Preserving Adoption Support Programs: Parents Can Make a Difference
According to a January 24, 2008 Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) report, more than 25 states are anticipating budget problems and 17 are already projecting a combined shortfall of $31 billion in fiscal 2009. Things will get worse before they get better. Programs that serve foster children and adopted children with special needs are at risk of losing funding along with many other social services and programs. It is never too late to start organizing groups of concerned parents to bring children’s needs to the forefront and preserve important services. You must get organized as soon as possible to prevent hurtful cuts from being made.
Since fall 2002, a number of states have cut back on much needed resources and services through their adoption assistance programs. In response to tough economic times, state administrations and legislatures are making cuts to programs that serve adopted children with special needs. So far in 2008, Maine proposed 30 percent cuts to adoption assistance rates, and California’s Governor proposed 10 percent cuts to adoption assistance, kinship care, and 5 percent cuts to foster care rates. Parents in California were successful at the legislature in beating back these changes, but additional cuts are being proposed for the future. These are but a handful of states that have made changes.
As a result, parents need to organize themselves quickly to respond to the changes. Part I lists steps you can take today to begin advocating on behalf of children in your state. Part II outlines how parents can effect long-term change.
Part I Responding to an Immediate Cut
If you learn that your state is proposing damaging cuts to programs that serve children with special needs, you can take a number of steps:
First, start by obtaining a copy of and thoroughly reading the proposed change(s). Parents who want to make a difference must have access to accurate information. Information equals the power base between the bureaucracy and parents who often think of themselves as powerless. Also, find out if your legislature has a web site that posts copies of House and Senate bills. Contact your elected officials for information. Ask questions about what the proposal means and how it will impact children in your state.
Second, contact other parents in leadership rolesofficers in your local parent group or your states foster and adoptive parent association. Find out what they know and if other groups are also concerned. Ask foster and adoptive parents to read the proposed changes and talk about how it will effect children in your state.
Third, get on an e-mail list serv or subscribe to a weekly publication that highlights pending legislation or upcoming committee meetings.
Fourth, call your elected officials and ask questions about the bill. As a constituent, you have the right to talk to and meet with your legislators. Ask what committees the bill will be heard in, who chairs the committees, and the timeline for the bill. Find out who is sponsoring the legislation (authors and co-authors) and try to learn why the legislator(s) is carrying the bill. Is it a single bill or part of a larger budget bill?
Finally, feel free to contact NACAC at 800-470-6665 or firstname.lastname@example.org. We may have information to share about the changes, and can connect you with other parents in your area.
If you just learned of a proposed change, you likely do not have much time to coordinate a large-scale advocacy effort. (This is covered in Part II). You can, however, start calling every foster, adoptive, and kinship family you know and try to obtain as many parent mailing lists that you can. Consider asking parents to create phone trees in order to reach as many families as possible. Ask a worker from your agency who might be sympathetic to your cause to notify her parents or suggest names of other families who would be impacted by the proposed change.
When you contact your legislators, consider the following tips (in order of importance):
- Personal visits in the legislators home district are the most powerful way of connecting with your elected officials.
- Personal visits with your legislators at their state capitol offices are important.
- Telephone calls are a good way to discuss issues.
- Hand-written notes show that you took the time to share your concerns.
- E-mails are less effective since legislators receive hundreds each week.
Remember, each person prefers a different communication style, so using multiple strategies is effective.
If you have enough time, think about organizing an event at your capitol complex. If you can coordinate a family rally on the day a bill is being heard in a particular committee and invite the radio, television, and print media, you may be able to create public interest in your issue.
Overall, when a proposed bill or rule change is introduced, parents rarely have the luxury of time on their side. Legislative or administrative time lines are set to suit policy makers, not constituents. So you must act quickly and find as many concerned, like-minded individuals who will actively advocate for your issue.
(See Part II for ways to affect larger-scale change in your state.)
