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From File to Fruition

The Adoption Clinic at UAB has been changing lives for 20 years

Many would say a dose of stress comes along with the miraculous adventure of becoming a parent. Sarah and Jasper Cornett first entered parenthood when they welcomed a daughter through Lifeline Children’s Services’ domestic adoption program in 1996. In 2003, they grew their family again when they flew from Birmingham, Alabama to Beijing, then on to Nanchang, China to adopt a 15-month-old daughter. 
 
It became clear to them from their start in China that they would have a long road ahead as their beloved daughter showed an abundance of painful and consuming struggles. “When we first met, it was evident she was just terrified of everything—totally rejecting everything from me to elevators to baths,” Sarah says. “Taking her from her foster family and familiar surroundings and thrusting her into the arms of strangers was frightening for her and set off extreme trauma for her. She had severe night terrors and would only sleep with my husband sitting straight up with his arms wrapped around her.” One of their first pleas for help was to Dr. Jennifer Chambers of The Adoption Clinic in Birmingham.
 
Dr. Jennifer Chambers founded The Adoption Clinic (formerly known as The International Adoption Clinic) with the mission to serve the initial and ongoing medical, developmental and emotional needs of adoptive parents and their children. The Adoption Clinic, a nonprofit located at UAB’s Children's South, is staffed with professionals with a love for children who have been orphaned and a desire to see them in loving, well-equipped families. Throughout its 20 years, the clinic has been a Birmingham gem and a vital resource—a “village” that families like the Cornetts cannot fathom life without.
 
Chambers saw her first adopted patients during her residency. “On the days I would see [internationally adopted patients], I would run incredibly behind schedule because their complex needs took about four times the amount of time as my other patients.” Upon completing her pediatrics residency at UAB, Chambers knew that she wanted to advocate for vulnerable children. “I really thought I would work overseas in orphanages, but a mentor asked if I had thought about starting an adoption clinic. At that time, there were only a few in the country,” she says.

That night, she went home and dove into the website of one of those clinics, weeping and deeply taken with the idea. In 2002, she wrote a grant, and UAB made her dream a reality.
 
When she was awarded the grant, Chambers hired Leigh Anne Harrington and Jill Barnhart, who partnered with her to get the clinic up and running. “The three of us were quite the trio—filled with energy and passion for adoption and foster care.” Little did they know then that not only would they end up serving the needs of children from more than 55 different countries for decades to come, but also, they would be adopting seven children among their own individual families.

“I gained so much appreciation and grace for our patients’ parents every time I adopted,” says Chambers. “My husband and I first adopted infant twins from China, and our second adoption was of a 12-year-old girl, also from China. All three have taught me so much about ourselves, our patients and the families we serve.”
 
The Cornetts also went on to pursue adoption again. “If we had not had [our adoption agency] Lifeline and The Adoption Clinic, I don’t know if we could've continued to adopt,” says Jasper. “It is so overwhelming—you just can't do it on your own. They gave us the confidence that they’d be there for us.” Dr. Chambers and her team helped the family through everything from attachment issues to complex behavioral and medical hurdles. The Cornetts are now a thriving family of seven, with three children adopted from China and two children adopted domestically.
 
The Adoption Clinic offers interdisciplinary care including pediatric medicine, occupational/developmental therapy, family therapy and audiology, as well as aid with malnutrition, developmental delays, attachment issues, school success, lab work unique to country of origin, identity struggles and more. Families from all over contact them for pre- and post-adoption medical reviews by Dr. Chambers or Pediatrician and Medical Director Dr. Carin Kiser, who are also "on-call" for families traveling for international adoptions.
 
From the start, the clinic helps parents shift to realistic and attainable expectations—something that can radically affect a family’s adoption experience. “Also, the pathway to achieve each patient’s and family’s goals is charted in an intentional and collaborative effort among the parents, children and our years of experience, which forges the path to help children reach their fullest potential,” Chambers says.
 
When a family’s first-time visit to The Adoption Clinic happens years after adoption, although it is never too late for help, there is a visible difference in trajectory versus the families who come under the clinic’s care from the beginning of their adoption process — many even before the adoption takes place. “There is much more peace and success in the cohesiveness of care for the families and the healing of the children when families work with us as early as possible," Chambers comments. 
 
One of Chambers’ proudest moments is when she sees patients she met as babies who are now charting their way through middle school, high school and even adulthood. “My older patients—goodness, I love them,” she shares fondly. “Relationships have been a special part of the clinic’s journey. In Birmingham specifically, there is a strong sense of community among families who adopt and foster, thanks to a lot of the local churches and adoption agencies.”

She is also grateful for her staff and how they support each other. “This is not easy work,” she says. “The stories we hear of our patients’ pasts are so hard. We must be there for each other to support our own mental health, and we do that very well.”
 
As Chambers and her team look forward to another 20 years, she hopes to grow to serve an even wider population. In 2020, the clinic changed from being named The International Adoption Clinic to The Adoption Clinic because they have additionally been able to aid children adopted domestically and those in foster care. “We would love to see equal services for these children,” says Chambers. “That is going to require creative funding sources and new donors to expand our services, in order to give thorough care to these vulnerable children.”

As they press on, it will never grow old for them seeing the transitions from a medical file to a face in their clinic. “The transition is just amazing — from reading a file about a child to when the parents first meet them in-country to us seeing them in person and being able to be with that patient in that scary time,” Chambers says. “Watching them blossom is life-changing—to get a front row to see that change and to walk with the family through that sacred space.”
 
And, in the end, the healing that comes from a child having a forever family is therapeutic itself. “With the love, care and permanency, we know that these children’s lives from then on will be so much more secure and hopeful," she adds. 
 

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The Adoption Clinic has served the needs of children from more than 55 countries including China, Kazakhstan, Russia, Ukraine, South Korea, Guatemala, Peru, Vietnam, India, Thailand, Ethiopia, Uganda and more.
 
· Jennifer Chambers, MD, MPH, & TM- Founder
· Dr. Carin Kiser, MD, Director of The Adoption Clinic
· Amy Elmore, BS, OTR/L- Occupational therapist
· Heather Schuck, LICSW, PIP- Family therapist
· Cathy Bertanzetti, RN- Clinic nurse
· Jessica Ward, MBA- Clinic Coordinator
 
To learn more or donate, visit childrensal.org/adoption-clinic; stop by Children’s South at 1940 Elmer J. Bissell Road Birmingham; call 205-638-6964; or email adoption@uabmc.edu.

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