Children's Voice November/
December 2008


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Collaboration, The Road to Success

Experience shows that by working together, organizations and individuals achieve more than they could alone.

By Susan Soonkeum Cox, Dixie van de Flier Davis, and Ada White

Many people are working to improve the number of children placed in successful adoptions, many people representing many different pieces of the puzzle: child welfare caseworkers, administrators, researchers, adoptive and birth parents, even adoptees themselves. Collaborations can open the door to a synergistic success when people bring their separate skills and organizations together to focus on a single concern fueled by the power of their combined passion. Real collaboration always results in change: it spreads responsibility, engaging and empowering a wide range of people.

Knowing the power of collaboration, and recognizing that a joint effort would produce better results than each one alone could achieve, in 2002 five agencies started a collaboration to match children and parents. The Collaboration to AdoptUsKids was funded from 2002 to 2007 as part of the Federal Adoption Opportunities Cooperative Agreement with the Department of Health and Human Services, the Administration for Children and Families, and the Children's Bureau. A final report from the end of 2007 describes the collaboration's efforts: a media campaign, a website, publications, training and technical assistance programs, research studies, and an evaluation.

The success is a testament to the power of collaboration, which we experienced firsthand. After years as colleagues, in 2002 we had the opportunity to work together as collaborators, representatives of founding partners of the Collaboration to AdoptUsKids: the Child Welfare League of America and two of its members at the time, The Adoption Exchange and Holt International Children's Services.

Collaboration among those who know each other well--those who have similar goals and objectives, are on the same team, or in the same organization--makes the process come together more naturally and easily than does a mix that brings dissimilar interests together. However, when there is a thoughtful, deliberate collaboration among groups that traditionally do not share similar views, but coalesce around a mutual interest, then collaboration truly can take us where we cannot go alone.

The AdoptUsKids workgroup was a mosaic of services, one complete entity from many smaller ones. It was made up of representatives from national organizations and resource centers; federal, central, and regional offices; state foster care and adoption agencies; adoptive parent groups; faith-based organizations; private adoption agencies; adoption exchanges; active and retired adoption workers; and associations focusing specifically on American Indian children. The collaboration's goal was not to create a new agency, but to pull together the strength of many participating agencies, doing together what none could do alone. The work was undertaken with the understanding that the collaborators would support each other's successes, and no one person or organization would get the credit for achievements reached collectively.

This initiative was immediately successful, as it drew on the resources and connections of members that represented the private and public agency perspectives. Including the right people in a core group and getting them invested in the work means they will reach out to other valuable contacts in the community. In this way, more and more layers of expertise become available.

With a solid commitment to the ideals of collaboration and the purpose of the initiative, the group devoted time to coming together in face-to-face meetings. Meeting in person not only makes it easier for frank discussions, but it also brings the group closer together, fostering a collegial or even familial atmosphere. By chance or design--as it was for the AdoptUsKids workgroup--members frequently end up sharing meals.

Experience has also shown that a "no substitutions" policy for the group leads to faster progress. It can be difficult, especially when participants are the leaders of their organization. But when new members join, time has to be spent on old material--explaining decisions and revisiting discussions--instead of moving forward onto new ideas. Plus, a steady lineup strengthens camaraderie built in face-to-face meetings.

All of these strategies led to success for AdoptUsKids. Bridges between individuals and organizations were built, resources were shared, acquaintances became friends, and trust led to truth, which led to openness and innovation. We agreed and disagreed, and we agreed to solve the disagreements. This work laid the foundation for actual systems change.

Though the collaboration itself was impermanent, its members were able to imbed changes into their separate organizations by revising operating procedures, shifting service priorities, and reworking job descriptions. Remarkably, the system changed. The effort engaged 205 organizations throughout the country to reach over 30,000 prospective families, on behalf of 16,000 children in foster care. Don Snyder, a foster care administrator in North Dakota, called his agency's work with AdoptUsKids "a tremendous success." "I have not seen such positive movement in the previous 20 years as has occurred [recently] due to AdoptUsKids," he says. A second phase of AdoptUsKids is ongoing.

Reaching Out

Another situation demonstrates how critical it is to reach out and collaborate with unlikely partners in order to promote the common good. Although it is changing, historically, domestic and international adoption issues and policies have developed separately from each other in both theory and practice. In the 1980s, advocacy groups tried to change legislation that would allow domestic adoptees to have access to their birth records. While welcomed by many of those who were adopted in America, this legislation had no direct impact on agencies placing children internationally, since the original birth records of international adoptees are not in the United States.

A collaboration of intercountry adoption agencies was formed to support legislation for more access--not because it would benefit each agency, but because it improved policies for everyone. A small original group recruited the support of other international children's organizations whose stature added strength to the initiative. This collaboration did not achieve the goal it was aiming for; international records remain restricted. But although the formal group split, a number

of the relationships born from this collaboration endured beyond the initiative. Agencies have continued to work together when there are issues or concerns they have in common. Because trust and respect were established earlier, they can resume, and continue more naturally in the future. Linda Woodward, Director of Children, Youth, and Family Services for the Cherokee Nation, describes the epitome of this idea when talking about work between her office and the Oklahoma Department of Human Services: "Collaboration is so common anymore we don't think about it as being something special." Instead, she says, close cooperation is "a matter of practice."

