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Family of the Heart

A family, at its core, is about  love. It’s a safe home, unconditional support and a built-in team who will always be there to take care of each other. 

That’s why Melanie Stimmell, of the supportive, educational and advocacy nonprofit Florida’s Foster/Adoptive Parent Association (FAPA), says that loving an adopted child is no different than loving a biological one. 

“The rewards of being an adoptive parent are the same as the rewards of being a biological parent,” she notes. It’s a truth she keenly understands, as she says the “big, exciting ‘mom moments’” she has with the children she adopted are no different than those of a mother who birthed her child. “I don’t think of them as adopted. Each child is different and each child has their own story no matter who they are.” 

Since 2000, November has been observed as National Adoption Month, with National Adoption Day celebrated on the Saturday before Thanksgiving. It’s an opportunity for advocates, organizations and families touched by adoption to celebrate an increasingly accepted but still misunderstood path to parenthood. And while not everyone participates in a dedicated month-long awareness campaign, they certainly do their part year-round to connect as many prospective parents and children as they can while proving that families are made in all kinds of ways. 

A Loving Choice

Amy Imber is the founder of Connecting Hearts Adoption Services, which performs the in-depth home studies required to be eligible to adopt. It is a process that ultimately results in a document they can take to the attorneys or agencies handling their adoptions. She has been in the field for more than 20 years and has worked with enough families to know that adoption is a loving choice that begins with an expectant mother realizing that her circumstances necessitate the need for her to place her child for adoption.  

“We don’t say a mother is ‘giving her baby away’—she’s placing her baby in someone else’s care because, for whatever reason, her circumstances make it so it’s not the right time for her to be raising that child,” Imber says. “She’s not doing it because she doesn’t love or want her baby.  She is doing so because she loves her baby that much and putting the needs of her child before her own needs.”

Eric Ferrari and Bobby Bongiorno, a same-sex couple from Winter Garden, have adopted two children: 4-year-old Steffen and 3-month-old Alexander. While they’re “still trying to understand the kind of relationship” they’ll have with their younger son’s birth family, they revel in how close they are with Steffen’s biological mother.

“We have a great relationship with Steffen’s birth mom: She’s very loving, she communicates regularly with us, we send photos to her, she’s very interested in where he is in his life,” says Ferrari. “It’s a wonderful experience to feel secure in that relationship and knowing that when the time comes and he’s ready to have that relationship or meet her and know more about her, it can definitely happen.”

Ferrari and Bongiorno recognize that they have their son because of his birth mother’s selfless, difficult choice, and are profoundly grateful that she not only wishes to remain involved in his life but also chose them to be Steffen’s parents. 

“There’s no greater love than a mother’s love,” Ferrari says. “What we’ve really learned is that it takes the purest form of love to say, ‘Please take my child and raise him because I’m not in a place where I can do it, and they deserve a better chance and better opportunities than what I can give them right now.’ That’s a very powerful kind of love to witness.” 

Stimmell says that including a birth family who wants maintain a healthy relationship with the child can be one of the most emotionally beneficial options for everyone. 

“The healing that comes from loving a child and their biological parents helps everybody in the process of whatever direction a case takes,” she says. “Even if Mom and Dad can’t work out all their issues, the children know you love their parents enough to meet them where they’re at.” 

Understanding the Emotional Challenges 

No matter how much unwavering love surrounds a child, though, there is an element of sorrow mingled with the joy of welcoming them to their forever family. 

“When you move away from fostering and into adoption, there’s a grieving process for the bio parents, there’s a grieving process for the child and there’s a grieving process for the foster family because no one ever wants to see a child lose their birth parents,” Stimmell notes. “It’s a choice that should be celebrated but also mourned.” 

As adoption becomes better understood, so too does its impact, like the inherent trauma and adjustment that comes with placing a child with a family they’re not born to, and how that can permanently affect their developing brain. Stimmell says the goal is to keep a child with people they already know and trust to minimize that trauma, which sometimes means extended family becomes a foster family. It’s also crucial to prepare parents to meet their newest family member’s needs, whether it’s through conversations, sharing resources, informational events and even enacting change at the state level.

“Our job is to make sure that every foster and adoptive family is very well aware and educated in what that trauma looks like,” she explains. “We have three major conferences every year that we hold for all our foster parents across the state. … We have contacts legislatively, and we try to change laws to better support foster and adoptive families.” 

The impact on the adoptive parents needs to be considered, too. It’s far from uncommon for a potential parent to have an otherwise promising adoption go up in smoke at the last minute for any manner of reasons and through no parties’ fault.

“It’s an incredibly emotional journey full of exciting points and disappointments,” Bongiorno says. “When we first set out to adopt, we were matched with a birth mom who was having twins. I kind of broke the rules a little bit and was telling people, ‘Oh, we’re adopting twins!’ when I should have just waited until things progressed because it fell through. At the time, I was crushed. But then I realized if that hadn’t happened, we might not have Steffen. You have to remind yourself that everything happens for a reason.” 

Imber believes that it’s in children’s best long-term interest to have safeguards in place, such as a home study, to ensure they’re placed with the right family and to avoid subjecting a child to an emotionally disruptive parade of foster homes. But she does note there is something innately unjust in putting parents through a lengthy process when they just want a child of their own to love.

“I do think there are parts of this that are very unfair,” she says. “I think it’s unfair that there are people who can have multiple children biologically with what appears to be little effort, and then there’s a lot of families we have worked with who’ve suffered with infertility for years and years, and then they have to have someone come into their homes and approve them to be parents.”

COVID has brought all-new complications to the adoption process, too. Ferrari and Bongiorno overcame hurdles with Alexander’s adoption that they didn’t face with Steffen, like readjusting the criteria they were looking for, and realizing that there were more parents than ever looking for a child and fewer children to adopt. 

It’s an experience that Imber says has become increasingly common. The pandemic, compounded by low birth rates nationwide, has made it more of a challenge to help prospective parents realize their dreams of growing a family. But as waiting lists grow, children of all ages are still being welcomed into the loving, well-vetted homes they deserve, even if those success stories have slowed down quite a bit in the past year or so. 

“We’ve never had this many waiting families,” Imber says. “The national birth rate in general is down, so there’s just fewer adoptions. In the past 18 months, a lot of agencies have closed their waitlists for a period of time, or they have a waitlist to get on their waitlist.”

Krystal Trocki is an adoption coordinator for 26Health, an Orlando clinic focused on the physical and mental health of the LGBTQIA+ community that’s also the first completely inclusive adoption agency in Florida. She explains the timeline prospective parents should expect.

“To find a child, it can take anywhere from a month after the home study to two or three years,” she says. “Once the child is placed in the home, it takes at least 90 days for the adoption to be completed.”

Growing Modern Families

The definition of family keeps evolving to be a more inclusive one, reflecting the true nature 

of today’s American households. Single parents, older parents, mixed-race couples and LGBTQIA+ couples are all benefiting from an increased acceptance as the valid families that they are. 

“We’ve been very fortunate that everyone we come across has been very welcoming and accepting,” says Ferrari. “I will say that it’s interesting to see our family through the innocence of a child. Steffen’s at the age now where people will say, ‘Well, where’s your mom?’ and he just blurts out, ‘I have two dads’ like it’s nothing. It’s no big deal to him.” 

They’ve also noticed how many people around them can relate to their story.

“As you talk to people about it, it’s shocking and amazing how many people are touched by adoption,” Bongiorno says. “We’ve also surrounded ourselves with people whose lives have been touched by adoption, so our kids will have people they can relate to who they can hang out with, and we have other parents—both gay and straight—who we can talk to and have things in common with.”

He adds that the days of closed adoptions—where children had no options or avenues for connecting with their birth families—are essentially over, as are the days of treating adoption like a dirty secret. “Back in the day when our parents grew up, no one talked about adoption. But we’re talking about it and treating it like it’s normal and letting our children know that they’re loved by even more people than they would be if they hadn’t been adopted.” 

Stimmell says the one things that hasn’t changed, though, is that love is always the foundation a family is built on. 

“Foster parents, if they’re doing their job super well, fall deeply in love with the child,” she says. “I don’t know the exact numbers of how many foster families become adoptive families, but it often happens because that foster family did their job and loved that child really well.”