Illinois Committed to Preserving Adoptions
By Jeanne Howard and Jane Elmore
Jeanne Howard is co-director of the Post Adoption Project at Illinois State University, which is funded by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. Jane Elmore is deputy director for foster care and permanency services at the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. For more information about adoption preservation services in Illinois, contact the Post Adoption Project, Illinois State University, 4650-Social Work, Normal, IL 61790-4650; 309-438-5841.
"I had gone everywhere I could think of for help. No one had the proper help for us until the adoption [preservation] services. Our whole family had become dysfunctional. Our marriage was coming apart. We did not know how to cope with our daughter. No one had ever told us about what she was going through [related to the severe abuse she had experienced as a young child]. We had this fantasy that adoption was the same as forming a family biologically. We were not prepared to help our children, especially our daughter, with the grieving process, the guilt, the anger."
"No one before had even suggested that there might be issues unique to adoption. I had an adopted son who had been neglected and abused in his first two years of life and at age 13 made a suicide attempt. By then I was at my wit?s end. The hospital social worker read me a list of agencies. The name ?Adoption Preservation? jumped out at me. At last a professional who really understood our situation!"
These statements come from parents who received assistance from Adoption Preservation Services, a free set of services available to struggling adoptive families across Illinois. This innovative approach to strengthening troubled adoptive families is unique in the nation.
The majority of families, whether formed by birth or adoption, will shepherd their children to healthy adulthood without the use of specialized services. While serious emotional and behavioral problems in children can occur in any family, whether birth or adoptive, those who adopt children with histories of profound deprivation, deep trauma, or problems such as fetal alcohol syndrome are at risk for particular challenges. Assistance from highly skilled adoption-sensitive therapists can enable struggling adoptive families to remain together. This is the goal of adoption preservation services.
Families typically come to adoption preservation services exhausted and frustrated. Research on the Illinois program indicates that children have been in their homes for a long time (an average of 8.9 years) before families seek the program?s help. For most, it is the child?s long-standing emotional or behavioral problems as well as the parents? feelings of incompetence that bring the family to services. Families have typically tried a number of ways to resolve problems without success. About two-thirds of the families who come to adoption preservation have received prior counseling services. Roughly 25 percent of children have been placed outside the home (most commonly in a psychiatric facility) after adoption but before adoption preservation services. Most of the children served are former wards of the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) who are receiving adoption assistance. Most have histories of serious maltreatment and loss.
The Foundation of Adoption Preservation Services
Illinois is unique in that adoption preservation services are part of its family preservation law. The act creating the Department of Children and Family Services (20 ILCS 505/) states, "Before July 1, 2000, the Department may provide, and after July 1, 2000 the Department shall provide family preservation services, as determined to be appropriate and in the child?s best interests and when the child will not be in imminent risk of harm, to any family whose child has been placed in substitute care, who have adopted a child and require post-adoption services, or any persons whose child or children are at risk of being placed outside their home as documented by an ?indicated? report of suspected abuse or neglect pursuant to the Abused and Neglected Child Reporting Act." Further, 325 ILCS 5/8.2 states, "For purposes of this Act, the term ?family preservation? refers to all services to prevent the placement of children in substitute care, to reunite them with their families if so placed and if reunification is an appropriate goal, or to maintain an adoptive placement."
Although family preservation, family reunification, and adoption preservation are addressed together, there are important differences in how families are served. For family preservation and reunification, there must be an indicated report of child maltreatment. In adoption preservation cases there is no requirement for such a report. Second, family preservation and reunification services require there be an open case with the DCFS. In adoption preservation cases, there is no requirement that the family be affiliated with the department, now or in the past. Finally, while family preservation and reunification services are voluntary (that is, parents can refuse to participate), there are clearly consequences for failure to participate. In adoption preservation, participation is truly voluntary. Most families refer themselves for services. There is no consequence for not participating or for deciding not to continue once services have begun.
Illinois meets its mandate through contracts with a host of private agencies across the state. At present, program funds are provided on a grant basis, with each agency having a target number of families to serve each year. Each year, the program serves about 500 families statewide. The current fiscal year allocation for adoption preservation services is $2.4 million. Funding has increased each year since the program?s initiation in two Chicago-area sites in 1991.
