UCLA TIES: The Let Love Define Family Series

In this week’s Huffington Post Gay Voices RaiseAChild.US “Let Love Define Family™” series installment, we talk with Audra Langley, Ph.D., associate professor in the UCLA Departments of Psychiatry and Pediatrics and executive director of UCLA TIES for Families, about a special program for foster-adopt families. Dr. Langley and her wife, Jessica Garcia, have themselves adopted from the foster care system.

UCLA TIES for Families is an interdisciplinary, university-based program that works in collaboration with the public child welfare and mental health systems. The mission of UCLA TIES (Training, Intervention, Education, and Services) for Families program is to promote the successful adoption, growth and development of children from birth to age 21 with special needs who are in foster care, including prenatal substance exposure, when returning to their biological parents is not in the children's best interest. The goal of UCLA TIES for Families is to reduce the barriers to successful adoption of children with special needs who are in foster care.

When we at RaiseAChild.US speak with people about their concerns about fostering and adopting through the foster care system, one of the things we hear most often is: “What if I fall in love with a child that has to go back to his or her birth parent?” Our experience is that there are no family building options, including pregnancy, surrogacy and private adoption, that are without risk. But having a foster child reunify with the biological family is a concern specific to the foster-adoption experience. During the orientation and certification training, prospective parents learn why the courts and foster agencies have placed such importance on family reunification and why they see it as in the best interest of the child whenever possible. Prospective parents also learn about ways to cope with the uncertainty.

Many people are not aware of the amount and variety of free services that are made available to foster and adoptive parents and their families. So when we learned about a special program established at UCLA TIES to help support foster parents when the children placed in their care are reunified with their birthparents, we wanted to learn more about the program.

We spoke with Dr. Langley about LIFT (Loss Intervention for Families in Transition), a special program that UCLA TIES runs to help foster-adopt families, also known as resource families, who are facing imminent loss of a child to reunification or have already had a child reunified. LIFT provides free short-term grief counseling and grief support group services for families who live throughout Los Angeles County.—Corinne Lightweaver, RaiseAChild.US

Corinne Lightweaver: Tell me about LIFT and how it started.

Audra Langley: LIFT is funded through a federal diligent recruitment grant administered by the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). Essentially, DCFS and UCLA TIES both recognized the need for people to serve resource parents across the county in order to provide some type of grief counseling for families who are in the process of concurrent planning.

Corinne: Can you explain the terms resource parent and concurrent planning?

Audra: Resource parent is the term used now for foster/adoptive parents and it came about in relation to concurrent planning. L.A. County refers to resource parents as parents who are able to provide foster care and help birth parents reunite, but if the children cannot safely return to their family, resource parents can provide permanent adoptive homes for the children.

Concurrent planning means that two strategies are undertaken at the same time. First, you are working to reunify the child in foster care with his or her birth family. At the same time, you are also working to find the best option for permanency if a child is unable to reunify. When a child is removed from their birth family and placed into foster care, it is not always clear if their birthparents are going to be able to do what they need to do to eventually provide a safe environment and then reunify.

Concurrent planning is a shift from the previous approach of having foster parents distinct from adoptive parents. Now when kids are placed with a foster/adoptive parent, also known as a resource parent, the idea is that that family will first help the child reunify and if that’s not possible will adopt them. Because L.A County’s policy is for concurrent planning, what that means is that resource parents are asked to help the child reunify with their biological parents when family reunification is in place, which is almost always the case with infants.

The goal of this shift to concurrent planning is to lessen the number of transitions for a child. If the child is not able to reunify with the biological parents, they can remain with the resource family they have already become attached to. This is in contrast to the old system where children were placed with a foster parent and when it looked like they wouldn’t be able to reunify and things were going toward a permanency plan, meaning adoption, they were placed with a different family who was an adoptive family. So concurrent planning was really put into place in the best interests of the children in foster care.

However, it can take quite a toll on the resource parent to have to deal with this ambiguity. The resource parents are asked to try to help the child reunify with the birthparent at the same time that they’re attaching and falling in love with the child who they may really want to adopt, which is what you always want because that’s what’s best for children and infants. So it’s good for kids but obviously can be very tough for the resource parents when a child that they think they’re going to be adopting and are caring for as their own becomes reunified either with a birthparent or another family member.

