A piece of paper does not a mother make, but for Shawn McGriff, the feeling of motherhood wasn't complete until she held her son's birth certificate in her hand.
"It said, 'Mother, Shawn McGriff,' and it said, 'Father, "¦ Craig McGriff,'" she said. "Even though they tell you that, you just comprehend that they really are yours."
McGriff adopted her 7-year-old son recently with the help of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services. And she wasn't the only one. OKDHS facilitated a record-breaking 1,696 adoptions in this last fiscal year. That number " up from the 1,531 the previous year " marks an increase of more than 600 adoptions from five years ago.
Why the jump? The department attributes the continued rise in adoptions to the Swift Adoption Services program begun 11 years ago. The program realigned the department's priorities, said Beth Scott, DHS spokeswoman.
Emphasis moved from simply placing children in foster care, with only a few hundred being adopted each year, to finding permanent homes for them.
"The focus shifted to supporting families that were finalizing adoptions and breaking down some of the barriers that had been there and working with people to make these permanent homes available to kids," Scott said.
Much of that change stemmed from cutting back the red tape and simplifying paperwork for prospective adoptive families. The goal became making the process less daunting for those eager to complete their families.
But it's not just DHS that's seen a rise in adoptions; private agencies, too, are seeing a boom. Kristy Yager, public information and marketing director for the City of Oklahoma City, adopted her son this spring with the help of Deaconess Pregnancy & Adoption Services and Catholic Charities.
Deaconess recorded around 20 adoptions, a number not seen before, so far this year, Yager said. And she credits that to an awareness campaign with television ads targeted to pregnant women.
"I believe it's kind of putting that thought in their mind that, while maybe they hadn't considered (adoption) before, it encourages them to look into it," she said.
In Yager's case, the birthmother was looking for a certain type of family to adopt her unborn son. Luckily, Yager and husband, Patrick, fit the bill. They met six weeks prior to delivery, and one week later, the journey to bring home baby Alex began in earnest.
"That night, she asked us to raise her son," Yager said. "And we accepted."
On April 19, Alex was born. But his birth didn't end his relationship with his birthmother. Yager said the family still sees her about once a month, and these regular updates on Alex's life have been recuperative for his birthmother. Also helpful were the maturity and seriousness she brought to the process, Yager said.
"She took great care in choosing the family that became his mom and dad that's going to raise him," she said. "A lot of pregnant women don't realize they have the ability to choose and don't understand the flexibility that comes with making that decision of adoption and finding the right family for their birth child."
Finding the right family for children remains the enduring purpose of OKDHS, and one the department serves through kinship placements. Of course, the ultimate priority is reunification of children with their biological families. But sometimes, that just isn't possible. Kinship placements make up 87 percent of the department's adoptions, which place children with relatives, neighbors, teachers or others familiar to them. The idea is to keep a child connected to his or her family, culture and community, providing much needed stability.
"As caseworkers are working with reunifying children with their families, they develop a parallel track, so that they're looking at where those children can be placed if reunification isn't possible," Scott said.
Oklahoma ranks in the top five states nationally in kinship placements, a point of pride for the department, Scott said.
Another proud moment could come in the fall when the federal fiscal year comes to an end. Scott said the department is on track to break adoption numbers for that term, and if that's the case, OKDHS will receive adoption incentive money. Last year, the department received $1.5 million in incentive allocations, which only helps continue the rise in adoption numbers. And on Sept. 15, Oklahoma received $1,204,593 from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for increasing the number of foster children adoptions.
In the meantime, families like the McGriffs and the Yagers will continue to espouse the benefits of adoption.
"(Alex) just has a whole lot more people that love him now," Yager said. "Nicole Hill
photo Kristy and Patrick Yager enjoy family time with baby Alex. Photo/Mark Hancock