Jeanne Howard has dedicated her professional career to understanding how foster and adopted children perceive themselves. “Think of what the identity of a foster child is,” said Howard. “It is a stigmatizing identity.”
The co-director of the Center for Adoption Studies at Illinois State, Howard and her fellow scholars study the population of foster children as well as adopted children and their families. Their work is in demand on a national level.
Taking a rare quiet moment at the Center, Howard explained she had just returned from a conference in Massachusetts, and would soon leave for a summit in Washington, D.C., to discuss post-adoption services for families. “There is often an illusion that once a child is adopted, everything is perfect, but children can go through a lot before they reach adoption,” she said, pointing to possible trauma children can suffer, either in their original family or by being separated from family. “Illinois is one of the few states that offers support after adoption, and we are hoping other states will follow suit after this summit.”
Fighting the illusions and stigmas that often accompany foster care and adoption are main themes of Howard’s work, which began decades ago when she and fellow Illinois State emeritus faculty member Susan Smith started the Center for Adoption Studies. Howard remains on the forefront of trends in adoption, and finds herself working diligently for the more than 100,000 children in foster care in the nation.
“What we are seeing now is a realization of the importance of the ties of family during a child’s time in foster care,” said Howard, who has conducted studies on adolescent identity and adoption. “We are thinking more about trying to maintain a stronger tie to families as we help make them safer for children.” In the past, Howard noted family members were often banned from being foster parents in an “apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” philosophy. Yet children were emerging with emotional scars from being isolated from family, as well as suddenly being severed from the only life they knew.
“It is considered a success to work with families and have children returned home in a year. But what is a year to a seven-year-old? That can seem like forever,” said Howard. “In some cases, we have traded off emotional safety for physical safety. Now we are beginning to respect a child’s personal connections, and realize not enough attention has been paid to that.”
Efforts are now being made to keep children connected to some elements of family, whether with parents, extended family or friends and neighbors. “Even if families can’t raise a child, they can still be a resource for a child, and help maintain a child’s identity,” she said.
Howard’s recent studies focus on examining the effect of long-term foster care on children. “Once a child is in foster care, the chances that he or she will be adopted go down dramatically once they reach age 9,” said Howard. “So you have children who are in the system for 12 or 13 years.” Last year, she spent time in Chicago on a project evaluating older children who remain in the system. “I have a deep concern for kids who never find a home in foster care,” she said. “You have children who leave the system at 18 and have no where to go. Imagine an 18-year-old, especially one that’s bounced around in the child welfare system for years. That child needs family.”
Family ties can come from strengthening existing families, or opening up more families to becoming adoptive and foster parents – including gay and lesbian parents. According to Howard, she did not set out to become an advocate for gay and lesbian adoption, but she found that limits on gay and lesbian parents keep children from becoming part of healthy families. “Gay and lesbian parents have been a wonderful resource for foster children,” said Howard. “Studies are showing us that gay men and lesbians are more interested in taking the ‘hard cases’ of kids who have special needs, or are older.”
Howard recently consulted on a court case in Michigan where a lesbian couple was petitioning the court to challenge what is known as “second parent adoption,” in which only one member of a gay or lesbian couple can be the adopting parent. “It creates a whole host of vulnerabilities and open questions for a child, from life insurance and benefits to custody issues in the event of a parent’s death,” she said. “Really, it is an impediment that implies this is a second-class family.”
When it comes to the politics of gay and lesbian adoption, Howard bristles. “It irritates me when politicians ‘make hay’ over gay adoption when the demand for good homes is so high,” she said. “What matters is a broader concern of finding good homes for kids.”
Visit the Center for Adoption Studies website: http://adoptionresearch.illinoisstate.edu/