Raising the Bar on Permanency:

Finding and Building "Claiming Communities" for Children

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Finding forever families for children in foster care has been a common-sense child welfare goal for several decades. It has been our holy grail to do a better job of preserving biological families, locating kin, and finding adoptive families so that we get kids out of the child welfare system and into to stable, loving homes. This work has been the focus of numerous child welfare reforms, beginning with the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980, which codified child welfare's responsibilities for permanency. Further, the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1995 and the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008 provided resources and stringent timelines to foster permanency for children.

As a result, child welfare agencies have been successful in improving the timeliness of adoptions and increasing the number of children adopted from foster care. They have also worked to improve diligent recruitment efforts for "hard to place" children. Overall, successes have been notable; adoption rates have remained high for more than a decade. Our focus on adoption and other forms of permanency have likely been a key factor in the steady decline in the number of children in the child welfare system.

Still, growth in the numbers of children adopted is just one measure of child welfare success. It tells us little about how children placed for adoption actually fare. To understand whether these children are succeeding, we will need to do more than simply count how many adoptive families remain intact--we will need to understand how they remain intact.

There is good news on this front. Nationwide, the field is beginning to focus new attention on well-being, developmental needs, and trauma treatment for children receiving child welfare services. This work on well-being needs to go beyond safety and permanency. Permanency is a way to count placements--it is a "system word," not a true definition of a child's successful placement. We have begun to focus on trauma-related attachment and loss, which are critical concerns in the adoption recruitment, preparation, placement, and post-placement process. Today, with advances in brain science, we now understand more precisely how the blend of biological and environmental factors come together to support adoption's theoretical underpinnings.

This knowledge will require us to do even more. We must consider how trauma is healed and how attachments are formed--both within the family unit and in the context of the larger social and community environment-- so that children have a sense of real belonging and secure attachments that allow them to say "these are my people."

CWLA and the The Adoption Exchange (CO) have come together in an effort to achieve these ends and establish new ways of helping families and the professionals who support them to build "Claiming Communities" for their adoptive children. From 2003 to 2008, CWLA and The Adoption Exchange partnered on a rural Adoption Opportunities grant. At that time, we began to talk about the notion of "open" and "closed" communities. We discovered that placement success was guided by whether or not the actual community supported adoption placements. We believe that just as there are child and family factors that contribute to success (or failure) of an adoption, there are also community factors at play. In large measure, these factors reflect the systems and ecological frameworks that are fundamental values for our work. However, these values are poorly reflected in the structure of the child welfare system, and, as a result are inadequately addressed in our practice.

So, what is a "claiming community"? At CWLA and The Adoption Exchange, we see claiming communities as a way to fully achieve permanency by embracing a larger and more complete goal for the child. It is a means of going beyond a superficial assessment of a family's support system and calling for a more complete, nurturing community that surrounds the child and family. This means identifying what families need from education, health, mental health, housing, economic, play/recreation, and other social perspectives; it will also require that we look closely at the messages we send. Foster and adoptive families are much more than "resources" to an agency-centric system of care. They are instead "community caregivers" who are valued, admired, and respected for their willingness to care for and nurture the community's children.

These ideas represent a fundamental shift in adoption and child welfare practice. As we move forward, The Adoption Exchange and CWLA will build on the ideas and draw from the experiences of each organization. In the coming year, we will explore and confirm the theoretical foundations for this work, engage our colleagues and the youth and families we serve to inform this effort, and begin to articulate the basic practices that advance this work. We hope you will join us.

Dixie van de Flier Davis, Ed.D., is the Founder and President Emerita of The Adoption Exchange. Ada K. White is the Director of the SAFE Program and Child Welfare Consultant for the National Resource Center on Adoption and National Resource Center on the Recruitment and Retention of Foster and Adoptive Parents (NRCRRFAP). She was formerly the Director of Adoption at CWLA. Linda Spears is CWLAs Vice President of Policy and Public Affairs.

To comment on this article, e-mail voice@cwla.org.

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