Each adoption preservation program offers a variety of services to families, including crisis intervention services, comprehensive assessment, intensive services, support groups, cash assistance, and advocacy and referral. Crisis intervention services provide for the 24-hour availability of workers to help families face a variety of situations. Workers can offer immediate phone support or travel to the family?s home, police station, hospital, or any other place that they are needed. In short, crisis workers do whatever needs to be done.
Through comprehensive assessment, adoption preservation staff help gain or organize knowledge about the child in ways that parents can use. Many times parents have a variety of diagnoses, reports, and tests that have never been pulled together and interpreted. Further, many children need additional assessment to determine the nature of their problems and highlight their strengths.
Intensive services involve therapeutic intervention through individual or family counseling. A critical component of intensive services is to help parents and children understand more about the dynamics of adoption and the impact of loss and trauma. These services help families make the link between the child?s current difficulties and the child?s history. Some families lack important background information about their child?s life. Other families have important facts about their child?s life but do not understand the connection between history and behavior. Workers both gather and interpret this information for families.
Client feedback reveals that one of the most important aspects of adoption preservation services is support groups for children and parents. For many children, these groups provide the first opportunity to be in the company of another adopted child. Groups provide parents not only support and information, but also a safe place to express frustration and gain new ideas. Support groups are ongoing in some sites and time limited in others. Even in the time-limited groups, families may return for the next series. Groups are one way in which families who are no longer receiving intensive services can continue to receive information and support.
Cash assistance provides families with short-term help to purchase needed items or services. For example, payments may cover transportation costs to attend a support group, participation fees for a child to attend a specialized camp, or wages for a caretaker who will accompany a child to activities.
Advocacy and referral are critical in helping families find and make use of necessary services in their community. Workers attend staffings and court hearings, make careful referrals, and accompany the family to services if the family desires.
Adoption preservation services are provided through 10 contracts with private agencies across the state. Several agencies have multiple sites. Each county in the state is assigned to an adoption preservation program. Families come to services through many routes: They may call DCFS with concerns and be connected with adoption preservation, be referred by other community service providers, or seek services directly, perhaps after seeing an agency brochure or reading a newspaper article.
Caseload size is meant to be small, ranging from 8 to 15 families per worker. Families can receive services for six months and, if needed, receive an additional six months of service. In those cases where there is compelling need, cases can be extended for yet another six months. Cases that have been closed for at least one year can be reopened if another referral (including self referral) is received.
As indicated by parent feedback, adoption preservation is an important service highly valued by families. As one parent put it:
"We have all grown to understand adoption and ourselves better. We?ve learned that it?s okay that we can?t always take away our children?s pain?but we can help them cope with it. We have become more open with our inner thoughts. We?ve learned to share as a family?to be supportive. It saved our family from totally splitting up. Our family has come a long way. We still need improvement. But these programs give us hope?. Hope that we will learn how to get through some of the barriers the past life has formed in our daughter. [Hope that] we can get through the anger our son has. We need these services!"
Additional Post-Adoption Services in Illinois
While Illinois has made an excellent beginning by providing adoption preservation services statewide, DCFS hopes to expand post-adoption services to families before the point of crisis. The department has already made important strides in this direction. The Adoption Information Center of Illinois has become a clearinghouse for post-adoption information across the state through its Post Adoption Information and Referral Services program. Families can call a toll-free number to learn about services in their area. The program provides information on adoption assistance, mental health and other social service providers who have training or background in adoption issues, parent and child support groups, respite services, and adoption preservation services.
The Midwest Adoption Center offers another valuable service. The Center provides thorough (but non-identifying) written background information to any party to the adoption of a DCFS ward: the adult adopted person, the birth family (including adult siblings), or the adoptive parent of a minor child. In some cases, families use the services of the Center to find out important information about their adopted children for use in a therapeutic setting. The Center also serves as a liaison and source of information for those who are interested in reunion, and informs parties to adoption about their rights to data. The search services are free to former DCFS wards and their families, and are available to others for a fee.