Sometimes it’s an almost inhuman act we’re asking of resource parents to care for a child that they want to adopt and at the same time try to help reunify the family. Because of that complexity, when a child does reunify it leads to grief that’s not always recognized by everyone else. We call it disenfranchised grief. Friends and neighbors of the family might say, “Well, you knew that could happen.” Or, “I told you shouldn’t have foster-adopted.” And there aren’t necessarily resources for this kind of grief because it’s different than having a loved one die and because other people who aren’t going through it don’t necessarily understand what it’s like. So those typical social networks or resources to help a family grieve and process the loss are not in place.

Corinne: So I’m thinking that reunification also affects other children in the resource family.

Audra: Absolutely. If there are other children, it certainly would affect them. The other idea behind being able to process the grief of losing a child who’s been reunified with a birth family is that we want the resource family to be able to recover and process the grief so they are open to reattaching to another child and having another child placed with them. We have these wonderful families who want to be resource parents and who want to ultimately adopt. And in order to do so, especially with infants, they really have to be in the situation of accepting concurrent planning and dealing with that ambiguity and the fact that the child may reunify. Being able to properly process the grief and what they’ve been through and all of those feelings is really helpful. We find that the majority of families that go through our LIFT program are open by the end of their time there to having another child placed with them. And some of them actually do have another child or children placed with them as they’re still finishing up the group.

Corinne: What is the process involved with LIFT?

Audra: So if someone is interested, they can contact us directly or often we get referrals from a foster agency or a DCFS worker. They can live anywhere in the county, although groups take place at UCLA TIES for Families. Our clinician will meet individually with that person and do an intake process and assess their needs. And then typically they’ll enter into our support group. That’s what LIFT is, it’s a group that is provided every other week on a weekday evening. It’s not cut-and-dry in that there’s no set amount of time that people are a part of it. People enter in different stages so some stay longer than others.

Children in foster care are eligible for Medi-Cal so that covers any services to support children, mental health or otherwise, including grief and loss. The missing link is in services for the resource parents. When a transition happens, the children still get access to all the services but suddenly the resource parents don’t have services available to them because they are no longer linked to that child or a child in the system. This is the huge gap that LIFT fills. Oftentimes, the infant, for example, might be doing fine but the parents are not because they’re dealing with all of the ambiguity and legal delays, etc. Interactions with the birth parents, the court, and social workers can be great or they can be really difficult. There is not always funding to provide for the support they need so they can be the best resource parents to that child.

Corinne: What’s the cost of LIFT for the parents?

Audra: Because LIFT is part of a grant that DCFS has received, it’s free of charge at this point. We’re able to provide these services countywide, free of charge. When that grant ends next year, however, I’m not sure. We’re in the process of trying to look for funding to continue. But, honestly, people are less motivated to want to fund things that serve resource families, versus children directly, so it can be a tough sell. We think it is important that the system recognize that supporting resource parents caring for our children in foster care is a vital service to those children.

Corinne: Are there other programs like LIFT?

Audra: Not that we’re aware of. We’re the only program that we’re aware of and we would like to expand it and be able to offer it in other areas of the county to make it more accessible. We have people driving from all over to the UCLA campus in Westwood.

Corinne: Is there anything else that you would like to cover?

Audra: For us, resource family grief was a huge issue that we were seeing families grapple with over the last decade and it was reassuring to us to finally have some funding to be able to provide the services for the families. At the same time, what it does is helps us to retain amazing families who can provide love and attachment to another deserving child.

For more information about LIFT and TIES for Families, call (310) 825-6110 or visit www.tiesforadoption.ucla.edu.

Corinne Lightweaver is the Communications Manager at RaiseAChild.US, a national organization headquartered in Hollywood, California that encourages the LGBT community to build families through fostering and adopting to serve the needs of the 400,000 children in the U.S. foster care system. Since 2011, RaiseAChild.US has run media campaigns and events to educate prospective parents and the public, and has engaged more than 2,200 prospective parents. For information about how you can become a foster or fost/adopt parent, visit www.RaiseAChild.US and click on “Next Step to Parenthood.”