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Every child needs and deserves a safe and loving home, a family to provide support, stability, and hugs. But for more than 100,000 children in America, tragic circumstances have robbed them of this basic right.
Fortunately, there are “angels” among us, caring and generous people who open their homes and their hearts to these children through adoption. They are found throughout America, including Maine. On Sept. 20, Gail and John Neher, a remarkable couple from Aroostook County, were honored in Washington, D.C., for their commitment to children in need, along with “angels” from every state.
Each year, members of Congress have the privilege of recognizing people from their home states who have truly made a difference in children’s lives through adoption with “Angels in Adoption” awards. This year, as a member of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption, I nominated the Nehers for their truly inspiring efforts – the adoption of 14 children, all with heartbreaking starts in life and many with challenging special needs.
The Nehers’ story as adoptive parents began in 1988 when they were living in New Mexico. After their biological son left home for college, Gail and John adopted three siblings, two brothers and a sister, all suffering from significant mental health problems. In 2002, the couple moved to Cary Plantation in Aroostook County and started adopting children through Community Health and Counseling’s therapeutic foster care program – 11 Maine children in all. In addition, as foster parents, Gail and John have hosted more than 70 children in their home.
The girls that they have adopted in Maine have special needs and require a higher level of care than other teens. All of the girls the Nehers have adopted during their high school years have graduated. The academic success of these girls is the accomplishment of which the Nehers are most proud. The Nehers believe it is important to keep families intact and have adopted two sets of Maine sisters. Gail and John encourage the girls with biological parents to have relationships with them.
The Nehers focus on building positive memories with the girls. Gail drives with some or all of the girls across the country each summer to visit different historical and cultural sites. Both Gail and John are active volunteers at Community Health and Counseling in Houlton to help guide couples who are thinking about adopting, and Gail serves on the North American Council on Adoptable Children.
I had the pleasure to meet with Gail and one of her daughters in 2008 to discuss the Adoption Equality Act I cosponsored. This legislation corrected a flaw in the Social Security Administration’s adoption assistance program, which provides subsidies to families who are adopting children with special needs from foster care. The flaw in the program, however, required that a child’s income eligibility be determined by his or her biological parents’ income rather than that of the adoptive parents. Legislation signed into law later that year included a provision to phase out the use of income tests in determining eligibility, so that by 2018 any child with special needs may qualify for federal adoption assistance.
We are making progress in encouraging adoption and supporting adoptive families. In 1997, my first year in the Senate, Congress passed the Adoption and Safe Families Act that created the Adoption Incentives Program, which rewards states for their efforts to unite foster children with permanent, loving families. In 2003, I cosponsored the Adoption Promotion Act, which strengthened that program and added a new incentive to encourage the adoption of older children who need a stable and loving environment as they prepare for adulthood.
Since the Adoption Incentives Program’s inception, adoptions in the United States have increased by an estimated 64 percent. Since 2010, the number of children in foster care who are eligible for adoption has been reduced from 175,000 to slightly more than 100,000, including more than 400 here in Maine. But the need is still great.
Now in its 17th year, the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute’s Angels in Adoption Program has recognized more than 2,500 individuals, couples, and organizations for their extraordinary contributions on behalf of children in need of homes. They have ranged from the nationally known, such as Laura Bush, Bruce Willis, and the late Muhammad Ali, to our neighbors. They are united in the belief that there are no unwanted children, merely unfound families.
It is efforts such as those being made by the “Angels in Adoption” program and the Adoption Promotion Act that are raising public awareness of the ways that committed individuals can help children through adoption and foster care. And it is the example set by angels like Gail and John Neher that will inspire others to open their homes and hearts through adoption.