Also still going strong is Global Connections, a collaborative effort among The Adoption Exchange, headquartered in Colorado; VIDA, a placement agency in New York; and the National Military Family Association in Virginia. Agency work styles, funding, objectives, and priorities vary. But where the vision is to recruit and support military families who adopt, the collaboration has created a patchwork of components that serve and protect children and families, while training state and private agency workers to help this population. Linda Foster, a program manager with the Oklahoma Department of Human Services Adoption Program, reports that three years after state workers participated in Global Connections training, Oklahoma has placed 26 children with military families, who now live in seven countries. Now several placement agencies and some state agencies, inspired by Global Connections, regularly seek out and work with military families, who are adopting children through international, foster care, and domestic infant adoption processes.

Challenges

It is unrealistic to expect that collaborating will be always be a smooth, easy process, but sometimes successes grow out of early failures. Nancy Ng, board member of Families Adopting in Response (FAIR) in Palo Alto, California, recalled a collaboration outside the realm of adoption from her experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in Trabzon, Turkey. She wanted to clean the pediatric ward of an old hospital, and worked with the hospital administrator, the medical staff, the pediatric staff, and a group of her nursing students. The project "was important from an objective point of view," Ng explains, but it was not that important to her would-be collaborators. They did clean the ward initially, but it didn't become a habit. "I learned that it doesn't matter how great an idea is, it will only work if the folks involved have real ownership," Ng says. "The experience made me rethink how I can best be a collaborator ... I am more effective as a listener and gatherer of opinions and ideas."


  Photo manipulation by Tim Murren

A similar sharing of opinions took place on a larger scale with the Louisiana Adoption Advisory Board (LAAB), a group started in 1992 through a 1989 Adoption Opportunities grant. The Board was carefully crafted to include a balance of adoptees, birth parents, adoptive parents, and adoption professionals. But about one year into the project, a tension that had been heating up under the surface boiled over. Several people stormed out of the building and continued a shouting match in the street. It became obvious that each person saw adoption differently, and saw their own approach as the best approach.

Stomping and shouting often come with the territory; crises are almost necessary in a good collaboration. Although in the heat of the moment many of the LAAB members vowed they would never attend another meeting, an organizer's phone call asking for another chance convinced many to return. At the next meeting, the members made a commitment to listen to each other, and in doing so, they learned from one another. Each member had the chance to speak his mind, sharing his unique perspective. Adoptive parents talked about the sadness they felt not being able to have a child, and adoptees who had spent a lifetime disliking their birth mothers were moved to tears by the stories they heard from the birth parents in the room. They saw the issue from a different point of view. Today, the Board remains a strong collaboration across disciplines.

Ernesto Loperena, executive director of the New York Council of Adoptable Children, has learned from experience how to work through rough patches in collaborations: "Challenges are overcome through trust of the good intentions of each member of the collaboration and frequent interaction," he says. A strong basis of communication allows discussions about solutions to develop in place of acrimony. "Communication is the key," he explains.

Success Factors

Communication isn't the only necessary ingredient in the recipe for good cooperative work. Mary Gambon is the assistant commissioner for Adoption, Foster Care, and Adolescent Services at the Massachusetts Department of Social Services. She is no stranger to collaboration, and outlined factors she believes lead to success based on her experience: (1) a willingness to have difficult conversations and hear critical feedback; (2) making room in the conversations for all parties; (3) a willingness to acknowledge and understand the power differential in those conversations; (4) a willingness and ability to make changes; (5) an ability to demonstrate those changes and sustain them over time; (6) a continuous inclusion of new members and broadening of the mission; (7) leading by example; (8) continuous self-reflection and interactive goal-setting; and (9) continuous commitment to the goal.

Gambon knows that for a collaboration to succeed, setting things up perfectly is important. She recalled a collaboration to connect families with Massachusetts children waiting to be adopted. "The membership of the group met monthly for almost a year to identify barriers, develop strategies, and 'test' efforts," Gambon explains. They had a written memorandum of understanding to clarify the extent and goals of the cooperation, and established an advisory board "to formalize planning and operations and hold members accountable," she continues. "For 10 years the board has organized numerous activities that have led to the recruitment and approval of hundreds of adoptive families for our children."

Loperena agrees that making sure everyone involved stays on the same page is critical; he says, "Key factors to success include agreement on the overall goals, clearly defined roles for the collaborators, and frequency of interaction among the collaborators."

Similar to these suggestions are the six characteristics that Marilyn Friend and Lynn Cook used to define collaboration in their 1992 book Interactions: Collaboration Skills for School Professionals: (1) it is voluntary, and means going beyond the job, attending frequent meetings, using other forms of communications, and working more hours; (2) it requires parity between individuals, acknowledges disparate power, and refuses to see one kind of power as better than another; (3) it is based on an unwavering commitment to mutual goals; (4) it depends on shared responsibility for participation in decision making; (5) participants share their resources and take pride in one another's successes; and 6) participants share accountability for the outcomes.

Collaborating means doing things differently, and that brings change--not just for organizations, but for the people who participate as well. In many areas of child service work, change is a good thing. The change brought about by collaboration allows an alliance of agencies to go where none of them could go alone, and to reach amazing results.

For more individual testimony about the power of collaboration, as well as a discussion of how partnerships, collaborations, and cooperative alliances differ from one another, visit www.adoptex.org.

Susan Soonkeum Cox is Vice President of Public Policy & External Affairs at Holt International Children's Services. Cox is grateful for the limitless possibilities that are the promise and joy of successful collaboration.

Dixie van de Flier Davis EdD is President/Executive Director of The Adoption Exchange, Inc., a CWLA member. Among her greatest pleasures are her experiences sharing the hard work, frustrations, fears, and successes of collaborative work with likely and unlikely colleagues.

Ada White MSW, LCSW brings her experiences as a caseworker, Louisiana State Adoption Program Manager, and Director of Adoption Services at CWLA to her current practice as a national consultant.


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