Adoptive parents decry DHS' long, intrusive process
Last April, a month away from finalizing the adoption of four foster children, Amy Wilson was making Easter dinner when a knock came at the door.
By Michael Overall
March 13, 2011 / tulsaworld.com
After nearly two years of foster parenting. After months of home visits, court hearings, paperwork glitches and rescheduled appointments. After borrowing money to hire an attorney and asking a state senator to intervene.
After all that, Wilson had to drop everything to let a court-appointed volunteer make yet another surprise inspection.
She wanted to scream. Or cry.
"It's not any one thing they do to you," she explains. "It's a hundred little things that add up to making you feel intimidated and harassed, like you've done something wrong by asking to adopt these precious little children who need a home."
Off the record, a lot of families complain that state officials make the process too long, too tiresome and too intrusive - in effect, discouraging people from going through with adoptions.
The Wilsons are going public with their experience because "we don't want other families to have to go through what we did," she says.
Officials allegedly skipped meetings and then blamed the family for canceling.
Officials investigated the Wilsons for leaving the children in "cold bedrooms," even though the family's west Tulsa home is only 7 years old and in good condition.
One official - a court-appointed volunteer - warned the family that she often drove by the home without stopping.
Taken individually, the complaints might seem minor. But one after the other, they added up to a tremendous burden on her family, Wilson says.
"We basically felt stalked, like every little thing we did was under scrutiny," Wilson says. "I couldn't sleep."
Lives turned upside-down
Midway through summer 2008, Amy and Terry Wilson had no children.
By the end of September, a mere three months later, they had four children, all still in diapers, with a fifth baby on the way.
The couple had signed up to adopt a newborn through a Tulsa nonprofit called Crisis Pregnancy Outreach.
In the meantime, however, the Oklahoma Department of Human Services took custody of three young children of Amy Wilson's cousin in Oklahoma County. The Wilsons offered to serve as foster parents, assuming their own adoption process would drag out for months or even years.
But they whizzed through the private adoption after all, giving them a child of their own in addition to three foster children.
And guess what? Her cousin was pregnant again, with a baby boy who would go straight into foster care as soon as he was born - giving the Wilsons child No. 5.
"Our lives turned upside-down," Amy Wilson says. "And we wouldn't have it any other way."
Feeling 'like criminals'
The birth parents relinquished all rights in September 2009, clearing the way for Amy and Terry Wilson to adopt the four foster children, in addition to the unrelated private adoption that was already finalized.
By then, however, they were already clashing with Oklahoma County DHS and the Court Appointed Special Advocate, or CASA.
The four foster children had not received all the vaccinations that most kids have had by their age, so state officials set up an aggressive schedule to get the shots up to date.
A 2-year-old daughter, for example, was set to receive 27 vaccines in 11 months.
"We were never opposed to the vaccinations," Amy Wilson says, "only to the quick timeline."
Officials eventually got their way, and the children got the shots.
"But our relationship with DHS was never the same," Wilson says.
Officials piled on complaints, she says.
"Anything they could come up with - missing a doctor's appointment, even though it was rescheduled and we went. Not taking the kids to therapy, even though the therapist was ill and we were trying to get into another therapist."
By February 2010, the Wilsons believed DHS and CASA wanted to remove the children and scuttle the adoption, so they borrowed money from family members and hired an attorney.
It worked out for them in the end, with the adoptions being finalized last spring.
But that's not the point, Wilson says.
"You enter a system where the only way out is to quit, but to quit means putting the kids back into the system.
"Instead of treating us like volunteers who are trying to help the kids, foster parents are made to feel like criminals under investigation."
'Speak up for the children'
As an adoptive parent herself, Deborah Goodman understands the frustration of working through the process.
As the adoption program administrator for DHS, she also appreciates why the process has to be so difficult.
It involves 27 hours of parenting classes, fingerprinting and background checks, income verification and family histories, home assessments and mental and physical checkups for everyone in the household, adults and children alike.
"We look at everything from A to Z," Goodman says. "The guidebook is more than 30 pages, and we always tell our people to think about what isn't in the book. Always ask the next question."
As thorough as the scrutiny is, fewer than 10 percent of adoptions fall through, with prospective parents starting the process but never finalizing it. Even then, it rarely - if ever - happens because the parents become fed up with the process, Goodman says.
"What we're looking for is a family that can meet the needs of the children. That's what it's all about - the children."
DHS has more than 2,000 children up for adoption.
About 300 children are available for adoption with no identified family to take them, Goodman says. The rest already have an "identified placement" with family members or foster parents.
"But we still have to look at that family and be sure it's the right place for the children," Goodman says.
"I know that can be quite a process to go through, but it's a necessary process."
Appointed by a judge and overseen by a national nonprofit group, CASA volunteers are supposed to look out for the children, even if that occasionally creates friction with the foster parents, officials say.
"They offer an independent, objective viewpoint," says Jennifer Hunter, a spokeswoman for CASA in Oklahoma. "They are the judge's eyes and ears outside the courtroom."
When disagreements emerge, CASA can request a "family team meeting" with the foster parents and DHS caseworkers, where "all sides can be heard," Hunter says.
Such a meeting happened at least once with the Wilson family. And as in that case, if a disagreement continues, a judge will ultimately settle the issue.
"A CASA volunteer is going to speak up for the children," Hunter says. "That is everyone's goal, to reach a conclusion that is best for the children."
Oklahoma DHS adoptions, by the numbers:
Adoptions finalized in fiscal 2010.
Foster children currently in "permanent custody."
Children with an "identified placement" with family members or foster parents.
Children available for adoption with no prospective families.