Janesville family receives national honors for efforts in adoption
JANESVILLE -- When Jennifer and Jeremy Schaeffer learned they would be honored as Angels in Adoption in Washington D.C. last month, they almost didn't attend the ceremony.
Adopting their six children has never been about honor or recognition, it was about giving children a chance at a better life.
Their attitudes changed once they learned they could speak with members of Congress about challenges adopted families face every day, Jennifer said. They saw an opportunity to provoke change.
Their focus was to bring attention to possible cuts for adoption tax benefits and the training needed to adopt children with special needs.
“If we can take the recognition and put it as a platform for getting the word out there and getting more awareness to foster care and adoption, that's what I want to see,” Jennifer said.
The Angels in Adoption program allows members of Congress the opportunity to honor individuals, couples or organizations from their states who have “enriched the lives of foster children and orphans,” according to the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute's website.
The Janesville family was nominated by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Janesville, who Jeremy said they have known for years.
“I was honored to nominate Jeremy and Jennifer Schaeffer as Angels in Adoption honorees. They've adopted six special needs children and given them a loving home,” Ryan said in a statement to the Gazette. “The Schaeffer's kindness and selflessness is truly moving, and it was a pleasure to meet with their wonderful family.”
MEET THE SCHAEFFERS
Jennifer and Jeremy married when they were 18 years old, Jennifer said. Three years later, they brought home their first two children, biological sisters Kaelyn, now 17, and Ashly, 16.
Adoption was always the plan for Jennifer, she said. She knew at a young age she wanted to adopt, after spending time in the foster care system herself.
Only months after the girls came home, the Schaeffers were matched with their first son, Isaiah, 12.
“We were just looking at that time to build our family, at first this was not our mission,” Jennifer said. “We went from no kids, to three kids in 6 months.”
The couple was caught off guard two and a half years later when they were contacted for a private adoption, but they were ready.
“I knew I wanted another baby and he was going to be a boy, I just knew it,” Jennifer said.
Unlike the first three children, who were adopted from the foster care system, Jennifer was there when Zachary, 10, was born. They brought him home right away and legally adopted him the minute they could.
It was after Zachary's adoption that Jennifer and Jeremy knew this was their mission, Jennifer said.
As devout Christians, the couple lives their life by verse James 1:27.
“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”
Jennifer and Jeremy were connected with Matthew, who was 11 at the time, through Lutheran Social Services' special needs program. About three weeks before he was scheduled to come home, they learned his biological mother was pregnant and they agreed to adopt Matthew's newborn sister, Moriah.
Matthew and Moriah are now 15 and 3 respectively.
The Children's Hospital of Wisconsin identifies special needs in terms of adoption as children with “special physical, behavioral and emotional needs stemming from some difficulty they have experienced.”
Special needs can be physical as well.
All six of the Schaeffer children have special needs, Jennifer said.
Michelle Rose-Barajas, psychologist at Mercyhealth Behavioral Health Clinic, said children who are adopted or in the foster care system often experience early childhood trauma that manifests into mental and behavioral issues throughout their lives.
Many adopted and foster children do not develop bonds with a parent or adult at a young age, causing them to regulate their own emotions and reactions and lose the ability to form strong relationships, Rose-Barajas said. This is called Reactive Attachment Disorder.
Jennifer has seen children lie, cheat, steal and manipulate people as a result of this disorder, she said.
Other children who experience trauma develop Disinhibited Social Engagement Disorder, Rose-Barajas said. This leads children to seek attachment any way they can find it, often from strangers.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is also a concern for many adopted children, Rose-Barajas said. It can develop as early as in the womb.
Jennifer and Jeremy have seen many parents “burn out” because they do not receive proper training to raise children with these disorders. This was a concern they addressed with lawmakers in Washington D.C.
Katherine Drechsler, social work professor at UW-Whitewater said that while adoption is something to celebrate; social workers, counselors and therapists need to be more mindful of aiding transitions for children, the adopted parents and the parents who are losing their child.
With tax reform being at the forefront of national politics, the Schaeffers, and many other adoptive families, are concerned that the federal adoption tax credit may be eliminated.
Adoptive families can qualify for a nonrefundable tax credit to cover adoption expenses up to $13,460 per child, according to the IRS.
Dale Knapp, research director for the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, said that many tax deductions and exclusions are eligible to be cut during tax reform.
But historically, very few changes occur with tax credits because interest groups actively lobby against them, Knapp said. He estimated a less than 50 percent chance the adoption tax credit will go away.
Beyond the Schaeffers, who spoke with members of Congress to save the tax credit, a national collaboration named “Save the Adoption Tax Credit” has formed to advocate for the credit.
In Rock County, 140 children are currently in the foster care system, said Cornell Bondurant, foster home recruitment specialist at Rock County Human Services.
At the end of September, 46 homes were licensed for foster care, Bondurant said.
The need for foster care has increased due to high numbers of drug affected babies being taken into custody, Bondurant said.
Jennifer and Jeremy try to spread the word as often as possible that Rock County needs more foster parents and adoptive parents, the couple said.
They hope to one day speak at churches to spread education and awareness on the needs that adopted children have, Jennifer said.
“Rock County is crying for people to be foster parents,” Jeremy said. “Foster parents get licensed, they're given kids without enough knowledge and training and then they burn out quickly and they're done. That's part of the reason we're in such a crisis right now.”