Female Disruptors: Sara Deatrela and Jennifer Kelly are shaking up how adoptions are done
“It is better to do the absolute right and legal thing, even if it uses more resources like money and time, than it is to skate through the grey areas. Grey will usually get you into trouble.” Adoption is a complex legal process, especially when working across different states where the laws vary greatly. This piece of advice was given to us early on by one of our board members. We have worked, at every turn, to ensure we follow the right and legal path on every case, every time, no matter what. Following this path has allowed us to earn a stellar reputation within the adoption community and most importantly, with the families we serve. It requires more work, more effort, and sometimes more expense, but doing the right thing is never a bad choice.”
I had the pleasure to interview Sara Deatrela and Jennifer Kelly. Sara and Jennifer are Co-Founders of Special Angels Adoption. Together, they help agencies and families place children with disabilities into loving adoptive homes. Special Angels Adoption is part of the Marlee Factor Foundation 501(c)(3)
Thank you so much for joining us! What is your “backstory”?
Special Angels Adoption started in 2007 as a special needs adoption advocacy ministry. Kelly Grove, our founder, found herself heartbroken at the number of children who were placed into foster care instead of through private adoption simply because agencies could not find adoptive parents for the children. She decided to establish a ministry where adoptive parents who were specifically looking to adopt children with special needs could register so they would be easier to find by agencies. Sara Deaterla and I took over the group in 2013 when Kelly wanted to focus more on her family. We worked to grow the ministry and find creative ways to reach more families, agencies, and attorneys while increasing adoptive parent education and birth parent counseling and support.
Sara and I met virtually in 2013 via Facebook when Sara reached out to my daughter’s page to share her own daughter’s story. Her adopted daughter, Marlee, had miraculously survived a near death case of pancreatitis. Marlee, born with a condition known as Tuberous Sclerosis Complex, was not expected to survive. Every time she overcame a grim prognosis, the chaplain and her parents attributed it to the “Marlee Factor”, Marlee’s unique way of overcoming obstacles in her path. Marlee recovered and continues to stun doctors to this day! Sara and her husband established the Marlee Factor Foundation after her discharge. The MFF works to help support and provide resources for families of children with special needs in the Jackson, Ohio area and surrounding communities. Sara came to Special Angels Adoption to help other families on their journeys of special needs adoptions as she herself has adopted three children with varying degrees of special needs.
My husband and I adopted a little girl, Joy, in 2012. We knew she had a heart defect and genetic condition (22q11.2 deletion syndrome) when we adopted her, but no one quite understood how severe her heart defects were. We nearly lost her after her first heart surgery at just 3 weeks old but the doctor had a dream and figured out what was wrong with her heart just as they were preparing to remove her from life support. Her story and Facebook page went viral. Joy recovered, and we had another wonderful 13 months with her. While she passed at 14 months old, she changed my whole universe. I am so thankful to have been her mother. Her adoption was closed (meaning no direct contact between birth and adoptive parents) but we were told her birth parents had to work hard to find someone who would help them make an adoption plan. I was happy to join Special Angels Adoption in honor of my daughter and work to make sure no other birth parents are ever made to feel as if their child is not as wanted, desired, and hoped for as a typical, healthy child.
Why did you found your company?
Sara and I saw a need for a specialized agency to work with families of children with special needs within the adoption community. Many agencies cannot or will not process special needs adoptions. They do not feel prepared to handle the liability, do not have the expertise needed to ensure the adoptive parents are truly ready for the child’s life long needs, or do not have the staffing to process the extra paperwork (mainly Social Security Disability and Adoption Subsidy Assistance paperwork) so they were turning away families. Most agencies also lack special needs adoptive parents who understand the unique challenges of this type of adoption. Special needs adoption cases often require more resources and additional, specialized counseling as many birth parents feel additional and unique guilt over the diagnosis and considering placing the child for adoption. We also saw many of the families we were matching through our advocacy group struggle to find appropriate resources/support and knew we had the unique skills to serve this community. Sara has master’s degrees in social work and education. She has thousands of hours experience in adoption specific counseling for birth and adoptive families. She works closely with our Ohio homestudy families, birth parents, and other social workers. I have a master’s degree in biology and have taught at a university, worked in medicine and biotech, and been an adoptive parent advocate. I work primarily with the agencies, attorneys, hospitals, and adoptive parents. Part of my job is ensuring the potential adoptive parents are educated on a child’s medical condition(s) so they are prepared to parent not just the adorable infant in front of them, but the child and adult that baby may become in the future so they can be sure they can meet the child’s lifelong needs.
We each decided to leave our full-time jobs in 2015 to start the process of opening an adoption agency that could meet the needs of these families. Special Angels Adoption became a full service, private, domestic adoption agency in January 2016. Sara lives in Ohio so while we opened our agency there, we have worked with families all over the U.S., 49 states so far!
What is it about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
Special Angels Adoption handles almost exclusively special needs adoptions. We are the only agency (known to us) that handles special needs adoptions on a national level. We also perform all adoption related services at estimated costs (usually less than $13,000). We still perform all ministry advocacy services for free (matching for other agencies). Many national adoption groups and agencies have said doing adoptions for costs without additional funding resources (grants, etc.) would never be sustainable, but we are not only sustaining, we are thriving! While this does require that Sara and I work sometimes upwards of 80 hours/week, this is a mission we are committed to and we have no plans of stopping! We believe that continuing to do the right thing by each child and family (birth and adoptive), we will continue to succeed. In addition, our low costs for special needs adoptions are forcing other agencies to limit their profit off these cases, so more children are finding loving and appropriately trained homes.
