Feb. 28, 2013 09:38 PM

The state is reporting more foster care adoptions in the Lafayette region than in any other major metro area, but there are still growing needs and a few troublesome trends.


The state is reporting more foster care adoptions in the Lafayette region than in any other major metro area, but there are still growing needs and a few troublesome trends.  By Jeremy Alford / Photos by Robin May

Friday, March 1, 2013

Photo by Robin May
The Montesanos: Matthew, Amanda, Stacy, Bruce and Stephanie

Bruce and Stacy Montesano met while both were in high school, but they were not high school sweethearts. "No, not at all. I did fall in love with him right away, though," Stacy says. "But we didn't start dating until I was a sophomore in college at USL. He was a senior at LSU."

Eastbound and westbound trips on Interstate 10 were frequent, being the only way one could see the other. They were Lafayette kids in love. Dreams soon sprouted with visions of a life shared and family vacations and, unquestionably, children to hug and kiss and nurture.

They picked out a set of rings, made solemn vows and were married in August 1985. One honeymoon later and they had a mortgage in Breaux Bridge. Bruce began chipping away at what would become a successful insurance business and they embraced their new community. Their dreams were coming true.

Except for one thing. "Every month I prayed to get pregnant and every month would pass with no sign. Month after month," Stacy says. Soon enough the months turned into a year, then two and three and eventually nine. By the mid-1990s, their Breaux Bridge home was still empty, save two people with love to spare.

During these years, Stacy says they always held out hope. They were going to conceive. "We just believed it would happen," she says. "Then one day we bumped into some high school friends who had adopted. I told them our story and they asked us a question that changed our lives forever. They asked us, Do you want to get pregnant or do you want to have a baby?'"

Their answer to the query was Amanda, now 18, who joined the Montesanos through an open adoption process. It was such a positive experience for Bruce and Stacy that they decided to it again, and again, in adopting as infants their other daughter Stephanie, who recently turned 17, and son Matthew, 14. With that, their dreams really did come true, and they say their love was strengthened by the trials.

Going through an open adoption means the birth mother can change her mind, even after months of getting to know the adoptive family. "When we met Amanda's birth mother," Stacy recalls, "Bruce told her we would understand whatever decision she made. That was tough. We were very lucky."

Amanda, like her younger siblings, has met her birth mother since that decision was made. In fact, all three of the birth mothers have spent time in the Montesano home, some even sleeping over and making follow-up visits. "It's a story that warms people's hearts, and we love sharing it," Bruce says. "We're really blessed."

IN MAKING THE SAME DECISION three times over, the Montesano family helped feed a growing trend in regional adoptions. Around the time they were entering the adoption landscape, other families in the greater Lafayette area started showing interest in adoptions as well, more so than in any other region of Louisiana.

It was steady, albeit slow growth. But the trend was unmistakable during the most recently completed fiscal year, when Lafayette foster care adoptions handled by the state led all other major metro areas, including New Orleans and Baton Rouge, where decreases were reported.

According to statistics provided by the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services, 154 foster care children were adopted by 102 Lafayette families between July 1, 2011, and June 31, 2012. That is an increase of 41 additional adopted children compared to the 2009-2010 fiscal year. These figures do not include private or intra-family adoptions, only foster care adoptions managed by the state, which can include ages ranging from a few months to 17 years.

It is a refreshing break from federal-level adoption trends, like the constant threat of Congress eliminating important tax incentives, and from the international theater, where a recent Russian adoption ban is keeping native children and American families in an uncomfortable limbo. Then again, that instability may be forcing Louisiana families to look closer to home.

Lafayette's accomplishments on this front have not gone unnoticed. Trey Williams, DCFS' director of communications and government affairs, says state officials are looking for ways to replicate the successes enjoyed locally. For starters, he pointed to how the Lafayette region is collaborating across all child welfare programs within reach to "identify adoptive placements that best meet the needs of each child."

Additionally, the foster care system in the region proactively explores alternative placement possibilities, exhausting all avenues rather than waiting for adoptive parents to show up. This has included in the past tracking down and pursuing "extended family members when possible and out-of-state placements when necessary," Williams says. Public outreach meetings are also heavily attended in the region, showing a willingness by the community to be involved.

Technology is a factor as well. Since it was implemented in 2009, the state's Internet adoption portal has helped transfer 64 children from foster care to permanent homes, including some cases from Acadiana. The portal connects foster children from each region with potential adoptive families by featuring and profiling the children on the DCFS website.

In January, potential adoptive parents were introduced via the site to Brandon, an "energetic Star Wars fan" who excels academically, among other things. In November, it was a 4-year old who's described as "lovable" and "enjoys chicken nuggets and giving hugs"-a child who is in the process of being adopted, Williams says.

The site has so far profiled 137 children. Of these, nearly 47 percent have been or are in the process of being adopted, including 14 sibling groups. Some of the children are likewise featured in television and radio segments and in newspaper articles across their region.

