A Family for Life: The Vital Need to Achieve Permanency for Children in Care

Permanency equals a sense of belonging. When it comes to permanency for youth in care, there’s one simple fact: it’s a basic human need that everyone should be entitled to. We should all know where we go at Christmas.

Lisa Davis

This quote from a young woman providing testimony to a Canadian parliamentary committee  underscores the overwhelming, essential nature of belonging in a family – something most of us take for granted and can scarcely imagine being without. The Donaldson Adoption Institute issued a report today, entitled “A Family for Life” – based on extensive research throughout the U.S., England and Canada – on 22 practices that facilitate the adoption of children from foster care. The report provides a preview of and introduction to a book-length Compendium on these innovative strategies that the Institute plans to publish in late 2013.

The nearly two dozen practices examined in “A Family for Life” are important throughout a child’s journey through placement. Some minimize the trauma experienced by girls and boys in the child welfare system; others assist children in coping with life experiences and transitions, thus facilitating their adjustment and placement stability; and still others help to find families and to enhance their ability to successfully parent their children. These practices are grouped into five categories: organizational practices, court practices, recruitment and retention of permanent families, pre-adoptive casework processes, and supporting and preserving adoptive families. The Compendium provides the following for each practice: description, key program elements, lessons learned, outcomes and selected resources.

Here are a few examples of innovative strategies identified in relation to specific practices:

  • The Department for Education in England publishes “Adoption Scorecards” for local authorities, which are publicly available. These scorecards show how quickly children in need of adoption are placed, and they graph local authorities’ performance on several key indicators in relation to the country as a whole, thus giving those local authorities the opportunity to monitor their own performance and compare it to others.
  • The strategic use of specialized adoption staff has been linked with improved adoption outcomes; for example, following the addition of a block of 25 new adoption workers in New Brunswick, Canada, the number of adoptions from care increased by 300%.
  • A project in Colorado, Denver’s Village, uses six Community-Based Diligent Recruitment Teams to target specific geographic areas. When the project began, children waited an average of 34.6 months after termination of parental rights to achieve permanency; after the project’s first four years, the average dropped to approximately 13 months.
  • England requires adoption agencies to assess and plan for any contact that children adopted from care will have with their birth families and to offer all parties support in maintaining contact. Research there indicates a large majority of adoptive parents in direct contact arrangements remained satisfied that contact was in their children’s best interests.

Based on the range of practice knowledge and research synthesized in the Adoption Institute’s Compendium, a number of recommendations appear self-evident:

  • In statute and policy, provide clear requirements for achieving permanency for every foster child who cannot return home and operationalize this expectation through organizational leadership and culture.
  • Facilitate tracking outcomes at every level of the system in order to understand the barriers to permanency and to enforce accountability for achieving it.
  • Use aggressive family-finding and engagement to maximize the use of relatives as permanency resources for children in care, as this contributes to their well-being.
  • Reduce barriers and disincentives to adoption or guardianship with adequate, reliable subsidies to those who make the commitment to becoming parents to children in care.
  • Incorporate sound casework practices that minimize damage to children and youth in the child welfare system by initially placing them with families who are likely resources for alternate permanency; supporting them to understand and cope with traumatic experiences; and minimizing the extent of their losses by stabilizing placements, requiring Lifebook work, and facilitating the level of openness in their best interests.
  • Monitor court timeframes in order to avoid unwarranted delays in achieving permanency – delays which themselves lessen a child’s chances for adoption.
  •  Employ a range of recruitment and retention strategies to find permanent families for children and youth in care, including promoting consumer-friendly practices to retain families who apply to adopt.
  • Provide a continuum of adoption support and preservation services to stabilize at-risk placements and enable families to successfully parent children to adulthood.

Adoption provides a lifetime of benefits for children who cannot return to their families of origin, including the emotional security of caring adults and a committed family to ensure that their needs are met. Gaining a family for life not only transforms the futures of children in foster care, but also brings benefits to child welfare systems, governments and communities. For example, one economist found that every dollar invested in the adoption of a child from care returns about three dollars in public and private benefits (Hansen, 2006). Adoption also delivers societal benefits after these children become adults, such as reduced likelihood of their receiving public assistance, having criminal or substance abuse involvement, or experiencing a range of other difficulties affecting individuals, their families and the communities in which they live.

“A Family for Life,” in a sense, provides a toolkit for doing a far better job for the tens of thousands of children in public care who need permanent, loving, successful families. Child welfare and adoption professionals, policy-makers and governments at every level owe it to these girls and boys to use it.

Susan Smith, Program & Project Director

Adam Pertman, Executive Director

Donaldson Adoption Institute

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *