Teens Can Help Find Families
from Fall 2004 Adoptalk
by Diane Riggs
Released in January 2004, findings from the Successful Adolescent Adoptions study (1) indicate that teens need a voice in the adoption process. Examples of youth participation in case planning abound, such as Oregon's youth decision meetings about education and housing. But for many teens, the greatest benefit comes from playing an active role in finding permanent adult connections before they leave foster care, social workers, and child welfare supports behind.
Why Include Teens in Planning?
The adolescent adoption study sheds a clear light on why teens must be involved in permanency planning. For one thing, when they get to know adults who have an interest in their future, teens tend to become more receptive to the idea of adoption. Mentoring programs offer chances for such a connection, as do panel discussions between prospective adopters and waiting youth. In that way, as the adoption study recommends, teens and adults can consent to adoption after they have formed a connection.
In addition, allowing teens to be involved may promote a higher level of trust between the teen and her worker. Trust, in turn, may help the teen to take a greater leap of faith with a new family. If we truly want teens to accept yet another family and move, we must help them to understand their options and empower them to play a role in shaping their destiny.
Teens can also be a tremendous asset in the search for a family. Quite obviously teens know which people are important to them, and what they want. They also have definite opinions about how they wish to appear to others; when a teen has some control over recruitment materials, prospective adopters get a better sense of the teen's true personality.
Teens who do not find permanence are emancipatedoften into a world for which they are not adequately prepared. A recent Washington State study of youth who aged out of foster care found that within 12 months of exiting care, less than half of the youth were employed, and those who had a job made poverty-level wages. One-third of the young adults were enrolled in at least one public assistance program, and 13 percent had been homeless at some point since leaving care. (2)
How to Involve Teens
Just as teens differ, so too should their role in permanency planning. Involvement may simply mean being regularly clued in about efforts made on their behalf. It might consist of learning how to accept a new family, taking part in recruitment activities, or having the support to seek and select a permanent family.
Kids who enter care at an older age, for instance, know more about birth relatives and connections before foster care than children who came into care as infants or toddlers. Adolescent adoption specialists have long encouraged workers to comb through case files for resources identified in the youth's past. To make the search more fruitful, go through files with the teen. Ask her to think of relatives or other important adults who might not have been considered or may not be in the files.
Below are other strategies that five different agencies have used to keep teens engaged in planning for their future and connecting with a permanent family.
Harlem Dowling West Side Center for Children and Family ServicesBased in Harlem, New York, Harlem Dowling is contracted by New York City's Administration for Children's Services to provide foster care, adoption, and independent living services. In 2003, the agency enhanced its focus on permanence for older children and launched Adoption Option for Teens.
Under the new program, Harlem Dowling youth attend presentations by young people who have been adopted and parents who have adopted or are considering adopting teens. Youth, naturally leery of adoption, interact directly with panel members and can see and hear for themselves what other teens think about permanenceinput that may pique their interest in having a permanent family.
After one parent presentation, a Harlem Dowling youth took the first step and asked a panelist for a home-cooked meal. The panelist invited the teenage girl to breakfast, a match ensued, and the placement is now permanent.
You Gotta Believe! The Older Child Adoption and Permanency Movement, Inc.Pat O'Brien and Chester Jackson head You Gotta Believe!, a self-described "homeless prevention program" devoted to finding families for teens and pre-teens. This agency creates opportunities for waiting youth to participate through its television and radio shows.
Airing weekly on cable access television, "Adopting Teens and 'Tweens" educates the general public about older child adoption. During select parent training classes that double as cable show segments, You Gotta Believe! invites agencieslike Harlem Dowlingto bring teens to meet prospective parents.
Chester Jackson also co-hosts a radio show Sunday nights on which he sometimes asks waiting youth to share their stories. Chester says that when teens appear to prospective families on television or radio, they magically become real three-dimensional people rather than generic ages, races, and genders. The youth also really appreciate having a chance to talk about their lives and hopes to an engaged audiencean experience that is all too rare for many.
Children's Services of Roxbury/Massachusetts Families for Kids (FFK)Run statewide, the Lifelong Family Connections (LFC) project strives to establish enduring family ties for Massachusetts youth ages 14 to 18 who are in foster or residential careregardless of their service plan goals. The goal is to make certain teens do not age out of care without the ongoing support of a family. As the project is designed, the teens play a pivotal role in directing their futures:
- Staff work with teens to help them understand the importance of permanence, and encourage them to explore their network of adult connections, past and present, relative and non-relative.
