Adoptee on path to help others

Digan’s experience leads to career in social work

On Jan. 21, 1991, Cordelia Harris prematurely gave birth to a baby girl plagued with numerous health problems — conditions likely attributed to the mother’s prenatal opiate use.

Weighing in at 2 pounds 2 ounces, Ashley Digan was born with respiratory issues and a bleeding disorder known as von Willebrand’s disease, a disorder in which the blood is unable to clot. For nearly two years, Ashley relied on a feeding tube because of a tendency to throw up her food and aspirate.

Ironically, the unknown children’s hospital in Philadelphia where Ashley was born was the only place she “knew” prior to entering the foster care system.

After her birth, Ashley remained in the hospital for four months so doctors could monitor her health. Once released from the hospital, Ashley, who is black, was taken in by an organization called Children’s Choice and placed with white foster parents, Connie Hauck and Ronald Digan, in Watsontown.

About five years later, Hauck and Ronald legally adopted Ashley, giving her a Bible to mark the monumental day.

“Many kids don’t get the chance to stay with one family. And I was fortunately able to do so,” Ashley Digan said. “Growing up in a family, especially a transracial family in central Pennsylvania, I always knew I was adopted. That was something my adoptive parents always shared with me. They wanted me to know how much of a sacrifice it was for my birth mom to make that decision, but also how grateful (they were) to her to be able to make that decision and for me to be part of that family.”

Reunification efforts with Digan’s birth mother failed due to Harris’ inability to recover from substance abuse, despite multiple attempts at rehabilitation.

Digan’s childhood experiences as both a foster child and adoptee motivated her to help others with similar background stories, driving her to earn a degree in social work from Juniata College in 2013.

The 27-year-old Duncansville resident now works in Altoona as the program director of Pressley Ridge, formerly Arrow Child and Family Ministries, a nonprofit that offers foster care and adoption services. Her office specifically handles cases in Blair, Bedford, Centre, Huntingdon and Cambria counties.

“In this work, I value that birth family connection and being able to foster an adoptive parent or foster biological families to still have that relationship for the sake of the child because they still need to know where they came from. They still need to know where that identity lies,” Digan said.

“When social work happened upon me, that is something I wanted to instill and wanted in whatever work I was doing,” she added. “I wanted kids to know their value and to know their strength and to know their worth in whatever capacity I was going to be involved in their lives.”

Waiting for permanent homes

Currently, there are more than 300 children awaiting adoption in Pennsylvania, according to one listing by the Pennsylvania Adoption Exchange, a local branch of the Statewide Adoption and Permanency Network.

The Department of Human Services established the PAE in 1979 to help connect families to waiting children in need of permanent homes. Many waiting children are older youth in their pre-teens and teens with traumatic childhood histories. And many of them have some form of physical or emotional disabilities.

In the United States, there are more than 100,000 children in need of permanent homes as reported by the National Adoption Center.

Digan said there is a mismatch between the number of waiting kids and the supply of families, adding there is a great need in both Blair and surrounding counties for adoption and foster care, especially given the opioid crisis.

“We need families who are able to say yes to those kids and yes for the long haul,” Digan said. “We need foster families to fill in that gap whether it be for two months or whether it be for a year or two years. … But then we also need those adoptive parents who are willing to adopt kids who’ve been in the system for a significant amount of time whose only desire is to have a family but struggle to understand what that family could look like.”

These waiting children — many survivors of neglect, abuse or abandonment — often live in foster care or in group homes because their birth parents are unable to care for them.

Lisa Cairo, administrator for the Bedford County Child and Youth Services, said the top reasons she witnesses why parents are unable to care for their children are drug use and mental health issues.

The intent of foster care is to provide temporary shelter for a child with the plan of returning the child to his or her parents when they can provide care. If reunification efforts with the birth parents fail, then a child is made available for adoption.

Each year, thousands of U.S. parents adopt children from different countries. However, there has been a steady downward trend in the number of intercountry adoptions in the U.S.

In 2016, there were 5,370 intercountry adoptions nationally as reported by the U.S. Department of State. The number of intercountry adoptions has dropped significantly over the years, more than 17,000 from 22,989 adoptions in 2004.

“Many trends contribute to the decline in the number of children adopted abroad,” wrote Virgil Carstens, a spokesman for the Bureau of Consular Affairs, in an email. “Changing policies toward adoption, social change (such as changing attitudes in favor of domestic adoption, growth of a middle class willing to adopt, etc.), economic forces, the widespread availability of inexpensive in vitro fertilization and other forms of assisted reproductive technology– all of these factors impact the overall number of intercountry adoptions annually.”

“The interplay of strong social and economic forces as well as unilateral actions to limit intercountry adoptions by countries of origin have contributed to the decline,” Carstens added.

Paula and Art Halvorson, residents of Manns Choice, transracially adopted a baby girl from South Korea in 1983. The baby girl was on a flight heading to the U.S. the same day the Soviet Union shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007. Fortunately, the girl — whose name is excluded by request — arrived safely on a different flight to the Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Michigan.

“For our family, adoption has brought a level of interest and dimension,” Paula said. “I think it definitely brings a dimension to a family that is beneficial and fun and fulfilling.”

“It’s not less of a family,” Paula added. “It’s just that every family is different and what makes a family can be different.”

Jeff Fleming, an Altoona attorney, who adopted a child from Cambodia, said “Adoption and foster care are tremendous opportunities, but there are also pretty significant bureaucracy hurdles and costs associated with it that maybe we need to consider additional legislative actions and means to educate the caseworkers and bring the finances and resources to help do what they need and make the process smoother.”

Decision not in vain

While Digan knew who her birth mother was, she didn’t know who her birth father was for years, causing occasional questions about her identity and origins to arise.

It wasn’t until Digan’s first year of college that she discovered who her birth father was. Harris called Digan on the phone one day to tell her she knew who the father was.

One phone call is the extent of Digan’s relationship with her birth father, who wasn’t aware of her existence for a long time.

Although contact with her birth father was almost nonexistent, Digan maintained contact on and off with Harris throughout her childhood. It has been almost six years since Digan’s last contact with her birth mother.

“I wanted her to see how I grew up and to see my life and that I was successful despite my coming into the world was traumatic,” Digan said in a soft-spoken voice. “And for her to be able to see how much I’ve grown in that time and that her decision was not made in vain.”

To date, Digan has helped place more than seven children for adoption during her nearly five years in social work. Depending on the situation, an adoption can take anywhere from a few months to a couple of years to complete.

“She’s a true example of a foster care child who wasn’t dealt a good hand,” Hauck said. Hauck, who now lives in Georgia, has adopted 10 children over the years including Digan.

“She is a living example of how she’s overcome so many obstacles,” Hauck continued. “With encouragement and love and nights of homework, she’s shown above what’s expected of her.”

Ronald said of Digan over the phone: “I’m very proud of Ashley,” his voice cracking as he spoke the words.

Mirror Staff Writer Shen Wu Tan is at 946-7457.