IF THERE IS AN OVER-ARCHING NEED in the state system, it is for foster care families, Williams says. While there are more than 4,000 children in the Louisiana foster care system, there are only about 2,000 certified homes. As for growth potential, it is modest. Only 350 applicants have surfaced to begin the process of becoming a foster family since September.

It can be a rewarding experience, says Stacy Montesano. This past December, just two weeks before Christmas and in the midst of the season's magic, an infant was introduced into their home. But only for eight days. "We were called and asked to be a foster family. They told us they were looking for an inn," Stacy says with a laugh. "I mean, come on. What were we supposed to say?"

The Montesano home was briefly transformed into a holding station of sorts, safe passage for the infant to move from the foster care system to its adoptive parents. When it came time for the child to be handed over, Stacy says she and her husband Bruce realized that the experience had helped others aside from the child and adoptive parents.

It was Amanda, the oldest of the Montesano's three adopted children, who physically placed the infant into a new set of loving arms. "Having gone through the same process as an infant and not remembering much, I think it created a special moment for her," Stacy says. "It was really good for Amanda. It was good for all of us."

Aside from the need for foster families, another challenge in Acadiana involves the spike in interest for infant adoptions, says Paulette DeLatin, who has been involved in Lafayette-area adoptions for the past 40 years. She has seen a separate trend form where there are more couples hoping to adopt infants through nonprofit agencies than there are infants being placed.

The head adoptive counselor with the Catholic Diocese of Lafayette and a member Louisiana Adoption Advisory Board, DeLatin explains that there are a variety of factors playing into the trend. For example, the shifting of societal norms has been evident for more than a generation, she says, and there is growing acceptance of young, single mothers.

As for why parents seem to be drawn more toward adopting infants as opposed to starting out with an adolescent adoption, DeLatin says the reasons are just as varied. "Sometimes I think most people think it might be too hard or intrusive," she says. "That's why, with the couples we work with, they go through a rigorous education process. A little education can go a long way."

When it comes to the spike in the overall numbers reported by the state, she adds that there may also be something to learn about the ethos of the Cajun Heartland. "We have a family-based culture," DeLatin says. "People believe in having children as part of their lives and in their homes. And for the many who don't have children, they want them. I know people who have adopted as many as eight children from the Acadiana area."

WHILE THE OVERALL ACADIANA NUMBERS are trending upwards, they were much higher a generation ago, before the Legislature

Photo by Robin May
Lafayette attorney Greg Poteet

changed the Children's Code, according to Lafayette attorney Greg Poteet, who has been representing adoptive parents for 43 years.

The Children's Code is the section of state law where adoptions are addressed. Poteet says before major alterations were made, he was handling 55 adoptions annually out of his Lafayette office. "Today, it's in the teens," he says.

The most notable change involves the rights of the birth father, which has been given greater status under the current code. Regardless of his involvement in the pregnant mother's life, a birth father can bring a halt to the mother's plans. "Even if he raped the mother, regardless of the circumstances, you have to move forward that way," he says. "When I take an adoption now, the first thing I do is investigate the position of the father. I've learned over time that it's often the fathers who are the most unworthy who give you the most trouble."

Legal battles encompassing just that have been playing out all over the country, often with the birth father winning monetary settlements or adoptive parents having to hand children back over. But Louisiana's Children Code, taken as a whole, has become "way too complicated," says Poteet, and lawmakers should considering a comprehensive review in coming years. "I think we should go back to the old code for certain things," he adds. "It's too much for the average person to understand. The only reason I love doing adoptions is because I believe a child needs a loving family. The code can sometimes be an obstacle."

There are still several different channels potential parents can take if they are interested in adopting. There is the foster care system, which the state oversees, and agency adoptions administered by nonprofits like the Catholic Diocese of Lafayette. There are international adoptions, which may be ending for American families considering Russian children due to a ban in that country, and intra-family adoptions, which involve blood relatives, like a young girl handing her child over to her own mother or another relative.

There are also private adoptions, which can lead to open adoptions, where, again, the birth mother knows who the adoptive family will be. That was the route taken by the Montesanos for all three of their adoptions. "We were somewhat resistant at first, but it was only because we weren't educated on the process. We didn't know what was coming." Bruce says. "You just have to realize that you're not in control. Nothing you can do or say will change the outcome."

Even though they took the initiative to change their lives roughly 18 years ago, overcoming all of the stress and challenges involved with that decision, Bruce and Stacy Montesano are not eager to take any credit. They say the sacrifices and dark times are long forgotten, almost as if they did not happen.

But that is only because they ended up with something more lasting in exchange. "We get praise for being willing to adopt, but we don't feel like we deserve it," Stacy says. "The praise goes to these children, who are really responsible for changing our lives. They have no idea how lucky they make us feel."  

Jeremy Alford is a freelance journalist based in Baton Rouge. You can reach him at jeremy@jeremyalford.com.

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