DANVILLE – When Bernadine and Dan Spitz adopted two foster daughters in the mid-1980s, the Georgetown couple found there weren't a lot of services available to help them deal with the unique issues surrounding the children and their new family. They weren't alone.
"There were a lot of families out there having the same kinds of issues with children with abuse and neglect histories," Bernadine Spitz recalled. "They weren't particularly crises, but they made our lives complicated. ... Up to this point, all we could get was counseling. But we were in need of more support for our entire family."
Two years ago, Spitz and three other adoptive mothers were given the opportunity to develop a program to provide that. This year, the program – the Family Tree Adoption Connections program – has won the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Adoption Excellence Award in the "Support for Adoptive Families" category.
The Adoption Excellence Awards were established in 1997 to recognize outstanding accomplishments by states, child welfare agencies, organizations, courts, businesses, families and individuals in providing adoptions and other permanent outcomes for children in foster care. On Nov. 6, the awards will be presented to 30 recipients at a ceremony at the National Adoption Recruitment Summit in Washington, D.C.
The Family Tree program was nominated for the national award by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. In his nomination letter, agency Director Bryan Samuels wrote, "The program reaches out to families who may have feelings of mistrust or alienation associated with the more traditional family-based services such as counseling or other clinical services and offers them a welcoming environment that normalizes their concerns. Through reducing stress and increasing positive interactions within and between adoptive families, the program brings hope and healing to many parents and their children."
The program came to the state agency's attention through one of Spitz's adopted daughters, Tammy Hay of Georgetown.
"I begged them to review our local program," said Hay, who sits on a statewide adoption advisory council.
"Family Tree Adoption Connections is a unique program that has been successful in supporting adoptive families, preventing isolation, encouraging attachment and making Vermilion County in Illinois the best place to have happy, adopted families," continued Hay, who is involved in the program as both an adoptee and a foster parent. "I have watched adopted families struggle with the idea that they are poor parents or that they are alone or wonder why their child cannot love like other children. Through the program, I have seen these families become empowered with the knowledge and understanding of their situation and be able to create happiness within their family and support others in similar situations."
Launched in April 2001 through Project Success, the program gives ongoing support and educational services to local adoptive families. To date, the program, which has a budget of about - $70,000 a year, has served 52 families in Vermilion, Champaign and Iroquois counties and nearly 120 adopted children.
The four women who developed the program have adopted a total of 20 children and fostered many more. Spitz, who has since adopted seven more children and had one biological child, said the program was geared to families with multiple adoptees and single parents.
"Those are the families we saw that needed more of a helping hand," she said, adding the group has never had a waiting list.
Whether the family has one adoptee or many, it faces unique challenges, Spitz said. Many of the children, once wards of the state, have issues that range from attachment problems to neurobehavioral difficulties.
"A lot of people look at it like you just love them, and that's it," said Spitz, who also teaches preservice classes for foster parents through Parkland College. "But there's a lot more to it. ... The children are coming into your family with their own abuse and neglect histories. You have to understand that and assimilate that because that's part of them."
The program has four components, according to Michael Courtwright, Project Success' post-adoption services coordinator and the Family Tree facilitator.
Educational support groups bring parents together for a presentation by a guest speaker, while children participate in their own structured activities. During parent retreats, parents get away and get more intensive training on adoption issues.
Weekend family camps give parents and children an opportunity to get away and work on strengthening family relationships. And adoptive family celebrations give them a chance to get together for an evening of roller-skating or a day at an amusement park.
"Often because of the issues they face, these families are really stressed," Courtwright said. "Sometimes they need to get away and have some fun and get some stress off."
"It just draws families together – not only adoptive families but our own families," added Hay, who attends activities with her brothers and sisters and own family, which includes husband, Tim; son, Matthew; and daughters Brittany and Karllie. Tim adopted Matthew and Brittany, Tammy's biological children, four years ago, and Karllie is the couple's biological daughter. Tammy Hay said the couple hope to adopt another child in the future.