information, kind of try and figure it out." 

Today, the state spends around $5 million on post adoption supports including medical subsidies (which were around pre-lawsuit) and the new resource centers. Families can go to PARC for all kinds of help including trainings, support groups, advice and referrals, among other things. If there’s an emergency crisis at home, the center will immediately send out a case worker to help.

"We’re not even remotely thinking of giving him up."

Ann Lillard and her husband, Tim, are regulars at their monthly support group at Orchards Children's Services. Lillard says they usually "just sit around and talk about our kids...about the problems." She says it definitely makes a difference for her and her husband.

The Lillards adopted their son Nate when he was 10 years old. Nate grew up in foster care and lived in roughly 14 different homes before he was adopted. When the Lillards first brought Nate home, things were great; he trusted them, he loved them, he was in therapy. But as he got older, he started to act out and do drugs. Nate is now 15 years old and he lives in a juvenile detention center and rehab facility.

His mom, Ann Lilllard, says it’s just temporary. She’s adamant about that.

"Yes, we want him back home. We’re not even remotely thinking of giving him up. One way or another we’re going to get him where he needs to be."

The Lillard’s are determined to make Nate’s adoption work. And they plan to lean heavily on the post-adoption resource center to help them do it.

Jennifer is a reporter with Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project. She previously covered arts and culture for the station, and worked as a producer for WFUV in the Bronx.
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