ERIE – The adoption process can be long, arduous, and emotionally draining for those involved. The journey itself can be filled with unexpected twists and turns, with birth mothers and adoptive parents often left to navigate the journey solo.
One Erie-based adoption agency is trying to change the culture surrounding adoption, and act as a navigator for both the adoptive family and the birth mother.
Absolute Love Adoptions, a 501(c)3 nonprofit adoption agency, takes a comprehensive approach to adoption by providing education, counseling, information, and other services for all those involved in the adoption and beyond.
“Adoption is social work and should be treated as a social service, not a business,” Absolute Love Adoptions Director Kathryn Russell said. “As such, Absolute Love has designed our program and its implementation to focus on individualized care, with connection, education, and community at its heart.”
Russell, who has had a lifelong love for children, initially wanted to work in international adoption, but decided to go in a different direction after seeing how much of each child’s and family’s fate was determined by political forces. An internship while studying for her Master’s degree at the University of Pittsburgh set her on a path toward Absolute Love.
“I had no idea where I wanted to do my internship I didn’t know who was doing adoption locally,” Russell said. “There was a large agency that had a branch in Pittsburgh, and apparently a social worker before me had done all the work to set up this agency as a potential option for internship for people, and then she didn’t pursue the internship. So Cheryl, who was the supervisor on the other end, was all set up to have an intern and then didn’t get one.
“And then I came along, and it was perfect,” she continued. “I ended up interning with her for two years, and she was the founder of Absolute Love. So I was learning her style of doing adoptions, domestic adoptions, through Absolute Love. And then still learning international, domestic, and all of that through a large agency through her primary job and through my internship, so it really became this amazing learning experience about how it all works.”
The way it works at Absolute Love is different than in many adoption agencies. Absolute Love strives to be a presence throughout the process. Conducting home studies, providing education, support, and guidance, coordinating care and information after birth, and making multiple post-placement visits are just a few ways Absolute Love supports placing families.
They also provide counseling, education, and information to mothers looking to place their child for adoption. And those services don’t stop once the child is placed.
“After placement, we continue to see our clients consistently for several months before gradually tapering off visits,” Russell said. “However, we continue to stay in touch indefinitely. Some families choose to communicate through the agency with their child’s birth parents, and we are often involved with annual visits between adoptive and birth families. We have sustained relationships with all of our clients. After placement we provide funding for lifelong counseling should a mother need it and insurance not cover the costs. We also offer our clients scholarships for any birth mother retreat they’d like to attend.”
Russell said the agency has recently begun collaboration with The Erie Family Center, Birthroot/Emmas Footprints, Erie City Moms, Erie Doulas, and local therapists to help provide clients with the continued care they need.
Part of that continued care is the ability for friends and family to purchase gift boxes for birth mothers to receive post-adoption. The boxes, which are available for $59.99 on the Absolute Love website, serve a multi-pronged purpose.
“Birth parents are often the focus for nine months before giving birth,” Russell said. “Suddenly the baby is born and the focus shifts abruptly. Birth moms often feel like they are asked to fade into the background. We believe that the mothers who choose adoption deserve to be honored and recognized after placement. We at Absolute Love Adoptions created an opportunity for adoptive parents, or friends and family of a birth mother, to gift adoption-centric boxes to birth moms. The gift boxes come in three themes: ‘Paper Cranes,’ ‘Peace Love, and Pamper,’ and ‘Light.’ Each box is curated by small and local businesses.
“The boxes are also intended to encourage adoptive families to recognize the lifelong need to recognize and encourage your child’s birth mother,” Russell added. “Being thoughtful and reminding them through the box gift that you see them, you love them and you haven’t forgotten them after placement is a beautiful action to take to ensure a healthy, loving relationship with your child and his/her birth mother.”
Fifteen percent of the proceeds from the gift boxes go back to the agency to help provide continued care to the birth parents.
“It funds our post-placement support program which offers funds to birth mothers and fathers who need it to get on their feet, attain personal or professional goals, and stay on their feet indefinitely,” Russell said.
One of the biggest differences between Absolute Love and other agencies is that Absolute Love is not faith-based. Not that the agency ignores or disregards their client’s faith, but it’s not used as a barometer for determining services.
“Historically adoption is intertwined with religion,” Russell said. “Because of this, the institution of adoption can sometimes be exclusionary to those who don’t practice faith, both those wishing to place a child and those wishing to adopt. Unfortunately, that can be a deterrent for mothers who are not religious to consider adoption or potential ‘nontraditional’ adoptive families (single parents, same-sex couples) who would be wonderful parents.”
Despite some of its flaws and “dark history,” Russell knows just how powerful adoption can be when two families come together.
“Adoption is hard, and it takes work, but it is beautiful when two families can come together to ensure a child is given the life and opportunity they deserve,” Russell said.
Russell took over as Absolute Love director mere months before the COVID pandemic began. While the pandemic impacted adoption much the way it did the rest of society, Russell said there was an unanticipated benefit as well.
“I think just the way that people are looking at what’s important and family and relationships since COVID, it’s definitely been an interesting time,” Russell said.
Beyond just adoption-based services, Absolute Love also hosts a storytelling podcast, “The Absolute Love Podcast,” and has an informational blog on its website which discusses pertinent topics in the field. The agency is also planning to launch digital training courses for adoption professionals.
“Adoption education for professionals is limited and as such, our field suffers from lack of consistency in regulation from state to state, agency to agency, and best practices are not uniformly applied,” Russell said. “Absolute Love takes great pride in being an educator in the field.”
Though based in Erie, Absolute Love’s services are open to those in Warren and the surrounding Pennsylvania areas as well.
“For someone who finds themselves pregnant, there is sometimes anguish and grief,” Russell said. “Not every woman wants to be a mother or is ready for that commitment when it happens. There is joy and sadness in adoption, and it is a lifelong story, not a moment in time. There is emotional work in preparing for birth and placement and a qualified social worker will help you navigate that experience.
“If I do nothing else but make connections with women who need the information to make choices, for me, that’s so powerful,” she added. “For somebody unexpectedly pregnant to feel like they have information and can make a choice. That’s, that’s life-changing.”