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CCETN begins adoption services

Catholic Charities program looking to assist expectant mothers, adoptive parents

By Bill Brewer

Catholic Charities of East Tennessee is now an option for people looking to adopt a child.

The Diocese of Knoxville social-services agency has added an Adoption Services division to its extensive portfolio of programs that are available throughout the region.

Catholic Charities of East Tennessee Adoption Services officially launched July 27, and the program is now available to parents considering adoption to grow their families as well as expectant mothers who are considering placing a child for adoption.

Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs delivers remarks during the official opening of Catholic Charities of East Tennessee’s new Adoption Services program. The launch ceremony on July 27 was held in the parish hall at All Saints Church.

The new program received its license to operate in December and has spent the first half of 2022 preparing to serve clients. It operates from Catholic Charities’ temporary offices in the Regas Building at 318 N. Gay St. in Knoxville, although Lisa Healy, CCETN executive director, said the agency and its programs plan to return to their headquarters at 119 Dameron Ave. in Knoxville in the next few months once renovation is complete following a Nov. 28 arson fire.

Mrs. Healy said Catholic Charities of East Tennessee suspended adoptions eight years ago. But in the five years since she joined the organization, resuming them has been at the forefront of discussions.

She noted that Sandi Davidson, who is the program leader for Catholic Charities’ Pregnancy Services, has been advocating for a resumption of the adoption program. It’s a perfect fit for Catholic Charities in providing the full range of pregnancy services, according to Mrs. Healy.

“While adoption was suspended in 2014, the idea was to really bring it back and create a complete circle of service around the women that we serve,” Mrs. Healy said. “We started to talk about adoption with the board about three years ago. It has taken us about 18 months to put the whole program together.”

Catholic Charities is working with a Knoxville lawyer on the legal side of adoptions.

Re-examining adoption

The world of adoption is much different today than it was eight years ago, according to Mrs. Healy.

“A lot has changed since 2014, so we had to go back and look at what we used to do, what we need to do now, what other adoption agencies are doing. We really needed to build it from scratch because what we had was just not the new stuff,” she noted.

“It is complicated because you want it to be as perfect as it can be because you’re talking about placing children in homes with families who want children. You want everything to be just so. When an adoptive family comes and they’re matched with a birth-parent mom, from that point to the end everything works. The child is placed, and a new family begins,” she added.

Lisa Healy, Catholic Charities of East Tennessee executive director, speaks about the new Adoption Services program.

She emphasized that Catholic Charities is now fully licensed under the state of Tennessee to do complete adoptions, from birth parents to home studies with adoptive parents and then placing the children.

She also pointed out that when expectant mothers came to Catholic Charities in the past and there were no adoption services, carrying the child to term and assisting mothers before, during, and after birth was what the agency could offer through its Pregnancy Help Centers.

But if a mother decided she was unable to care for a child, she had to leave Catholic Charities to pursue other options, including adoption or even abortion.

“We feel like our adoption services program fills the mission of Catholic Charities under the Diocese of Knoxville, which is to support those with the most need who are the most vulnerable. Pregnancy help has been a wonderful mission for the diocese and Catholic Charities for 20 years,” Mrs. Healy said. “But times have changed, and we really needed to give a full option to women who become pregnant and are abortion-minded and felt like they didn’t want to keep their babies for whatever reason. There are as many reasons as there are stars in the sky it seems like.”

Mrs. Healy believes diverting abortion-minded expectant mothers from abortion facilities by again offering adoption is vital to carrying out the ministry of Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church. And Catholic Charities will soon introduce yet another program to help expectant mothers choose life: ultrasound.

“With adoption, that helps the moms who come in who feel like they really don’t have any hope or any choice. When somebody in despair with an emergency pregnancy comes to us, statistically there is less than a week from the time they find out they’re pregnant until they make a choice for abortion. Usually that abortion happens within the same week. It’s a very small timeframe to help a mom decide to give life to that child if she’s thinking otherwise,” she said.

“What we now offer is they can come in and share their story. The first thing we do is listen and provide a loving heart and a safe place for them to tell what’s going on. Then, if they don’t feel there are any other options, we say to them what about adoption. Then, they don’t have to go anywhere else to tell that story of despair. Everything is right there at the Catholic Charities Pregnancy Help Center to support that mom. And soon we’ll have ultrasound,” she continued.

