You might think that once adoption papers are signed and the child has a forever family, that’s the end of the story. Guest poster Adam Pertman stresses that while finalization is the end of one journey, it’s also the beginning of another.
Permanency for Children & Support For their Families
Finding safe, permanent homes for children in foster care — usually through adoption when they cannot return to their families of origin — has become a federal mandate and a national priority during the past few decades. That’s obviously a very good thing, but there’s a too-little-discussed downside to this positive trend: Far too little attention is being paid to serving children after placement to ensure that they can grow up successfully in their new families and so that their parents can successfully raise them to adulthood.
Notice the use of the word “successfully” twice in the last paragraph. It’s the key. It’s also the founding principle of a new organization I’m proud to lead, the National Center on Adoption and Permanency (NCAP). Our mission is to move policy and practice in the US beyond their current concentration on child placement to a model in which enabling families of all kinds to succeed — through education, training and support services — becomes the bottom-line objective.
Because of the traumatic experiences most children in foster care have endured, a substantial proportion of them have ongoing adjustment issues, some of which can intensify as they age. And many if not most girls and boys being adopted from institutions in other countries today have had comparable experiences that pose risks for their healthy development.
Preparing and supporting adoptive and guardianship families before and after placement not only helps to preserve and stabilize at-risk situations, but also offers children and families the best opportunity for success. Furthermore, such adoptions not only benefit children, but also result in reduced financial and social costs to child welfare systems, governments and communities.
We Need Services ASAP
A continuum of Adoption Support and Preservation (ASAP) services is needed to address the informational, therapeutic and other needs of these children and their families. The overall body of adoption-related research is clear on this count: those who receive such services show more positive results, and those with unmet service needs are linked with poorer outcomes.
Our nation has made a concerted effort to move children into adoption and other forms of permanency because we understand the value for girls and boys who cannot remain in their original homes. This value is rooted in the belief that all children of every age need and deserve nurturing families to promote optimal development and emotional security throughout their lives.
Indeed, while child welfare systems in many states are still experiencing a variety of problems, it’s also true that a combination of federal funding and other resources has made a significant difference. Due to these resources, there has been a huge increase in the number of children moving from insecurity into permanency over the last few decades, from an average of 21,000 annually for FY 1988-1977 to an average of 52,000 annually for FY 2002-2012.
Furthermore, an analysis conducted by the Donaldson Adoption Institute indicates that, as a nation, we have made some progress in developing ASAP services, particularly in 17 states rated as having “substantial” programs. At least 13 states, however, have almost no specialized ASAP programs, and even the most developed of them often serve only a segment of children with significant needs. For example, many of the specialized therapeutic services have limits in duration or frequency or serve only children with special needs adopted from foster care in their own states, and some serve only those at imminent risk of placement outside their homes.
To enable families to succeed, ASAP services must become an integral, essential part of adoption. Just as the complex process of treating an ongoing health issue requires continuing care, as well as specialists who understand the complications that can arise and how to best address them, the adoption of a child who has endured trauma and with complex special needs requires specific services and trained professionals to address the challenges that arise over time.
Not an Add-On
When families struggle to address the consequences of children’s early adversity, they should be able to receive — as a matter of course integral to the adoption process, and not as an “add-on” that can be subtracted — services that meet their needs and sustain them. Adoptive families, professionals, state and federal governments, and we as a society share an obligation to provide the necessary supports to truly achieve permanency, safety and well-being for the girls and boys whom we remove from their original homes.
Given the profound changes that have taken place in the field today, especially the reality that most adoptions in the US are of children from foster care with some level of special needs, permanency for them should focus on more than just sustaining their original families when possible or finding new ones when necessary. We must also provide the resources and supports that will allow them to — here’s that word again — succeed.
A version of this article appeared previously on The Huffington Post.
After leaving his position as Executive Director of the Donaldson Adoption Institute in 2014, Adam Pertman founded NCAP, The National Center on Adoption and Permanency. He spent 20 years as a senior reporter and editor with the Boston Globe, where his honors included a Pulitzer Prize nomination for his writing about adoption. He and his family make their home in Massachusetts.