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How Parents Really Feel about the Adoption Process

from Summer 2004 Adoptalk

by Jeff Katz

Jeff Katz is an adoption consultant and senior fellow at the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute. While a fellow at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, he worked with Harvard's Julie Wilson and the Urban Institute's Rob Geen to study how prospective parents experience the adoption process. Below is a summary of their findings. To receive a copy of the final report, contact Jeff at 617-325-8999 or jeffkatz@earthlink.net.

"My first experience was my sister calling me about a boy who had been on TV. I just wanted to know about this little boy and it just seems like it was a thousand phone calls and a thousand people and this one doesn't know what you are talking about and let me transfer you to somebody else…"

The woman who shared this experience took part in a study of how the adoption process works from parents' perspectives. The goal of the project was to determine why, despite an increasing demand for children to adopt and active adoptive family recruitment efforts, very few "general applicants" (those who are not the children's relatives or foster parents) adopt from foster care. In federal fiscal year 2001, 8,700 children were adopted by general applicants. Why so few? We found answers in every aspect of the adoption process.

Background

Supported by funding from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, my colleagues and I examined data from the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS), analyzed surveys from 43 state child welfare agencies, and reviewed 132 case records. We also interviewed adoption workers and administrators, and conducted parent focus groups at three sites. The result is a comprehensive look at how families adopting from foster care perceive the process.

Major Findings

There is a steep attrition rate as prospective families go from initial call to adoption. Based on 40 states' data, we estimate that states annually receive about 240,000 foster care adoption inquiries. Since general applicants adopted fewer than 9,000 children in 2001, it appears that only 1 in 28 people who contact a child welfare agency adopts a child from foster care.

Word-of-mouth is more important than media. Waiting child features like Wednesday's Child create general awareness. Most prospective adopters we spoke to, however, were drawn to adoption by a personal connection. Many mentioned a relative, friend, or co- worker who had adopted a child from foster care. Many also noted that they were adopted, had been in foster care, or had grown up with foster children. Their input reinforced workers' statements that word-of-mouth is the most common way people hear about the need for adoptive parents.

The first information call can be intensely emotional. An individual's first call to inquire about adoption often comes at the end of an intensely painful journey that may include loneliness, devastating illness, infertility, degrading medical procedures, and unbearable loss. The people we spoke with were very eloquent.

"We've always wanted children and to be married 12 years and no children… Mother's Day was so traumatic for me every year… Then this past Mother's Day was the worst… I couldn't imagine missing motherhood… I couldn't imagine that there was no information I could get that would guide me through the process."

Agencies do not handle the first call well. Parents find that their initial contact with an agency is the most difficult aspect of the process for two reasons. First, many find it hard to get a worker to answer their call. They get lost in voice mail, are transferred from person to person, and leave messages that are never returned. Many focus group participants had to make several calls before getting an information packet or application form.

"I think my initial call was in July and it took about six weeks for them to call back… I think the only reason I did get a call back was because I made a second phone call."

"I didn't get the information until maybe the third call. Then I actually came down here to get the forms… I just feel like I've really had to push."


Second, many who did speak with someone were frustrated by their initial contact. These callers, who had little or no knowledge of how adoption works, made their first call to seek general information and ran into a system bent on preemptively weeding out those who aren't interested in hard-to-place children.

"It was like trick questions, like 'Are you interested only in an infant?' and I would say that would be my hope, for a child who has had less trauma, and then they would snap, 'Well you will never get an infant.' She was a b—— about it. She didn't say 'Would you consider an older child?' I am a human being; I can be flexible."

A strong personal connection can make all the difference. In the best of circumstances, adopting a child is complicated, scary, and challenging. One thing that can make or break the experience for adopters is having a strong personal relationship with someone at the agency.

"Finally I called and happened to get Jenny on the phone… I just found a human being who would have a conversation with me and then found out the next steps. That is what I needed: a person to talk to."

"The first person I talked to was Pat and from that moment it's like she cradled us It was so easy it was almost unbelievable She gave us a lot of information and everything took place exactly as she said."

By and large, people adopting from foster care find training helpful. Though the training is not easy, focus group participants (especially those who had completed training) generally had positive feelings about it.

"At the end of this class I find it difficult to imagine adopting a child without the training…it was good to hear about the things that you can expect could happen."

The most common complaints about training were that it focused too much on waiting children's difficulties, and information about supports to address special needs came too late in the sessions.

"They made all of these kids sound like future child molesters, jewelry thieves, who don't want to be adopted anyway."

Many participants were concerned about how workers would use what would-be adopters said during training to assess their fitness as parents. The training, they said, was like "being in a fishbowl" with workers looking to see how they would react to incredibly difficult things.

Agencies struggle to balance recruitment versus screening. Every agency that performs adoptions has two very contradictory responsibilities. First, they must recruit as many prospective adopters as possible. But then, they must screen out those who cannot or should not adopt for reasons ranging from felony convictions to unresolved fertility issues.

The critical factor in balancing recruiting and screening is when and how the screening starts. Consider how workers at two different sites describe how they respond to the initial inquiry:

Site 1: "The unit throws out a big net and then weeds out people who are inappropriate. Most people have a lot of questions during the initial inquiry, so the intake workers invite everyone who inquires to attend orientation."

