Operating a Warm Line
As we all know, families feel most comfortable learning about the adoption process by talking with a person who has walked in their shoes (e.g., filed the papers, completed the home study, dealt with a National Exchange or Adoption Desk). Parent groups throughout North America have developed creative ways to bring families together and share their knowledge and advice. In this section, we highlight a unique and successful method ó telephone help lines, or more affectionately known as warm lines.
In Ohio, the Dayton Area Minority Adoptive Parent (DAMAP) group established a toll-free adoption information hotline to provide answers to questions from families interested in and going through the adoption process. The Open Door Society (ODS) of Los Angeles has operated a similar warm line since April 1982. Typical questions that parent volunteers handle include:
- How do I become a foster parent?
- How do we start the adoption process?
- Is my child eligible for an adoption subsidy?
- What are the public and private agencies in my area?
- What are the resources in our area?
- Are there any therapists in my area that understand adoption issues?
- Your parent group may find that its most valuable service to prospective and adoptive families in the community is this type of one-on-one information exchange. If you choose to develop a warm line, we suggest tackling the workload in five steps: planning; resources; training; publicity; and evaluation.
Planning/Conceptualizing Your Line
- Gain the commitment of your members You don't need to have a hundred people answering calls. In fact, the ODS of Los Angeles staffed its line with two volunteers for the first six years. However, you do need reliable volunteers.
- Determine the extent of your calling area Is it realistic for a group of your size to serve the entire city? county? state? province?
- Determine the type of services your group will provide Is your group comfortable providing referral information over the phone? Mailing fact sheets to interested callers? Handling crisis calls?
- Set realistic hours Business hours (8-5 p.m.); evening hours only; 24 hours each day. Consider the schedules of your volunteers as well as your target population (working families).
- Choose an appropriate telephone system Will you use an answering machine; a toll-free number; or a rolling ringer system so one person can turn the phone line off and the calls will roll to the next designated home.
- Determine a policy of confidentiality It is essential for your group to set this type of policy before you take any calls.
The director or coordinator of your warm line should compile as much information on adoption, foster care, and the child welfare system as possible. People answering the hotline must know agency roles, services, policies, and practices. The more information on policies, procedures, contacts, and general facts that is included, the more useful your hotline will be to callers.
You may find it helpful to meet with contact people at local public and private agencies, as well as court liaisons and attorneys. Ask these individuals what information would be most useful to foster, adoptive, and pre-adoptive families. Individuals from public agencies may supply your group with copies of relevant fact sheets for distribution.
The director/coordinator may also find it beneficial to attend trainings and orientation sessions, or review handbooks, etc. to become familiar with all phases of foster care and adoption. It is important to gain a basic knowledge of the issues, general practices, options, and experts.
Finally, your director/coordinator should develop working relationships with other parent groups, nonprofit organizations, and advocacy groups in your community. Becoming aware of other organizations in your area is the first step toward networking and building strong connections with groups with similar interests, members, and mission statements. Building a strong relationship can be mutually beneficial.
The following is a partial list of resources that could be distributed via your warm line:
- Information on attorneys familiar with adoption finalization, as well as ways to obtain adoption assistance after the adoption is finalized;
- Details on local parent support groups;
- A list of contacts within local public agencies;
- A list of contacts within local private agencies;
- Information on adoption assistance/subsidy;
- Information specific to international adoptions (if applicable);
- A list of social service groups in your community;
- A list of local doctors and dentists that accept Medicaid (if applicable);
- Information on testing centers and home studies;
- Fact sheets on special needs (attachment, ADHD, FAS/FAE, abuse, neglect, etc.);
- National adoption resources; and
- Community resources (therapists, counselors, psychiatrists, etc.).
(NOTE: An easy way to organize the information for your volunteers is to develop facts sheets on a variety of commonly asked questions. The information can be filed in a three-ring Resource Book with a detailed table of contents. In this way, information can be easily updated and you can make multiple copies as needed.)
It is important to give volunteers complete and concise training on the information with which they will be dealing. There is nothing worse than having a person answering a hotline who is nervous or ill-prepared to handle serious questions. Neither the caller nor the volunteer will feel very good about the experience.
You can share information with volunteers in a number of ways. Once the initial Resource Book is compiled (as discussed above), the coordinator of the warm line can schedule a one-day orientation session (or several mini-trainings) to discuss the hotline material. Alternatively, you can help workers understand the material using case studies and role playing.
In addition, new staff can sit in on calls while they are being taken by a more experienced volunteer. Cases can then be discussed between calls in a more relaxed atmosphere. The director may also choose to have new staff members respond to calls by writing down the questions, finding the answers, and calling back the original caller. As volunteers become more experienced, they may handle routine calls, but may still hold more difficult or unique questions for the director to call back.
Warm Line Publicity
As you develop your telephone help line, be sure to consider alternative ways to let foster, adoptive, and pre-adoptive parents know about your services. By doing this, you can help build your membership base.
Although we believe the best form of publicity is by word of mouth, initially you and your colleagues will need to work diligently to get the word out. Consider the following methods:
- Put articles in community newspapers;
- Develop flyers to distribute in schools, local grocery stores, churches, and community centers;
- Meet with workers and administrators at local public and private agencies. Ask these individuals to refer parents to the warm line;
- Write 30 and 60 second public service announcements (PSAs) to be aired on local radio stations;
- Schedule speaking engagements with local community groups, such as Kiwanis and Rotary clubs, the United Way Board of Directors, religious organizations, etc.;
- Urge local personalities to discuss the hotline on community talk shows ó both radio and television;
- Be creative!
Most of us would agree that doing a job well is preferable to just doing a job! Therein lies the need to monitor the work that you do, and gain feedback from your customers.
There are many benefits of keeping track of the number, types, and frequency of calls that come into your hotline. Knowing the number of people and families you are impacting every year, as well as the types of questions asked:
- allows you to make a powerful case to potential funders based on actual statistics.
- lessens the load of hotline volunteers. Documenting cases in a "Frequent Questions" file allows calls to be addressed uniformly.
- helps measure your success by showing what you are doing well and where there is room for improvement.
In addition, it is quite helpful to monitor the types of calls that come into the hotline. You may find that your group is handling complicated calls that your volunteers are not skilled at answering. A certain degree of on-going training may be needed to address these issues
Think about and discuss the warm line project with your groupís leadership. Would a warm line be beneficial for your group?
If you think the project would be useful, consider your needs and resources. Are your members willing to donate the necessary time on an ongoing basis? Do you have the funding to pull off the project? the leadership?
If your group determines that the warm line project is not appropriate, where does your membership go for this type of support? Are there other community resources that provide similar assistance? What can your group do to direct your members to these services?