When you begin your advocacy journey, be sure to keep a few tools in your toolbox. Below are the basic resources you need.
- A copy of the proposed House or Senate Bill or the draft of the new administrative rule.
- State laws, policy manuals, and rules pertaining to post adoption assistance, as well as your Title IV-E State Plan.
- Social Security Act at 42 U.S.C. § 673 (Adoption Assistance Program)
- Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)
- HHSs Child Welfare Policy Manual (http://www.acf.hhs.gov/j2ee/programs/cb/laws_policies/laws/cwpm/index.jsp).
- Forever Families: A Policy Analysis of Adoption Subsidy Programs in the U.S. NACAC. St. Paul, MN, 2002.
- Achieving Permanency for Every Child: The Effective Use of Adoption Subsidies. NACAC. St. Paul, MN, 1996.
- NACACs state adoption assistance profiles.
Part II Plan For The Future
Successful advocacy efforts are thoughtfully planned and coordinated, and involve the collaborative efforts of numerous foster and adoptive parents. Sometimes it can take several years to make important changes on behalf of children with special needs. Below are ideas for planning a successful long-term campaign.
Whats Your Goal?
Before doing anything, you and other parents must decide what you want to see changed and craft your intended message. Ask yourselves the following questions: Are we going to focus on preserving post-adoption support in our state? Are we focused on maintaining monthly payments or concentrating on services to children, or both? Do we want to broadly educate policy makers because there are so many new legislators? Will we have a joint message involving foster care and adoption? What about kinship care?
Once you decide what you want to do, you need to bring others on board to help you reach your goal(s).
Build a Coalition
If you plan to make changes to your states administrative rules or push for a new law, you will need to reach out to other organizations or groups that might be sympathetic to your cause. An essential part of your success will depend on how well you can organize these groups of people.
If the proposed change would affect children throughout your state, consider contacting other interested stakeholders. Look for organizations that support children, such as private religious or secular agencies; specialty agencies; statewide foster and adoptive parent associations; regional childrens advocacy organizations; adoptive or foster parent support groups; an association of retired citizens; school or community groups; faith-based organizations; state or local kinship or grandparent groups; or childrens mental health advocacy groups. Try to think outside the box when brainstorming possible partners.
Ask if these groups would be interested in joining forces and participating in a coalition for children. Maybe they would be willing to send out a mailing to their families. Do they have their parents on e-mail? Begin gathering names and contact information for use now and in the future. Ask local agencies if you could have access to a list serv of social workers in your state. Often, workers will share information with their parents, even if they are not able to actively support an advocacy effort.
When NACAC worked to educate state legislators about children with special needs, we found eight other organizations that would lend their name to the cause. Nine organizations listed on a project specific letterhead are considerably more powerful than one. You may not agree on all aspects of child welfare, but if you can put your differences aside and focus on certain identified goals, you may achieve them.
One important, but difficult task is to recruit members that represent different views. Although it is less stressful to surround yourself with folks who think as you do, you are likely to accomplish more if you include members who have diverse opinions. One very successful strategy is to find foster or adoptive parents who can give you an insiders view to all active political parties. They can help your group expand its thinking, suggest different ideas, secure a private meeting with key legislators, and keep your efforts balanced. Keep in mind that adoption is supported by Democrats, Republicans, and Independents alike.
Redefining Your Goals
Once you bring your partner organizations on board, you should take time to discuss your goals, redefine them if necessary, or identify new priorities. When NACAC brought on eight other partners, we all needed to give and take so that all organizations felt valued and took ownership of our combined efforts. NACAC wanted to highlight adoption subsidy issues, and the Minnesota Foster Care Association was interested in developing a Foster Parent Bill of Rights. Be prepared to compromise in order to ensure positive results overall. Its worth it!