Site 2: "There's an inquiry form. It starts with…how many people are in the home…[and] their ages, because based on their ages we'll determine what type of criminal clearances we'll need. After they do that, we talk about income…work schedule… Then we flip over to the other side of the form and…talk…about operating expenses, can you maintain your own household… The last section is talking aboutÉpreferences. And then we're honest… Do we have a big system of babies just waiting around? Do we have sibling groups? Teenagers? Teenagers with babies? And we talk about it. We do that process and we then decide if we're going to invite them out to an orientation."

The difference in how each agency handles the balance between screening and recruitment continues at orientation:

At Site 1, orientation focuses on waiting children's needs, how the system works, and parents' motivation for adopting. Because the orientation is the first meeting of the training class, those who choose to go forward may move directly into training. Prospective parents don't complete the detailed application until later.

At Site 2, the orientation meeting begins with all applicants being fingerprinted. The rest of the meeting is devoted to helping attendees complete an application form.

Success Factors

We analyzed data from 132 case records of applicants who had completed a home study to assess how their characteristics (race, education, income, age of children being sought, willingness to take siblings) correlated with child placement. Of the records examined, 69 applicants52 percent—had a child placed with them at the time of our review.

Factors that predicted placement:

  • Location. Prospective parents in one site were 12 times more likely to adopt than parents in another site. Many factors could account for thisthe kinds of children available, prospective parents' demographics, agency resources, and the extent to which agencies welcome and support parents.
  • Marital status. Married applicants were more than four times as likely as single applicants to adopt.
  • Education. Applicants with a college education were 2.7 times more likely to have had a child placed with them than those without.
  • Willingness to adopt siblings. Applicants who were willing to adopt a sibling group were more than twice as likely to have a child placed with them.
  • Willingness to adopt older children. One big surprise in this study is that the more willing applicants were to adopt an older child, the less likely they were to actually adopt. As counter-intuitive as it sounds, applicants who agreed to consider adopting a child eight years of age and older were less than half as likely to have had a child placed with them.

    Our conjecture is that families wanting to adopt an older child are more likely to have already raised children. For them, adoption may seem more like an option than a need. Those seeking to adopt younger children are more likely to do so because of infertility. Their stronger need to parent may make them more willing to withstand difficulties in the adoption process than those for whom adoption is optional.

Recommendations

Based on our analysis, we recommend the following to child welfare agencies:

  • In the beginning stages of the adoption process (initial contact, information meetings, and orientation) emphasize recruitment, not screening. Early in the process, the risk of alienating a potentially suitable parent far outweighs the risk of allowing an inappropriate parent to begin training. During this time, prospective parents should have clear, written guidelines about qualifications to adopt and grounds for being screened out.
  • Wherever possible, separate screening and training functions. There is an inherent conflict in parents' dealings with adoption workers. While most parents want to be open with their feelings when preparing to adopt a child, they are also aware that the adoption worker has the power to grant or deny a child's placement. Applicants have stressed the importance of having a strong personal connection with one agency worker. Agencies should look to other means of screening out, including clear written guidelines that allow families to self-screen.
  • Address 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. Agencies must treat the first contact in this context. The first person to speak with prospective parents should be professional staff with a background in counseling and specialized training in adoption.
  • Make sure prospective parents can reach the right person on the first try. To a waiting child, an adoptive parent is worth more than all the diamonds in the world. It is unconscionable when a prospective parent finds it difficult or impossible to reach the right person with her first phone call. Agencies should have a specialized adoption hotline where a well-trained and friendly individual can assure callers of a direct and immediate response.
  • At the outset, provide families with a clear, written road map of the adoption process. Parents expressed great confusion about the adoption processincluding the roles that different workers play, relationships between different agencies, and the sequential steps of the adoption process.
  • Provide parents with a more balanced perspective of waiting children. While agencies must present prospective parents with a realistic view of the challenges they will face, workers also need to remember that adoption is about hope. By bringing experienced adoptive parents into training early in the adoption process, prospective parents will be better able to understand the challenges and the rewards.
  • Develop a buddy system, outside the agency, to support parents during the adoption process. As one prospective parent put it, "This is a very impersonal process for a very personal thing." Given the financial strains under which public child welfare agencies now operate, it is unrealistic to expect agencies to personalize the experience.

    One way to bridge this gap is to pair prospects with experienced adoptive parents. Many applicants found adoptive parents' input enormously helpful during training. Such connections make the process more personal, give families a realistic view of adoption, and take some of the burden off overworked agency staff.

Conclusion

Through this study, we have learned much about why one person decides to provide a permanent, loving home for a waiting child, while another turns away in disappointment and frustration. The study also reinforces something I learned during 10 years of recruiting families to adopt from foster care. Getting motivated people to make the first phone call is not our primary challenge. Our primary challenge is to create a system that welcomes and nurtures prospective parents as they embark on the exciting but scary road to adoption. By listening to parents, and acting on their advice, we can make that road much smoother and locate families for every waiting child.

 


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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