Children's Voice Nov/Dec 2007

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Adoption Pioneers

Betsy Cole and Sydney Duncan offer their thoughts on adoption recruitment


Victor, Mario, Gabriel & Alina
Alina loves books and music, has an artistic nature, and does well in school. Gabriel is highly intelligent and curious, with a great sense of humor. His favorite activity is reading, especially about nature. Mario is a thoughtful conversationalist who likes to make others laugh. He enjoys reading, drawing, playing with Legos, and using the computer. Victor is a born leader and makes friends quickly. He participates in drama club and performs well in all academic areas. The only missing ingredient for the delightful set of siblings is a loving family. More information about adopting these siblings.

In honor of November as National Adoption Awareness Month, Children's Voice is sharing the wisdom of two women whose years of service to the adoption field paved the way for improvements in adoption services nationwide.

Both women pioneered new attitudes toward and techniques for recruiting adoptive families for populations of children who often were overlooked, including older children, children with disabilities, and African American children. Now retired but still advocating, Cole and Duncan reflect on how times have changed and what challenges remain in adoption recruitment work.

Betsy Cole: "The children themselves are the best tellers of their own stories."

Betsy Cole worked 15 years in the New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Service as a caseworker, supervisor, administrator, and bureau chief. She conceived and helped draft the state's subsidized adoption law and created and directed New Jersey's statewide system of regional adoption resource centers, which placed thousands of children, including those with special needs.

In 1975, CWLA and the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation asked Cole to design and direct the North American Center on Adoption (NACA), a project focused on increasing the quantity and quality of nationwide adoption services while targeting the most underserved children. Later in her career, Cole served as Senior Policy Analyst at the Center for the Study of Social Policy, Senior Fellow at CWLA, and President of Elizabeth S. Cole Associates.

In the 1960s and 1970s, how did you tackle placing hard-to-place children--older children, and children with disabilities and other special needs--when few examples of recruitment techniques existed?

Two problems coincided--one, our need to make parents who were waiting for babies aware of the fact that we had other children who were available for adoption; and, two, that we weren't quite so sure which child would fit with what parent. That caused us to come up with the solution, which is pretty much the main solution today: You introduce the parents to the children and let them decide.

I think New Jersey was one of the first states to do this: We got a series of photographs of the kids who were waiting for adoption, did write ups on them, and sent them to every one of the studied and adoptive families we had.

What kind of response did you receive?

It shocked us at the time that we got so many positive responses. A lot of people who were waiting, say, for a 6-month-old, or a year-old baby girl, responded to a 4-year-old boy. It confirmed our sense that people could decide for themselves which child they wanted to adopt.

But it was considered to be extraordinarily radical. There were major criticisms lodged against us for using children's photographs and personal information. I think in some instances those criticisms still exist today. Many adoption professionals fought this publicity tooth and nail. They believed this was bad, that we were exploiting kids, that the children would be injured by this. The other objection was that we were allowing parents to decide which children they might be interested in. Delegating this decision was thought to be dangerous. Before this, all the major decisions were made by the adoption agency. Client self-determination was a new concept in adoption.

How have things changed for the better today?

The change for the better is that it's now standard procedure to portray the youngster's image as part of the recruitment-- showing pictures and videotapes of the children, putting them in mass media, and presenting them live to groups of prospective parents. It's a fairly accepted concept now that the children themselves are the best tellers of their own stories, and being able to see the children is the way people determine whether they want to adopt them.

What remains a challenge?

The kids agencies have to place today are probably the most challenging than we've ever had. We're seeing older children, minority children, children of large sibling groups, and children with severe intellectual, emotional, physical handicaps, or all three.

What's most difficult is finding a way to describe the children that is totally honest about the problems they have, and at the same make them appealing to someone. You want to be honest. You really don't want someone to say they want to adopt a child, [and that person] is in no way aware of what this youngster would be like to parent.

