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The realities of Catholic Charities adoption

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Jochebed, daughter of Levi, was living under Egyptian oppression when the Pharaoh ordered that the Israelites' baby boys be drowned in the Nile. Though she safely hid her son for three months, the day came when she could hide him no longer. And so she made the heart-wrenching choice memorialized in the Book of Exodus.

Pedro Américo's 1884 oil on canvas, "Moses and Jochebed," depicts the beautiful Jewess in anguish as she stands on the banks of the legendary river. In one hand, she clutches the basket containing her pink-faced child. She presses her other hand to her cheek in worry. In that moment, Jochebed looks just as likely to go through with her decision as she does poised to change her mind. But because of her courage and despite her fears, the Pharaoh's daughter finds Moses and adopts him as her own, sparing him the fate suffered by other Hebrew boys.

In the Diocese of Arlington, the adoption process begins far from the sphere of Pharaohs. Discreetly located in a Burke office park, the Catholic Charities Center for Adoption and Pregnancy Service has a staff of licensed social workers to assist birth and adoptive parents throughout all stages of the child placement process. Every staff member's desk contains a handwritten sign bearing the words "Calm. Confident. Caring. Determined." The signs remind the staff of how to perform their jobs, day in and day out.

"We pull all of that off because we are people of faith," said Kim Harrell, the center's director. "Faith is not only relevant, it's central. Every (child) placement is a miracle."

The center makes a point of guiding and supporting pregnant women, whether they choose to parent themselves or not. But if a mother does choose to make an adoption plan, the center works with her to match her child with an adoptive couple.

"(Making an adoption plan) is probably one of the hardest things these mothers will ever do," said Harrell, an adoption professional with two decades of experience. "Birth parents are heroes. They are selfless, and they are strong."

Harrell described the birth mothers who come to the center as socially, economically and racially diverse. They vary in age, religious upbringing, educational background and employment status.

"There's this stereotype that birth mothers are young, often still in high school. But that's not usually the case," said Sarah McNichols, one of the center's social workers.

One of her first clients on the job was in her late 30s and the mother of a teenager. The woman, who had been married, was employed and enrolled in college part-time.

"Look around you," said Harrell. "Look at where we live. That's your birth mother."

The commonality uniting birth mothers is their commitment to providing the best for their children. That may mean making an adoption plan, Harrell explained, but it may mean parenting the child themselves or placing the child with a relative.

"Birth parents will change their mind a thousand times," said Harrell. "We are not here to bully or strong arm them. We are here to work with them."

In the wings

According to Harrell, about 90 percent of the prospective adoptive parents who walk through the center's doors identify as Christian, whether Catholic or non-Catholic. Otherwise, like birth parents, they span a range of demographics, including economic backgrounds. The center, unlike many other agencies, offers adoptions on a sliding scale.

"Our goal is to include anybody who wants to adopt," said Harrell. "The more open you are (as a prospective adoptive couple), the more quickly you'll be chosen. If you're closed and want a very specific kind of child, you'll wait longer."

Adoptive parents must complete an application, undergo a home study, create a profile for birth mothers to consider and go through relevant training. How long they wait to bring a child home greatly varies, depending on a complex combination of personal, logistical and legal factors.

"God is in control here," said Harrell. "I couldn't do this job for as long as I have if I thought I was in charge of all this. The stakes are too high. This is God's perfect plan. I tell (prospective) adoptive parents, 'When a child is placed in your arms, you're going to believe that.'"

A mother's great debate

Eight years ago, Elizabeth, whose name has been changed to protect her privacy, was a nursing student at a local college when she discovered she was pregnant.

"I lost it for a little bit," she said. "I couldn't deal with it."

When her abusive boyfriend pushed her to get an abortion, Elizabeth, who was raised Catholic, pushed back. Convinced at first that she would raise the child herself, she ended the relationship. She told her parents that she was pregnant because she didn't want "to even be tempted to get an abortion."

