When families are preparing to adopt a child, the person they usually want to impress most is their adoption social worker. The social worker is seen as the gatekeeper to the children that may become part of their family. They are universally viewed as having enormous power.
Despite the centrality of their role, very little has been written about what it is like to be an adoption social worker. Focus decided to speak to Jane Ann Mintenko, an experienced lower mainland MCFD social worker, and ask her what life is like from her side of the homestudy. In future issues, we plan to hear from social workers working in different settings, such as agencies and in rural areas.
When I met with Jane Ann at her home, the amiable toddler that she and her husband adopted was happily going about his business while we talked. Jane Ann is clearly thrilled with being a mom and skillfully navigates the dual tasks of keeping him entertained and answering my questions.
Her parental leave is coming to an end, and, though she has mixed feelings, she is looking forward to getting back to work. It is obvious that Jane Ann, who has been a social worker for 15 years, has found her niche. She insists that she can't imagine doing anything else. She has made many friends from amongst her families, and she says that her biggest reward is when families keep in touch just to let her know how things are going.
That doesn't mean she has no frustrations—six office moves in five years and all the disruption that that involves, just for starters. "All the realignments and reorganizations can be frustrating, particularly as we are expected to carry on with a good service amidst it all.
"I am also always concerned about the possible impact on my families. But I've learned that you mustn't get too caught up in it all and that you have to roll with it," says Jane Ann. Coping with constant change is made bearable by her interest in her families and, of course, in seeing the people she works with fulfill their dream of becoming a family.
Typically, she will have a caseload of about 50 families. Juggling this work isn't as difficult as it sounds. "It tends to have a natural rhythm because many of the families are at different stages in the process. Some of them are waiting for a healthy newborn which means that their files are not especially active." Her days are rarely predictable. While she may plan out what she intends to do, at any moment a call might come through regarding a proposal and she has to drop everything.
One of the reasons Jane Ann relishes her job is the variety of people she meets. The homestudy is, of course, when she learns most about the prospective parents. Many adoptive families will tell stories of frantic cleaning sessions before a social worker visit and how they bought the fanciest of cakes and the finest coffee on the first day of their homestudy, only to have the social worker ask for a glass of water.
Jane Ann is aware of the power she has in the homestudy process and is not always comfortable with it. "I don't enjoy that power. I really try to balance that out for families. I believe that the homestudy is a time when we work together to see if adoption is the best way for those people to build a family. So far there has only been one family that I wasn't able to approve."
This isn't because standards are low. Jane Ann explains that many families self-screen after the homestudy or after a couple of failed referrals and remove themselves from the process. What she focuses on during a homestudy is the applicants' life experiences, their struggles, their ideas about being parents, and what sort of support systems they have. "I let them tell me their story. I don't need to know everything. For instance, I don't ask how often they have sex!"
She has come to believe that the qualities of successful adoptive parents can be displayed in a million different ways and that she has become more open as a result of this understanding. "Sometimes there will be a red flag in a homestudy—maybe a history of mental illness or drug abuse, but the individual has worked really hard to get to where he or she is and the problems have clearly been resolved. Overcoming these difficulties can bring strengths to a person's ability to be an adoptive parent. Sometimes it's a battle to get other professionals to see it that way."
She firmly believes that there is no "mould" for an adoptive parent and that a crucial part of her role is to be open-minded and look beyond her experience and personal biases.
She describes the story of one family she worked with that illustrates this perfectly. "I think this was probably my favourite placement. One of the couple was a quadriplegic and used a wheelchair. Initially, they requested a healthy newborn. They were a fabulous couple and I brought this family up at every opportunity with colleagues, but there was very little interest because of his physical disability.
"Eventually, the couple widened the range of children that they felt they could consider in the hope that it would result in a referral. In the end, I'm really glad to say a birth mom chose these parents for her healthy newborn! She was able to see beyond the disability to the fantastic potential father!"
Jane Ann also recalls the frustration of a lesbian couple that eventually withdrew their application to adopt because, although they had been approved, they were simply not being matched with children.
Jane Ann advises families going through a homestudy to trust and develop a relationship with their worker and to be open with them. If they are unhappy with the way things are going, they should tell the worker; and if that doesn't resolve the problem, they should advocate for a change in social worker.
She also advises families to prepare by reading, attending courses, and joining organizations like AFABC. Though waiting parents may feel as though they are jumping through hoops, the expectation that they will prepare properly for bringing a child home is based on the experience that preparation is absolutely vital.
Just as essential though, is adequate support for families who adopt children with special needs. "I believe we can't do enough for these families in terms of support. It is really frustrating to see a family sitting on a wait list for adoption-sensitive counselling or getting approval for other services.
"Sometimes, after a placement, I do lie in bed at night worrying about families struggling and hoping I don't get that call." The call she is referring to is what every adoption social worker dreads—the one that informs her of an adoption breakdown. Fortunately, Jane Ann has only had one breakdown and that was one of her first adoptions. Clearly, she doesn't regret staying in the job after that setback.
by Siobhan Rowe