- Based on identified connections, teens choose people for their Family Consultation Teama group that works with the teen to investigate placement options and write a Youth-Specific Permanency Plan. The team then monitors progress and offers support as the teen moves ahead with the plan.
- For teens whose connections yield little hope of permanence, workers help youth to identify potential connections related to their strengths, interests, talents, and career goals.
- Teens also receive support and mentoring from members of the Massachusetts FFK Speak Out Teama group of young people ages 12 to 35 who have been in foster care or are adopted, and who raise awareness about foster care and adoption through public speaking.
Adopt Cuyahoga's KidsA collaboration of Cuyahoga County's Department of Children and Family Services and 13 area agencies, Adopt Cuyahoga's Kids began in January 2004 to find permanent placements for 656 county youth ages 10 to 17. Adoption Network Clevelandthe lead agencywas hopeful that cooperation between public and private agencies and a regimen of child-centered recruitment would make a difference for the youth.
As one Cuyahoga worker learned, however, the way in which workers approach kids can sabotage their interest in permanent families. For one thing, "adoption" is a negatively charged word for many teens that evokes images of forcibly severing all ties with past families. "I am finding," reports the worker, "that I must change my approach and talk to youth about their future, and what family means to them, rather than talking about adoption."
To jump-start recruitment efforts and engage youth, Adopt Cuyahoga's Kids staff visit each waiting youth four times in the first two months. At visits, staff gather information about the youth's birth family, medical and social history, and the adult connections in each child's life.
Next come permanency planning team meetings (with the youth, foster and birth families, and anyone else the teen identifies), inquiries to potential connections for the youth, and continuing discussions to help youth express their feelings about the process. For older teens who may age out or return to birth families, the project recruits "permanency champions"adults to mentor youth and support their transition into a family or adulthood.
Three Rivers Adoption CouncilIn Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Three Rivers Adoption Council (TRAC) is recruiting families for older children and teens with modern technology. Taking advantage of teenagers' interest in computers, Three Rivers staff work with teens to develop their own Power Point slide shows. The finished presentations are posted as individual web pages on TRAC's web site (www.3riversadopt.org).
Originally envisioned as a recruitment activity, the process of developing the slide shows has turned into a valuable preparation tool as well. TRAC staff who work with the teens have found that the process often uncovers issues the youth need to address before moving to new families. Teens also benefit from the extra attention and fun they have pulling the slide shows together.
To make the process youth friendly, staff:
- develop the presentations on the teens' turf. Staff bring a laptop to each teen's home. Within reasonable guidelines (no profanity or violent images, for example), the teens have 10 slides on which to express who they are. Teens can work directly on the computer or dictate ideas to the staff person.
- help teens control and see results of their work quickly. In addition to the laptop, staff bring digital cameras to photograph the teens doing whatever they want. By hooking the camera to the computer, images can be added to the show on the spot.
- make time to get to know each teen. Though developing the presentations has taken longer than expected, staff appreciate that the more time they spend with teens at home, the easier it is for the teens to develop a positive and trusting relationship with them. Staff, in turn, learn more about the teens and can better inform prospective families.
When it comes to teen participation, outcomes are both concrete and more subjective. On the concrete side:
- Of the 100 plus Harlem Dowling youth served in the past year, three have been adopted, 10 are in the process of being adopted, 30 are planning to return to their birth families, and the rest are actively learning independent living skills while hoping for permanence.
- Between January and this summer, 8 of the 12 TRAC youth with online presentations had been matched with permanent families. One of the teens was a high school graduate.
- By September, Adopt Cuyahoga's Kids had placed more than 81 older children and teens for adoption and completed initial assessments for 220 youth.
More subjectively, staff who have worked directly alongside teens to recruit families and prepare the teens for adoption have received very positive feedback. Youth involved in the Lifelong Family Connections program, for instance, have made comments like:
"This is the first time anyone ever asked me what I want."
"I finally feel like someone cares about what happens to me."
To make it through the challenges of transitioning to adulthood and self-sufficiency, teens truly need a sense of control over their future and the certain knowledge that someone cares about them. Recruitment efforts that put teens in the driver's seat are a good way to help youth gain the confidence to step forward into a permanent family and move toward a more secure future.
(1)Conducted by the Center for Child and Family Studies at the University of South Carolina, the Successful Adolescent Adoptions study analyzes feedback from youth adopted as teens and their adoptive parents. The final report is available at www.sc.edu/ccfs/research/fullfinalreport.pdf.
(2) The Foster Youth Transition to Independence Study was published by Washington State's Office of Children's Administration Research. The final report is at www1.dshs.wa.gov/pdf/ca/FYTfinal2004.pdf.