Navigating an emotion-driven service environment
Jennifer Bliss, PsyD, MSW, LCSW, has dedicated 15 years to adoption education and advocacy. Recently, Dr. Bliss announced that she has accepted the position of Director of Adoptions and Foster Care at one of the largest non-profit organizations in Los Angeles: Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services. In her new role, Dr. Bliss oversees three programs focused on child welfare and permanency: domestic infant adoption, international adoption, and foster care.
As a clinician and educator, Jennifer has developed a deep respect and admiration for all members of the adoption triad. She started her career working directly with birthparents, and found herself in deep admiration for the women choosing this very difficult path. Every day, she saw birthmothers who were willing to break their own hearts to make a better plan for their children's lives. Rather than relegating responsibility, Jennifer sees placing a child for adoption as one of the greatest and most challenging acts of nurture and love.
Jennifer and her team also prepare adoptive parents for the adoption process — educating them on the psychology of current adoption practice, and supporting them through an unpredictable and sometimes difficult journey.
Here, MissionBox co-founder and CEO Kathryn Engelhardt-Cronk talks with Jennifer about open adoption and tactics for providers working in emotion-driven service environments.
How have views on adoption changed over the years?
Pregnant women considering adoption should understand what options they have and what choosing adoption means for their lives. Fifty years ago, adoption was considered taboo — something to keep secret and hidden. Today, adoption is widely accepted as a viable option for an unplanned pregnancy. Accordingly, the veil of secrecy that has surrounded adoption has been lifted. Children and birthparents can be proud of their adoption stories.
What are the basic characteristics of open adoption?
With open adoption, the birthparents choose the adoptive parents and both parties create a plan for future contact. The birthparents view adoptive parent profiles to choose the people they believe are meant to be the parents of their child. In turn, the adoptive parents get to know the birthparents to decide if it's the right match.
When the child is placed for open adoption, the birthparents don't say goodbye forever. Before the placement, an adoption counselor facilitates discussion between the birthparents and the adoptive parents about an ongoing relationship. Depending on the logistics, the birthparents often visit the adoptive family once or twice a year. The most appropriate level of contact may vary depending on the child's best interests.
What about semi-open adoption?
In a semi-open adoption, letters and pictures are exchanged through the adoption agency. However, the child doesn't grow up knowing his or her birthparents. The adoptive parents can express to the child how much love went into the birthparents' decision to place the child for adoption. At some point, though, the child is likely to wonder, "If they love me so much, why don't they want to know me?"
In a fully open adoption, the birthparents can tell the child his or her adoption story directly. This prevents any feelings of abandonment and fosters a sense of pride as the child forms his or her identity.
What does the research say about open adoption?
Longitudinal studies on openness in adoption confirm that fully open adoption is psychologically the healthiest situation for a child who is adopted. Open adoption allows children to grow up feeling like they know who they are. In addition, birthmothers who have ongoing contact with their children after placing them for adoption report less grief, regret and worry — and more peace of mind — than women who don't have continuing contact. Similarly, more openness is associated with greater satisfaction with the adoption process for adoptive parents nd a stronger confidence in their role as the “real parent”.
Accordingly, Jennifer advocates for both birthparents and adoptive parents to be supported throughout the process — and for adoptive families to be open to reaching out to an adoption professional to preserve the relationship if it gets complicated down the road.
Work like yours can be deeply satisfying — and profoundly emotional. How do you encourage providers to maintain their own mental health in the face of such challenges?
It's helpful to identify the little things you can do to nurture yourself every day. Maybe it's a long walk, a cup of tea, or playtime with your family or friends. Whatever it is, take time to do it — especially on emotional days. When you feel "fried," take a day off. Do something fun and relaxing. Try not to load the day with tasks and chores, unless you enjoy completing those.
For some providers, access to their own mental health counseling can also provide support and insight.
To create a "we're in it together" mentality, talk about your experiences with colleagues. Give input to this professional support group, and take from it when needed. Also identify your personal support group: friends, family, spiritual advisers or other supporters. Periodically touch base with these folks, and turn to them when you need to talk. Ask these same people to give you feedback if you appear more stressed or upset than usual. Sometimes, we're the last to recognize when we need to slow down and ask for support.
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Dr. Jennifer Bliss received her bachelor's degrees in psychology and education from the University of Southern California. She went on to earn her MSW from UCLA and doctorate in clinical psychology from Ryokan College. Early in her career, Jennifer worked with the Department of Children and Family Services in Los Angeles County as a family maintenance and reunification social worker. In 2004, Jennifer joined Independent Adoption Center as an open adoption counselor and later served as the organization's clinical director. Today, Jennifer is the Director of Adoptions and Foster Care at Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services. She also maintains a small private practice serving all members of the adoption community.Jennifer has been quoted in American Baby Magazine and Psychology Today and has spoken on the importance of open adoption at universities and statewide conferences. She has also appeared as the open adoption expert on radio programs, podcasts and television shows. Jennifer was the primary adoption consultant and featured counselor on WE tv's four-part documentary series "Adoption Diaries" and co-authored the book "Another Choice: A Compassionate Guide to Placing a Child for Adoption." Throughout her career, Jennifer has been passionate about educating the public on best practices in adoption and the psychology of open adoption.