September 17, 2013

It’s OK. You have options – Interview with Kate Van Wagner, Options Counselor

Posted in 50 Joy Drive, Adoption, Employees, Independence Place, New Horizons Educational Program, Program Spotlight, Reach Up tagged , , , at 3:02 pm by Lund

Kate Van Wagner has worked at Lund for about six months and was very willing to share the details of her job with Lund blog readers.  We met in her comfortable office at Lund’s new building on Joy Drive and she filled me in on how she is helping women learn about all the choices that are open to them.  In case it does not come through the lines of this interview quite as clearly as it should, Kate is very nice, friendly and straightforward. If you need her, she can help.

Kate in her office at Joy Drive

Kate in her office at Joy Drive

What is your background?

I got my MSW at UVM. I’ve also worked as a doula, a community organizer, and a small business owner. I did various internships in different fields while I was in school because I wanted a lot of different experiences. I worked with the refugee community and at an alternative school but I have always had an interest in working to help women access really good support and care who might not be able to access it otherwise.

What is your job at Lund?

My job has three different areas. First is options counseling I talk with pregnant people and help them figure out what their plan is going to be. Sometimes it’s just people needing to talk with someone who is not already emotionally involved in their lives. Or perhaps they already have an idea of what they are going to do and have specific questions. I help them to look at all the options and figure out what they would look like in the broader picture. I can talk to people on the phone or meet with them in person. It can be a one-time conversation or it can be ongoing. I am the person who is neutral; I never pressure anyone to do anything.
The second part of my job is if someone chooses adoption, I then become their social worker. I am the dedicated person who works with them throughout the whole process. From figuring out how open they want the adoption to be, to making a birth plan, to communicating with providers and support people, to helping them choose an adoptive family. When the birth happens, I am the designated support person and advocate for the birth mother at the hospital.
Then I am the ongoing support person for that birth mom which is a third area of my job. Women who make adoption plans through Lund receive free lifetime support from Lund. I am an understanding worker who can help with working towards life goals or practical issues like finding housing or job searches. I can also simply be a kind ear to listen to people if they are having a hard day. Even if it’s been many years since their adoption or since contact with Lund, birth mothers are always welcome to access this support.

How does your work connect with other areas of Lund?

If someone is exploring parenting, I can make referrals and help them through that process. I can refer people to NHEP (Lund’s high school completion program) or to residential (treatment center on Glen road for pregnant and parenting women working on mental health issues or substance abuse disorders) or to IP (Independence Place – Lund’s transitional housing). I have been traveling all over the state and making connections with other providers who can support people who are parenting—since my position is statewide, I need to be savvy about what resources are available all over Vermont. I want to support people in making connections to what they need. I am a little bit like a funnel between someone and the supports they need.

When someone calls you, what happens?

I try to get a sense of what’s going on and what they are looking for. I usually set up a meeting with them, anywhere they want with whoever they might want there – friend, partner, doctor, Reach Up worker, etc. I don’t ask them for a lot of information right out. They can call in a confidential way. When we meet I think about what someone is looking for in that situation and help talk through what they are already thinking. I am a kind, supportive human who can provide accurate information and supportive listening. People can call any time of day. I check my messages in the morning if someone calls in the night. I can also text with people if they are more comfortable with that.

If someone chooses parenting, what are the next steps?

I would connect them to the services that they need and make solid referrals. Often referrals are to co-workers at Lund or other providers I’ve met with personally, so I know I’m making a good connection. I would ask them what they need and find out if they are eligible for Reach Up or WIC, if they will need in-home nursing services or help with school or childcare. I would follow up and make sure they are connected and feel like they have what they need, to the best of my ability.

If someone makes an adoption plan, what are the next steps?

The first step is planning for how they want it to look. If the birth father is involved, he can be included in this whole process. Do they want to pick a family? If they do, we talk about what is important to them in a family – ‘I don’t want someone who lives in the same town’ or ‘I want this to be someone’s first child’ or ‘I want them to own their own home’ etc. We really want it to be client-directed. Perhaps they will just know it when they see it. Julia (Julia Conner, Lund’s private adoption coordinator) does the same thing on her end, from the prospective adoptive parents’ perspective, to help make the match. We talk about the situation of the pregnancy, how is the mom’s health, has there been substance use, etc. People can be hesitant but we work with every mom who wants to make an adoption plan. We are non-judgmental, and we will find a family. We need to know as much detail as possible so that we can make the best match. I then take this information and Julia looks at her binder of waiting families and then we find matches. I will bring books that the potential adoptive families make about themselves to the meeting. If there’s one she likes, great and if not I will bring more. She decides on a family and then we alert the family to mediate contact, if this is desired. Then we make a birth plan. I ask things like, ‘What do you need to feel supported during the birth and hospital stay? Who do you want to visit you? Do you want the adoptive family there?’ I advocate to make sure that everyone involved in the delivery and hospital stay are respectful of the birth family’s plan. Usually the baby goes home with the adoptive parents. Lund has legal custody of the baby for six months until the adoption is finalized. Then it’s whatever they decide about contact, as long as it’s in the best interest of the child. We have the conversation beforehand about what this will look like. We require all of our adoptive families to be open to a visit with the birth family before and after the birth as well as sending letters and pictures once a year for the first few years. Ongoing contact looks really differently for every adoption triad [birth family, child, adoptive family.] Some birth mothers prefer not to receive correspondence, some communicate with letters over the years, and some families have yearly visits supervised by Lund.

If someone chooses an abortion, what are the next steps?

We would refer them to Planned Parenthood. I can help remove barriers to them getting there, provide transportation, or I can be a support person. I can openly and comfortably talk about abortion as an option, but I don’t do abortion counseling. I provide support and am not trying to talk people into an abortion or trying to persuade them from it. Lund is neutral on this issue. I would follow up with them and make sure that they are okay, and see if they needed any other services. I would help them find the support that they need.

Who is using these services?

It’s really a range of different sorts of people. Someone who is a younger teenager, has never been pregnant before and wants to finish high school but feels like everyone is telling them something different. Maybe her mother is worried and calls me, and I end up meeting with them together and helping them to communicate with each other and figure out what they need. It might be someone who already has children and feels like she is unable to parent another child and that is a daunting thing to think about so that they might want to talk to me about going down the adoption route. A couple who is surprised that they are pregnant and don’t know what to do. A woman who is working with the Department of Children and Families and would like me to be on her team. It can be any pregnant person – I am 14 and pregnant and freaked out or I am 42 and done having children but I’m pregnant. Someone can come in with their partner or their family, or they could have told nobody at all and need the utmost privacy. Minors do not need parental permission to talk with me. You can call without giving your name or your number, you can be completely anonymous.

Do you have any last words about what you do?

We will do whatever it takes to stand by this woman and her choices. My position fills in a gap for women who have not yet made a decision about their pregnancy. I can meet with people before they get down a particular path. It’s the pre-decision zone. How can we support someone to make an informed, positive choice, sometimes within circumstances that are less than ideal? People need to be able to claim ownership of the decision and know that they are supported and that people understand the decision. They’re not going to be alone, and we will be there to help them for as long as they need us.

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