Welcome back to all my readers! If you’re joining me for the first time I’m also so glad you’re here! November is National Adoption Month and I want to spend the next few weeks spotlighting the subject of adoption and those involved in the process. I want to share this subject from two different points of view-the adoption professional and the adoptive parent. I feel each of these perspectives has importance and will offer insight into the process.
These mom to mom conversations are so important! Full disclosure-this is probably the hardest I’ve ever worked to come up with just the right questions to ask these women. I wanted to honor them, the topic and the experience. I wanted to do my best to get it right. This decision to do this series was not only influenced by my desire to start conversations and share perspectives but, in part, because of two very inspiring women I know. We will get to the second one later in this series but first- I want to introduce you to Jill Thomley.
We all had that girl we knew in high school-smart, kind, involved in tons of activities and friendly to everyone (no exceptions). It’s the girl who’s in student council, plays a sport or two, is also a cheerleader and active in clubs. When I think back to that time in my own past, Jill was that person in my school. Yes, I have known her since the early 90’s and I can vouch for the fact that making a difference and getting involved is nothing new to Jill. Being helpful and a friend isn’t a new thing either.
I approached Jill a couple of months ago with the idea that I’d like to do this series. She was not only immediately supportive of it but offered to help in any way she could. This is who she is-she is supportive, good hearted and makes a difference each day by being herself.
Something else you should know about my old friend is that she is an adoption professional. Working in adoption is her career and her calling. She talks about her career passionately and truly believes in what she’s doing. I can think of no one better to share information about the role of the adoption professional than this woman. One other reason to listen…she not only is an adoption professional but an adoptive parent. She can see both sides because she is and has been both!
So please join me now as I talk to Jill Thomley-a wife, mother of 5, adoption professional and inspiring woman:
Tell me about yourself and your family:
“I am happily married to Jason and we have five children, three biological sons and two adopted children-Ethan (14), Wyatt (11), Sarah (9), Kedrick (6) and Asher (2). My husband and I felt called to bring change to the hearts of our beautiful city, Macon, Georgia. He grew up here in the Macon area and we moved here in 2003 after meeting in Oklahoma and serving at a university there. We currently spend a lot of time with our kids at football practice and games. Jason coaches Kedrick’s team, Sarah is a cheerleader and Wyatt plays for the same league. Ethan is a soccer player turn kicker for his middle school football team. We all like to travel, hike, find great ice cream places, and watch cooking shows or college football together.”
Why did you decide to adopt?
“Jason and I talked about it early in our relationship and I knew someday it (adoption) would be a part of our life. We decided we were ready to start a family, we had two children in three years and were happily parenting them. The earthquake in Haiti definitely brought us to a decision point and it may have been earlier than we would have planned in our own strength. Our second adoption really came to us while we were busy doing life. It was evident pretty quickly that we wanted to adopt him and were very hopeful that he wouldn’t have to transition to another family. When we planned to adopt Sarah, we knew we would likely adopt again because we felt it important to not have just one child of another race in our family, but the timing came in when we weren’t looking!”
Why did you decide to become an adoption professional?
“I became an adoption professional quite by accident, when I had my first son I was looking for part-time work in my field of social work while still allowing me to stay at home with him full-time. I began by doing homestudies for international adoption. When I was looking to go back to work full-time I was able to work for an domestic adoption agency. In this position I was able to do both adoptive family work and work with women considering an adoption plan. I then became the executive director of the agency and worked there for a total of 6 years. My family then expanded through 2 adoptions and I was a full-time stay-at-home mom for about 3 years. Just a year ago, I began working with my current agency as a contract worker to educate adoptive families through the homestudy process. I have been involved in the adoption profession for about 11 years.”
Tell me about the joys and challenges of your job:
“I love doing what I do and really believe that I am called to do this! I enjoyed getting to know the couples and educating them about adoption. I love seeing the lightbulb click on when they see the beauty of involving a birthmother in their future. The challenges are having those difficult conversations about a criminal history that may affect their ability to adapt, or if the couple needs to seek marriage counseling and come back to the adoption process. This is part of it though, we want to have our couples at a good place before they enter the emotional journey of adoption.
I love that I can do this on a contract basis, so I can stay very involved with my family and the ministry opportunities the Lord has given us. I also feel I can share my personal journey. My journey informs me as does my education and I believe both can be helpful to my clients. I don’t go into a lot of detail, but I do share as appropriate.”
Do you worry about your decisions, do they take a toll on you? Is it possible to leave your “work” at work?
I’ve had to make some very difficult decisions in my career, and yes, at times it took quite the toll on me. There is beauty in having other eyes on situations, and I never discount others who might have different perspectives than me. When I was the Executive Director, I would talk with other professionals to help me see what my blind spots might be, knowing I still had to make the decision, but wanting to see what I wasn’t seeing. There are also many guidelines that I have to follow because our agency is licensed by the state, so sometimes it is just looking at those and the answer is there.
