Matching Party Connections Can Lead to Placements
from Summer 2000 Adoptalk
by Marie Zemler
When Careyn Moore helped Roy, a small boy with a shaved head and a bright smile, create a paper bag puppet at a FunFest party in September 1999, they connected immediately. Careyn and her husband Tom watched Roy and his older brother Kurt play together all afternoon at the festival--an adoption matching party sponsored by Aid to Adoption of Special Kids of Arizona (AASK-AZ). As the couple drove home, they asked themselves, "Did we just meet our kids?"
The Moores encountered discouragement when they first talked about their plans to adopt children with special needs, ranging from what Careyn describes as a "bad rap in the media" to the "frightening" stories that well-meaning neighbors used to dissuade them. Nonetheless, they decided to adopt siblings who had passed infancy, and envisioned sisters aged two to five.
But AASK's matching party changed everything. As Careyn explains, "It was an interesting dynamic--we always paid the most attention to boys! ...After the FunFest, the mystery of adopting older children was gone. It took the fear away and we could relax." By mid-December, Tom and Careyn were the proud parents of Kurt and Roy, ages eight and six.
Cheryl Pilon, AASK's director of recruitment, was initially skeptical that matching parties served childrens best interests. However, AASK found that the events "unzip the monster suit"--when prospective parents interact with waiting children, they see past labels, diagnoses, and case histories that mask unique personalities.
Since March 1999, the agency has coordinated eight FunFests--one every other month--and more than 80 percent of the children at the parties have received at least one inquiry as a result. Kurt and Roy are two of 26 children who have been placed into adoptive families, and the first FunFest adoption was recently finalized.
AASK's staff have worked hard to structure FunFests to protect childrens safety and dignity. To spare the children feelings of anxiety or pressure, workers frame the event as a party for foster children. The explanation is true, as the 30 to 40 children who attend participate in arts, crafts, and games; watch performers; and eat snacks. For siblings who live in separate foster homes and come together at a FunFest, the day is indeed a celebration.
Events are typically organized around a theme, like springtime or the circus. AASK is careful, however, to select themes that are inclusive to everyone, regardless of their religious backgrounds. Children at the party--all of whom are waiting for adoption--are typically ages 6 to 12, and come from counties across Arizona. More than half are part of a sibling group.
When children first arrive at the event, they don name tags and have their photo taken. Children are then organized into groups of three or four, with siblings together, and assigned to a "child guide" volunteer. The child guide, who is a caseworker or someone familiar with children who have special needs, leads the group around the series of activity stations.
Every 10 minutes the children switch from obstacle courses to card games to balloon animals to lifebook pages. Some activities correspond to the FunFest theme--a springtime party might include planting seeds and painting flower pots--while other popular activities, such as cookie decorating and face painting, are always included.
At each activity station, a few of the 50 certified prospective adoptive parents there greet the children and help them with the activity. As the children rotate through the stations, parents have an opportunity to interact with every child present. At the end, all the parents and children come together for a shared group activity, such as a watching a clown or magician.
Before they can interact with the children, parents are strictly advised about appropriate topics to discuss. A "do and dont" list (see below) accompanies the initial invitations, warning parents that while talking and playing with individual children are appropriate, making promises about adoption or asking why they are in foster care is not. An hour before the party, parents review the guidelines and sign a promise to follow them. Parents are also encouraged to talk with each other and staff about the party, what to expect, and how they are feeling. Emphasizing the rules seems to pay off; Pilon recalls only one time when she had to reproach prospective parents about a disrespectful comment to a child.
Party DOs and DONTs
- DO sign in and wear your name tag.
- DO have fun and talk with all the children.
- DO play with the children.
- DO talk about school, TV shows, foods, pets, and other favorites in an appropriate manner.
- DO compliment and praise the children.
- DO encourage the children to participate and ask if you can help with the activity.
- DO stay for the mandatory debriefing and talk with staff about your interest in specific children.
- DONT talk about adoption.
- DONT ask a child if he or she wants to be adopted by you or anyone else.
