Sierra Forever Families’ Destination Family program finds and supports adoptive families for children in foster care. Without specialized permanency services such as this, many more youth would age out of the system without the support they need. With a focus much broader than recruitment, the Destination Family team wraps supports around children to prepare them for a family and, once a family is located, supports the family through to finalization.
Destination Family began as a public/ private collaboration, funded through an Adoption Opportunities grant that ran from 2003 to 2008. The program used evidence-based and -informed services to support children, find families, and support the permanent family. During the Adoption Opportunities grant, 136 youth (87 percent of the children served) were placed or found a family connection, including through adoption, guardianship, reunification with birth family, or other permanent connections or commitments.
There have been several reincarnations of the Destination Family program since the Adoption Opportunities grant ended, each growing in scope and success. Currently, the Destination Family team consists of seven specialized permanency workers, overseen and supported by a permanency supervisor. Of the seven, three are partially funded by outside grant sources, including two who are Wendy’s Wonderful Kids recruiters. Regardless of the funding source, the permanency workers follow a common methodology in youth preparation and recruitment.
Destination Family serves children in Sacramento County from birth to age 18 who have one or more identified barriers to adoption. Barriers include having emotional or developmental disabilities, being part of a large sibling group, being older, or having medical challenges. The program currently serves more than 100 youth at any time. Of those served, 99 percent have behaviors consistent with childhood trauma that affect their ability to connect with another family.
Relationship Development Matching
The Destination Family methodology is built on the foundation of the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption’s Wendy’s Wonderful Kids recruitment model. The model uses specific interrelated steps or tasks:
Initial child referral
Relationship-building with the child
Case record review
Assessment of the child’s adoption readiness
Matching and post-matching activities
When used consistently, this approach has been proven to dramatically increase positive permanency outcomes for children who have one or more barriers to adoption.
Recruitment is only step one of the process. Early on, Destination Family staff realized that it takes more than just a willing family and a child in need to achieve permanency. Many of the children and teens we worked with did not want anything to do with adoption or permanency. Grief and loss stemming from entry into foster care and negative experiences along the way left them unwilling to embrace the concept of adoption. In addition, most had behaviors that made them likely to struggle if they were placed in an unprepared home. It was evident that our first steps had to be to really get to know the youth and work with them to rebuild the disruption in their attachment patterns caused by the loss of their families of origin. These young people needed to learn to trust, and to develop a desire to be part of a family again.
In response, we developed the Relationship Development Matching model (RDM) to add to our recruitment efforts. This replicable model is designed to move a child in foster care from initial referral through to legal permanence with a loving family. Every case is individual and is treated as such. It is our job to find ways to help children heal and make sense of their journey, while simultaneously identifying, supporting, and preparing the right family. We believe that all children are inherently ready for a family—now—regardless of behavioral issues or special needs. Children heal best within the context of a safe and loving family and our goal is to help them get there.
Below are the steps we at Destination Family take to increase a child’s chance of finding a permanent family. In practice, the steps are not linear and often happen at the same time or multiple times.
- Initial Referral: Children are referred to our program by Sacramento County child protection services (CPS) staff. The assigned Destination Family permanency worker makes every effort to accompany the CPS worker on the visit. This allows us to begin the relationship with the youth and the foster family or caregiver. At this first meeting, we carefully define our role as a support to the CPS worker. Because we have no idea how the youth or foster family view permanency, we do not discuss moving the youth into an adoptive placement.
We often find youth or families aren’t on board with permanency. A young person might see adoption as a scary unknown they’d like to avoid. Some experienced foster parents may have had a past experience with workers who they feel may have moved too quickly to adoptive placement and as a result the child experienced painful disruption. We want to respect the youth’s and family’s view of permanency and, if necessary, begin to change it over time in the context of a consistent supportive relationship.
