Finding African American Families for Foster Children: Tips for Workers & Agencies
from Summer 2005 Adoptalk
by Diane Riggs
Issued this spring, the most recent AFCARS report* suggests that by October 2003, more than 40 percent of children in foster care who needed adoptive familiesnearly 50,000were African American. By contrast, as of July 2003, only 13.3 percent of the entire U.S. population was black. This appalling disproportionality makes the task of recruiting African American families particularly important. Of course, the Multi- ethnic Placement Act makes recruiting families who are representative of the communities from which the children come a legal imperative as well. Below are reminders about and examples of effective ways to recruit African American families.
Some Basic Truths
No matter whom you are trying to recruit, the following truths apply. The reminders may, however, be even more important if you are trying to reach a new community or one that is unfamiliar with your agency.
- Good customer service is essential. Recruiters and other staff who work with prospective adoptive parents should be warmly welcoming, sincere, respectful, and responsive. Live people should answer the phone. Staff who promise to call back should do so right away. Families should always know what comes next.
- Flexibility must be the rule. To reach and accommodate families who might be interested in adopting, recruitment workers cannot adhere to a nine-to-five schedule. Recruiters must be available some evenings and weekends, and make efforts to reach out to prospective adopters on their home turf.
- Family strengths should be the agency's focus. Each person's fitness to adopt should not be judged by a first impression, appearance, or baseless assumptions. Whenever possible, staff should help prospective applicants identify personal traits (sense of humor, patience, willingness to learn new parenting strategies, etc.) that could make them good foster or adoptive parents. It also helps to have an agency philosophy to screen applicants in rather than out.
There is no magical, one-size-fits-all approach to recruiting families of color. Depending on staff characteristics, agency or state directives, and other variables, you may not be able (or need) to implement certain strategies. Nonethless, the tips below, generously offered by experienced recruiters, can help strengthen your African American recruitment program.
Tip 1: Include members of the African American
community in your recruitment efforts.
First, agencies that need to recruit black families should employ African American staff. Sabrena McAllister, director of Adoptions Together's African American recruitment project in Maryland, points out that it is helpful for prospective families to see a face like their own, and it can be good for waiting children of color too.
If your nonprofit agency has a board of directors, make certain the board includes people of color who can represent your agency in the black community. African American volunteers can also help to enhance specific recruitment activities.
Homes for Black Children in Detroit uses a formally organized group of volunteers to help plan and attend community recruitment events. Most volunteers are adoptive or foster parents of color, so they can offer potential adopters information about the agency, specific waiting children, and the challenges and joys of raising foster and adopted children.
Dunbar Association, Inc. in Syracuse, New York is a respected community-based black service agency that has had an adoption and foster care program since 1989. One way the agency broadens its reach is by asking parents who have adopted through Dunbar to invite friends, colleagues, and church members into their homes for adoption information parties.
In Brooklyn, New York, You Gotta Believe! uses a "recruitment army" of 12 volunteers. Made up of experienced adoptive parents, former foster children who have found permanence, and youth adopted as teens, these diverse recruiters work about 10 hours a week, mostly in the evening. They distribute literature, answer questions, and invite prospects to youth permanency orientation meetings.
Tip 2: If your agency is predominately white or
new to recruiting black families, take time to assess
or re-assess the agency's cultural competence.
McAllister suggests that all staff honestly examine personal biases and stereotypes about African American families. Agencies, she says, should also consider how current policies and practices are likely to alienate or welcome members of the black community. If cultural competence is not your agency's strength, bring in a facilitator to help you conduct a fair assessment.
Tip 3: Take time to build trusting
relationships in the black community.
In the push to quickly place more children in adoptive families, taking time may seem like a luxury you cannot afford. But if your agency is not located in an ethnically diverse area of town, or you have few community connections, you must invest time and energy into establishing trust and credibility in the community from which you hope to find families.
Many agencies attend festivals and events organized by or for people of color. For example, annual Juneteenth celebrationswhich commemorate the end of slavery in the U.S.and Black History Month observances present good opportunities to learn from and share information with people of color.
