From 2019 Adoptalk, issue 2; Adoptalk is a benefit of NACAC membership
By Dr. Justin “Jay” Miller, Jessica Fletcher, Melissa Segress, and Karen Bowman
Dr. Justin “Jay” Miller is the Associate Dean for Research, Associate Professor, Director of the Self-Care Lab, and the Doris Y. Wilkinson Distinguished Professor in Social Work Education in the College of Social Work at the University of Kentucky. A proud foster care alum, Dr. Miller’s research focuses on child welfare and youth involvement in juvenile systems. He is also the lead investigator for ASK-VIP. Co-author Jessica Fletcher assisted in the design, implementation, and evaluation of ASK-VIP, in addition to managing an array of foster/adoptive support and training programs as the Associate Director of the University of Kentucky College of Social Work’s Training Resource Center (UK TRC). Co-author Melissa Segress also leads these efforts to serve families, children, and communities as the Executive Director of UK TRC. Assisting in the overall administration of the ASK-VIP program, co-author Karen Bowman is also the training specialist at UK TRC, an adoptive parent, and a former foster parent.
Support groups help adoptive parents navigate cumbersome legal processes, complicated youth histories, feelings of isolation, and more to successfully foster a resilient and powerful community. Recently, public and private child welfare service entities have turned to online platforms to facilitate these groups. However, little is known about the success of these types of virtual support programs, and much of what is known is based on anecdotes. Few have explicitly sought to examine the concrete benefits of online programs.
To collect more data about online support groups, the University of Kentucky Training Resource Center (UK TRC) conducted a yearlong study exploring what makes a support group effective according to adoptive parents. Program staff and researchers at UK TRC then embarked on a multi-phased project to conceptualize, implement, and evaluate what came to be known as the Adoption Support for Kentucky – Virtual Interaction Pilot Program (ASK-VIP).
ASK-VIP, a virtual support group for adoptive parents that launched in 2018 in partnership with the state child welfare agency, provides a venue for adoptive parents to share their experiences, information, and coping approaches related to their ongoing adoptive experiences. In so doing, the group aims to reduce caregiver stress and enable parents to better care for children who are adopted.
Initially, the program was piloted at two sites in Kentucky. Two seasoned adoptive parents with previous experience facilitating support groups for foster and adoptive parents were recruited to facilitate each of the groups and were paid a small stipend. The facilitators also received a brief training and orientation regarding the purposes and intent of the program, as well as ongoing support and supervision throughout the pilot phase.
Then, for approximately one hour a week for 10 weeks, all 27 ASK-VIP participants met with one another via Zoom, a virtual videoconference platform that allowed participants to see and confer with one another on video as well as talk via a text chat feature. These meetings covered a wide variety of topics without a set curriculum, so that participants and facilitators could dive into providing immediate support for whatever challenges participants were facing.
Given the purpose and overarching goals of ASK-VIP, findings from the pilot period are very promising and bolster UK TRC’s efforts to create additional pilots at different “sites” around the state. When evaluating the effect of the pilot program, our team looked at four major variables:
- Program satisfaction. Overall, participants were satisfied with the program, the platform, and the facilitators. All adoptive parent participants perceived that the virtual platform used to facilitate the group was user-friendly and fostered meaningful interaction among participants. Perhaps most importantly, all participants indicated that they would recommend ASK-VIP to other adoptive parents.
- Information seeking effectiveness (ISE). ISE refers to the extent to which participants felt that they received the information they were looking for. In general, adoptive parents did perceive that they received adequate and appropriate information—from the facilitators and other adoptive parents—during their participation in the group.
- Perceived social support. Before participating in ASK-VIP and having not participated in other support groups previously, participants reported moderate levels of social support. Upon completion, participants perceived themselves to have stronger social supports, showing that participating in ASK-VIP enhanced an adoptive parent’s support system.
- Parental stress and competence. After participating in this program without any other formal supports from UK TRC, parents reported increases in parental competence and decreases in parental stress—good news for parents and their children.
By implementing and evaluating our pilot program, we have learned a number of valuable lessons that can benefit other entities seeking to start virtual support efforts. Specifically, through ASK-VIP, we have learned that:
- Platform matters. Selecting a platform on which to host a virtual support group can be tricky. There are so many options (Skype, GoToMeeting, Zoom, etc.)! Each platform performs essentially the same purpose, but nuances between platforms can drastically affect user experiences and ease of use. To assess which platform is right for you, conduct a planning process to examine potential participants’ comfort and knowledge about these technologies, and consider hosting an orientation for participants to go over platform functionality. As mentioned above, ASK-VIP used Zoom, primarily because it is widely accessible and easy to use.
- Effective facilitation is key. In general, research suggests that effective facilitation is always essential to achieving positive support group outcomes. Findings from this pilot evaluation affirm that notion. In addition to recruiting adoptive parents who are skilled facilitators, focus on training and supporting facilitators throughout program implementation.
- Evaluation, evaluation, evaluation! Far too often, programmatic endeavors (particularly ones relating to adoptive parents), focus on participation metrics, like how many people participated, the average age of the participants, and so forth. However, these types of programs need to move beyond participation metrics and focus on outcome metrics. One way to improve evaluation efforts and focus on outcome metrics is by seeking out public partnerships, especially with academic institutions. These types of partnerships will foster the development of evaluation models that can assist in financial sustainability (that is, grant applications!) and help with effectively assessing and documenting how effective adoptive parent programming like ASK-VIP is.
- Seek intentional investments. To be clear: implementing adoptive parent support programs, such as ASK-VIP, requires intentional, strategic investment. As indicated, this program was implemented in partnership with—and with the support of—the public state child welfare agency. This partnership afforded programmatic resources to pay stipends, fund use of the virtual platform, etc. If the promise of support groups is to be actualized, investments (financial and otherwise) are required.
Adoptive parents face an abundance of challenges. Because of this, entities serving adoptive parents have an obligation to offer supports aimed at easing these challenges. From implementation to final results, ASK-VIP offers child welfare professionals an adaptable model for effective post-adoption support.
If you want more information about ASK-VIP, or if you want to chat about starting a virtual adoptive parent support group in your area, email firstname.lastname@example.org