Partner with the Agency
Parents should think seriously about working with the state agency. Too often, we think of the agency as naturally at odds with our cause. However, the benefits of tapping the resources of the agency are immeasurable. Staff can work behind the scenes on behalf of parents by funneling time-sensitive information to you, providing data, and notifying you of upcoming proposed legislation. In return, your members can advocate for positive changes for children that staff at the agency cannot do due to their formal position within the executive branch of government.
Gather Your Data
Before you can be an effective voice for children, you must find data on your system of care. Such as:
- Who are the children? What are their needs?
- What is the average age of a foster child or average age at which children get adopted?
- How many children are in foster care, adoption, and kinship care?
- What is the basic and difficulty of care rates for foster children? For children receiving adoption assistance?
- What is the average cost per child in foster care in your state?
- If your state is county run, attempt to get county breakdowns for costs and number of children.
- Who pays for foster care and adoption subsidy? (state-only dollars or is there a county share)
Obviously, parents will more easily obtain this information if they have a contact person at their state agency. Assign someone from your group to serve as a liaison. In many cases, agency staff are also child advocates who will want to assist you.
Know the Key Players
When you are working on a state law change, familiarize yourself with the key committees to which your bill may likely be assigned (i.e., Health and Human Services Policy and/or Budget Committees). Do you have allies on the committees? Scan the committee list for legislators you know support child and family issues. Check for foster, adoptive, or kinship parents who live in the districts held by these members. Set a meeting with the committee chairs or key members (prior to the legislative session, if possible) to talk about concerns and your issues.
Create a Database
A helpful way to keep track of all of your volunteers and legislators is to create a database. Depending on your needs and software available, create a database that lists each legislator, including home and office addresses, phone, fax, e-mail, district, committees assigned, leadership positions, party, chamber, number of terms served, and a field for comments or notes. You can create another database including similar information on your volunteers. Then, you can sort the databases to pair certain volunteers with key members of legislative committees, for instance. It takes time to create and is a bit sophisticated to develop, but it is an effective tool for organizing volunteers and contacting legislators.
Divide and Conquer
Your advocacy success depends on people power. You must delegate responsibility to other volunteers and form committees to tackle different tasks. Word of advice: Asking for volunteers may fall on deaf ears when you make a general announcement at a meeting. Instead, talk to people individually before your meeting. Your members want to feel important and needed. Asking someone personally and discussing how her special talents will advance the goals of your group will go a long way to developing a committed volunteer. Remember to acknowledge the work of all volunteers, no matter how small their task. This will go a long way to making folks feel useful and special, especially since advocacy is often a multi-year process, and you will likely need their help again.
Your group may want to use one or more of the ideas listed below to educate legislators. You might consider undertaking several of these strategiesone this year, one next year. Above all, you need to make the childrens needs come alive to decision makers.
Choose A Strategy
Educating policy makers and the general public about foster and adoptive children and their unique needs must be part of your advocacy strategy. Below are ideas that parents and parent groups have shared with us.
Foster Doll Project
This project is based on a truly brilliant, yet simple idea of putting used dolls in the hands of each legislator. Nevada was the first state to try it, but others have taken on the campaign (Alabama, Kansas, and Minnesota). Legislators become the dolls de facto foster parent for a specified period of time. In Minnesota, NACAC and our partners gave each doll a name, life story, and placement folder, dropped the dolls off in baby strollers and wagons, and had volunteers make regular visits to the legislators to check up on the dolls. During the 12-week educational campaign, NACAC and our partners spent half the time educating legislators about foster care and half on adoption. We sent poetry and valentines from actual foster and adopted children, data on foster care and adoption statistics and rates, number of children in the counties represented by the legislators, and more.
Alabama experienced multi-year payoffs after delivering dolls to legislatorsrate increases, positive media coverage, and the respect of some key policy makers.
