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Foster and adoptive families get help from area support services

  • Claire Huttlinger and her adopted daughter Morgan, 14, feed their baby chicks lunch on June 22, 2013 at their home in Northampton. Huttlinger and her partner Doreen Weinberger have adopted two daughters: Morgan and Jodi, 16.<br/>AYRIKA WHITNEY

    Claire Huttlinger and her adopted daughter Morgan, 14, feed their baby chicks lunch on June 22, 2013 at their home in Northampton. Huttlinger and her partner Doreen Weinberger have adopted two daughters: Morgan and Jodi, 16.
    AYRIKA WHITNEY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Morgan, 14, shares a mixer covered in cake batter with her adoptive mother, Doreen Weinberger. Morgan made a cake with her adoptive mother and Doreen's partner Claire Huttlinger. The couple has another adopted daughter, Jodi, 16.<br/>AYRIKA WHITNEY

    Morgan, 14, shares a mixer covered in cake batter with her adoptive mother, Doreen Weinberger. Morgan made a cake with her adoptive mother and Doreen's partner Claire Huttlinger. The couple has another adopted daughter, Jodi, 16.
    AYRIKA WHITNEY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Morgan, 14, shares a mixer covered in cake batter with her adoptive mother, Doreen Weinberger. Morgan made a cake with her adoptive mother and Doreen's partner Claire Huttlinger. The couple has another adopted daughter, Jodi, 16.<br/>AYRIKA WHITNEY

    Morgan, 14, shares a mixer covered in cake batter with her adoptive mother, Doreen Weinberger. Morgan made a cake with her adoptive mother and Doreen's partner Claire Huttlinger. The couple has another adopted daughter, Jodi, 16.
    AYRIKA WHITNEY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Doreen Weinberger and Claire Huttlinger help their adopted daughter, Morgan, 14, find an icing recipe for the cake she and Huttlinger made. The women also have an older adopted daughter, Jodi, 16.<br/>AYRIKA WHITNEY

    Doreen Weinberger and Claire Huttlinger help their adopted daughter, Morgan, 14, find an icing recipe for the cake she and Huttlinger made. The women also have an older adopted daughter, Jodi, 16.
    AYRIKA WHITNEY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Maya Rege-Colt, left, and Nancy Solow, who are clinical social workers on the response team for Adoption Journeys, talk about their work Tuesday, June 18, at their office in Florence.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Maya Rege-Colt, left, and Nancy Solow, who are clinical social workers on the response team for Adoption Journeys, talk about their work Tuesday, June 18, at their office in Florence.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Morgan, 14, licks the leftover cake batter from the cake her and her adoptive mother, Claire Huttlinger, made. Huttlinger and her partner Doreen Weinberger have adopted two daughters together, Morgan and Jodi, 16.<br/>AYRIKA WHITNEY

    Morgan, 14, licks the leftover cake batter from the cake her and her adoptive mother, Claire Huttlinger, made. Huttlinger and her partner Doreen Weinberger have adopted two daughters together, Morgan and Jodi, 16.
    AYRIKA WHITNEY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Lisa Mintz, who is a community support coordinator for Adoption Journeys, talks about her work Tuesday, June 18, at her office in Florence.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Lisa Mintz, who is a community support coordinator for Adoption Journeys, talks about her work Tuesday, June 18, at her office in Florence.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Deb Estelle, who is a regional manager for Adoption Journeys, talks about her work Tuesday, June 18, at her office in Florence.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Deb Estelle, who is a regional manager for Adoption Journeys, talks about her work Tuesday, June 18, at her office in Florence.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Claire Huttlinger and her adopted daughter Morgan, 14, feed their baby chicks lunch on June 22, 2013 at their home in Northampton. Huttlinger and her partner Doreen Weinberger have adopted two daughters: Morgan and Jodi, 16.<br/>AYRIKA WHITNEY
  • Morgan, 14, shares a mixer covered in cake batter with her adoptive mother, Doreen Weinberger. Morgan made a cake with her adoptive mother and Doreen's partner Claire Huttlinger. The couple has another adopted daughter, Jodi, 16.<br/>AYRIKA WHITNEY
  • Morgan, 14, shares a mixer covered in cake batter with her adoptive mother, Doreen Weinberger. Morgan made a cake with her adoptive mother and Doreen's partner Claire Huttlinger. The couple has another adopted daughter, Jodi, 16.<br/>AYRIKA WHITNEY
  • Doreen Weinberger and Claire Huttlinger help their adopted daughter, Morgan, 14, find an icing recipe for the cake she and Huttlinger made. The women also have an older adopted daughter, Jodi, 16.<br/>AYRIKA WHITNEY
  • Maya Rege-Colt, left, and Nancy Solow, who are clinical social workers on the response team for Adoption Journeys, talk about their work Tuesday, June 18, at their office in Florence.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Morgan, 14, licks the leftover cake batter from the cake her and her adoptive mother, Claire Huttlinger, made. Huttlinger and her partner Doreen Weinberger have adopted two daughters together, Morgan and Jodi, 16.<br/>AYRIKA WHITNEY
  • Lisa Mintz, who is a community support coordinator for Adoption Journeys, talks about her work Tuesday, June 18, at her office in Florence.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Deb Estelle, who is a regional manager for Adoption Journeys, talks about her work Tuesday, June 18, at her office in Florence.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

