Thursday, July 26, 2007

What Good Does a Conference Do?

Claudia and I arrived yesterday in Tampa for the North American Council on Adoptable Children's annual conference. This year's gathering (venue changes from year to year, although it's the same time of year) has about 900 adoption professionals, including parents, social workers, child welfare advocates and others who are involved in the adoption world. It is always a fulfilling and interesting experience to hear from others with a similar passion and life's work, but this year's conference in Tampa is already benefiting me personally.

Over the years I have participated in a number of different conferences, many of them church-related and many of them valuable, but many of them only one time. Those that have not made the "repeat again" agenda are those that have taken a lot of time, money and effort on my part without offering enough benefit. The NACAC Conference, however, is one that Claudia and I have always made a priority to attend, especially because it's about the only one we attend together.

Already this morning (the conference opened just this morning) I have learned several helpful things that will assist me in my journey as an adoptive parent, even though I have been on this pathway for what seems to be like a long time already (I know eleven years isn't much to some people, but for me it is fully one-quarter of my life, nearly one-half of my adult life).

This morning keynote speaker, Dr. Jaiya John, is an effective communicator and has much to say. He was adopted by a young caucasian family as an infant (his ancestry is African-American and Native American), grew up in the desert of New Mexico in a predominantly Latino community, and is an exceptional resource in helping adoptive parents understand their ever-changing roles. One of the points he made profoundly well is this: Any adoption is cross-cultural. Typically we think of "cross-cultural" adoption as involving racial or ethnic dissimilarities in a family unit. His focus, however, is to help parents realize that any adoption involves transitioning a child with his or her own genetic, environmental and innate characteristics into a family unit that is, by definition, new.

He also made the point in a number of ways that what we currently have in our country is not a "child welfare" system, but a "help parents get the child they want" system, when it comes to adoption. Too infrequently do we listen to the voice and experience of the child, instead moving in a consumeristic (my words, not his) direction that seeks to "place" a child in a family in the same way marketers might try to "place" a new product on the family dinner table. The system has become more about parents getting what they think they want as opposed to children receiving what they need.

I also attended a workshop on FASD (fetal alcohol spectrum disorders) which affirmed what we have tried to do with our own son with this diagnosis. The workshop speaker is a social worker, birth parent to 3 and adoptive parent to 8, from Maine whose experience in raising her FASD children is so like our experience with Mike that it made me feel just a little better. She talked about her son's brushes with the law, including jail time, his inability to understand cause and effect, the difficulty in moving past literal thinking and speech, the social challenges and emotional delays ... I felt like she was telling our story all over again. I left feeling better knowing that we couldn't have done anything more or different with Mike to this point in his life (she offered no new ideas that would have helped us in the past years), but still grieved knowing that so many children and families have to deal in this way with the fallout of women who choose to drink while they are pregnant.

Part of my self-care plan while here in Tampa is spend some time enjoying the city, so in a few minutes I will be walking in the humid day to see what I can see. Incidentally, the weather in Florida is more pleasant this week than back home in Minnesota. I've never anticipated escaping Minnesota for a more temperate week in Florida during July, but I guess that's also one of the good things a conference can do!

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