- Relationship-Building with the Child: Relationship is the core of everything we do. It provides vital information on understanding how the youth sees the world: what is their attachment style, what is their developmental level, and how do they understand their own story? These things tell us how to move forward. We visit at least once a month, and often more in the beginning. We spend the time to get to know the child’s strengths, interests, and needs. We take it slow, learning more about the child over time and never pushing too hard for deeper or more personal information. During the visits, we use elements of Family Attachment Narrative Therapy (FANT)(http://www.familyattachment.com/) as a guide to understanding the child’s relationship needs in a safe and respectful way. FANT was developed for use with adoptive parents and we modify the program to be more appropriate to our relationship with the child. For example, we use the third person perspective when dealing with tough issues or when gently probing distorted perceptions. This allows the child to consider an idea more abstractly (it’s about someone else, not them) without being put on the defensive or shutting down.
Assessing a child’s attachment style is an important part of what we do. For example, some children have indiscriminate attachment styles. Within 10 minutes, they love you and can’t wait to see you again. This tells us we will need to help them develop healthier boundaries. In finding potential permanency options, we will need a family that understands that despite what the child says, they will need time to really develop a safe and loving relationship. Other children are reluctant to engage. They may take more time to develop a level of trust with us and potential families. We respect that and may plan visits frequently, but for shorter periods of time.
Our goal is to develop a healthy relationship with the child and maximize opportunities to model for them, over time, how to be in such relationships.
Case Record Review: As we build the relationship, we are also beginning to develop a recruitment strategy. Using the CPS database, we can look up any digital file in their system. We also request all archived paper files. We go through files page by page, often finding random notes in the margin about people who voiced interest in the child over the years. We are also on the lookout for friends or family members who may have been ruled out. Sometimes we find that life situations have changed, or that what may have been an inappropriate placement for a 5-year-old may be more appropriate for a now 15-year-old.
The case record review also allows us to identify any unmet support needs, so we can work to have those needs met. To accomplish this, we use a life domain approach. When we are going through historical data, we are alert for any needs in medical, mental health, relationship, cultural, educational, or spiritual elements of the child’s life. For example, if we see repeated entries on court reports documenting academic challenges for the youth, we would look to see if the appropriate supports are in place. If they are not, we bring it to the CPS worker’s attention and work to establish necessary supports for the child now. By carefully addressing the child’s needs and supports across domains, we are also better able to understand and speak to the strengths, challenges, and ongoing needs of our youth.
In going through these records, we also put together crucial information for full disclosure with potential placements. The information we gather allows us to address the child’s experiences and need for ongoing support. We also identify and trace separated siblings and often re-establish some form of contact. Many times, youth are opposed to adoption because they see it as the reason why they lost contact with their brother or sister. By re-establishing contact, the youth can begin to move from seeing adoption as loss, to understanding it as an increase in people to love and be loved by.
- Network Building: With network building, we identify service providers past and present and determine current levels of support. We connect directly with each provider—from the foster care agency’s social worker to the teacher and therapist. We want to know what they are working on with the child and determine how they view the child’s strengths and challenges.
We have found that everyone has their own thoughts about adoption. Even when well-intentioned, any one of these support persons can undermine our efforts to achieve permanence. It helps for us to meet in person with them early in the process to explain what we do and why. This can create a supportive partnership and avoid miscommunication down the road. The extended network can also provide leads on potential supports or even potential families we would not otherwise have known about.
Adoption Assessment and Preparation: The adoption assessment is accomplished as we develop rapport with the youth. We listen carefully to what the child says about past and current placements. We generate conversations about future hopes and dreams. We begin to formulate an idea of the child’s willingness to move toward permanency while determining if and how we need to help the child develop an openness to the concept. This initial assessment provides the groundwork for our adoption preparation efforts.
Every time we visit a child, we have purpose and intent to help with adoption preparation. Sometimes this is as simple as playing “Guess Who Lives There.” While driving through neighborhoods we identify random houses. Each of us will take turns guessing what type of family lives in the home. From how the child identifies families, we learn what they like and what they don’t. We also learn about their preconceptions about people or lifestyles, and can determine if these are deeply held beliefs or just something they have heard. We then have a better idea of what might work well when we are looking for a permanent family. Games like this have proven much more informative than going down a list of family attributes and asking what type of family they want.
