Formed Families Forward

There certainly is no rulebook for parenting. Raising any child comes with infinite challenges, so, wouldn’t it be helpful if a sovereign parenting expert would produce a universal manual?

In the absence of such dogma, in 2010, a small group of local foster and adoptive moms started Formed Families Forward, a family-run group to guide each other – and ultimately other foster, adoptive and kinship families – through all the resources available as parents of children with disabilities.

Today, Formed Families Forward is an official non-profit organization that provides free resources and support for hundreds of Northern Virginia adoptive, foster and kinship families that include children with special needs.

“We were all foster and adoptive moms, frustrated in our efforts to secure appropriate educational services for our kids,” Dr. Kelly Henderson, a founding member and current Executive Director of Formed Families Forward, recalled. “I have an extensive background as a special needs educator and researcher, so, I knew that if I found it tricky to navigate these waters, then a lot of other people would really benefit from the services we began to provide.”

Formed Families Forward achieved official non-profit status in 2011. With the support of federal funding and a passionate Board, the organization supports the community of families bound beyond blood – those who parent through adoption, foster care and kinship care.

Kinship parenting, Dr. Henderson explained, occurs either formally or informally, when a blood relative other than a parent assumes full responsibility for a child.

“Often, foster, adoptive and kinship families are not well prepared and not well supported to meet the exceptional needs of children in their care,” Dr. Henderson, an adjunct professor of Special Education at George Mason University’s College of Education and Human Development, explained. “That’s what birthed the idea of Formed Families Forward. It takes an extra special level of support for our extra special kids. Even people who understand the specific needs of children in their care don’t necessarily know how to identify or take advantage of the services and supports available in the community. Once the initial group of moms got legs under our effort, we developed this concierge service of sorts. We’re always ready and equipped to make these connections.”

It takes a village, so they say, to raise a productive member of society. To fortify some of those villages that so often need a little extra manpower, Formed Families Forward offers multiple tiers of support – from high-level meetings to identify accessible solutions for a child’s exact needs, to more in-depth consultations to shepherd families through more acute challenges. They also organize training, support groups and more.

The organization might be the closest thing that Northern Virginia has to a one-stop resource shop for foster, adoptive and kinship families that need a little help addressing certain needs.

“Our main services are training, intensive consultations with parents and caregivers, resource navigation, hosting of support groups for youth and young adults aged 14 through 22, and separate groups for parents and caregivers,” Dr. Henderson said. “We publish fact sheets, e-newsletters and other resources, and an annually-updated Northern Virginia Formed Families Resource Directory with hundreds of agencies, private practitioners and organizations of relevance to formed families raising children with disabilities.”

She added that between 300 and 350 people annually enroll in the trainings they coordinate. They oversee twice-monthly peer support groups for around 30 participants and Spring Forward family fun day is hosted annually in April, just for formed families.

Growth won’t end there, either. Although most of their funding comes from grants, they aim to add more fundraising and community events to their calendar.

“We want to use any avenue available to increase awareness, build skills and better support families and the professionals that work with our formed families,” Dr. Henderson said. “Our services are totally free for families, so there’s no reason why every local kinship, foster and adoptive family wouldn’t tap into what we offer.”

Foster, adoptive and kinship kids are markedly more likely to have special needs and disabilities than their birth family peers.

“We use a Census-based figure to determine our reach and goals,” Dr. Henderson said. “Within our jurisdiction throughout Northern Virginia, about 11% of children under 18 are in homes headed by adoptive parents, kin caregivers or are in foster care. Based on research in smaller studies, we believe 40-60% of children and youth in formed families have special needs that impact learning, behavior, or social development.”

These figures make sense when you consider the trauma that often surrounds a child’s initial separation from their birth parents.

“By definition, children in formed families suffer a loss – the separation from a birth parent,” Dr. Henderson said. “For some children, the reasons they enter public care – for example, neglect and abuse – contribute to their special needs. The effects of loss and trauma may manifest and compound both consciously and unconsciously. It’s also not unusual for organic disabilities to contribute to the need for kids to enter care. It’s a chicken-and-egg situation.”

In addition to its crucial role in helping parents find the right programs for their children, Formed Families Forward can also be invaluable for the families looking for ways to make ends meet without additional public support. Most kinship families, for example, aren’t eligible for assistance programs and other types of funding intended for official foster and some adoptive parents.

“It would be a lot harder to navigate resources and the system without support like we provide,” Dr. Henderson said. “There are a growing number of programs to help people. There is a slow recognition of value of what we do, but most of these kinds of services are not well-funded or supported. We make it easier for families to get what they need. Without us, it would be a harder road.”

Sometimes, you want so much for your children that you become blind to their basic wellbeing. Unlike so many in this overall affluent area, adoptive parent Dee Rutkowski – a longtime member of the Formed Families Forward community – does not take her children’s stability and happiness for granted. She often reflects on the progress made by her eighteen-year-old son, Sender Rutkowski, who is now a happy, healthy and thriving high school graduate.

“We met Sender in the summer between his fourth and fifth grade years,” Dee said. “He was at a first grade reading level. He struggled with PTSD, anxiety, depression and anger. Academically, he has been on par with his peers for several years. However, he was bullied in middle school and continued to struggle with social acceptance and self-advocacy in high school.”

Dee would have moved mountains to erase Sender’s pain from his life before adoption. When Sender and his younger brother first entered her home as foster children, Dee learned that parenting within a formed family involves piecing together a complex puzzle. Foster children come with two general categories of pieces: those colored by the inevitable tussles of growing up, and those imprinted by issues that stem from leaving their biological parents.

“While fostering our boys, their issues were determined by social workers and attorneys with occasional input from the birth parents,” she explained. “Continued parental visits were required and often re-traumatizing. Foster parents must help their foster children deal with the resulting confusion, anger and hurt feelings after those visits. Some of our parenting struggles were the same as those of biological parents and children. However, we had the added challenge of supporting children who had a fair amount of chaos, abuse, neglect and abandonment in their youngest years.”

These days, Sender’s high school diploma is still crisp and he has several years of exceptional report cards in the books. He’s on the threshold of a promising future, but still remembers the difficulties that came with foster care.

“We had to get used to everything new, all at once – new parents, lifestyle, rules, traditions, a new neighborhood, new friends,” he said. “It was hard. But, on the positive side, I was no longer the primary person caring for my younger brother. We got to go to the beach. I didn’t even know the Outer Banks existed.”

While no one ever told Dee that this foster-adoption journey was going to be easy, Formed Families Forward helped her formed family face reality – but with support, knowledge and resources. The organization, Dee said, has most certainly played a role in Sender’s success story.

“Having a resource like Formed Families Forward has been tremendously helpful,” Dee said. “Armed with support, recommendations, and resource connections, we were able to advocate effectively for Sender so that he could overcome educational issues. They’ve helped our entire family when we were all at our wit’s end, not knowing where to turn or what to request. Kelly cares, listens, and shares her valuable resource network to support parents and children who are in crisis or struggling in any way.”

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Ashley Claire Simpson is a Marketing Communications Specialist for a local military association, but her real passion is freelance writing for a number of publications, including Fairfax/Alexandria Woman. She has been writing features and human interest pieces since her college newspaper days at the University of Virginia, where she graduated in 2008. Ashley has lived in the D.C.-metropolitan area for most of her life and always relishes the opportunity to learn and write about so many inspirational local women who make a difference in the community - and in the world at large.