Listening to Parents: Overcoming Barriers to the Adoption of Children from Foster Care
Each year, public and private child welfare agencies spend tens of millions of dollars to recruit families to adopt children from foster care. Historically, these 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: Each year, almost a quarter of a million Americans call social service agencies for information about adopting a child from foster care.
But new research by Adoption Institute Senior Fellow Jeff Katz – in conjunction with colleagues at Harvard University and the Urban Institute – shows that prospective parents who seek information about adopting a child from foster care are often put off by a system they view as too hard to access and more focused on screening out bad candidates than welcoming good ones.
Katz and his colleagues (Julie Wilson, Senior Lecturer at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and Rob Geen, Senior Research Associate at the Urban Institute) have conducted the largest study ever undertaken of attrition among prospective adoptive parents of children from foster care. They found the vast majority of adults (78%) who call for more information about becoming adoptive parents will not fill out an application or attend an orientation meeting. Just 6% of those who call for information actually complete the adoption homestudy, which is required for all prospective parents. And many of those who do complete a homestudy end up leaving the child welfare agency without ever adopting. While people may decide not to adopt for many reasons, the bottom line is that only a fraction of those recruited to call a child welfare agency actually do adopt.
Interviews and focus groups with prospective adoptive parents, as well as with agency staff members, document a range of frustrating issues and barriers that keep prospective parents from completing the process. These include differences between the kind of child prospective parents seek (or think they want) and those available; difficulty in accessing the agency or unpleasant initial contacts with it; and ongoing frustration with the agency or aspects of the process. Since this new study shows word of mouth is one of the two primary ways people learn about adopting from foster care (media is the other), such negative experiences may be greatly amplified as frustrated applicants relate their sentiments to their friends, families and acquaintances.
For each of the 126,000 children in foster care who are waiting to be adopted, an alienating experience for a prospective parent can mean the difference between a life spent in the uncertainty of temporary homes and the loving embrace of a permanent family. The cost to these children, and to society as a whole, is incalculable.
According to this research, the most effective way to create permanent, loving homes for waiting children may not be to recruit more families. Rather, it may be to change the system in a way that welcomes and nurtures adults who are willing, and in some cases avidly trying, to adopt a child from foster care.
Reprinted with the permission of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute. © 2007 Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute. All rights reserved.
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