By GAYLE MANCHIN

CHARLESTON -- With Thanksgiving rapidly approaching, it is truly a great time to focus on the importance of family and to get excited about upcoming holiday gatherings. Therefore, November is the perfect month for National Adoption Awareness Month.

While all adoption-related issues are important, the particular focus of this year is the adoption of children currently in foster care. Celebrated every year on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, National Adoption Day raises awareness about the children waiting in foster care for permanent families.

It is most appropriate for us to focus on building families during this month of Thanksgiving and family reunions. We know that families are central to child safety and well-being, but many times they need extra support. Actually, all families can benefit from information, guidance and help in connecting with resources as they meet the challenges of parenthood and family life. For families with limited resources, or those facing additional challenges, the need for support and assistance is even greater.

For those youth who must enter foster care, it must be our commitment in West Virginia that whenever possible they exit the system as part of a safe and permanent family, while having the ongoing support of resources in preparing for adulthood, including a continued network of community connections to insure a successful future. It is critical, every youth served by our child welfare system today – and in the future – must be assured an integrated and collaborative approach to achieving family permanency and ample preparation for adulthood.

When children in out-of-home care cannot be safely reunited with their birth families, which are always the first focus, adoption is generally the most desirable goal. It provides the most stable, legally binding relationship for these children and their adoptive parents; for that child, it represents acceptance.

We know that many foster parents adopt those children from foster care when possible, and many other children are adopted by relatives. However in some cases, child welfare professionals must be constantly recruiting potential adoptive families for specific children who are waiting for adoption. Unfortunately, many of these children remain in foster care for years without having a place to call home. Moreover, when they age out of care usually at age 18, they are without permanent connections to any adult or family support system.

Thus, in a perfect system, adoptions would move quickly and every child would have a permanent family structure in which to grow and develop. I think about our children and grandchildren and the many blessings they have, but none greater than their family who surrounds them with love, acceptance, and the assurance of protection and well-being. As we bow our heads in thanksgiving this year, may we say a special prayer for those many foster children who wish only for the gift of family and belonging.

Manchin in West Virginia's First Lady.

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