Elizabeth promptly withdrew from college and moved in with her parents, who live in Falls Church. Then she started a full-time job as a floater at the preschool where she had worked during school breaks.

"I was angry with myself, not my parents. Even though my parents really didn't want me to keep the baby, they would've supported me either way," said Elizabeth. "We argued a lot because I didn't see what they saw, which was that I couldn't provide the life that I wanted for my child. I had to come to that realization on my own."

Once she did come to that realization, she set up an appointment with the center to make an adoption plan.

Any time Elizabeth found herself confused about her decision, she wrote a pros and cons list, sometimes several times a day, to remind herself of what kind of life adoption would give her son. Despite her ex's harassing phone calls and criticism from old high school friends, Elizabeth focused on making arrangements for her baby, whether it meant finding baptism and confirmation gifts or coming up with a checklist of qualities she wanted the adoptive parents to have. She also went to the center for therapy, a practice that helped her "unpack emotions I didn't even know existed."

Elizabeth, who wanted Catholic parents for her child, met a total of nine prospective couples. The meetings took place over dinner at a local restaurant, where both parties had a chance to introduce themselves and discuss family backgrounds and values. The couple that ended up being the best match were family friends she had not previously considered.

"When you meet the right couple, it's like meeting your husband," said Elizabeth. "I knew I wanted this couple to parent my children the same way I knew I wanted to marry my husband."

Coincidentally, Elizabeth, now a mother of four, met her husband at the preschool where she worked during her pregnancy. To her bafflement, she said, he pursued her and stood by her during the most challenging time in her life.

Today, Elizabeth's son is 8 years old. She and the child's adoptive parents agreed to an "open" adoption, meaning she has the chance to learn how and what her son is doing. They send her letters and photos, while she sends her son Christmas and birthday gifts. When the boy turns 18, his adoptive parents will present him a handwritten letter from Elizabeth. The letter tells her story, assures him of her continued love and invites him to get in touch with her if he wishes.

"I know I sound strong, but it still gets me," said Elizabeth. "I still go to support group. I've come a long way. I've always known I've done the right thing for him. He's so happy, and he has the life I wanted for him."

Perfect timing

Tom and Rachel, a self-described "older couple," found out about a year into their marriage that they were unable to have children. Though they had discussed adoption, it wasn't until they saw an announcement in their parish bulletin that they decided to make an appointment with the center. After doing some research and talking to other couples, they applied for consideration. Once approved, Tom and Rachel, who were open to adopting a child of any race, made a profile for birth parents to review.

Then the couple waited two years.

The first year, Rachel said the fact that her life could "completely change any day" made her uneasy. But after the first year, she made peace with that fact.

"There's so much in adoption that you can't control," said Rachel. "So I did a lot of praying. I told myself that the right child would come at the right time. Waiting strengthened our marriage and our relationship with our friends and family."

Then the day came: In September 2014, the center called Tom and Rachel into their office to meet a birth mother. During the meeting, the two parties went over each other's profiles and learned about each other's families. Though the birth mother did not necessarily expect the couple she chose to be Catholic, she was pleased to find that Tom and Rachel were religious.

"But the social worker warned us that (the birth mother) still had her reservations," said Tom. "She might change her mind."

Again, the couple prayed.

In November 2014, baby Jay was born. Then he was placed in cradle care, a temporary foster situation that gives birth mothers 10 days to terminate adoption plans. Because of a legal database called the putative father registry, this period also allows the birth father to come forward and claim parenting rights.

But Jay's birth father did not come forward, and his birth mother decided to go ahead with her adoption plan. Tom and Rachel brought Jay home the day before Thanksgiving.

"When the social worker checked the (putative father registry), she told us, 'We just want baby Jay to go home with his forever family'," Rachel said. "And I thought, 'Wow, we're his forever family.'"

Find out more information

To learn more about the Catholic Charities Center for Adoption and Pregnancy Services, visit centerforadoptionservices.org.

Stoddard can be reached at cstoddard@catholicherald.com.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015