- DONT ask a child why he or she is in foster care.
- DONT make any promises to a child.
A mandatory debriefing session follows the event. Prospective parents review more detailed information about the histories, interests, and needs of the children they just met, then note their interest in any particular children.
Careyn Moore praises the AASK staff for their approach to FunFest, noting that during the debriefing and over the following months, "They were very honest. They never just told us what we wanted to hear." The Moores understand and accept that after the instability of moves through four families, their boys have significant emotional needs, and their family will likely face ongoing challenges. Nonetheless, Careyn is thankful that "the kids were real first, then the paperwork came afterwards."
After more than a year of FunFests, Pilon is relieved that coordinating the events is down to a science (see chart below). Funding for each $3,500 event costs comes from AASKs general recruiting budget, but is largely offset by in-kind donations--meals from Wendys and pizza parlors, event space from community centers, art supplies from craft stores, etc. AASK invites children and families from their agency and others without asking parents to pay any of the costs.
Along the way, AASK staff have learned lessons about FunFests. In early events, corporations volunteered their employees as "child guides." Now, only those accustomed to foster childrens needs work closely with the children. An activity called "kids prints," in which an adult traced around a child on a sheet of paper has been eliminated as potentially too traumatic for children who may have been sexually abused.
All in all, the events have gone very smoothly. AASK now maintains a waiting list for parents, because so many crave the opportunity to attend. Nonetheless, AASK continues to seek improvements--for instance, making the events more inclusive to older children and those with severe physical disabilities or medical needs.
Kurt and Roy's caseworker recently confessed that, up until the day she drove the boys two hours from their foster home in rural Arizona to the FunFest, she was doubtful they would ever find an adoptive family. If matching had depended upon only traditional paper presentations, she may have been right. Although the boys are not the age or gender that Tom and Careyn set out to adopt, they thank FunFest for the fact that "everything fell into place."
Procedures and Protocol for Matching Parties
by Cheryl Pilon, director of recruitment at Aid to Adoption of Special Kids in Arizona, with valuable input from child welfare consultant and trainer Denise Goodman
- Select a site. Choose an environment that protects childrens confidentiality and is not open to the general public. A church hall, school gymnasium, or private park can work well as long as there are separate areas for child and family registrations.
- Designate a family coordinator and a child coordinator. Choose one person to prepare and distribute invitations to about 50 families, maintain family registrations, and coordinate event check-in. Select another person to invite caseworkers of children ages 5 to 12, maintain child registrations, and coordinate check-in at the event. This person is also responsible for making caseworkers and chaperones aware of the "do and dont" guidelines. About 30 to 40 children should attend.
- Solicit volunteers. Locate 15 to 20 volunteers to set up activities, register children and families, guide children through the stations, and clean up. Volunteers must understand the childrens special needs, so caseworkers or foster/adoptive parents are ideal. They must know the "do and dont" guidelines and enforce confidentiality.
- Prepare activity stations. Choose activities for 10 stations and purchase needed materials. Before the children and families arrive, set up the stations.
- Register and prepare families. An hour before the children arrive, check families in, distribute name tags, assign activity stations, review rules, and repeat "do and dont" guidelines. Encourage families to relax and have fun.
- Register children. Check children in. Name tags should include their first name and identify siblings. Take a photo to use at a lifebook activity station, assign children to their guide, and engage kids with an informal activity until everyone is registered.
- Rotate activity stations. Designate a timekeeper who will play music every 10 minutes to signal that children should move to the next activity station. Child guides are responsible for keeping the children moving.
- Include a group activity. Activities like story telling, clown shows, limbo dances, hokey pokey, or Simon Says provide an extra opportunity for families and children to interact. A lunch or snack can be included at this time.
- Debrief families. After the children leave, let prospective parents learn more about the children they felt connected to. Provide child profiles with non-identifying information. Ask the families to complete an evaluation form and thank them for participating.
- Respond to inquiries promptly. Pass news about which families were interested in which children both to the families and childrens caseworkers as soon as possible after the event.