SALT LAKE CITY — Sage Service's family embarked on an international adoption with eyes wide open.
Service had been a foster parent, worked for the Utah Foster Care Foundation assisting other foster and adoptive families, and she has worked with teen girls in a residential treatment facility.
Still, Service was ill-prepared for the challenges her adoptive daughter was experiencing — mental illness, reactive-attachment disorder and other behavioral issues that ultimately placed her other children at risk. She and her husband made the difficult decision to relinquish their parental rights.
"We actually placed her for adoption. I feel I understand (adoptive parents') plight, how parents feel without the proper supports. You feel completely lost. You feel like the world is against you," Service said.
Although the adoption did not turn out how their family had hoped, the experience was "life changing and put us on the course we are now."
That path is supporting families who have children struggling with mental illnesses, emotional issues and behavioral disorders.
That's the purpose of the Utah nonprofit organization Allies With Families' Operation Family Together, a program that will meet every Monday evening for six weeks beginning Aug. 28. The program includes meals, instruction and support for parents; structured activities for children with mental illness, emotional issues or behavioral disorders; activities specially designed for siblings; and child care for children ages 6 and under.
Service, who oversees programs for siblings for the alliance, is coordinating Operation Family Together.
The programs give parents tools and introduce them to resources to better meet the needs of their children. The programs also serve as support groups for parents.
"They're going to get this community feeling," Service said, explaining that it helps parents to know they're not alone in their journeys.
By the time the six weeks have ended, many families stay in touch and continue to support one another.
The programs for parents also help them prioritize the many demands on their time, Service said.
"It almost gives you permission. You don't need to take on the world right now. You can manage just these five things now," she said.
While parents are busy with adult activities, the children have their own programs.
Children who have mental illnesses, emotional issues and behavioral disorders participate in activities that help them develop their social skills.
There is also a program for siblings of children who have mental illnesses, emotional or behavioral disorders. The program was designed for siblings whose brothers or sisters have development or physical disabilities but the same principles apply, Service said.
"The program is high energy, lots of activities. It really honors the siblings. The siblings are the ones who sometimes get pushed into the dark. Sometimes their needs are met last. When their siblings demand a lot of attention and it's creating a little bit of chaos in their families, the siblings learn to put their needs aside," Service said.
Operation Family Together, which relies on corporate and community sponsors, is free.
The upcoming program is fully booked, but Service said the course is offered at least twice a year.
"Our goal is three times a year," she said.
Allies With Families offers other supports to families dealing with mental illness, behavioral disorders and emotional issues.
While the state offers many supports to children in the care of the Utah Division of Child and Family Services, there are far fewer resources available to parents once they adopt, largely due to budget cuts, Service said. People who adopt children through private agencies are often on their own once the adoption is finalized, she said.
"Sometime you don't see these behaviors until a year after you’d adopted a child," Service said.
"When I was working in post-adoption (with the Utah Foster Care Foundation), I would tell parents all the time, 'Don't think because you adopted that sweet baby girl that you're not going to have struggles. This child is not coming into your home because everything was peachy.'"
Many parents have told Service that the alliance's programs helped them better cope with their respective challenges by "regaining who they were in order to care for these children."
"I've had many moms tell me it's a lifeline," she said.
Service, whose family is stronger and more empathetic from the challenges it has endured, would have benefitted from a like degree of support, she said.
"I don't know that our story would have turned out different if we had had Allies. It would have been beneficial to every member of my family to have known we were supported. Instead, we were judged. Instead, we were criticized. Instead, we lost many family members, many community friends, neighbors because they didn't understand what we were going through."