By Jeff Katz, Founder of Listening to Parents
For ten years, I was the Executive Director of an organization called Adoption Rhode Island. My agency’s mission was to recruit families to adopt children in the care of Rhode Island’s Department for Children Youth and Families (DCYF). Like many similar organizations around the country, Adoption Rhode Island worked closely with the media to recruit families to adopt. Each week on Tuesday’s Child, a local television reporter would profile a waiting child in need of a family.
And people responded. My agency was one of the best-known non-profits in Rhode Island. We got thousands of calls each year from families that were interested in adopting. Some of them were only interested in adopting a newborn, but each year hundreds of people called us with genuine interest in providing a family to a child in need. The most striking aspect of my time as executive director of Adoption Rhode Island was the genuine concern people had for the children they saw on Tuesday’s Child.
I saw children of all ages, of all races, with all kinds of disabilities be adopted. These children were now treasured members of an extended family. Ten years of recruiting families to adopt children from foster care taught me one thing: every single child in foster care, without exception, has the potential to be adopted and to become part of a family.
But as time went on, something soured. I began to see things differently. I began to see the many ways in which the child welfare system made children wait because of the way it treated prospective adoptive parents.
Each family that begins the process of adopting a child starts with a mixture of hope, fear, and excitement. Over the course of 10 years, I spoke with over five thousand people going through the process, from that first tentative information call to the adoption finalization ceremony in the Family Court. The longer I worked in the system, the more troubled I became by the huge numbers of people who did not make it through the system. I began to see that one-by-one something negative happened to far, far too many families. Calls not returned. Long waits. Home studies unread. While some parents did make it through the process and adopted a child, it was my experience that far more people left the system shaking their head in frustration than ever adopted a child.
After leaving Adoption Rhode Island, I began to study this problem. At Harvard, I organized a national research project that studied how families adopting from foster care experience the process. Working with the Urban Institute, we estimated that 240,000 Americans called an agency each year to inquire about adopting a child from foster care. Fewer than 4% of these families actually made it through the system. The focus groups we conducted documented the many barriers that would-be adoptive parents encountered. Many agencies seemed more interested in screening out “bad” parents than welcoming new ones. We even witnessed an information meeting that began with an announcement that all attendees had to line up to be fingerprinted in the front of the room.
Later, research and analysis showed that 600,000 American women are actively trying to adopt a child and most were open to adopting the kinds of children in foster care. Analysis of federal data revealed the near impossibility of adopting a foster child across state lines (71 children in the entire country adopted across state lines by someone they did not already have a relationship with).
Nobody consciously discourages good prospective parents from adopting. There are, however, very strong disincentives throughout the public adoption system. And that is why we started Listening to Parents. We want to change the incentives in the child welfare system so that the barriers fall and every single child in foster care can have the benefit of a loving family.