An Interview with Jill Jacobs of Family Builders by Adoption
Family Builders by Adoption is a private, non-profit adoption and foster care agency in Oakland, Calif., serving nine counties in the Bay Area. The agency has a special focus on finding adoptive families for children with special needs in the California foster care system.
At a recent conference on increasing the capacity of the child welfare system to serve gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth and families, Family Builders by Adoption was cited as one of the country�s leading agencies in recruiting and supporting GLBT adoptive families.
The Human Rights Campaign recently spoke with the agency�s executive director, Jill Jacobs, about her agency and the child welfare field. Read on for some excerpts from the interview.
HRC: Tell me about Family Builders by Adoption. Does it have a unique approach?
Jacobs: Family Builders by Adoption just celebrated our 30th anniversary. We were originally founded with a small handful of other agencies around the country. Our mission at that time was to get severely disabled children who were in institutional care into families. Then, starting in the 1980s, the enormous foster care expansion happened.
Now we serve kids left behind by everyone else � older kids, sibling groups, kids of color. That�s always been our mission. Parallel to that, we look at the strengths that families bring in. Our motto is, �Develop families, and don�t screen them out.� If an issue comes up that might be a barrier to adoption, we try to help a family overcome it rather than use as a reason to reject that family.
HRC: Your agency seems to be a leader in recruiting and supporting potential parents who are GLBT.
Jacobs: I�m a lesbian and adoptive mother of two daughters. When I became executive director 10 years ago, there were 100,000 kids in foster care in California. I thought it would be insane not to look at the LGBT community.
Ironically � and I say ironically because there�s so much controversy about this issue � but ironically, LGBT families are incredible resources. They bring additional and exceptional strengths. Most have dealt with some adversity in their own lives, and can understand the adversity kids in foster care have endured.
Among LGBT folks, especially gay men, so many thought they were not going to be able to have kids. So, more come with a blank slate of what our families will look like � by how many kids we�ll have, ethnicity, issues about disabilities, ages and age differences. LGBT people have a real openness and willingness to parent. We just placed a group of four siblings with a lesbian couple � and it�s not easy to place four siblings.
HRC: How does your agency recruit LGBT potential parents?
Jacobs: First, our No. 1 source of families is always from other families. Our relationship doesn�t end with our families at the courthouse when adoptions are finalized. We have lifelong relationships with our families. We continue to provide the support they need.
The LGBT community is a word of mouth community. We share great resources this way, and we know how important it is to share information about welcoming agencies.
Family Builders by Adoption is one of the only agencies funded by public dollars (from the city and county of San Francisco) to do outreach to the LGBT community. That started five years ago when we were asked to do it. We saw that the community was an untapped resource for waiting children. Active recruitment is important. Even in California, we still regularly talk with LGBT families who believe they can�t adopt. At any given time, up to 50 percent of our parents are LGBT.
We have a support group for LGBT parents, an inclusive welcome statement and visible signs that are inclusive of all families. We do everything we can to make people feel welcome.
This is what agencies need to do: use a cultural competence model. Take the model used to do outreach in the communities of color and apply it to the LGBT community. Make sure photos and material reflect all families. Make sure staff members have been trained to welcome LGBT parents. It is so important. Make sure the receptionist is trained and welcoming, not just the social workers.
HRC: How does your approach differ from others in the field?
Jacobs: It varies so much, regionally. In urban parts of California, most agencies are working with some LGBT families. In the more rural parts, even in California, agencies, both public and private, can be less welcoming. I think more private agencies have seen that LGBT people are a great resource.
I give my agency a 10 on scale of 1 to 10. I know others that are an 8. Some are a 5 � sort of a �Don�t Ask, Don�t Tell� approach. These agencies worry about how funders and donors might respond if they were aware of the agency placing children with LGBT families.
Here�s a story from one of my colleagues who did lose a donor over this issue. The agency honored a lesbian couple who had adopted a child who then became sick and one of the mothers gave a kidney to her child. The agency featured the story in their newsletter, and a donor pulled funds from the agency. Isn�t that incredible? So, it can be a concern among agency leaders. A lot of agencies struggle with that. They may work with LGBT families, but those families are not on the cover of the newsletters.
That�s my take on California. I still hear stories of agencies that won�t look at a home study of a LGBT family. In these cases, an individual worker or supervisor may be a barrier.
I was shocked that my agency was listed with just three others as best in the field [at a recent Child Welfare League of America conference]. I was shocked that the list was that small. Of course, I know some agencies and some states don�t consider LGBT families to be resources for waiting children. In fact, I�ve been banned from doing my training in two states. I was invited to conferences to talk about recruitment to LGBT families, and then my session was pulled at the last moment.
HRC: Do you have any tips for GLBT people considering adoption and foster parenting?
Jacobs: To families, I say that you will want to make sure you�re working with a LGBT-friendly agency. Put that out there in first contact, on the phone. Make sure they know who you are and what you�re seeking. Then look at their materials and services. Are the forms inclusive � do they say �Parent 1� and �Parent 2� instead of �Mother� and �Father?� Does the agency offer support groups for LGBT families?
As a family shopping for an agency, you should also make sure the agency has experience doing home studies for LGBT couples, or at least is up front that you�re the first home study. The agency needs to understand how you evaluate the validity of a relationship without a marriage license. There are ways to do this, and models to follow. This shouldn�t be an obstacle. The National Adoption Clearinghouse has information about how to write a home study for a gay couple.
Adoption by LGBT people is expressly prohibited in only one state: Florida. We need to push the envelope more in other states. People need to be assertive. If an agency says �No� to you, find out why. If you don�t get your phone call returned, find out why. Then, find another agency.
If the first agency turns you down, find another. Try to find an ally somewhere in the agency who might help you navigate your way through. Team up with a LGBT advocacy group in your community or the American Civil Liberties Union, Lambda Legal or another legal group. Use word of mouth, e-mail and list-serves to learn about friendly agencies.
Then, if all else fails � move.
One thing is certain: I don�t advocate that people hide their relationship or lie. Don�t lie in the home study.
Besides adoption, LGBT families should also consider foster parenting. There are far more kids in the foster care system than there will ever be families available before these kids age out of the system.
Family Builders by Adoption launched a program called �No Place Like Home.� It�s a program to encourage foster care permanency for LGBT teens. Everyone in foster care has a rough ride � LGBT youth have a really rough ride. The goal of the program is to get them out of group homes and into homes with safe and affirming foster families. We continue to work on permanency plans, to see if they can return to their families of origin. If not, we want to get them into a permanent family.
It�s sad but true: the kids who need a family the most are least likely to get it.
HRC: What else should potential foster and adoptive parents consider?
Jacobs: I have experienced the adoption process from both the perspective of an adoptive parent and as an adoption agency. As a parent, the process can be cumbersome and invasive. But from the agency prospective, we are being asked to make what can be the most important decision in the life of a child. We must know who our families are. We must understand their strengths and their challenges to best serve the children and youth.
I think of it as a marathon. It is not for the faint of heart. It is hard work, tremendous effort. But when you cross the finish line and you become the open arms for a child, the love, the joy, the stability, the commitment, the sanity � for a child who has been in foster care � there is no greater reward.
For more information about Family Builders by Adoption, visit http://www.familybuilders.org/.
To make a general inquiry, please visit our contact page. Members of the media can reach our press office at: (202) 572-8968 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.