As a social worker in various aspects over the last 18 years, I have found it difficult to really leave my work at work. In the adoption world we often say “babies come when babies come….” so work is often at atypical hours.”
Do you stay in contact with the families you work with (adoptive parents and birth parents)?
“I stay in contact to some degree if they pursue the relationship after the professional relationship has ended; primarily through Instagram or Facebook. I do not currently work directly with the birthmothers, but when I did, those relationships stayed professional and typically consisted of counsel and assistance as necessary.”
Have you handled multiple adoptions for the same adoptive parents?
“It is really exciting when I hear from a couple wanting to adopt again! There have been a few times in my career when a birth mother was pregnant again and desired to place with the same family. In these cases, it was usually before the couple had returned to adopt again but because the biological connection through siblings is so important, the couple would get ready!”
Did you find similarities when you as a parent when through the adoption process? Why did you decide to adopt?
“Our adoptions were similar in that we still went through the homestudy process like anyone else. It was a bit different in that my boss at the time was the one that did my home study! Talk about being known!!!
My husband and I had often dreamt about adoption but not until January 2010 did it hit us right in the face and come to a decision point. Haiti was hit with a devastating earthquake and we knew a family that ran an orphanage there. We heard of the devastation and wondered how we could help the orphanage. We got involved in multiple ways but kept hearing stories of the many children they took in after the earthquake, this put them over their capacity. We knew we could not rebuild the nation, or even an orphanage, but we knew we could give family to a child that lost everything. So, we signed up to adopt and begin a 4 1/2 year process to bring our daughter home. During that time, we served occasionally as a foster family for the agency I had worked for. When a sweet 2 1/2-year-old little boy came into our home and his mother chose adoption, we prayed that he would never have to leave!”
How does a person begin the adoption process? Are there first steps?
“The first step is to decide what avenue you may want to go; international, domestic infant, domestic through the State, etc. Then get a homestudy completed through an agency that is license by your state. Educate yourself about the avenue you choose through books, mentors, and training opportunities. Find a good reputable agency; go by recommendations, not just ease or cost.”
Tell me about international adoption-is it more complicated, more expensive, does it take longer? Is there a lot of red tape to cut through in other countries?
“I can confidently confidently say yes, yes, yes! With International Adoption you have to be approved by your agency, approved by the US and approved by the other country. There are many steps, many governmental agencies involved, and typically costs more. Our process was very convoluted because Haiti was a non-Hague country when we started, the country had three different prime ministers during the time, UNICEF came in and made many changes to the process…ultimately we were grandfathered in but it was more difficult than most international adoptions. With international adoptions you also lose the connection with the birth family and most likely have little medical history on your child. Every avenue is different and it is important to make an informed decision.”
(Sarah comes HOME!)
Tell me about home studies-are there key things that you look for or red flags?
“I always tell families that “homestudy” is somewhat of a misnomer and that it is really a people study! Although we do scrutinize the safety of the home and its readiness for children, it is about so much more. We look at finances, a criminal history, get references, work history, verify income and insurance, and make sure they are healthy. If there are guns in the home, we make sure they are secured. If there is a pool it must meet city ordinances and have safety measures, etc. A couple doesn’t have to make a certain amount of money, but we look to see that they manage what they make well and that with the addition of a child that they could still provide for the necessities. Criminal history or health difficulties do not automatically make someone unable to adopt, but we investigate this further. The adoption process really requires a couple to open up in all areas of their life and requires quite a bit of discernment on the professional’s part to assess all these areas.”
How are prospective parents matched with expectant mothers? Do they meet first?
“Each agency does things a little differently and over the past few years, the internet has really advanced how expectant mothers get matched with prospective parents. I work for an agency that is licensed in Georgia and Alabama and we approve families so that they can then connect with the consulting agency that connects with agencies all over the country that serves expectant mothers. When an expectant mother begins making her adoption plan she gets to a point where she is ready to choose a family to place her child with. The agency that is serving her will let a consulting agency know that she wants to look at the family profiles and they will prepare a history of her pregnancy and background (to include her race, medical history and any potential concerns present with the baby). Then families that fit within the expectant mother’s parameters are presented with that history. They decide if they want to be presented to the expectant mother and then she looks at a pile of profiles. Once she has chosen a family, the caseworkers make a plan regarding meeting or talking by phone (because sometimes they are states away) prior to delivery of the baby. Often times an expectant mother and couple that are connected directly and stay in contact for the duration of the pregnancy. There are still caseworkers involved, however this is a chance to build a relationship that is more than two dimensional than when the expectant mother was first presented with the profile book.”
Do you offer consulting to expectant mothers? What kind of services are are offered before, during and after placement?