So how do you appeal to the public while also being honest about children needing homes?

You have to give potential adoptive parents enough of the positive that you draw them into the agency to hear more. We have the technology now to do things people never had 30 years ago. For example, [we can show] interactive videotapes of the kids. You want to present the youngster in a way that makes [his or her] fullness as a person be apparent.

Then the second stage of recruitment is when you can get potential parents into the agency and then present the child. Again, the focus is on letting the kids present themselves and having the social worker there to give a fuller explanation of what the youngster is like.

What other recruitment techniques have you found to be effective?

I think some of the best recruiters are adoptive parents and foster parents themselves because they have no illusions about what the kids are like, and you can use them to get to people in their own communities. Getting community groups to take responsibility for finding families for particular kids is also very powerful.

Saturation recruitment also has been enormously effective. Sometimes, agencies just give it one shot. You need to keep going back and back and back. I can recall any number of conversations with different adoptive parents who said, "I really didn't respond to this youngster at first, but as I saw more pictures of him, and saw, for example, that he wasn't being placed, I responded." Other people say, "I cut the article out and put it on the refrigerator." So sometimes the response isn't immediate.

The organization of the agency will also determine the effectiveness of the recruitment. If the agency doesn't put enough manpower into finding, recruiting, and preparing parents, it won't work. In some agencies, and particularly in large public child welfare agencies, the focus is on protective services. So the time, energy, money, and staff positions go to the protective services end of the child welfare spectrum, and not enough goes into the adoption end, and/or they have workers who are inexperienced and who change jobs.

What should agencies be looking for when hiring their recruitment staff?

In the past, adoption was thought to be one of the easiest jobs. It doesn't have the emergency and life-threatening factors that protective services has, but you really do need someone who has high-level skills and some experience with working with children in an agency that does this work.

I don't see the recruitment job going to someone fresh off the streets. I think the more effective recruiter is someone who has an intimate knowledge, if not of this particular child, of these kinds of kids. I also see the recruiter as someone who has a sophisticated knowledge of what adoptive parents must be like to successfully raise these children.

What advice would you give for recruiters searching for homes for disabled kids?

What you really need to do is get to the communities that might be interested in them. You use groups of people who are familiar with whatever the youngster's disability is to be your recruiters, because they really love these kids. For example, use people in the medical field who see and treat them every day.

If I stood in front of a group and said, "It's really rewarding to raise a child with Down syndrome," someone would look at me and say, "Well have you done it?" And my answer is, "No." But if you get a group of parents who have raised Down syndrome kids and who can honestly tell people this is rewarding and not just a chore, then you stand a better chance to get them placements.

It's enormously important to have in the administration of an agency, people who have a very strong belief these kids are adoptable. I think values are caught, not taught. I can't tell you all the workers I've supervised as an administrator who came in not thinking the children were adoptable, but who were made part of an organization that had such a strong belief in it that they came to believe it over time when they saw it happening. The keys to success are belief, commitment, and competence.

Sydney Duncan: "We reached out to the community, letting them know the children were there."

Sydney Duncan retired in 2001 as President and CEO of Homes for Black Children in Detroit, the oldest and one of the most successful specialized African American adoption agencies in the country. As founding director, Duncan lead the organization's work in child welfare that changed the paradigm and redefined the way child welfare services are delivered to African American children.

Duncan is nationally recognized as an expert in child welfare and as an advocate for permanency for children. Duncan has served on the faculty for Casey Family Programs' Breakthrough Series Collaborative on Recruiting and Retaining Resource Families, and as a member of the Collaboration to AdoptUsKids Workgroup. Today, she is President of Sydney Duncan Consulting and a member of the Governor's Task Force on Children's Justice in Michigan.

Describe the early success of Homes for Black Children in finding families for African American children.

When we started in 1969, it was generally thought black children were unadoptable. Traditional child welfare agencies put almost every black child who entered the child welfare system into long-term foster care. At the same time, most African Americans did not even know these children were in the system.