According to the Adoption Network:

  • About 7 million Americans are adopted, and more than 33 percent of Americans have considered adoption, although no more than 2 percent have actually adopted a child;
  • U.S. citizens completed 19,942 international adoptions in 2007, which declined to 9,319 in 2011 as international adoptions became more restrictive. Catholic Charities of East Tennessee’s Adoption Services will be doing only domestic adoptions, not international placements;
  • Today, 60 percent to 70 percent of domestic adoptions are now open adoptions, which means there is a degree of openness and disclosure of information between adoptive and birth parents regarding the adopted child, the Adoption Network reported in its 2022 statistics;
  • About 135,000 children are adopted in the United States each year, and nearly 100 million Americans have adoption in their immediate family, whether adopting, placing for adoption, or being adopted;
  • 62 percent of adopted children were placed with their adoptive families within a month of birth;
  • Experts estimate between 1 million and 2 million couples are waiting to adopt compared to about 1.3 million abortions annually;
  • Only 4 percent of women with unwanted pregnancies place their children through adoption.

Mrs. Healy described Catholic Charities’ situation as a three-legged stool: child, mom, family.

“You’re a mom in a crisis pregnancy, and you’re in need. You come to us, you keep the child, we support the child from conception to 2 years old through pregnancy help. Child. Mom. Family. And if you’re not sure, we will soon have ultrasound, so we can show you your pregnancy. A lot of times, seeing that child through an ultrasound changes the mom’s mind if she’s abortion minded,” she pointed out.

“We offer a full complement of services. The ‘Earn While You Learn’ program and all of the resources there, including the lactation specialist, the car-seat specialist, our groups, our partnerships like with UT Extension for Nutrition. We do so much in that legacy program. When we add ultrasound, and we’re working on that now with the support of the Knights of Columbus and many private donors, ultrasound will give us that piece where we can now show mom, who’s not sure yet, about choosing life. We’ll show the baby in the womb,” she continued.

So, with its six Pregnancy Help Centers, soon-to-be-in-place mobile ultrasound, and just-opened Adoption Services, Mrs. Healy is convinced Catholic Charities can change people’s lives in even more profound ways.

“Statistically, that really is a game-changer for a mom to make that decision. Once they get to that point, if we have to go in that direction where they say, ‘I don’t know where to go or what to do,’ well, you don’t have to go anywhere else. We can match you with a family for an adoption program. This is one place where somebody who feels like she is in trouble and there is no hope can go. That means a lot,” she said.

First-hand experience

Having adoption services through Catholic Charities is welcome news to Darlene and Terry Leitz, who adopted two sons through Catholic Charities.

In their first decade of marriage, the couple realized they could not have children, so adoption became a possibility. Now married for 43 years, the Leitzes are grandparents.

The Leitzes shared that early in their marriage they consulted with an infertility specialist in hope of becoming pregnant, but they realized the requirements of the fertility process were unrealistic for them.

“We could have gone that route. I’m so glad we didn’t. God’s grace kept us from going that route. Then we were so blessed with these healthy boys. You hear people say things about adoption. We have no negative thoughts about Catholic Charities or adoption. They helped us tremendously. It was a sad time. If you can’t get pregnant but that’s what you’ve been thinking about for years—being a wife and mother and giving birth—it’s a sad time. But Catholic Charities was so compassionate. They were awesome,” Mrs. Leitz said.

Darlene and Terry Leitz show a family photo of their grandchildren, son, and daughter-in-law. The Leitzes, who adopted two sons through Catholic Charities adoption services, said they highly recommend the ministry

Mrs. Leitz explained that she and her husband received Christopher as an infant in 1988, just as the Diocese of Knoxville was being established. They were on the approval list for two years before that, so she estimates they began the adoption process in 1985. The approval part of the process took a year, with a wait time of two years.

“We had done so many things beforehand with an infertility specialist and talking to people that it was no longer a question of are we going to adopt but how are we going to do it?” Mr. Leitz said.

The Leitzes saw information in the Tennessee Register newspaper in the Diocese of Nashville about adoption through Catholic Charities of Tennessee.

“I was so excited when I saw that. I thought this can work. This can produce a baby for our family. That was our last hope unless I got pregnant. And that wasn’t happening,” Mrs. Leitz said.

Mr. Leitz said it just seemed natural to go with a Catholic adoption agency. Their adoption counselor with Catholic Charities led them with care through the process, which included a comprehensive home study and writing letters to the birth mother explaining who they were, how they lived, and how they would raise the child.

“The letters were the most difficult thing in the entire process. We each had to write a letter. We had never examined ourselves. They had to be hand-written,” Mrs. Leitz said. “We didn’t embellish. In our letters, we always put that the child we raised would be in a Catholic home and would receive all the sacraments. Both of the ones who chose us were Catholic families.”

Christopher was 3 weeks old when they received him in Knoxville. He was born in Shelby County. The adoption process took another year to complete legally.

The process was similar when they adopted Matthew.

When Christopher was 3, they repeated the process and this time waited for five years before they received Matthew, who was less than 48 hours old. He was born in Chattanooga.

And the sadness was replaced with overwhelming joy when they broke the news to family and friends that they finally had young sons. Both adoptions are open, meaning there can be contact between the adopted children and their birth parents.

Christopher, now 34, and Matthew, now 26, attended St. Joseph School in Knoxville before the family returned to Indiana. Christopher and Matthew both married in the Catholic Church and now live in different areas of the country.

When comparing Catholic Charities to other adoption agencies they considered, the Leitzes were very impressed by Catholic Charities’ pastoral approach as opposed to some that were more focused on fees.

“When we checked into it (other agencies), it was ‘first thing, let’s talk about your finances, how much this is going to cost you.’ That’s not how it was at Catholic Charities. It was always based on what was the best thing for the child and for you as a family. Finances were there, yes. You had to figure that out. But it was always focused on the best result for the child as opposed to the process,” Mr. Leitz said.

“That’s probably the biggest thing that was the difference. It always felt like Catholic Charities was always working to do what the best thing is in the situation,” Mr. Leitz continued. “They always told us the client is the child. What is the best outcome for the child? There was no question that they were concerned about the child’s welfare.”

Mr. Leitz explained that they had to make a financial disclosure to Catholic Charities, and based on that a fee for what the adoption would cost was established. At the time, the fee was based on the adoptive parents’ income, not a flat fee.

“Many times over the years we have recommended adoption through Catholic Charities. I have talked to many people about adoption,” Mrs. Leitz said.

The Leitzes said Catholic Charities of East Tennessee reached out to them a year ago to let them know a state adoption license had been applied for and that plans were in place to start an adoption agency.

“We were really excited about it,” Mrs. Leitz said, acknowledging that she “cried like a baby” when her first grandchild was born.

After returning to their native Indiana in 2002, the Leitzes moved back to the Diocese of Knoxville in January and attend Our Lady of Fatima Church in Alcoa. Before moving to Indiana 20 years ago, they had attended St. John XXIII, Holy Family, and Holy Ghost churches in the Diocese of Knoxville.

The couple had moved to Seymour in 1979 when they joined the Philips Consumer Electronics-Magnavox company in Strawberry Plains. While in Seymour, they attended St. John XXIII Church first and then became founding members of Holy Family Parish once it was established in Seymour in the mid-1980s.

Ready to go

Now that Catholic Charities Adoption Services program has resumed operation, Ada Hernandez-Bell is anxiously anticipating the first adoptive family and the first child to be placed for adoption.

Ada Hernandez-Bell is directing Catholic Charities of East Tennessee’s new Adoption Services program.

“We are ready to go. We are actively accepting applications for pre-adoptive parents. And we are able to serve birth parents as they come in through the program,” said Ms. Hernandez-Bell, who is program manager for Catholic Charities of East Tennessee Adoption Services.

“When a mother comes in, whether it’s through our ‘Earn While You Learn’ program within our Pregnancy Help Centers or directly calls Adoption Services, we discuss with that mother where they’re coming from, what place they’re coming from, what their interest is for that child, what’s going on with them that may or may not be a risk for that baby, resources they need, and then begin the process of assisting them in creating a plan for that child,” she added.

Ms. Hernandez-Bell underscored that Catholic Charities’ intent is always to assist expectant mothers through pregnancy, delivery, and following birth as they bond with their baby and start or add to their family.

But for expectant mothers who decide not to keep their child, there now is a solution for them that gives life to their child and serves a couple or individual who is longing for a child.

When Ms. Hernandez-Bell meets with expectant mothers and potential adoptive parents, she speaks from experience.

She was placed with a loving family as a teenager and has dedicated her career to working to improve children’s lives.

“Personally, I am adopted. I was adopted through kinship care at 13 years old. Adoption is something that always has been near and dear to my heart. Having the opportunity that I did with my adoptive mother at a new life was an incredible blessing for me,” Ms. Hernandez-Bell said.

“As I got older, I began working in the child welfare system 14 years ago and dived into providing opportunities for children and infants and teenagers to have the best life, to be equipped with the resources they need and the love they need, so that when they go out into the community, we have more successful young adults, children who are growing up and having the desire to continue their education, to become productive in the community. Everything is better when this happens: lower crime rates, better family engagement, community resources,” she further said.

Kinship care refers to the care of children by relatives or, in some jurisdictions, close family friends. Relatives are the preferred resource for children who must be removed from their birth parents because it helps maintain the children’s connections with their families, increases stability, and overall minimizes the trauma of family separation.

“I firmly believe that you reach children by getting resources to parents when the children are young,” Ms. Hernandez-Bell observed.

She noted that the Adoption Services program provides closed, open, and semi-open adoptions.

“We work with what the family and the birth parent believe is going to be best for them. Children ask questions. As they get older, they want to know where they came from. We do encourage families and mothers who decide to have a closed or even semi-open adoption to consider leaving a note for when the child turns 18 or some type of connection. In semi-open adoptions, we facilitate the transfer of notes back and forth so that the birth mother may not have to give her full identity, but they can still have some line open to that child,” she said.

“Every family and every individual is unique. There are circumstances leading them to be here, and the dynamics of the pregnancy and their wishes for that child are unique. We do want to honor and respect that. We also want to see and nurture positive relationships that surpass just their interactions, but really feed into that infant as they grow and develop into a young adult,” she added.

Ms. Hernandez-Bell is originally from New York City and attended high school in Durham, N.C. She relocated to the Tri-Cities to attend King University in Bristol. Soon after arriving in East Tennessee, she said she knew she would never leave because of her love for the mountains.

Her immediate goal for the Adoptions Services program is to facilitate that first adoption, which could take a year or longer.

“I want to see that first baby get adopted. I want to see a baby born with a healthy birth weight to a mother who has received medical care and nutrition education and who makes that choice for her child to give it the best life she can possibly give it despite having made the decision of not parenting herself,” she said.

She also has longer-term goals.

“At two and three years, my goals are to see the program expand to provide additional education opportunities for pre-adoptive parents for child development. Our ‘Earn While You Learn’ program provides a lot of nutrition and benefits to pregnant mothers, but being able to grow that for the long-term child-development care on the adoptive parent side also is needed. It is important to identify what needs are unique to an adopted child, navigating how to incorporate a new baby into the home, providing support groups and long-term care for both birth parents and adoptive parents. Those are my three-year goals,” she added.

Her five-year goal is to see the program expand even more and for the services to reach a broader range.

She noted that Catholic Charities’ pending ultrasound program should result in more expectant mothers giving birth as opposed to choosing abortion.

“Ninety percent of mothers who hear their baby’s heartbeat make the decision to birth that child, whether to parent on their own or place that child for adoption. Adding the ultrasound services dramatically increases the rate of babies born who might need our services,” Ms. Hernandez-Bell said.

She pointed out that expectant mothers now have more choices with Catholic Charities. While they are encouraged to carry their babies to term using all the resources Catholic Charities provides, they now can place their babies for adoption if parenting is not an option for them.

If they make the decision to parent, they receive the “Earn While You Learn” education services, which provides curriculum modules that can be done in person in three languages or can be done online, with follow-up from the Pregnancy Help Center case workers.

In the “Earn While You Learn” program, expectant mothers and the fathers take classes offered by Catholic Charities’ Pregnancy Help Centers that teach parenting skills. The birth parents receive “baby bucks” that can be redeemed for baby supplies such as formula, diapers, wipes, car seats, and baby clothes at the Pregnancy Help Centers. Mothers can participate in this program until their child is 2 years old.

If a mother decides to place her child for adoption, she receives the same nutrition education, the same pregnancy resources through the same curriculum module. And once the placement of the child is complete, the birth mother receives support services for a full year and keeps the same case worker.