Recruitment Plan: We develop a Recruitment Plan for each child or sibling group—a written document of how we plan to proceed in finding permanence. This is a living document that can and does change regularly, and includes what has worked and what hasn’t.
- Diligent Search: We begin a diligent search by going through electronic and paper files looking for references to people who may have had a positive relationship with the child. Our goal is to find friends and relatives and determine if there has been follow up for placement or if they may be a possible support.
We also submit identifying information on the birth family to the Seneca Family of Agencies’ search professionals. Seneca has trained staff who use multiple search databases to provide a customized report containing comprehensive information. This report produces up to 30 years of address history, phone numbers, aliases, death notices, up to 30 possible relatives, up to 20 possible family connections, and neighbors with phone numbers.
From this list, we locate family members who are appropriate for further research. We send out generic letters of introduction to these individuals, inviting them to contact us. If they do, we arrange to meet them and thoroughly assess their interest in establishing or re-establishing a relationship with the youth.
We try to avoid directly asking the youth whom they want us to find, because this sets up an expectation that may not come to fruition and may feel like another rejection. We do a considerable amount of work behind the scenes before ever presenting any option to the child.
We do, however, get input from the youth by having them identify people they think about or have lost touch with. We do this in the context of normal conversation rather than an interview or questionnaire. We are constantly on alert for people they may bring up during activities. For instance, during a walk through a thrift shop, a teen might see a baking pan that triggers a memory of their godmother’s special cake. We can then gently ask more, and learn about the context as well as other individuals that may be related to that memory. This tactic often produces more results than a genogram would. It also helps us understand not only who is important to our youth, but what about that person made them special. This helps in defining the type of family a child might best gel with.
- Matching and Post-Matching Activities: We use all the information we’ve gathered, including the information on life domains and the child’s wishes, to help us determine if a family might be a good fit for a child. When it is time to introduce a youth to a potential adoptive family, the trusting relationship we have nurtured is critical. We use our relationship as a bridge to encourage the youth to get to know the new family. Children who might otherwise be reluctant or refuse to meet a family will do so because they trust our relationship. We do not label the family as an adoptive family because at this point, it is literally only someone we want them to meet. We continue assessing each visit and checking in with the child, the foster family, the potential adoptive family, and others. If all goes well the child moves in with the family and our focus changes from direct interaction with the child, to supporting the parent in becoming that healing relationship.
It is not uncommon for a family to want to expedite the process or force belonging before bonding with the child or developing attunement. Destination Family staff make a conscious effort to support both the youth and the family throughout the process. We continue to use Relationship Development Matching during this process, and we’ve found we can transition that healing to the family by initially concentrating on developing the bond, and later helping the family to help the youth heal.
In California, the parental rights are not terminated until a permanent family is found. For this reason, we are active in the lives of the youth and family for at least a year after placement. We find this to be helpful because the child and family continue to experience a variety of issues related to the legal processes and becoming a family. We continue to support and coach the family in meeting the child’s needs. In addition, we help the family access outside services. Sometimes our job is as simple as reinforcing our belief in the parent’s ability to keep moving forward and helping them to see how far they have come.
In October 2017, California Assembly Bill 1006 was passed. This bill was inspired by the statewide need for specialized permanency programs to ensure children are able to achieve and maintain permanency. The bill outlines the need for adoption-competent mental health services and specialized permanency services. It is an acknowledgement that without specialized permanency services like those of Destination Family, many of the most vulnerable children and teens in foster care may never find their forever family.
The law heralds the need to do things differently if we want to achieve a different outcome. Destination Family and Relationship Development Matching represent one way to achieve this goal. We hope efforts such as these spread across the US and Canada to ensure that all children who need a family have one!