On any given day, more than 437,000 children are living in the U.S. foster care system. For Judith Eckerle, MD, the Director of the Adoption Medicine Clinic (AMC), University of Minnesota Medical School, that number is more than just a staggering statistic- it’s personal.

“I was left in an alley when I was a baby and I only had the chance to do what I’ve done because I have a family and I was adopted,” said Eckerle with a mixture of frankness and emotion. “When I see kids that either don’t have families because they are in the foster care system, orphanage care or they are adopted, they all have the chance to do well with the right tools. I want to make sure I maximize their potential.”

Eckerle’s past may have been what started her in this profession, but the children and families she works with everyday are what keeps her in it now, what keeps her striving for change. With only 15 years under her belt in the profession, her passion and her work is already getting noticed. Eckerle has been nominated as a 2018 Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute (CCAI) Angels in Adoption® Honoree.

Honor of a Lifetime

“I was honestly shocked,” said University of Minnesota Health Adoption Medicine Physician Eckerle of when she received the news. “I had dreamed that someday in my career I might be recognized by CCAI  because it was a life goal, but I never thought I would be getting it now.”

Eckerle is being honored for her work with international and domestically adopted and foster care children in Minnesota. She has been at the forefront of change in recent years, whether that be due to her research and clinical care given at the University of Minnesota or on behalf of advocacy for change in adoption policy.

“This is an incredible and very well deserved honor for Dr. Eckerle,” said University of Minnesota Masonic Children's Hospital Physician-in-Chief, Joe Neglia, Head of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Minnesota Medical School, “All of us at the University take great pride in this work.”

“Judy's impact is not limited to Minnesota. She is a passionate advocate for permanence within the child protection system, speaking with representatives from dozens of countries and traveling to Korea and Honduras to educate policy makers on why family care is preferable to institutional care,” said Dana Johnson, MD, PhD, Professor of Pediatrics in the Divisions of Neonatology and Global Pediatrics, Eckerle’s mentor. “As an adopted person, her own story has an energizing effect on all those who hope to improve the lives of children who have experienced adversity.”

The CCAI is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to raising awareness about the millions of children around the world in need of families and work towards policy changes for adoption. The Angels in Adoption® Program is CCAI’s signature public awareness event and provides an opportunity for all members of the U.S. Congress to honor the good work of their constituents who have enriched the lives of children in the United States and abroad.

“Angels have come to Washington, D.C. to share their firsthand experiences in adoption and foster care with Members of Congress. They are able to speak both the joys as well as the barriers encountered in the process,” said Becky Weichhand, Executive Director at CCAI. “Members of Congress are then able to use their new experiential understanding of these issues to improve policy to support these children and the families that open their hearts and homes to them.”

Ecklere, nominated by U.S. Senator Senator Amy Klobuchar, will be joining other Angels from across the nation in Washington, D.C. on September 25th and 26th to meet with governmental leaders.

“It’s exciting to know I will be able to sit down and be face to face with the people who are helping to shape some of the federal legislation around adoption,” said Eckerle. “I want them to know the gold standard of care we are trying to accomplish here in Minnesota and the fact that our Department of Human Services in the state have been really active and supportive of us to help these adopted and foster care kids. We need to bring that model federally so that all of the kids in foster care can get similar services.”

Getting Here

Eckerle first came to adoption medicine about 15 years ago, when it was mainly international adoption. Throughout the years, she has witnessed and incorporated a lot of changes in adoption. In the last few years The University of Minnesota Adoption Medicine Clinic has been able to expand services to include internationally adopted, domestically adopted and foster care children.

“There are vulnerable kids living all around the world, but also kids we need to help right here in Minnesota.” said Eckerle.

“Dr. Eckerle has devoted her professional career to the care of this very special population of children and her work has had global impact,” said Neglia.

According to statistics from 2017, there were 16,600 children who experienced foster care or out of home placement in Minnesota. Eckerle says her ultimate goal would be to see every adopted and fostered children in the state of Minnesota at some point in their life at the University of Minnesota AMC. The clinic is unique in the US in that it offers a comprehensive evaluation to patients. Patients have access to screening from psychology, pediatric rehab (occupational therapy or physical therapy) plus a medical provider, child life, in addition to the labs, and input and collaboration from specialists like genetics and neuropsychology.

“Having all of those services available to an adopted or fostered child to get a comprehensive assessment, is fairly rare in the country,” said Eckerle.

Keeping the Momentum

However, in order to meet Eckerle’s goal, an expansion would be needed and other providers would need to be trained to reach all of those children. Eckerle says while she feels that is possible over time, more awareness needs to spread about what they are doing and why.

While Eckerle plans to do that in D.C., she also plans to do that the day she returns back to Minnesota. The clinic is hosting its annual “The Adoption Medicine Clinic Care to Celebrate” Gala on Sept 27th. Care to Celebrate provides crucial funding for research, education, advocacy, and care at the Adoption Medicine Clinic. caretocelebrate.eventbrite.com

In addition, Eckerle says they are embarking on a partnership grant with the MN DHS for the next four years which could double the clinic’s capacity.