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Overcoming barriers to the adoption of foster children

ASK THIS | September 13, 2005

Would-be foster parents in your area may be getting scared away by – of all things – bad customer care from your local child welfare agency. Here’s a watchdog story that could improve a lot of lives.

By Jeff Katz

At the state level:

Q. The first call a prospective parent makes to learn about adopting a child from foster care can be intensely emotional. It may be the culmination of years of losses, such as failed relationships or infertility, and may embody a lifetime’s hope for becoming a parent. Is the first person to answer a call from a prospective adoptive parent capable -- and appropriately trained -- to provide the necessary support and information to a prospective parent?

Q. What is the attrition rate for people interested in adopting a child from foster care? Of all the people who call about adopting a child from a state’s foster care system, what percentage eventually do adopt?

Q. What methods, if any, does a state use to measure customer satisfaction among prospective adoptive parents? Do they make use of customer questionnaires? Focus groups? Operational audits? “Mystery shopping”? How does a state use feedback from adoptive parents, and prospective adoptive parents, to shape a customer friendly adoption process?

At the national level:

Q. What is the federal government doing to force states to measure parent satisfaction with the adoption process and improve the way they treat prospective adoptive parents?

Q. Under the 1997 Adoption and Safe Families Act, states have a financial incentive to increase the numbers of children adopted from foster care. What can state and federal governments do to create incentives for individual workers to create adoptions for children on their caseload? 

Conventional wisdom is that children in foster care wait in vain to be adopted because most prospective adoptive parents are only interested in younger children or are not interested in parenting a child who has been traumatized. The truth is that there are many more interested parents than waiting children -- but that many of those prospective parents will give up because they find the child welfare system to be insensitive, bureaucratic and more interested in screening out parents than recruiting new ones.

There are approximately 500,000 children currently in foster care in the United States. While most will return to their families, 125,000 will never be able to return home. Despite efforts at rehabilitation, their families simply can not be made safe enough for a child. While 50,000 of these children will be adopted (over 80% by their foster parents or relatives), 75,000 waiting children won’t be adopted.

Each year, public and private child welfare agencies spend tens of millions of dollars to recruit families to adopt these children from foster care. Historically, recruitment efforts have been based on the goal of obtaining large-scale responses to mass-market efforts such as television programs, newspaper columns featuring waiting children, placemats in restaurants, and two-minute “Wednesday’s Child” spots on local news broadcasts. These campaigns are generally designed to get prospective applicants to make an initial phone call to inquire about adoption. By that measure, these efforts frequently succeed in generating initial interest from prospective adoptive parents:

Research at Harvard University and the Urban Institute has documented that in any given year, 240,000 Americans call social service agencies for information about adopting a child from foster care. Yet only 10,000 to 15,000 of these will actually adopt. Interviews and focus groups with prospective adoptive parents have documented a range of barriers that keep prospective parents from completing the process. These include difficulty in reaching the right person at an agency, unpleasant initial contacts with agency staff, negativity about the children designed to scare off “uncommitted” parents, and frustration with agency bureaucracy. At one site, people calling for information about adopting were required to fill out a two-page form of personal information (i.e. income and expenses) before receiving the most basic information about adoption. In another case, an information meeting for prospective parents began with fingerprinting of all attendees in the front of the room.

There are many possible reasons that public child welfare agencies treat prospective adoptive parents so poorly. These include limited resources and the tendency to respond to a child in crisis rather than the long-term need of a child for permanency. Two other factors may contribute to this. First, social service agencies, by their nature, have mostly adversarial and mistrustful relationships with their adult clients (parents suspected of child abuse or neglect). Adoption work in public child welfare agencies is usually done by senior workers -- those workers that have done child protective work for many years. The skeptical and adversarial attitude may carry over.

Second, individual caseworkers have disincentives to make adoptive placements. In order for a child in foster care to be adopted, he or she must be in a relatively stable situation. A caseworker with too large a caseload will, by necessity, respond to the child in crisis before the relatively stable child who would benefit in the long term by having a permanent family. In addition, adoptions are extremely labor-intensive, involving meetings with parents, teachers, therapists and others, as well as preparing the child for a major life change. Finally, when a caseworker does move a child from a stable situation to an adoptive family, the caseworker receives a new case, which invariably will require more work than the child he or she replaces.

Whatever the reason that public child welfare agencies treat prospective parents so poorly, one fact is clear: Few public child welfare agencies use traditional customer feedback methods to assess the quality of their services. Since most adult “clients” of child welfare agencies are parents accused of abuse or neglect, there is little history of client involvement in developing better services. Because public child welfare agencies are generally underfunded, state legislatures are reluctant to allocate scarce resources to the research and development required to make the agency more “customer friendly”

To prevent the steep attrition of prospective adoptive parents and make the adoption process more accessible, public child welfare agencies can adopt a number of strategies. Elements of best practice include:

  • Soliciting input from adoptive and prospective adoptive parents in every aspect of the adoption process. This can include surveys, focus groups, and interviews.
  • Involving experienced adoptive parents in the design of the adoption process.
  • Guaranteeing that prospective parents can reach the right person on the first try.  Agencies should have a specialized adoption hotline where a well-trained and friendly individual can assure callers of a direct and immediate response.
  • Emphasizing recruitment rather than screening in the beginning stages of the adoption process (initial calls, information meetings). Early in the process, the risk of alienating a potentially suitable parent far outweighs the risk of allowing an inappropriate parent to begin training.
  • Addressing prospective parents’ emotional needs during their initial contact with the agency.  For most prospective adoptive parents, their first contact with a public child welfare agency is very emotionally charged. The first person to speak with prospective parents should be professional staff with a background in counseling and specialized training in adoption.
  • Developing support systems for prospective parents as they go through the adoption process, such as matching programs with adoptive parents. As one prospective parent put it, “This is a very impersonal process for a very personal thing.” 

The stakes for children in need of adoptive families is very high. In a study of children who had “aged out” of foster care, researchers found that within 12 to 18 months of turning 18 and leaving foster care, 27% of males and 10% of females were incarcerated, 50% were unemployed, 37% had not finished high school, 33% received public assistance, and 19% of females had given birth to children.

Additional experts who can be contacted by the press:

Steve Barbour
Administration for Children and Families

Rob Geen, Director
Child Welfare Research Program
Center on Labor, Human Services, and Population
The Urban Institute
Washington, DC 20037
(202) 261-5822

Founder of SAFE (Society of Advocates for Family Empowerment)
Posted by Beverly Gardner
09/26/2008, 12:55 PM

It's great to revisit your website on adoptions from foster care. We are working on our 12th adoption which brings us to 16 children in our family. It's been a very rocky road to travel, but worth it. I'm still advocating for families in and out of the system, and their children. We are also doing respite for a 15 year old girl that doesn't have a family because of termination of their rights, years ago. She wants to be adopted so badly and just have a normal life. Something she's never had. Thanks for all the work you've done to help these children.

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