While this is a common and worthwhile strategy, Sharon Richardson, director of the Coordinators2, Inc. waiting child program, warns that workers cannot build solid relationships by "just showing up at an event"especially if they are white. It may help to partner with black organizations, or have a black mentor along. Better yet, try volunteering to help plan events so you can contribute to the community before asking for its help.
To enhance their credibility within the black community, Coordinators2 staff often share a booth with representatives from One Church, One Child of Virginia. They have also gone into black-run businesses and offered lunch to employees in exchange for a chance to talk about adoption. Some of the same businesses have agreed to display child-specific flyers. Most businesses, Richardson says, are very cooperative once they understand you are trying to find homes for black children within the black community.
Adoptions Together works with the Parks and Planning Commission in Prince George's Countya county whose population is more than 60 percent African American. The Commission advertises the agency's adoption orientation schedule, and provides free meeting space at park buildings located in black neighborhoods. Like Coordinators2, Adoptions Together knows black businesses are eager to help. One black bookstore even volunteered to include flyers with every purchase.
Pat O'Brien, founder of You Gotta Believe!, has found a unique way to bring adoption information to his intended audience. At his store-front office on Coney Island, local residents can access free copying, faxing, and notary public services while You Gotta Believe! staff informally chat about the need for older child permanency. Interested patrons are invited to a lively orientation meeting where they can get more information.
Tip 4: Emphasize and tailor community education
efforts for the intended audience.
Sherry Anderson, from Three Rivers Adoption Council in Pittsburgh, emphasizes that community education about the need for African American families is crucial. Black families cannot respond if they don't know that black children are waiting for adoptive homes or where, how, and if they can apply to adopt.
In 2002, when Adoptions Together and DePelchin Children's Center in Texas were awarded federal grants to recruit adoptive families for black children, the agencies wisely spent time finding out how best to communicate and deliver recruitment messages. DePelchin conducted a cultural and ethnographic study to target specific neighborhoods of color, and Adoptions Together examined the characteristics of black adoptive families.
Both agencies soon realized that a mix of informal personal contact, engaging written materials, and media outreach were needed. DePelchin staff participated in more than 40 community events to reach prospective parents where they live. Adoptions Together also focused on media appeals. Staff arranged for radio interviews on urban stations, shared their message on cable TV stations, and were able to air, without charge, a public service announcement on a cable network that caters to African American adults.
Tip 5: Enlist support from African American churches.
Historically, explains Reverend Wilbert Talley (director of the National Network of Adoption Advocacy Programs), church is the "one institution that offered African Americans a sense of wholeness and provided leadership around issues like social services, education, and civil rights." Today, churches are still an important focal point of African American life and, if approached correctly, can be valuable recruitment allies.
If you are white, Reverend Talley cautions, "you can't just walk in off the street" and ask for help. To work with a black church, recruiters must have a good relationship with the pastor or another church member who can vouch for them and introduce them into the church.
Once you are introduced, inquire about groups within the church (missionary societies, women's or couples' ministries, support groups) that might be able to help you. The ultimate goal, says Reverend Talley, is to find "an individual within the church whom you can train to do what you want to have done"organize information sessions, distribute flyers, refer interested church members, etc.
Tip 6: Reach out to the types of people whom
your agency has successfully recruited before,
but don't ignore untapped resources.
Every agency should track the type of African American families (people of faith, single women, married couples with grown children, community leaders, etc.) specific efforts have successfully recruited. Adoptions Together found, as federal adoption data bears out, that a significant number of single black women are now adopting children. As a result, some of their recruitment efforts target that group.
While it is wise to recruit families you have successfully recruited before, agencies must not ignore other resources. For example, though many waiting children would benefit from a single male role model, single men are rarely asked to adopt. To address this oversight, Another Choice for Black Children, a successful black adoption agency in North Carolina, began a new initiative in 2002. MECCA (Men Embracing Children Collectively through Adoption) is run by male staff and supported by adoptive fathers.
Lisa Lumpe, an experienced recruitment consultant based in Ohio, offers this final advice: "Be yourself, and be true to your missionhelping children. Benefit from the knowledge of African American mentors in and outside of your agency to connect with families the children need. Most families who adopt, regardless of race, do so after years of reflection. They can tell who truly cares about helping waiting children to have a better life."
* The April 2005 Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS) report includes data submitted for the period 10/1/02 through 9/30/03.