Karen Green and her partner Linda Cavanaugh adopted their daughter Bianca when she was 5, about 18 months after she came to them as a foster child.

The event was wonderful and “life-changing,” said Green. But parenting a child who has been moved from home to home can come with certain challenges, and there were times the family didn’t know where to turn for help.

“I can’t talk to people I know about parenting, they don’t understand this world of attachment issues and early trauma. I felt very alone in parenting,” Green said.

Bianca is now 14. The couple also has a 19-year-old daughter, Zoe.

Looking for help three years ago, Green reached out to Adoption Journeys in Florence, one of a few local organizations that aim to support families like hers. “And I breathed a sigh of relief,” said Green, of Shelburne Falls, recalling the support and validation she found through the agency.

Parenting is never easy, but for foster or adoptive families, there are additional issues to deal with. Children’s early childhood trauma may cause them to have low self-esteem, to have trouble bonding with their new families or to act out. And trauma doesn’t necessarily mean they were neglected or abused, said Claire Huttlinger, a mother of two adoptive daughters.

“Just changing homes is traumatic,” she said. “That means they may react differently to some parenting techniques.”

Huttlinger and Doreen Weinberger of Turkey Hill Road in Northampton adopted biological sisters Morgan, 14, and Jodi, 16, when they were 2 and 4 years old. Like Green and Cavanaugh, the couple struggled to find resources and peers who could help or even just sympathize with their situation.

“There are teachers that don’t understand, there are therapists that don’t understand, relatives and neighbors that don’t get it,” Huttlinger said. They turned to Adoption Journeys for parenting support and also found out that the agency’s teen group could help Morgan connect with other teens like her and feel more comfortable with her identity.

Where to turn

The challenges of parenting a foster or adoptive child make support crucial, and, parents say, getting help from professionals who specialize in the issues they face is key. Sometimes, the help most needed might be someone to call to ask if a child’s tantrums are normal or a cause for concern. For others, the advice sought is about how to answer hard questions, like those about a child’s birth parents.

Those services are not as easy to find as they ought to be, said Adoption Journeys Regional Manager Deb Estelle.

“Post-adoption services are low around the country, but Massachusetts is one of the leaders in what we offer,” she said.

Locally, families have a few places to turn. Adoption Journeys offers services from family crisis response to support groups. A national nonprofit called A Home Within, which seeks to help people who have been in the foster care system cope with their trauma, opened a local chapter in Northampton in May. Clinical Director Karen Zilberstein said the nonprofit trains and organizes therapists with the goal of offering free therapy to anyone who has been in the foster care system. (See accompanying story.)

In Easthampton, the Treehouse intentional community offers a place for families with foster or adoptive children to live and support each other, alongside seniors who serve as “honorary grandparents.” (See accompanying story.)

After foster care

Estelle said most of the issues adoptive families face stem from the trauma the children endured in their early years, including moving to new homes with new parents, siblings and rules.

