Spring 2019

Full potential

Driven by a motivated leader with a personal passion, the Adoption Medicine Clinic expands to reach more children who tend to fall through the cracks


Trauma. Neglect. Attachment issues. Prenatal exposure to drugs and alcohol. 

These are some of the heartbreaking but familiar challenges Judith Eckerle, M.D., addresses every day at the Adoption Medicine Clinic at University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital.

The clinic opened more than 30 years ago to focus on these previously unmet or undiagnosed medical and developmental needs. And just this fall, the clinic got a $1.7 million grant from the state of Minnesota to expand its services to more children in foster care, who face many of the same challenges.

“There are vulnerable kids living all around the world, but also kids we need to help right here in Minnesota,” says Eckerle, an associate professor in the U of M Medical School’s Department of Pediatrics.

“Kids who are in the foster care system, in orphanage care, or adopted all have the chance to do well with the right tools.”
Judith Eckerle, M.D.

In 2017, 16,600 children and young adults experienced foster care or out-of-home placement in Minnesota, according to the Minnesota Department of Human Services. On any given day in that same year, about 9,900 children in Minnesota were in the foster care system.

And when children lack a stable home, they often lack consistent health care as well.

“It’s very well documented that children in foster care often do not receive routine medical care, and about 50 percent have undiagnosed or undertreated chronic health conditions,” Eckerle says. “It’s an enormous need.”

That’s where the Adoption Medicine Clinic can help. It offers adopted and fostered children comprehensive health evaluations, which involve not only medical assessments but also screenings by experts in child psychology, occupational therapy, physical therapy, and child life, as well as genetics and neuropsychology when warranted.

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

It’s personal, too

A serendipitous series of events brought Eckerle to her profession—starting when she was abandoned in an alley in South Korea as a baby. 

At 5 months old, she was adopted by a loving Minnesota family. Later, as a teen in a program for gifted and talented kids, she shadowed Dana Johnson, M.D., Ph.D., a physician in the neonatal intensive care unit at University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital, who founded the U’s International Adoption Clinic in 1986. (That clinic would later become the Adoption Medicine Clinic.)

As fate would have it, Eckerle didn’t learn about Johnson’s adoption medicine work until several years later, when she was in medical school. She set up a rotation with him in quick order. 

“The third day, I walked into his office and said, ‘This is what I want to do for the rest of my life, so you tell me how to go about it, and I’ll do it,’” Eckerle recalls.

So Johnson set up an adoption medicine research fellowship for Eckerle in 2007, and she joined him as a provider in the clinic in 2008. She became the Adoption Medicine Clinic’s director in 2013.

“I only had the chance to do what I’ve done because I have a family and I was adopted,” Eckerle says. “When I see kids who are in the foster care system, in orphanage care, or adopted, I know they all have the chance to do well with the right tools.”

Adoption Medicine Clinic director Judith Eckerle, M.D.

Show of support

Because of current reimbursements for children in foster care, and the time required to complete a comprehensive assessment with multiple specialists, the Adoption Medicine Clinic loses money on almost every child it sees. But with its new four-year partnership with the state, the clinic can care for 1,000 foster children per year—twice as many as it had been able to previously—and stay afloat.

“It was really a perfect partnership,” Eckerle says.

And behind the Adoption Medicine Clinic’s continued livelihood is its advisory board, made up of a dozen advocates who have supported the clinic through special events like marathons and galas and through marketing efforts.

The clinic also has a new $500,000 endowment, thanks to catalytic gifts from the Jane N. Mooty Foundation and the Amy R. and Philip S. Goldman Foundation that will help to sustain the clinic’s work long term.

“Philanthropy is really how we will continue to grow our program,” says Eckerle, who in September was named a 2018 Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute Angels in Adoption Honoree. “They believe in what we are doing.”

It’s a cause that’s easy to unite behind: ensuring that children, especially those from challenging beginnings, have a chance to reach their full potential.

“It’s just that they fall through the cracks,” Eckerle says, “and we want to make sure that that won’t happen anymore.”