More than four decades ago, when she first started working in the complicated courts of family law, Jeanne Tate wasn’t looking to revolutionize adoption in Florida. She was simply a young female lawyer in a bustling, all-male office, determined to forge her own path. Searching for a way to specialize and build up her client list, Tate noticed there were very few lawyers, in the 1980s Tampa Bay area, that were family law experts. She decided to become one to focus and build her book of clients. But what started as a professional decision quickly became a personal vocation.
“Anyone who’s worked in child welfare, for any length of time is easily moved by the plight of the children that we serve,” Tate says. “It ranges the gamut –- from parents who abuse them, a system that doesn’t always protect them, to statistics that are grim across many different buckets – the number of kids in care, how long they stay in care, the number of children who turn 18 in foster care and become ineligible for adoption.”
As Tate points out, the statistics are even more startling when you widen the focus.
“There’s over 100,000 children available for adoption in the United States and many of those are right here in our backyard, in our communities,” Tate says. “Moreover, 67% of our prison population were in foster care. So, if we don’t do something, these kids are going to wind up in prison, wind up in our mental health and our homeless populations, wind up in our teen unwed populations and then repeat the entire cycle. One thing I’m certain of is that the public sector can’t do it alone.”
After nearly 20 years dividing her time between family law and commercial litigation, in 1999 she launched her own firm, specializing exclusively in adoption. Soon after, Tate founded the nonprofit Heart of Adoptions, in 2001, to support birth mothers.
Two years later, Tate founded a sister agency, Heart of Adoptions Alliance, to connect prospective children and families seeking to adopt. These two nonprofit groups work alongside her law firm to tackle the problems from all sides.
“It’s important to look from the eyes of the children in foster care, but I first looked through the eyes of birth mothers. Because, back then, agencies only wanted to work with healthy, white birth mothers,” Tate says. “Birth mothers of color were not treated the same, birth mothers who were having special-needs children were not treated the same. A big law firm is all about billable hours and charging your client for every minute you even thought about their case, and I wanted a different model. I wanted to charge very little to adoptive parents who had a disrupted adoption, for example, and I wanted to be able to support birth mothers with their rent money, their food money, even though they weren’t having that perfect, healthy infant. Because everyone deserves support to have a healthy pregnancy, as best as medically possible. And that’s really the two prongs that motivated me.”
Today, Heart of Adoptions Alliance specializes in discovering forever families for hard-to-place children, sibling groups, disabled children or adolescents who are at risk for aging out. They also work in conjunction with the state to smooth the complicated process when an adoption has been started. Across multiple paths, Heart of Adoptions Alliance works tirelessly to make adoption affordable and accessible for all, connecting families throughout Florida, the nation and even internationally.
Although named Tampa lawyer of the year in 2021 for her indelible contributions to family law in Florida, Tate remains modest and focused, crediting the current executive directive of Heart of Adoptions Alliance, Brigette Schupay, for pushing the nonprofit forward with new initiatives.
One such initiative involves supporting families long beyond the official signing of adoption papers. It’s a common complaint in child welfare.
“We can help a lot of families adopt. But really, our goal is to make sure that those kids stay in the home after the families adopt and to support those families afterwards. Because the real work of parenting begins after they’ve been placed and after the adoption is finalized,” Schupay says.
With a recent grant from the Children’s Board, Schupay is creating new programs that will offer various strands of support for adoptive families, from health and well-being opportunities to navigating the various challenges of parenthood.
Raising community awareness is also key to growing their support programs and Heart of Adoptions Alliance will host a gala, April 21, at The Orlo, in South Tampa. In addition to a silent, and live, auction to raise money for many programs, the event celebrates hard work throughout the Tampa Bay area with live music and cigar rolling.
It’s a chance to raise awareness, both Schupay and Tate agree, as there’s so much more work to be done.
“We want the community to realize there are ways to help,” Schupay says. “Take the first steps and at least explore what you can do, become a mentor, volunteer, whatever it takes.”
Adds Tate: “I’ve been doing this for 40 years and legislatively, or administratively, you see the pendulum switch between family preservation and family safety, new bills, laws, more, or less, money. They throw a lot of things at this problem. But, really, not much changes. Not much has changed since I started, in the early 1980s. There are still too many kids in care for too long and too many kids who age out of care without a family. That’s got to change.” ♦