The Realities of Catholic Charities Adoption

[This story first appeared in the Arlington Catholic Herald, the newspaper for the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia.]

Jochebed, daughter of Levi, was living under Egyptian oppression when the Pharaoh ordered that the Israelites' baby boys be drowned in the Nile. Though she safely hid her son for three months, the day came when she could hide him no longer. And so she made the heart-wrenching choice memorialized in the Book of Exodus.

Pedro Américo's 1884 oil on canvas, "Moses and Jochebed," depicts the beautiful Jewess in anguish as she stands on the banks of the legendary river. In one hand, she clutches the basket containing her pink-faced child. She presses her other hand to her cheek in worry. In that moment, Jochebed looks just as likely to go through with her decision as she does poised to change her mind. But because of her courage and despite her fears, the Pharaoh's daughter finds Moses and adopts him as her own, sparing him the fate suffered by other Hebrew boys.

In the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia, the adoption process begins far from the sphere of Pharaohs. Discreetly located in a Burke office park, the Catholic Charities Center for Adoption and Pregnancy Service has a staff of licensed social workers to assist birth and adoptive parents throughout all stages of the child placement process. Every staff member's desk contains a handwritten sign bearing the words "Calm. Confident. Caring. Determined." The signs remind the staff of how to perform their jobs, day in and day out.

"We pull all of that off because we are people of faith," said Kim Harrell, the center's director. "Faith is not only relevant, it's central. Every (child) placement is a miracle."

The center makes a point of guiding and supporting pregnant women, whether they choose to parent themselves or not. But if a mother does choose to make an adoption plan, the center works with her to match her child with an adoptive couple.

"(Making an adoption plan) is probably one of the hardest things these mothers will ever do," said Harrell, an adoption professional with two decades of experience. "Birth parents are heroes. They are selfless, and they are strong."

Harrell described the birth mothers who come to the center as socially, economically and racially diverse. They vary in age, religious upbringing, educational background and employment status.

"There's this stereotype that birth mothers are young, often still in high school. But that's not usually the case," said Sarah McNichols, one of the center's social workers.

One of her first clients on the job was in her late 30s and the mother of a teenager. The woman, who had been married, was employed and enrolled in college part-time.

"Look around you," said Harrell. "Look at where we live. That's your birth mother."

The commonality uniting birth mothers is their commitment to providing the best for their children. That may mean making an adoption plan, Harrell explained, but it may mean parenting the child themselves or placing the child with a relative.

"Birth parents will change their mind a thousand times," said Harrell. "We are not here to bully or strong arm them. We are here to work with them."

In the wings

According to Harrell, about 90 percent of the prospective adoptive parents who walk through the center's doors identify as Christian, whether Catholic or non-Catholic. Otherwise, like birth parents, they span a range of demographics, including economic backgrounds. The center, unlike many other agencies, offers adoptions on a sliding scale.

"Our goal is to include anybody who wants to adopt," said Harrell. "The more open you are (as a prospective adoptive couple), the more quickly you'll be chosen. If you're closed and want a very specific kind of child, you'll wait longer."

Adoptive parents must complete an application, undergo a home study, create a profile for birth mothers to consider and go through relevant training. How long they wait to bring a child home greatly varies, depending on a complex combination of personal, logistical and legal factors.

"God is in control here," said Harrell. "I couldn't do this job for as long as I have if I thought I was in charge of all this. The stakes are too high. This is God's perfect plan. I tell (prospective) adoptive parents, 'When a child is placed in your arms, you're going to believe that.'"

Read the rest of the story at the Arlington Catholic Herald.