Stakeholders Group Addresses Need for Specialized Adoption Clinical Training

By Gail Johnson Vaughan and Carol Biddle

A Stakeholders Group created by California’s Assembly Bill 1790 (2014,) has identified barriers to the provision of services by mental health professionals with specialized clinical training in adoption or permanency issues.

The group is now drafting specific recommendations for voluntary steps that state and local government agencies and private entities can take to remove those barriers. The group’s work to date will be presented at the annual conference of the North American Council on Adoptable Children in July with the completed report presented to the California Legislature in January 2016.

Adoptive families have struggled for years to find clinicians who understand their specific issues.

“What most adopted children today have in common – particularly those adopted from foster care – is profound loss that shapes how they see themselves, their families, and the world,” said Debbie Schugg, an adoptive parent and child welfare professional living in Monterey County. “It’s why traditional parenting and traditional therapy are often ineffective and can even be damaging.”

Placement of foster children into stable and motivated permanent families does not compensate for psychosocial difficulties caused by trauma and chronic maltreatment. A child’s emotional and behavioral manifestations of prior loss can be overwhelming to new families, particularly when accepted parenting practices do not seem to work. Many adoptive parents and guardians report being misunderstood, even blamed for the child’s problems, leaving the family in greater crisis.

Adoption and guardianship change families in ways that require skilled clinical understanding and intervention. Therapeutic care needs to focus actively on the family and include the parents to avoid putting the family at unnecessary risk for disruption, causing devastating pain and preventable losses. Effective therapeutic care leading to family success is based upon understanding the uniqueness of the family, strengthening relationships, honoring the child’s connections, and equipping the family for its journey toward healing.

AB 1790 was drafted to address long-standing, nationwide frustration on the part of adoptive parents and professionals over the lack of inclusion of adoption psychology and clinical intervention coursework in graduate schools preparing social workers, marriage and family counselors and clinical psychologists. Without academic and practical grounding in adoption issues, clinicians are unprepared to improve the stability of adoptive and guardianship families parenting children formerly in foster care.

Schugg and her family learned this firsthand.

“We sat in the waiting room, as instructed, while our daughter was in therapy sessions without knowing what was being discussed or how best to support her,” she said. “We followed the suggested behavior plan of removing privileges and were trying to be good parents. But our child with low self-esteem became suicidal, with tantrums lasting for hours and migraines lasting for days. Taking things away from a child who has already experienced the most primal loss of not being raised by the woman to whom she was born didn’t lead to good behavior; it fueled her belief that she never deserved anything in the first place.”

To increase awareness of the need for mental health providers with specialized adoption clinical training, the California Social Work Education Center (CalSWEC) is presenting a free webinar, “Removing the Cloak of Secrecy: Understanding the Clinical Needs of Adoption and Guardianship Families” on Monday, June 15, 2015, 10:00am – 11:30am.  The webinar is part of CalSWEC’s evidence-informed webinar series sponsored by the Research and Training Network. Continuing Education Units (CEU’s) can be provided for California licensed ACSW, LCSW, and MFT. Information and registration can be found at

For more information on the Stakeholders Group, contact Gail Johnson Vaughan, the executive director of Families NOW,

Gail Johnson Vaughan is the executive director of Families NOW, and the former executive director of Sierra Forever Families in California. Carol Biddle is the Chief Operating Officer of the National Center on Adoption and Permanency and is the former CEO of Kinship Center, also based in California.

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