Legislative Open Houses
If you have ever tried to talk to policy makers during a legislative session, you know that it is difficult to get an appointment, and even more difficult to get their attention. Consider hosting an open house when your elected officials are not in session and have more time. Invite six to twelve foster, adoptive, or kinship parents from your voting district to your home for refreshments and have parents share their family stories with legislators. This setting is more intimate, offers more time to talk about issues, and allows policy makers to see constituents in their home district. It gives you an opportunity to really get to know your officials, and when a bill comes up in the next legislative session, youve already established a personal relationship. Your state foster and adoptive parent association may want to coordinate these open houses statewide.
Parent Day at the Legislature
Consider organizing a day at the capitol for foster and adoptive parents if you want to involve parents and make them feel part of the legislative process. Also, you can coordinate a family rally at the capitol and have parents and youth tell their stories. Be sure to have parents schedule meetings with their legislators in advance of the event, rather than just showing up and being disappointed when the elected official is busy when parents come calling.
Letter Writing Campaigns
Legislators need to hear from their constituents. They have more time and attention outside of a legislative session, so consider sending a hand-written letter when its not so busy. Follow up with a phone call, and you can establish a relationship with your elected official when he or she has time to really listen to your needs. If you are in the midst of a legislative session and a bill comes up, you could organize a letter writing or phone campaign of foster and adoptive parents. The more responses legislators receive, the more likely they will be to hear your views.
Creative Visual Displays
Consider colorful displays to draw attention to the needs of foster and adopted children. Parent groups have collected shoes and teddy bears to represent the number of children in state care. In Australia, parents at a conference luncheon were asked to write the names of each child who had lived in their homes on separate five-inch cut outs, similar in size to ginger bread cookies. Different paper colors were used to represent foster, adoptive, kinship, and biological children. The paper cut outs were then taped together hand-to-hand and hung throughout the ballroom for an evening event with politicians. It created a powerful visual display!
You could create a similar display at the capitol during the legislative session or at a conference of social workers. One parent suggested using larger cardboard cut outs attached to painting stir sticks to be placed on the grass of the capitol or department of social servicesone for each child in state care. These colorful, unique displays will draw attention to the needs of children in care.
Use the Media
An effective way to increase public awareness of the needs of our children is by tapping into local media outlets. Consider television, radio, or print media depending on your specific goals. If you are coordinating an event with colorful balloons and groups of people, think about using a local television station that highlights family and childrens issues. Try to determine if any of your local news anchors or reporters have a connection to foster care or adoption. If a proposed rule is being debated, think about scheduling a radio interview with a spokesperson from your group.
When you consider print media, think beyond the traditional mainstream newspapers. Many community newspapers are willing to give you article space and (given limited resources) are eager to receive pre-written articles. Search for those serving communities of color, the elderly, or disabled individuals. Ask about submitting an article to e-newsletters as they are becoming more popular.
Shopping Mall Displays
If you want to make the public aware of the needs of foster children and adopted children with special needs, contact your local mall. Most shopping malls coordinate displays on a regular basis, and would encourage parents to set up their display. You might choose to display the cardboard cut outs (described above in #5) or the foster dolls (described above in #1), while volunteers were available to distribute materials and talk to interested mall walkers about the needs of foster care and adoptive children in your community.
Brown Bag Lunches
Do you live in a community with a large employer or manufacturer? Make connections with the organization to see if their employees might be interested in having a brown bag lunch with local parent group members who could talk about foster care or adoption issues.
Events at Grocery Stores
Everyone has to eat, so think about ways that your group could display materials a specific Saturday at the local grocery store. Would the store manager be willing to let your members volunteer to bag groceries for customers? This would give parents an opportunity to stuff a flyer in the customers bag and answer questions about foster care and adoption at the same time. Ask how your group could get the manager to advertise an upcoming event on the stores paper bag.
National Foster Care Month or National Adoption Month
The month of May is National Foster Care Month and National Adoption Month is celebrated in November each year. Consider employing one of the advocacy strategies listed above during one of these two months of the year.
For more information, contact NACAC's Adoption Subsidy Resource Center at 800-470-6665, 651-644-3036, or e-mail at email@example.com.
The Center is funded in part by the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption.