America’s perspective on adoption is changing. Increasingly more families have a personal experience with adoption or know someone who has adopted. A recent federal report shows a continued increase in the number of adoptions through foster care for the third year in a row.

Since the introduction of the Safe Families Act in 1997 and the Fostering Connections Act of 2008, permanency outcomes for children have significantly improved, resulting in adoption increases. A substantial percentage of these adoptions reflects relative adoptions.

A 2017 report of the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS) shows 51% of children are adopted by their foster parents, 35% are adopted by relatives, and only 14% are adopted by non-relatives. This trend is evidenced in states like Texas where 49% of the children adopted through foster care in 2018 were adopted by relatives.

In addition to increases in permanency through adoption, more and more children are being placed in permanent kinship care with relatives or “fictives” when reunification is not an option. Despite the limited research on kinship adoption and permanent kinship care, there is evidence that placement with kin results in more sustainable permanency for youth.

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The average kinship caregiver is typically a minority female who is older with lower socioeconomic status. Consideration of this is necessary to counter any bias regarding provision of post permanency supports to relatives as this permanency solution for children continues to increase.

Given the continued upward trend favoring adoption through foster care and permanency through kinship care, the demand for improved permanency supports for families is critical to ensure sustained permanency for children.

Research estimates that approximately 1-5% of children experience a dissolved adoption. Disruptions occur more frequently with as many as 10-15% of adoptive placements ending with a child returning to foster care before adoption is finalized.

Improved practices in the preparation of families for placement and improved post permanency resources for adoptive parents and kinship guardians is imperative in the prevention of disrupted and dissolved adoptions.

The primary focus of this briefing will be centered around the needs of adoptive families as more research is needed to fully understand the complex needs of kinship guardians. However, it would be remiss not to include them in the evaluation of service improvements for effective screening, placement, and post permanency practices for the sustained permanency of America’s vulnerable children.


Recommended Screening and Development Practices

Screening:

Effective screening, training, and development of adoptive parents is a fundamental responsibility of child placing agencies and is crucial to effective child placement practices.

  • Federal and state authorities should promote the use of structured analysis tools to improve objectivity and consistency across states to ensure effective evaluation of potential foster and adoptive parents.
    • Screening processes for families need to be improved by implementing the use of structured tools to close assessment gaps such as: biased or inexperienced judgments on behalf of the screener, unrecognized risk indicators, lack of parenting readiness or resiliency, questionable decision-making regarding placement recommendations.
    • Through a structured screening analysis, child placing professionals can make informed decisions to effectively address the development and support needs of families early on, prior to adoptive placement or finalization.
    • Federal and state appropriations are needed to subsidize the development or cost of structured analysis screening tools as many agencies (public and private) find implementation to be substantially cost prohibitive.
  • Consistency is needed in screening processes, including home study assessments to improve matching opportunities between families and children within and across multiple jurisdictions.
  • Ongoing support and training for families after placement for “adopt only” families should be more intensive and consistent. Adoption only families need as much if not more support than foster to adopt families or relatives as neither they nor the agency typically have prior knowledge or relationship with the child being adopted.
Training and Development:

More consistency in the evaluation and training standards for all adoptive parents is needed to achieve sustainable permanency for children in the foster care system through adoption.

  • Standardized measures are needed to ensure that general adoption training provides effective education on issues that significantly impact children with a history of complex trauma and often result in disruption or even dissolution of the adoptive parent child relationship.
    • These required topics should include: the impact of trauma on the brain, attachment needs, responding to mental and behavioral health needs, meeting educational needs, milestones encountered in the adoption journey, identity issues, addressing sexualized behaviors, grief and loss, heritage connections, and accessing post adopt services for the child and the family.
      • Transracial adoption training should be required for any family interested in adopting a child of a differing race or ethnicity.

Placement best practices

Heightened emphasis on best practices for child placement are necessary to lessen disruption and dissolution of adoptions. Child placing agencies, public and private, must ensure that adoption workers have limited case-loads that allow them the time necessary to identify and meet the needs of the adoptive child and their family. In addition, agencies have a responsibility to ensure that child placing professionals, particularly adoption workers, receive the proper training and development needed to:

  • Provide leading edge education to adoptive families
  • Effectively evaluate and address competency gaps of adoptive parents
  • Responsibly match the strengths of the family with the needs of the prospective child, consistently keeping the child’s needs and best interest paramount
  • Ensure that all background information on the child is closely evaluated and discussed with those connected with the child (caregivers, case workers, advocates for the child) Note:: It is critical that state workers be required to ensure all background information is shared with families and the receiving agency (when applicable) before making any arrangements for pre-placement visits.
  • Understand the consequences of making a rush toward adoption before the child and/or parent is ready
  • Avoid making decisions based on individual bias or beliefs
  • Execute second order thinking in difficult placement decisions-evaluating multiple variables and risks and making informed decisions for the child and the family
  • Effectively support families throughout the adoption journey and take responsibility for transitioning them to the post adopt phase

Post Permanency Practice Improvements

Post adopt resources are crucial to the well-being and sustainability of the adoptive family. Recommendations for improvement include:

  • Match post adopt funding with the increase in adoptions to ensure families have the resources needed to promote sustained permanency for youth.
  • Ensure post adopt resources can effectively support treatment needs for youth, even when residential or long-term intervention is needed without requiring adoptive families to relinquish custody.
  • Ensure provision of resources for specialized in-home services to post adopt families in crisis to lessen the need for out of home treatment and decrease re-entry and risk for dissolution.
  • Increase awareness of requirements for continued receipt of subsidy and requirements to notify the state child welfare department any custody transfer whether regulated or non-regulated.
  • Increase funding to promote the development of evidence-based practice models for post permanency/post adopt services with measurable outcomes.
  • Procure adoption specific, trauma informed training resources for clinicians and providers to promote competent service delivery to post adopt clients.
  • Increase procurement of mental and behavioral health service providers, especially in rural areas.
  • Employ strategic efforts to inform and educate private and public adoption staff and their families on subsidy provisions and processes, including those related to post adopt resources, requirements, and contacts.
  • Implement requirements for adoption transition meetings prior to adoption finalization to: review plans for ongoing treatment needs of the child, provide strategies for family strengthening, determine how needs will be addressed with and without availability of post adopt services. (This is especially important given the continued growth of relative adoptions.)
  • Allow diversification of post adopt funding or incentive payments to private agencies to provide continuity of support through the first year of post adopt support such as: service coordination, support groups, and courtesy contacts every 3 months for the first year following adoption.
  • Improve data collection to reveal the number of adoptions completed through private agencies for research and allocation of resources.
  • Expand eligibility for post adopt services and subsidy support.
  • Protect subsidy dollars to ensure availability of post permanency resources to families.
  • Ensure Families First Prevention Services Act supports adoptive and kinship families.
  • Protect GAP funding for permanent kinship to support long term relative caregivers.
  • Require all states to provide COBRA reciprocity for interstate adoptions funded by non-title IV-E adoption assistance agreements with another state.
  • Establish outcome measures for post adopt contractors to support research and improve best practices.

Child welfare continues to rapidly evolve into a more complex interdependent system, and there is clear evidence of multiple gaps within this system. Research tells us that most mental health professionals feel they lack relevant training in issues pertaining to adoption; yet, 57% of teens previously adopted from foster care receive mental health services.

It’s important that clinicians can competently address the needs of adopted youth and their families. According to Child Welfare Information Gateway, of the 10-25% of placements (as many as 15,000 children) that disrupt, their families indicate the following issues: the child is older (each year of age adds a 6% increase in the likelihood of disruption); there is presence of emotional or behavioral problems or attachment issues; the child is a victim of sexual abuse; lack of information about the child before placement; and agency factors indicating a lack of support or continuity of services.

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Unfortunately, 1-5% of adoptive placements finalized result in dissolution, impacting as many as 3,000 children. These families mention two main barriers: 1) lack of information about where to go for services 2) cost of services. As many as “10 % of the youth adopted through foster care will re-enter the system at some point, for a minority of them, their adoptions are legally dissolved.”

Legislators, child welfare professionals, and researchers must rise and work together to address the evolution of needs for children achieving permanency through adoption and permanent kinship. Our efforts to enhance resources, establish standards for best practice, and effectively measure outcomes for improvement for sustainable permanency are critical to the stability and well-being of America’s most vulnerable children.

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Written by Samela Macon, senior director of domestic foster care and adoption for Buckner International.

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