When we opened our doors with a staff of six social workers, we placed 135 children, from newborn to 12 years of age. That was more black children in one year than the 13 existing metro Detroit child welfare agencies had collectively placed for that same period. The next year, we placed 137. When it was happening, people couldn't say, "It can't be done," because it was being done.

How did Homes for Black Children Children change the thinking that African American children were unadoptable?

A lot of practices in the '60s and early '70s really discouraged not only black families from adopting, but white too. There were far more families seeking white children than were available, so agencies had to come up with creative ways to get rid of the excess.

So, for example, some agencies would only open their intake in January, and it was closed for the rest of the year. There were a lot of eligibility requirements. If you could give birth to children, you were not permitted to adopt. If you were a foster parent, you had to agree you would never apply to adopt a child who was in your care. Or you had to be between the ages of 30 and 40. The mother could not have a job outside of the home.

So our moving in with just very practical ways of doing business made a difference. We reached out to the community, letting them know the children were there. The very first story published about Homes for Black Children featured a child who needed a home. We got more than 25 responses, and that was before we had even moved into our offices.

What myths continue today about the adoptability of African American children?

I've lived long enough to see that Homes for Black Children had tremendous influence on the practice of adoption and the adoption of African American children. But with time, and as new people come in who have not seen the changes or learned the lessons, many of the old myths have reemerged. Misconceptions flourish today largely because of negative and distorted media images, as well as the racial divide that continues to separate black and white communities.

For example, people will still say black children are hard to place. They will still say it's a recruitment issue. They will still say that economic factors play a role. On the other hand, out of the success of Homes for Black Children grew 27 agencies or programs that were successful in the placement of black children, and some of those are still around. If you talk to any of them, they will tell you that on any given day they have families waiting for infants. At Homes for Black children, on any given day, there are families waiting for infants and young children.

How has the adoption process changed for the better, and what are the continued challenges?

There is much more focus on the child. Far fewer agencies are embedded in the fee system, and certainly subsidies are now available for certain categories of children. And there's much more of a realistic focus on eligibility requirements.

I think the continued challenge is the kinds of children we are seeing in the child welfare system now. In urban areas, the underlying factor is drugs. For example, the child welfare population was declining until around 1985 with the crack cocaine epidemic.

Do you have any advice for the field on how to approach the recruitment of families for adoption?

Public and private sectors need to be able to work well together. The issue is much broader than recruitment itself. If you recruit, and families don't get through the system, than recruitment doesn't make a difference. We need to be able to actually make the placement. You can have 25 families apply, and you can lose them all if you don't follow through.

At Homes for Black Children, we focused on quality and timely service. We always had evening hours, for example, where families could be seen after they got off of work. Many agencies had 9-to-5 schedules, which meant families had to be in a position to take off from work. Well for men, if they worked in the factories, on the line, they couldn't take two hours each week for six weeks to go through the adoption study process. Yet those men made good livings and had stable families.

We also integrated the qualities of the heart, as well as the head, into our work. For us, it was focusing on the children, one child at a time. Any child we had an opportunity to get to know, we would in seeking the families. Our social workers focused on meeting, in a personal way, the children and seeking to understand their needs, their history, and what family they were best suited for. This was important work we were doing, with ramifications for the lifetime of a child and his family.

How can we continue to improve the outlook for African American children in need of loving families?

I think Homes for Black Children's success was due to our anchoring in the African American community and our awareness of the African American community. We filled a void and a need.

There's a real difference between what you will hear people who work in African American agencies say and what people who work in other agencies say. That's why I have often advocated a linkage between traditional agencies and African American agencies as the quickest way to make a difference.

There are yet many challenges that African American families and children must confront and overcome. But the broader community must not ignore black families' strength, determination, and capacity to care for African American children.

Interviews by Jennifer Michael, Editor-in-Chief of Children's Voice.


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