Furthermore, we do not advertise. We use word of mouth to share about our agency. We attend conferences, speak with adoptive parents, give lectures at schools, and occasionally outreach to social media to share that there are agencies that will help with special needs adoptions and that we specialize in it. Our goal is not to be “THE” special needs adoption agency however; our goal is to ensure this community is served. We are just as happy to teach others as we are to do the work ourselves. Choosing not to advertise allows us to save our adoptive parents a considerable amount of money as well.
We all need a little help along the journey — who have been some of your mentors?
Stephanie Thompson runs the National Down Syndrome Adoption Network (NDSAN). She advocates for adoptions involving children with Down Syndrome in much the same way that we do for all children with special needs. She is a wonderful resource who shares common goals! We have had numerous discussions about how to run our organizations more efficiently.
Robert C Lamarche, the Executive Director of ACF adoptions in Florida, is an attorney and social worker. He has advised us numerous times on tricky cases and we have developed a partnership with his agency for Florida cases. His unique background gives him a different perspective and has been vital to our agency.
Heather Spencer, with Ohio ICPC (Interstate Compact for the Placement of Children), has been an invaluable resource. She was one of our primary resources when we first began as an agency. I do not know if we would have been able to navigate the complexities of interstate adoptions without her help.
How are you going to shake things up next?
We have three goals for the next year within our agency.
The first is to make the adoptions of children with special needs as low cost as possible. We are actively looking for ways to limit costs and find grant sourcing opportunities for each adoptive family to limit their out of pocket expenses. We are hopeful we can continue to find ways to make the adoption of children with special needs affordable for all families.
The second is to fully establish the Grieving Mothers Fund. We work with several birth mothers each year who are expecting a child who will die before, during, or shortly after birth. These mothers were working with another adoption agency on an adoption plan when the agency turned them away after the terminal diagnosis was made. We emotionally and financially support these moms as if they are expecting healthy babies and then work to locate resources to cover funeral costs. Since we perform all agency services at estimated costs, we do not always have additional money to cover these expenses and have been fundraising on a case by case basis. However, we would like to develop ways to sustain a separate fund for these mothers and their babies.
Lastly, we have had several birth mothers who placed their children for adoption with our agency meet and talk with each other through our peer counseling program. They have asked if we would establish a retreat for birth mothers of children with special needs. They would like to rest, visit, grieve, celebrate, and take moment to process their adoption journeys as birth mothers, together. Our goal is to be ready to invite all our birth mothers within the next year to an experience we hope with be healing and refreshing for them. We are also currently gauging interest from birth fathers for a similar retreat.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
“The wait to match is very different for woman who have no other children than it is for woman who already have other children.” Women who do not have any other children approach adoption wondering IF they will ever be a mother, not if they will find another child. These are very different journeys and come with their own set of emotional baggage. The approach for working with these two types of adoptive families varies and understanding this difference has made us better able to serve both.
“It is better to do the absolute right and legal thing, even if it uses more resources like money and time, than it is to skate through the grey areas. Grey will usually get you into trouble.” Adoption is a complex legal process, especially when working across different states where the laws vary greatly. This piece of advice was given to us early on by one of our board members. We have worked, at every turn, to ensure we follow the right and legal path on every case, every time, no matter what. Following this path has allowed us to earn a stellar reputation within the adoption community and most importantly, with the families we serve. It requires more work, more effort, and sometimes more expense, but doing the right thing is never a bad choice.
“Birth mothers are not the only person responsible for making an adoption plan. Birth fathers matter too.” The considerations of the birth father are not something discussed often enough in adoption. Often, they are thrown to the side and not offered counseling or support, with all focus going to the birth mother. This piece of advice was given to us at the very start by another agency and we have made a concentrated effort to encourage birth father involvement in the adoption process, including utilizing counseling resources. We are working every day to find ways to reach and support birth fathers in an adoption journey.
What’s a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Share a story with us.
Sara recently attended a talk at the National Council For Adoption Conference. The presenter was a mother who previously placed two children for adoption. One adoption was now a closed adoption (no contact between birth parent(s) and adoptive parent(s)) despite promises from both the agency and the adoptive family of an open adoption (direct contact between both families). The other adoption has remained open, as promised. In listening to this birth mother, Sara heard the pain in her voice and saw the raw emotions this mother still experiences, years after these adoptions. Sara learned, from the perspective of a birth mother, that the preparation for coping with this pain starts with the first interaction with a potential birth mother. Adoption is loss and a birth mother may need help to understand this. She may need permission and allowance to grieve. She also needs to know that grief may or may not appear when she first signs adoption paperwork and can also be an issue in the future, perhaps years down the road. Sara learned ways from this mother to help future mothers with identifying grief, processing emotions, and preparing for the emotional impacts that may come in future years. Due to the profound impact this talk has had on how our agency will approach birth mother counseling, we are speaking to birth fathers with similar advice and counsel so we may help them too.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. :-)
Honestly, we would most like to speak with ANYONE who is interested in supporting or promoting special needs adoptions. Adoption and the medical status of children are often very private matters for families, so many do not speak publicly about it. However, as we do not advertise, we can use all the help we can get with getting the word out that adoption is a beautiful option for many families of children with special needs. If anyone reading this article is interested in helping with our cause, call me!
How can our readers follow you on social media?
We primarily utilize Facebook for our social media. We can be found at www.facebook.com/specialangelsadoption.org