This article is from NACAC’s Starting and Nurturing Adoptive Parent Groups: A Guide for Leaders. Download the guide

As you decide to form a group, it can be helpful to look at different types of parent groups and examine how they function. Adoptive, foster, and kinship parents organize into groups because of a basic shared concern for children and families, but their focus can vary widely.

Types of Groups

The following framework describes the primary types of parent groups.

Frustration Venting Group

Adoptive, foster, and kinship parents know first hand the issues other parents face, the support needed to deal with a large bureaucratic system, and the challenges of parenting a child who has special needs. They also know how hard it can be to try to move forward with a foster placement, adoption, or to get services from their county or agency. Many foster and adoptive parents discover that they share similar concerns and questions about the child welfare system, such as:

  • Why does it take so long get a home study?
  • Why didn’t I receive complete information about my child?
  • Why doesn’t the agency seem to be sensitive to the needs of families of color?
  • Why are relatives overlooked as caregivers for children who need foster and adoptive homes?

Parents who join a frustration venting group are usually discouraged and irritated by the adoption and foster care systems. The size and power of these systems can be overwhelming, and therefore parents turn to each other to vent their frustrations and to offer each other support. They come together to more effectively achieve their individual objectives. The life span of a frustration venting group tends to be short because parents often leave such a group once their immediate and individual concerns are addressed, such as the finalization of an adoption or an allocation of money for respite care. As a result, turnover in this type of group is high.

Mutual Support Group

Mutual support groups typically form after adoptions are finalized or foster children are placed—often when parents of children with similar needs come together to share concerns and provide long-term support to one another. These groups help current or prospective adoptive and foster parents realize that their experiences are not unusual, affirm that they have valuable information to exchange, and share insights about parenting. The main focus of a support group is to encourage members in their day-to-day parenting and to provide a nurturing place for adoptive, foster, and kinship families to come for advice, sharing, and social activities with families like their own.

A support group grows by welcoming new members, but continues in its mission to focus on the social, emotional, and community needs of its membership. Many mutual support groups organize and offer telephone help lines for members to call when they need advice or help with a problem. Some groups have also developed buddy or mentor programs where they match an experienced parent with an inexperienced parent or group families of a similar make-up, such as families who have adopted sibling groups or medically fragile children.

Serving the Community at Any Level

Many parent groups find that identifying quality adoption-related resources is valuable for their members. This activity can begin as a simple support function and grow into a much broader service to parents and the community:

Creating a List of Resources

One group found a simple way to help families find local resources on adoption and special needs. Volunteers from the group went to the library and, with help from the local librarians, were able to create a list of all the available books, videos, journals, etc. on their topic. They typed up the list, with titles, authors’ names, and brief descriptions of each resource. The list is now available to everyone in the group.

Establishing a Lending Library

Another group that had a little more time and money developed its own adoption library. Members identified the must-have books, journals, newsletters, etc., and either purchased the items or requested free copies. The group then developed a list of resources by topics, and identified a method through which parents can borrow the materials they need.

Developing an Online Directory

At a higher level, a Pennsylvania parent group developed an extensive resource directory of other supportive services (therapists, agencies, other support groups, camps, and more). Group leaders then created an online directory where parents can click on their county name to see a list of resources sorted by type.

Service Group

As parent groups spend more time working with the child welfare system, they can begin to see that the system does not do everything possible to bring waiting children and waiting families together. Also, as parents raise their children, the need for services that address children’s special needs becomes clear. Members of service groups are often parents who want to provide meaningful services to adoptive and foster families. They form service groups to bridge the gap between the needs of adoptive and foster families and the offerings of the existing systems.

As parents themselves, members of service groups are able to identify needs and offer more comprehensive and appropriate services to families. Service groups may recruit foster and adoptive parents; write adoption education curriculum for schools; provide adoption awareness training for the community, school administrators, and teachers; and offer post-adoption training for parents and professionals.

Advocacy Group

Parent groups that initially form as or evolve into an advocacy group want to change the system to more effectively and respectfully meet the needs of children and families. The focus of an advocacy group is to seek social justice. They challenge the ways in which services are delivered to children and families. Lobbying for new laws, advocating for practice changes, and holding the system accountable for services to children and families are activities typical of advocacy groups. Many advocacy groups lobby for adopted children to receive post-adoption assistance and mental health services. Others seek changes that will find families for children more quickly. These groups focus on the bigger picture and are less involved in meeting their members’ individual social and emotional needs.

type of group reason for existence purpose program/services structure
Frustration Venting Group parents have a problem with the child welfare system enable parents to air problems, share frustrations, meet their short-term needs discussing what’s wrong with the system and how it affects family informal (no officers, few defined activities, parents often involved for only a short time)
Mutual Support Group parents need advice and resources from one another help families address adoption issues or children’s special needs; provide long-term emotional support social events, brainstorming solutions to challenges, sharing emotional support, validating adoption experience semi-formal (group may have officers, but not likely to be incorporated and has limited funding)
Service Group parents see way to fill gaps in family services provide helpful support services to families and/or children in the community offering workshops, printed resources, post-adoption services; recruiting prospective adopters formal (group has bylaws, nonprofit status, seeks grants or contracts)
Advocacy Group parents see problems in child welfare system and identify possible solutions change the child welfare system to better serve children and families in their local region, state/ province, or country working for policy and practice changes at local, provincial/ state, or national levels; educating policymakers and others about family needs formal (group has nonprofit status, seeks funds, has strategic plan, has broader membership and board representation than adoptive parents)

Evolution of Groups

Over time, some groups evolve in a linear fashion (as shown below), starting as a frustration venting group and eventually becoming an advocacy group.

Frustration Venting   »  Mutual Support   »  Service   »  Advocacy

Other groups don’t move in a linear way. Some groups may remain a mutual support group for their entire existence if that is their members’ goal. A group may start out as a frustration venting group, grow and evolve into a mutual support group and then a service group, lose members, and operate again as a mutual support group. Individual parent groups rarely operate at a single level. In fact, many operate at several levels at the same time. A group may provide a support function for new and prospective adoptive families, while they also advocate for systemic changes.

Every group decides what its purpose is and how it will serve families. As a group leader, your job is to make sure the group decides what its goals are and stays true to meeting those goals or grows—with foresight and planning—into a different type of group.

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