For 40 years, the Joint Council on International Children’s Services advanced the overall wellbeing of vulnerable children and their right to live in permanent family care. Originally formed in 1975 as an association of adoption agencies, the organization eventually evolved over its storied history into an international child welfare organization focused on ending the suffering of the world’s most vulnerable children—those without the love and protection of a forever family.
In July 2015, Joint Council closed its doors. It was a shocking surprise, made as an announcement during the Annual Conference. I stood on the dais as the Interim Executive Director looking over the crowd of 450 individuals representing organizations all over the world focused on adoption and child welfare. The questions of Why? How? and What does this mean for “us”? started that morning, and I still wake up to emails in my inbox asking “now what?”
I don’t have all the answers. For decades, our deeply committed staff worked around the clock to ensure that the children we served, those without the love and protection of a forever family, realized the right to a permanent home. However, over time we were unable to continue this good work for several reasons. I believe there are lessons from our closure the community can take to ensure the work continues and other organizations can continue fulfilling their missions of ensuring that children live in families. Two of the most critical lessons learned are as follows:
1. We need more support for adults who were adopted as children.
Joint Council’s staff regularly received inquiries from birth parents who placed children for adoption, adults who were adopted as children searching for their families of origin, and adoptive families who wanted to assist their children in a reunion with their birth parents.
According to the Adoption History Project at the University of Oregon, there are approximately 5 million Americans alive today who were adopted. We regularly sent these individuals to Adoption.com to educate themselves on the process, as well as the steps they could take when they reached dead ends. They regularly shared with us that the search and reunion process became a full time job, and for many with whom we came in contact, this was not their first go at search and reunion. The process is overwhelming, bringing many emotions to the surface. The process can be expensive. Many times the staff felt helpless in our offers of support.
Since leaving Joint Council, I have joined my husband at Trustify, where we regularly help individuals in the search and reunion process at a nominal cost to our clients. It has been an interesting and seamless move for me professionally. I find so much joy working with individuals and the private investigators who help facilitate this search and reunion. The search process can be overwhelming, and it has given me purpose in taking the burden off the individual and giving it to the investigator who can help make reunions a reality.
2. We need to Help Adoption Service Providers Adapt to Changing Environments
Intercountry adoptions have been on the decline for the last 5 years. After hitting a peak of 22,734 intercountry adoptions in 2005, the number of adoptions dropped to 6,441 last year. That’s the lowest number of intercountry adoptions since the early 1980s. In 2007, Joint Council worked with more than 250 adoption service providers, but as of January, the number of our Partners dropped to the historical low of 140, many of whom were not ASPs.
Agencies are spread thin and need support navigating the ever-evolving policies and procedures coming out of Washington, DC and foreign governments. Resources and time are finite. Travel is expensive. Relationships with government officials take years to cultivate. One of the greatest services provided by Joint Council was advocacy. We represented the agency in Congress, at Department of State and USCIS.
Over time Joint Council lessened its focus on supporting agencies in their critical work of ensuring that every child realizes their intrinsic right to a forever family. I believe we watered down our message and focus. We stopped programs and services that supported the work of our partners. As a community, we need to do more to support child welfare organizations that are placing children, serving the children already placed into families, and supporting their families. I am hopeful the organizations continuing the important work of serving adoption service providers will focus on their very specific needs so that more children can find their forever families.
What is next?
Looking back, I can see that we should have engaged adults who were adopted, supporting their specific and unique needs and refocused on offering support to adoption service providers, helping them to strengthen the work they do for the world’s orphans and vulnerable children. Had we been more aggressive in these efforts, Joint Council may still be operating today.
People who work in the child welfare field do not need to look at Joint Council’s closure with anxiety or fear of the future. There are millions of children who need to realize their right to a safe, loving forever family both in the US and abroad. The work continues. It must continue. The key is building a community, which will support the children, adults, and families who were adopted and the organizations that place and serve them. What do you believe are the ways we can better support the adoption community?
Jennifer Mellon has worked in the children welfare field for more than a decade, serving in varying capacities as the Executive Director, Member Manager, and Chief Development Officer at Joint Council on International Children’s Services. She also worked for the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute (CCAI) and served on the Board of the Campagna Center, which provides critical educational services to children and families in the DC Metro region. She is the founder of two start-up companies and lives in Washington, DC with her husband Danny Boice and their 5 children.