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Successful Older Child Adoption: Lessons from the Field

by Mary Boo, Assistant Director, NACAC

Published in the Summer 2010 issue of Adoptalk

In fall 2009, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services rewarded 38 states for increasing foster care adoptions. Some states were particularly adept at finding families for older youth—in 2008, adoptions of children nine and up rose 39 percent in Florida, 25 percent in Texas, and 91 percent in Wyoming. We asked state leaders in these and other states how they were so successful at placing older children. Each state’s story is unique, but several themes emerge.

Having Specialists Do Case Mining

Searching for people—past and present—in an older child’s life is a great way to find adoptive families. It can also require special skills and be time-consuming. Every state we surveyed says that case file mining was a factor in their success, and most note that specialists do the work.

Tennessee’s Department of Children and Families (DCF) staff attribute part of the state’s success to its Finding Our Children Unconditional Support (FOCUS) program. DCF refers all foster children who lack a resource to this private agency program. As staff explain, “The agency then begins really looking in the child’s network.”

For several years, New Hampshire has contracted with Easter Seals where connections specialists do case mining for each youth. Myriam Roeder, adoption program supervisor at the Department of Health and Human Services explains that the work “results in some adoptions, and even when it doesn’t, it creates connections for those teens.”

Florida recently created the 100 Longest Waiting Teens Project. Staff dive into each youth’s history to find every possible relative, former foster parent, and other significant adult, and then notify these individuals that the child needs a family. Not long ago Texas began a new project to focus on case mining and diligent searches, with staff dedicated to very thorough case reviews.

Involving Children and Youth

The best source of information about possible resources is often youth themselves, and New Hampshire youth are actively involved in permanency planning. They attend six-month administrative reviews, document their past (as in a life book), and identify potential connections. Then, contracted agency workers take over the specialized work of contacting these resources.

ennessee DCF staff observe that workers “really engage [teens] who can tell them…their history and offer options. Workers listen carefully and respond—even if it may not be what the worker thinks is best.” But working with youth takes time. In Florida, workers may build a relationship with a youth for months before having conversations about whom the worker should contact.

In Texas, older teens participate in regular Circle of Support meetings where they drive the agenda. During such meetings, youth have identified long lost relatives and others who have stepped up to adopt, be guardians, or provide support. Audrey Jackson, adoption program specialist at the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) notes, “Youth are very helpful in identifying people who may be a resource to them—not just a relative, but a former foster parent, a coach. Their views are very, very key.”

Sticking with the Adoption Plan

Although youth are empowered in permanency planning, several adoption managers state that youth cannot just opt out of adoption. Kathy Waters, Florida Department of Children and Families adoption program and policy manager, quotes a youth on an advisory board: “The only time the worker listened is when I said I didn’t want to be adopted. Now I have no one.”

Florida now trains workers how to respond to a youth’s fears and concerns. “When a child says ‘I don’t want to be adopted,’ it’s the beginning of casework not a change to APPLA [Another Planned Permanent Living Arrangement].”

Kathy tells of a worker who found a family for a boy in care, but couldn’t convince his 17-year-old sister to be adopted with him. The worker kept talking with the young woman, and two weeks before she turned 18, the girl agreed to be adopted.

Gail Gonzalez, Texas director of placement in foster care and adoption, agrees, “If someone says no, we don’t just move on to the next child. We help them through grief and loss, and get their therapists involved. We will work to figure out what makes the child resistant and how to overcome it.”

Wyoming workers are also taught to look beyond initial hesitation. Maureen Clifton, Wyoming Department of Family Services’ adoption program analyst, observes that state staff train workers how to “talk about why youth might say no to adoption, and…uncover the no.” Workers explore teens’ fears about past failed adoptions or worries that adoption will betray foster or birth parents to whom they feel loyal.

Another way to overcome reluctance is to encourage openness in adoption. Since 2006, New Hampshire has allowed and facilitated voluntary contact agreements between birth and adoptive parents. After nearly 300 such adoptions, Myriam Roeder believes the policy has definitely helped older youth adoptions.

Relying on Birth and Foster Families

A key outcome of case mining is adoptions by birth family members. Texas DFPS staff cite a rise in relative adoptions as critical to their increase in youth permanency. And they emphasize that relative search is not a one-time task. Audrey Jackson explains, “Throughout the life of the case, we seek to identify relatives and people significant to the child and family. A relative who wasn’t in a good place three years ago may be in a good place today. We can go back and pursue those avenues again if they were ruled out.”

In Florida, relative adoptions have also risen. Tennessee staff explain that placing youth with relatives has led to successful adoptions and fewer disruptions. In Wyoming, the state specifically trains staff to search for relatives—a practice, says Maureen Clifton, which has paid “real dividends.”

Several state leaders note that they will sometimes place with birth parents. A Tennessee birth mother, for example, had her rights terminated, but turned her life around and became a foster parent. Eventually, she adopted her own daughter. New Hampshire and Wyoming have placed a handful of youth with birth parents, and Wyoming DFS staff help county workers to re-think their opposition to such placements.

Foster parents, too, are a vital resource. A few years ago, senior adoption staff from around Florida helped Miami increase adoptions by meeting with foster parents to discuss how they could make adoption possible. As Bob Rooks, director of Florida’s Adoption Information Center, explains, “The state never lost sight of foster parents as a valuable resource.” Tennessee invests what state staff call “quality time,” making visits to foster families who parent older children to determine if they can provide permanence.