“They may come to you at 4 or 5 years old and have had as many as 20 placements, and that can make it really difficult for the child to have a positive bond with their new family,” she said in an interview recently at the Adoption Journeys offices on North Maple Street.

The state-funded agency under the direction of Child and Family Services of New Bedford provides free post-adoption support services across the state.

The western Massachusetts office in Florence serves about 200 families a year. Its staff arrange fun get-togethers, give advice to parents or help them to find therapists and other professionals who specialize in issues common to adoptive or foster families. Lisa Mintz coordinates activity groups for kids and support groups for teens and parents. The agency’s response team, made up of Nancy Solow and Maya Rege-Colt, visits families at home if they are in crisis to help them identify problems and create a plan to deal with them.

Many adopted children who have been traumatized have trouble regulating their emotions, and Solow said that among the issues they often see are what she called “the triumvirate:” lying, stealing and hoarding.

“They’re all responses to a lack of inner security, a reaction to fear. It’s all pretty primal,” she said. “These kids didn’t get what they needed in their early lives, and now they have these holes, so these primal responses to fear are really common.”

Getting help

At Adoption Journeys, experts help parents see the real root of the problem and adjust parenting strategies accordingly when children are troubled or uncooperative.

“I’ve called many a day, totally at the end of my rope,” Green said. Adoption Journeys’ employees reminded her let go of other priorities in order to focus on what was the most important thing: creating a strong bond with her daughter. “You’re trying to build relationships with kids whose major relationships so far have been disrupted,” Green said. “It’s a huge challenge.”

She recalled a time she called to get advice because she and Bianca were repeatedly arguing about homework. “They said, ‘the number one thing is your bond with them. If you’re fighting over homework every day, that’s not good for your relationship,’” Green recalled. This advice effectively ended Green’s side of the homework struggle.

Huttlingers says it is also helpful when those with experience in the issues facing foster and adoptive children advocate for them in the school setting. Adoption Journeys employees and some social workers or therapists help teachers to understand that some adopted kids have developmental delays because of disruptions in their lives, and that some disciplinary methods may not work well if they misbehave.

“These kids sometimes mature at different rates than those around them, and maybe they’re making a lot of progress, but then they get compared to others their age, and it’s unclear to many that they are making progress,” she said.

Sympathy and support

Getting professional advice about specific issues is important for foster or adoptive families, but Huttlinger said that sometimes, they just need a little support from people who are like them. Adoption Journeys has activity groups for children and support groups for teens and parents, and the Springfield office of the Department of Children and Families has also organized a group for adoptive parents, Huttlinger said.

Being in a room with other adoptive parents who understand what you are going through and have ideas to share is a relief, she said. Huttlinger attends an Adoption Journeys group in Amherst while Morgan goes to a teen group.

Meanwhile, she said she is also grateful for the support Morgan gets at the group.

Munching on a snack of banana bread at her home Thursday afternoon, Morgan said group members might eat pizza, tell their “adoption stories,” about how they came to be adopted by their families, or talk about tough stuff they’re going through. “We talk about anything we want to,” she said.

“We get to know each other and play games and help each other. The people are just there for you,” Morgan said.

The discussions have helped her understand what it means for kids to have been adopted, including for herself. “They’ve been through a lot more,” she said. “But it doesn’t really matter if you’re adopted. You’re just another kid.”

Rebecca Everett can be reached at reverett@gazettenet.com.

Related

Treehouse Community in Easthampton offers “a village” to help raise foster and adoptive kids

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The creators of the Treehouse Community in Easthampton understand the importance of peer support for families raising foster or adoptive children. “It takes a village” is the principle behind Treehouse Community, which was built in 2006 as part of a 45-acre development off of Button Road. It houses about 100 people, split equally between families with foster and adoptive kids …

A Home Within offers help for current or former foster children

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Finding the right therapist is an important part of helping adopted or foster children deal with their childhood trauma and emotional problems, according to Karen Zilberstein, who teaches at the Smith College School for Social Work. Zilberstein is the clinical director of the new Northampton chapter of A Home Within, a national nonprofit based in San Francisco that trains therapists …

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