26Health Helps LGBTQ+ Prospective Parents Realize Dream of Adoption
Trying to adopt a child can lead to hopes raised and then dashed when a birth mother changes her mind or something else in the process goes wrong. For prospective parents from the LGBTQ+ community, the heartbreak can become even more personal when they are turned down not for income, background check or health reasons but because of who they are.
Manny Carames knows this because it happened to him and his partner. As the head of a growing adoption program at Orlando nonprofit 26Health, he wants to be sure it doesn’t happen to other qualified parents who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning and are not always welcome or comfortable in a mainstream adoption system. To celebrate November as National Adoption Month, the comprehensive health care organization for LGBTQ+ people and their allies is emphasizing its adoption service, which shepherds people through one of the most important events of their lives.
“It’s a white glove approach to bringing them through the process,” said Carames, the behavioral health director for 26Health. “Not all of our families are LGBTQ — some of them are straight allies as well. But for those who are part of the gay, lesbian and transgender community who do sometimes hit brick walls, we try to help them navigate around those.”
Initiated about three years ago, the program went into research mode during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, when adoption activity slowed down. The team spent the time developing a pipeline to help people through both sides of the adoption process. “We worked hard on making strategic connections with some of the birthing clinics, OB-GYNs and larger hospital systems that have neonatal intensive care units to establish ourselves on the list of people they call.”
Carames brought in Krystal Trocki, who worked for more than 20 years with the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) and is now a 26Health adoption coordinator. She joined Marge Snider, another adoption coordinator, who is based in Miami. Working for the nonprofit has been remarkably different, Trocki said.
“When you look at adoption agencies, like the Department of Children and Families, they will do your home study for you and then expect you to find your child on your own,” Trocki said. “But here at 26Health, after the home study is completed, we work with every family to help them find their perfect child so that they’re not out in that jungle of, ‘What do I do now?’”
Trocki spent much of her time at DCF helping place older children into adoptive families, and her region handled 326 adoptions in the last year she was there. “It’s definitely refreshing to be on this side,” she said. “Although you’re still as busy, you don’t have the two o’clock–in the–morning phone calls of ‘Hey, a child on your caseload has run away.’ And being able to go to the hospital and watch a family visit with their newborn for the first time kind of puts it all in perspective of why we do what we do.”
Trocki and Carames both have a soft spot for getting older children adopted into “forever homes.” Carames and his partner were searching on Heart Gallery of America websites, where pictures of children who need adopting are posted by professional photographers who donate their time.
“I call them ‘Pulling at Your Heart Galleries,’” Carames said. “They showcase the children, and there are about 26,000 of them in Florida’s foster system right now who are older. When these children reach the age of about 10 to 12, they are no longer desirable to most families because some people tend to feel that they’ve already grown and they will never be able to show these kids the ways of the world. We spend a good deal of our time talking to our clients and educating them away from some of those biases.”
In addition to adoption services, 26Health offers a whole wellness package for the families, including primary care, specialty care and behavioral health. The nonprofit also is creating support groups for prospective parents and for those who have taken in children and need guidance on how to handle some of the emotional and behavioral issues they encounter.
Carames and his partner wound up adopting a teenager who had been bounced from home to home and is now their son, participating in sports at school and looking forward to his first-ever family vacation. Carames recommends prospective parents watch the 2018 film Instant Family starring Mark Walhberg, which he said is pretty realistic.
“A lot of people say to me, ‘Why would you take a teenager? I mean, he’s going to be gone in two years.’ What they’re not understanding is that he’ll always have a home for the holidays, or someone to call for advice, or someone to talk to when he gets his heart broken.
“These kids don’t have that currently. So that’s what we try to tell our clients: Look toward some of the older children, because they really need your help. With every month that goes by, they lose hope. We are definitely about finding newborns for the families who want them, but we also advocate for the older kids in the system.”
A Bag of My Own
Children moving from home to home in the foster care system are easily identifiable to those in the know. It’s the plastic garbage bag. They carry their belongings with them in the only container they can find that is large enough to hold their clothing, blankets, pillows, stuffed animals, books, toys and other treasured possessions.
A local initiative is gathering donated suitcases of all shapes and sizes to give foster children a more dignified way of transporting their things, said Manny Carames, the behavioral health director for 26Health. “We came up with these tags that say, ‘Forever home, forever family, forever loved: The 26Health Adoption Team.’ We attach these to all the bags.”
During a recent week, 26Health delivered a batch of about 40 suitcases to an organization it partners with: Embrace Families, which helps children who are suffering from abuse and neglect by counseling the parents or, in extreme cases, supporting the children through foster care or adoption.
Named “A Bag of My Own,” the project is being publicized through social media and in local bars and restaurants, chambers of commerce and fraternal organizations. “They’re all starting to donate money as well, because these little tags cost quite a bit of money to have created,” Carames said. “The foster system is loving it. We’re hoping it inspires other organizations to do the same.”