New Hampshire uses one home study for foster and adoptive parents because, as Myriam Roeder explains, “we want all foster parents to be prepared for adoption since so many children are adopted by foster parents.” Wyoming’s specialized foster care coordinators have been instrumental in recruiting foster families to adopt older children.

Texas also encourages dual licensing and is committed to keeping foster parents involved and informed as children move toward adoption. Staff note that, “At this point in history, we’re very supportive of foster parents adopting. It’s a very positive thing for a child.”

Providing Leadership

Staff in each state emphasize the critical role of high-level support for children’s services and adoption. In Florida, for example, Governor Crist identified adoption as priority during his election campaign and appointed a state chief child advocate when he took office. In 2005 the Texas legislature passed a bill that led to the Family Focus Initiative, which includes an emphasis on relatives. The effort has resulted in additional placements—and adoptions—with kin.

In Tennessee, after the commissioner and assistant commissioner personally conducted case reviews, they made significant system reforms, such as involving more regional leaders, ensuring treatment for children who need it, holding regular team meetings, evaluating private contracts, and addressing interstate placement delays.

New Hampshire’s commissioner and director helped launch a faith-based initiative to recruit adoptive parents; help families with clothing, housing, and other needs; and support permanency. In Wyoming, the governor, a state Supreme Court justice, and the DFS director have joined in permanency work. As DFS administrator Rick Robb explains, their involvement has changed staff philosophy: “There really is a greater tendency to view the children in terms of what would you do if this was your child. We take personal responsibility.”

Partnering with Private Agencies

States have varying relationships with private agencies. All of Florida’s child welfare services are contracted to Community Based Care (CBC) agencies, and those agencies typically subcontract adoption-related services. CBCs may reward subcontractors if they exceed adoption targets. Bob Rooks says that privatization in Florida—although it has challenges—is “a blessing for adoptions,” since agencies can switch directions quickly when change is needed.

In Tennessee, in addition to FOCUS, the state designs performance-based foster care and adoption contracts to encourage private agencies to quickly and safely achieve permanency. Agencies that move a youth to permanency faster than the agency track record receive a bonus.

States in which public agencies do adoptions still partner with private agencies to recruit families for some youth. New Hampshire, for example, teams with Bethany Christian Services, through a Wendy’s Wonderful Kids grant, to seek families for children with no identified resource, and Texas issues RFPs to fund certain adoption-related services.

Focusing on Teamwork

Each state also cites teamwork as a key factor in its success. In small states, like New Hampshire and Wyoming, collaboration is easier. All 12 district offices in New Hampshire meet at least monthly to work on permanency plans and assign tasks to keep the plans moving ahead.
In Florida, Bob Rooks sees a tremendous amount of cooperation, rather than competition, among private agencies. DCF provides formal avenues—regular calls, meetings, conferences, etc.—that support private agency collaboration statewide.

Family group conferencing and team decision-making have been quite helpful in older youth adoptions. Tennessee staff say they are “aggressive” about family conferencing and meet regularly with child and family teams (including workers, therapists, guardians ad litem, resource parents, teachers, and relatives) to brainstorm permanency options.

As part of its Family Focus Initiative, Texas became deeply committed to family group conferencing and team decision making, which led to finding more families for older children. While permanency planning meetings had previously been restricted to attorneys, case workers, and maybe foster parents, these meetings are now “come one, come all,” Gail Gonzalez explains. “We invite key people in a child’s life to the table and ask them to invite others. We ask again and again, and people will think of someone new, and we pursue that.”

Improving Court Performance

In Wyoming, court reform played a major role in increasing youth adoptions. In 2004, the state created a permanency unit in the attorney general’s office, which helps free children for adoption in contested cases.

Success at older youth adoptions has led to even more court improvement. Judges, Rick Robb says, used to avoid termination of parental rights (TPR) unless a resource was identified. Now that older children are finding families, judges are more willing to do such TPRs.

In Tennessee, several private agencies identified court delays as a barrier to timely adoptions. The agencies reduced adoption delays by training court staff; one even housed a staff member at the court to improve collaboration.
Florida recently held a statewide dependency summit for judges and attorneys at which judges trained their peers on how to expedite TPR. In New Hampshire, a committee of judges, administrators, and social workers is establishing new protocols to enhance court practice.

Expanding Post-Adoption Services

Efforts to support older child adoptions don’t stop at finalization. In Florida, almost all 20 judicial circuits have a post-adoption service worker families can call. Five years ago, there were none. New Hampshire launched its post-adoption program four years ago, and Myriam Roeder says it is an important incentive for parents. Through the program, families can access support groups, be referred to services, and receive more intensive, short-term, home-based services.

The Texas legislature recently created enhanced adoption assistance to provide extra support to families adopting children with the most challenging special needs. The program targets a limited number of children—mostly older youth—who would remain in care without the additional support.

Conclusion

There is no magic bullet to ensure that older foster youth find permanency. As Myriam Roeder explains, “We use all the resources we can. Anything is worth looking at.” Finding families for youth takes leadership, collaboration, creativity, and commitment. And, as many staff point out, belief in the possibility of adoption for older children is essential. Kathy Waters notes, “One real successful teen adoption can carry a unit.” Likewise, states that achieve success in youth adoption can inspire other states and agencies to find a family for every older child in their care.


North American Council on Adoptable Children (NACAC)
970 Raymond Avenue, Suite 106
St. Paul, MN 55114
phone: 651-644-3036
fax: 651-644-9848
e-mail: info@nacac.org
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