“That’s one of the things we think is so valuable about adding this adoption program to our existing pregnancy services. Prior to adding adoption, if a mother were considering adoption or if they were abortion-minded, they had to leave the facility to receive those services. We believe that adding adoption services gives them the opportunity to stay in one location, which we do believe will increase the rate of decisions to place the child for adoption versus aborting the child for people who already are leaning toward not parenting,” Ms. Hernandez-Bell said.

Ms. Hernandez-Bell believes continuity between case workers and clients is important, which is why it is part of Catholic Charities’ pregnancy help model designed to assist expectant mothers throughout their pregnancy and beyond.

The criteria for birth parents and adoptive parents differ.

“Our expectant mothers have no eligibility criteria. If a woman is pregnant, that’s it. If you are pregnant and interested in placing your child for adoption, we will begin providing services to you. Less than 5 percent of our clients at Catholic Charities are Catholic. We provide services with no discrimination toward that mother as far as religion, sexual orientation, anything along those lines is concerned,” Ms. Hernandez-Bell said.

Father David Boettner, rector of the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, speaks during a luncheon for the official opening of Catholic Charities of East Tennessee’s Adoption Services program at All Saints Church in Knoxville. The program marks the return of adoptions through Catholic Charities to East Tennessee.

“Eligibility for our pre-adoptive parents is a little bit different. For our pre-adoptive parents, it’s a fee-based program, and it is presently open to single individuals and married couples as long as they’ve been in those roles for two years. What we’re looking for there is the stability to care. Perhaps a family that’s recently divorced, a single mother or father recently divorced, we’re asking them to give that status some time until they’ve developed that stability and really entered into their new normal. Also with a newly married couple, we’re also asking that they maintain that stability for two years and discover each other well before adding a child into their family,” she added.

She emphasized that Catholic Charities Adoption Services is “open to any religion that honors the traditional values of wanting to raise that child in a home that places importance on compassionate interaction with other people, community regard, and many of the faith values that apply to the Catholic Church that also may apply to the Baptist or Presbyterian communities or even our Muslim friends.”

“We are not serving LGBTQ families presently. We are maintaining our consistency with our Catholic social teaching, but there are no limitations on religion or any other areas that a family brings in,” she further explained.

While expectant mothers and adoptive parents taking part in Catholic Charities of East Tennessee Adoption Services can be outside of the Diocese of Knoxville, Ms. Hernandez-Bell expects many cases to be from within the diocese.

“We do expect that the primary source of infants will be local, in our area. We’ve been doing outreach in the Tri-Cities, in Morristown, we’ll be going to the basilica in Chattanooga in November. Any of our Pregnancy Help Centers can begin to serve clients and connect them to us in the Adoption Services office,” she said.

Anyone interested in more information about Catholic Charities of East Tennessee and its Adoption Services and Pregnancy Help programs, or any other CCETN program, can visit ccetn.org.

Mrs. Healy noted that Catholic Charities’ programs complement each other, such as Pregnancy Help and Adoption, with a goal of supporting children, adults, and women in crisis.

“We really believe our mission is to do the will of God. He is the Creator, and these babies that come into the womb, it’s God’s will that they’re born. So, we do everything we can to make that happen. Now more than ever, we’ll have all the tools to do that. We’re good at what we do, we just haven’t had all the tools. Soon, with ultrasound, we’ll have all the tools,” Mrs. Healy said. “We see a lot of hopelessness, a lot of despair, especially now as women who are abortion-minded feel that now there is no hope. The last thing we want to see is illegal abortions, where they get in trouble health-wise or they skip to other states (for an abortion).”

With adoption now in place, that gives women an opportunity to carry their baby to term and then provide a loving home for their child.

“There is great courage in that. As a mom myself, I’m in awe of the courage of women who, for whatever reason, end up pregnant, but they have the courage and the love and the compassion in their heart to give that baby to a family,” she concluded.

Comments 1

  1. We are so happy to hear that the adoption services are being added to CCETN once again. We adopted our son through Catholic Charities in 1977. He was born in Nashville. While waiting for our adoption to go through, we spent time as foster parents for Columbus Hope as the Home on Magnolia Ave. was being finished. It was a wonderful time for us and our 4 yr. old daughter. She loved all the children that stayed with us. This is a wonderful program – we send many prayers for success.

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