Sandra Couillard has a passion for making a difference in the lives of children and local families through adoption. As the executive and clinical director of Connecticut Adoption & Family Services (CAFS), a 501(c)3 nonprofit based in New London, she is on a mission to change what she calls the "negative stigma" that surrounds adoption in the northeast. In contrast to high-profile adoption by certain celebrities, she says there is no need to go to other countries to adopt when there are children in every state of our nation waiting for a home.
Couillard grew up in Quaker Hill and attended Wellesley College in Mass. She pursued her master's degree in social work at Simmons College in Boston, where an internship opportunity brought her to Catholic Charities in Lynn, Mass. She explored different aspects of social work, including child and family counseling, and adoption. She was hooked. It was work with adoptions that spoke to her and she began work with Catholic Charities for the Norwich Diocese in 1991 and served as the adoption coordinator there for seven years. But in 1998, she pursued an opening with Connecticut Adoption & Family Services. Her new position as a social worker introduced her to state foster care adoptions.
"This was new for me. I wanted to expand and learn more about adoption and this was a wide open opportunity," says Couillard. In 2005 she seamlessly moved into the executive/clinical director position, despite some apprehension from the executive board regarding her young age. She was 40 at the time and had three children of her own.
"It's a field that is very meaningful. We see a need and create a program. We are finding homes for some of the most challenging children to find homes for," she said, including children with fetal alcohol syndrome.
She heads up the Connecticut Collaborative of Private Adoption Agencies. The collaboration unites agencies from around the state, with the goal of creating increased opportunities for newborns to be brought together with adoptive families. Couillard said that few newborn adoptions take place with children born in the northeast. She hopes collaborative efforts like this will help to create awareness and make adoption as viable an alternative for biological parents in the northeast as it is out west.
Many private adoptions in Connecticut, she explains, take place with children from western and southern states. Couillard suspects that religious influences may account for this, making placing a child with adoptive parents a readily acceptable solution to unplanned pregnancy in those parts of the country. In regions where abortion or single parenthood are more socially accepted alternatives, there are fewer newborns available for adoption, she said.
Couillard said she feels particularly committed to finding homes for hard-to-place kids. Her agency works with the state's Department of Children and Families to place foster children, who often have special needs or require open adoptions. Often a family pursuing private adoption is thinking exclusively of a newborn, but when they learn more, they open their minds to other possibilities, including older children and children of different ethnic backgrounds.
"It's nice we can open doors they may not have considered before," says Couillard. "The families may not have considered foster children."
The adoption process usually begins with an interview which includes a home study. Once a child is placed, Couillard and her staff follow up with their adoptive families through annual social events, newsletters, ongoing communication and an online support group.
Kate Hodgkins of Voluntown created the support group after she and her husband Tom adopted three children through CAFS. Couillard arranged for it to become the organization's official support group and Kate continues in a volunteer capacity, to help those thinking about or involved in the adoption process.
(Folks interested in finding out more can register through the agency's website at www.CTadoptions.org.)
"Sandra is so passionate about the subject. It's a scary process and she was very forthcoming and told us what to expect," said Kate. She and Tom foster newborns that are waiting to be placed with an adoptive family. Her children are actively involved in caring for their foster sisters and brothers who are with them only a few weeks.
'It's been good for us as a family," says Kate. "They have actually been with me at the agency when I hand a child to their adoptive parents and birth mothers have come to visit our home."
"These are the situations that are really special," said Couillard. "And Kate is a very special person. We have some wonderful, wonderful families who have adopted kids you'd never expect to be adopted. I want to be sure those kids have a chance."
Liz and Bill Farrell of Lyme adopted two newborns through the agency and also had a very positive experience.
"We liked Sandra immediately," said Liz.
"There is a big financial component to adopting and she combined the business and emotional aspects in a really comfortable way for us. She is a very good listener and had lots of patience to answer all our questions. She really has a true interest in how we are doing. And she seemed genuinely happy and really wanted to be with us through the whole process. She really cared."
Couillard wants to change the way adoptions are viewed, to give more children a fighting chance at growing up in a loving home. She is disappointed by the general misconceptions people have about adopting and is determined to change that, one family at a time.
"It's sad that families want to go to other countries when we have children here that need homes," said Couillard. "There are not enough families for the number of children needing homes. That's my frustration."