“Yes, a good adoption professional will meet face-to-face with the expectant mother multiple times before she chooses a family and delivers her child. There are a lot of things that can be included in this counseling. It will include working through the anticipatory grief, but sometimes it also includes finding a place to live, securing a job, helping with telling others that they are considering adoption, etc. As much as we work to prepare the women for the feelings that may come with choosing adoption, the real work begins after the placement. We ask her about her dreams, about the difficulties that she is facing, about who she wants to become….then we make a plan to help her be successful. Again sometimes this means getting a job, finishing school, getting a place of her own, getting treatment for substance abuse, and many other things. Every woman grieves the loss differently and we do our best to let her know we are there, no matter what she may need and no matter how long it takes. We recently partnered with Lifetime Healing, Inc. to have support groups for birthmothers (expectant mothers until placement, birthmothers after placement), throughout the state of Georgia and Alabama, although LHI has these groups all over the US.”
Do you handle both open and closed adoptions?
“It is rare to have a closed adoption these days, yet openness is on a spectrum dependent on the birthmother and the adoptive family. It has just been in the past few years that birthmothers really have been given the freedom to drive the future of the relationship. It takes a lot of trust on both sides. Birthmothers have been portrayed and viewed as scary people that are going to show up and scream about taking their babies back (thank you Lifetime movies), and adoptive couples have not been educated on the benefits of having a birthmother involved or how to nurture these relationships. Contact on some level is expected in adoptions today yet true openness, vulnerability, and a mutual desire to grow a relationship should be included in all adoption plans.”
What is like to make that call to tell parents they are getting a child?
“I don’t get to do this anymore, but when I worked for another agency, those were pretty special days!! However, those calls are still met with some anxiety because what is really happening is that an expectant mother has chosen the couple. There are often moths left in the process before they become parents. This call enables the couple and expectant mother to connect and begin building a relationship.”
What do think those not involved (as a parent or professional) wouldn’t guess about adoption?
“Most people have great misconceptions about expectant mothers; “How could she give her child away?” “They are all addicts, poor, uneducated, whatever…..” “They won’t miss their child.” “They don’t deserve to be parents anyway.” The list goes on… Some of those things are true some of the time, however, birth mothers are the bravest women I know.
Outsiders always wonder why adoption costs money…. well there are many social workers and other professionals involved in the process and there is not a way for an expectant mother to make an adoption plan except through a private opportunity (agency, consultant, lawyer). Babies do not cost money but the process does have associated costs.
People think that they can ask me (as a parent) anything out in public because my family looks different. It is amazing how bold people are! Although I am always open to educating and even willing to answer a crazy question out of curiosity at times, don’t ask me these super personal questions in front my kids!!”
What inspires you in your work?
“The birthmothers that I have worked with over the years inspire me to educate others about the beauty of adoption. Couples need to know about the beauty of a relationship with these amazing, brave women. Other women need to understand that although adoption is a loss, there is a beauty in this choice. Society as a whole needs to understand that adoption is a beautiful alternative to abortion and that there are more positive ways to speak about adoption and the brave women that have chosen to parent this way.”
What would you want your children to know about why mommy does what she does? Have they asked?
“My oldest two understand the difficult side of things like abortion, loss, pregnancy when it’s not planned for, etc. My two adopted children understand that I get families ready for adoption, so kids can have a family like they have family. My work allows us to continue to talk about adoption without it always being about them or their stories. Although we talk about their stories, it’s good for them to realize that they are among many within the adoption world.”
If you were offered help in any aspect of your life, what would you choose and why?
“If I could gather more of my daughter’s story I would jump at the chance! Our knowledge of her story begins when she was brought to the hospital at about 18 months old so there are many gaps, however, we had the amazing opportunity to go visit her at the orphanage many times in the wait to bring her home.”
What has surprised you about motherhood? What do you enjoy and what challenges you?
“I always wanted to be a mama. I guess something that surprises me is that with each stage comes new depths and greater challenges. As my kids get older, I really love building a relationship with them and having conversations that matter. Yet this stage is almost as exhausting as running after a toddler, teaching them obedience, potty training, or winning the nap battle. Having kids from teenager to toddler is overwhelming at times, but I was made for this! I wouldn’t have it any other way!”
A huge thank you to amazing Jill Thomley for sharing all this information with us today! She could have just told us about her career and that would have been enough. Doing that wouldn’t have been Jill-high school or present Jill. I feel the love she has for her family in each word she spoke about them. I feel her confidence that her path lead her exactly where it was supposed to, in every sense of the word.
I hope someday her children read this and see just how much the relationships with them matter to her. The way she loves and mothers each of them. I also hope they see the way she cares for other children that aren’t hers. The children she and those she works with help place with families that want more than anything to be parents. Because of them these parents without children become parents they dream of being. They literally help fulfill some of the biggest dreams there are. (Watch this video of Kedrick learning he was going to be in this family FOREVER as proof of the joy and the fulfillment of these dreams, it will melt your heart).
Sometimes when we hear about adoption agencies we only think of it as just an agency, a business. I wanted to share that there are caring, committed and passionate people in these agencies. I hope hearing from a real individual has given you some perspective of who is really behind the scenes.
Come on back next week for the next installment of this series. I’m sharing a conversation with an adoptive mother I’ll never ever forget about her own journey and point of view of the adoption process. Janet