Staff at the Children’s Services branch of Catholic Charities in Burke regard the season just before Christmas as an important time.
"As people are waiting to celebrate the birth of Christ every year, many people connect with what we do," said Linda Cullen, program director at Children’s Services. The Burke-based Children's Services is not a large office, but its mission encompasses everything from crisis pregnancy care to fostering and adoption services.
Catholic Charities, founded in 1947 by the Catholic Diocese of Arlington, is a nonprofit social service agency designed to fulfill the stated social mission of the church: to serve the poor and in need. The Diocese of Arlington encompasses 21 counties in Northern Virginia, from Frederick County to Lancaster County. Catholic Charities’ nine branches include services for people with disabilities, the elderly, emergency assistance for the homeless and immigrant services.
"The most important thing is to let these women know we’re here to support them whichever decision they make, whether they choose to raise the child or make an adoption plan," said Cullen.
Although Catholic Charities is rooted in the Catholic faith, it is open to anyone, regardless of religion, said Cullen. A pro-life organization, its foundation is the core belief that emotional, physical and financial obstacles should not prevent a woman from carrying a pregnancy to term, said Cullen. The organization offers confidential counseling, housing for women who need it, and financial assistance for any medical needs. Donations from churches, organizations and individuals also allow Children’s Services to provide baby clothing and supplies to young mothers.
Children’s Services is also a Virginia licensed child-placing agency. In the last year, said Cullen, the agency has facilitated 28 adoptions.
CHILDREN'S SERVICES' standards are stricter than regular Virginia standards, said foster parent Margaret Eggleston. "The criteria [for adoptive and foster parents] are three times harder to meet than the state of Virginia," she said.
Adoptions have changed since 1973, said Cullen, the year she began working with Children’s Services. The process used to be completely closed, with birth parents and adoptive parents knowing nothing about each other. Now, the process can be open if the parents wish. Often, birth parents have an active role picking out the family their child will go to, she said.
Besides adoption and parenting services, Child Services provides foster care for babies. Sometimes, said Cullen, parents are unsure of whether to raise their child themselves or give it up for adoption.
"We use foster care to help people be able to parent," said Nancy Hudgins, foster-care coordinator at Children’s Services. Since Children’s Services works with voluntary relinquishments, foster families take in babies rather than older children. Sometimes, however, Children’s Services does step in for cases of abuse or neglect.
"It’s voluntary, so it makes a difference," said Hudgins. "We help people who want help."
Fostering a child is a difficult job, said Cullen. "[Foster parents] are exceptional people," she said.
Eggleston, who has fostered babies for Children’s Services for over 20 years, agreed. "It’s stressful and emotional, to say the least," she said. "It is hard, and we do have to bond with [the children], or we wouldn’t be doing our job."
Eggleston typically receives children just after they are born and cares for them anywhere from a few weeks to six months or more. The most rewarding part of fostering is the first smile, she said, and the feeling that she is doing something God called her to do.
"If foster care wasn’t out there the way we do it … where would they go?" she said. Four of Eggleston’s three children are adopted, she said, and fostering is her way of helping other adoptive children receive the same quality of care her children did.
ABOUT HALF the time, foster babies are adopted, and half the time, birth parents take their child back, said Eggleston. Before the baby goes to a new home, the adoptive parent spends time at the foster parent’s home so that the baby can become accustomed to the change. For Eggleston, the hardest part emotionally comes when the foster parents, adoptive parents and sometimes the birth parents gather with a priest at the adoption ceremony, said Eggleston.
The agency provides training for adoptive parents as well, said Cullen. "At some point, the child has to grapple with issues such as, ‘Why did my birth parent make an adoptive plan for me?’" she said. One of the most important things to understand, she said, is that adoption is a life-long process. Families must learn how to respond to questions from their child about their birth parents, as they develop into adults.
"A lot of times, it is based on a child’s personality," said Cullen. "If they are the type of child to ask a million questions about everything, then they will have a million questions about adoption too."
Every year, Children’s Services has a Christmas party for foster and adoptive families. The event brings together the families who have been through the adoption process from beginning to end, and provides children an opportunity to spend time with other adoptive children.
"It’s sort of gratifying to really see the families that have come through our program and their children as they are growing up," said Hudgins. "It brings to light everything we do, on a grander scale."