Outstanding in the Field

Welcome to Outstanding in the Field  - a newsletter showcasing positive practices and measurable outcomes in the field of North Dakota child welfare.     

Post-adoption services are helping families overcome unforeseen challenges following adoptions

Windshield time is nothing new to Sonja McLean.  She racks up as many as 1,200 miles per month, and in some cases closer to 2,000 miles depending on the situation.  Her travel is more than taking a leisurely drive through North Dakota.  It is about meeting face-to-face with families in need of some type of support following an adoption.

McLean is the state’s first post-adoption coordinator for the Adults Adopting Special Kids (AASK) program.  She works with families and guardians that are providing permanency for children from foster care, as well as those who have completed international and domestic adoptions through a licensed placing agency.

“Any adoptive or guardianship family in North Dakota can come and get services through us,” said McLean.

Evolution of Services
Crisis case management and advocacy referral support have always been there for adoptive families and guardians in the past.  Post-adoption services were done “informally” in the state.

“Families were told at finalization that if they ever needed anything, they could call their adoption worker and the worker would be happy to help,” McLean said.  “We would wait until families reached out to us, and oftentimes things were too far down the line and we were backpedaling trying to help make the placement successful and support the family.”

That changed in January 2016.  

The Department of Human Services contracted with Catholic Charities and PATH to provide post-adoption services under the AASK umbrella.  The legislature approved the program and funding is provided through savings realized under the Fostering Connections to Success Act.

“This move did not create a new system of services, instead it allows for a more focused approach to supporting adoptive families in a way we have not been able to do before,” said Julie Hoffman, adoption services administrator with the department.

“Now we are able to contact families right away and catch issues and concerns before they get too big to handle,” McLean said.

The Art of Connecting with Families
The connection starts with direct mail or a simple phone call.

McLean’s strategy starts by building name recognition so adoptive families and guardians know who they can turn to for support after an adoption is finalized.  Families receive a folder in the mail with information about the program, a brochure and contact information, and their name is placed on a call list where she checks in with them four times per year.

“We never really heard many families ask any questions after finalization,” McLean said.  “But because I reach out to them and ask them how things are going or if they need anything, some say ‘Hey, while I have you on the phone I have this question, and this question, and this question.’  So it has been really nice to help them get through the stuff that they think is too simple to call me about.  That has been really good for families so far.”

Her efforts do not stop there.  McLean sends monthly e-mails to adoptive families, coordinates live webinars, and leads face-to-face post-adoption support groups in Bismarck, Dickinson, Fargo, Grand Forks and Minot.  She also uses technology and social media to provide support and connect with families.

The most recent addition to her outreach efforts includes a private Facebook support group where families message her and request to be a part of the group.  Families are able to post questions and provide support to each other, and engage in dialogue on adoption-related topics.

“I mediate the conversations to make sure responses are appropriate,” McLean said.  “This has been a really great connection for people that are on the road all the time or in rural communities and they can’t get to those larger cities (for support groups).” 

Family to Family Mentoring
Carrol Burchinal and his late wife, Darlene, provided licensed foster care for nearly 40 years.  During that time, there were no formal post-adoption services available for families.  The Burchinals were an invaluable resource to families by providing peer support as a mentor family before that became a child welfare “buzz word.” 

“One time I received a call from a father in Fargo who was having problems working through the adoption process, and he called me and asked if I could help,” said Carrol.  “He called because he didn’t know where to go, and we were the only ones he could think of that had the experience to help.”

The Burchinals provided both telephone and face-to-face support to the father.

“We spent a lot of time with him during the adoption process and we got well acquainted with them.  I really enjoyed that,” Carrol said. 

Family-to-family mentoring is one key aspect offered through post-adoption services.   

It is easy to become a mentor.  Families simply complete an application and participate in training, which equips them with the necessary tools to be a mentor family. 

“As a social worker, I can sit and talk about the pros and cons (of adoptions).  I can help them through it, but I have not lived it, so to be able to connect a family that might be struggling with another family is priceless,” McLean said.  “It has really been beneficial and kept a few kids in their homes rather than in out-of-home placements because those families had the support system.”

Reality of Adoptions
In federal fiscal year 2016, 157 adoptions were finalized by AASK.  This leaves McLean very busy connecting and working with families on a daily basis in the state.

She reaches out to between 10 and 35 families per month from her call list, and visits families face-to-face across the state.  She also takes countless calls from families who need help finding services or a referral to a service provider or just a friendly voice to talk to. 

McLean said many families adopt very young children.  As these children turn 12 or 13, some experience mental health issues and some parents do not have the experience to deal with that, so they call her for help.

Some common mental health issues affecting children and families that McLean works with are attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, bipolar diagnoses, oppositional defiant disorder, adjustment disorder, reactive attachment disorder, and trauma.

“Families struggle to find services that understand how all of those diagnoses can show themselves after an adoption versus with a biological child,” she said.  “We talk in support groups about the reality of adoptions.  Sometimes you need a higher level of care.  Sometimes you need medication.  Sometimes you need therapy, and that is not a stigma.  It’s really okay to reach out and get help and get your kids what they need.”

Future is Bright
McLean is excited about what the future holds for the many families she works with on a daily basis.

“It is a great feeling to be able to talk parents though crisis situations and have them come to a conclusion and come up with their plan,” she said. 

Her plans for the coming year are to continue exploring creative ways to engage families with the use of technology like Skype and creating training that focuses on trauma and its effect on adopted children.

And, of course, her plan also includes some windshield time each month.

“I love audio books,” she said with a chuckle.

Sonja McLean is “Outstanding in the Field.”

- LuWanna Lawrence, Public Information Officer, North Dakota Department of Human Services

Contact information
North Dakota Post Adoption Network
Sonja McLean, Coordinator
Phone:  Toll-Free 844-454-1139
E-mail: postadopt@pathinc.org
Website:  www.ndpostadopt.org

Angels in Adoption
The Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute recently honored Carrol Burchinal with the 2016 Angels in Adoption award.  The award honors individuals and organizations making extraordinary contributions in adoption, permanency and child welfare.

Burchinal and his daughter traveled to Washington, D.C. to receive the award.  They spent four days touring the nation’s capital with stops at the U.S. Capitol, congressional offices, and various other historic landmarks.

Burchinal also attended a gala event at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center where he met two reality television stars from TLC’s Little Couple show.

Also selected for the 2016 Angels in Adoption award was Michelle Tweeten Schmidt from Minot.

Burchinal was recognized by U.S. Senator Heitkamp for his Angels in Adoption award.
DHS logo

North Dakota Department of Human Services - Children and Family Services Division
600 E. Boulevard Ave., Dept. 325
Bismarck, ND 58505
Phone: 701-328-2316
Toll Free: 800-245-3736
Relay ND TTY: 800-366-6888

Distributed November 2016