NASW Practice Snapshot:
Helping Prospective Adoptive Parents to Navigate the Foster Care System

Current research indicates that more than 500,000 children in the foster care system will be looking for “forever families,” either through a reunion with their birth parents or adoption by a foster parent or relative (Casey Family Programs, 2005). A new study by the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute entitled, “Listening to Parents: Overcoming Barriers to Adoption of Children from Foster Care” (Evan B. Donaldson Institute, 2005), finds that a major reason why so many children have not found homes is that the vast majority of prospective parents feel encumbered by a system they perceive as too frustrating, bureaucratic, and unfriendly.

This study is considered to be the largest one ever undertaken of attrition rates among prospective adoptive parents of children from foster care. It found that 78 percent of the adults who called an agency for more information about adopting a child from foster care will not fill out an application or attend an orientation meeting, and just 6 percent of those who call for more information will actually complete the adoption home study, which is required for all prospective parents. Further, many of those who do complete a home study end up leaving the child welfare agency without ever adopting. . In 2000 and 2001, approximately 127,000 children were adopted annually in the United States (National Adoption Information Clearinghouse, 2004). Adoptions from public agencies, which find homes for children in foster care, account for 40% of all adoptions.

The Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute study was based on surveys of over 40 states, analysis of data from the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS), more than 140 case record reviews, and case studies of adoption practices in Boston, Miami, and San Jose. Focus groups and individual interviews were conducted with parents and state and private adoption workers at various stages in the adoption process.

Among the study’s major findings:

  • The first call is key. For some callers, their first inquiry about adoption comes at the end of a painful journey that may include illness, infertility, degrading medical procedures, or unbearable loss. Prospective parents too often have alienating or unhelpful initial contact with child welfare agencies; for example, they cannot reach the right person when they call and/or discover the worker they talk to has inadequate knowledge about the process or is insensitive to their emotional needs.
  • The emphasis is too often on weeding out unsuitable applicants rather than retaining good ones, especially at the start of the process. The result is that many adults who truly want to adopt do not receive enough information or support, but rather, get scared off or become exasperated and give up.
  • The attrition rate of prospective parents rises sharply in the process from initial call to adoption. The research indicates that states receive about 240,000 inquiries per year regarding the adoption of a child from foster care, but only a small fraction who call for information eventually adopt such a child.
  • Parents are generally satisfied with training and the home study. Adopting a child who has been placed in foster care because of abuse or neglect is challenging, but the majority of parents who completed the adoption training process reported being pleased with the preparation they received. Although some said their trainings portrayed the children in an overly negative light, most felt they had a better understanding of, and greater sensitivity toward, the children they would be adopting.

Implications for social work practice

This report has significant implications for practice as social workers in foster care and adoption will have to consider how to make their operations more “consumer friendly.” If prospective parents feel discouraged by an uninformed or unresponsive worker, the social work administrator may consider a range of staffing levels for the intake call, which could include a BSW or MSW worker. While the costs of staffing intake calls at this level may be more than that for a non-social worker, the agency will have to weigh these costs in light of their foster care and adoption goals and other agency resources and commitments.

Also, in an effort to improve the service delivery to prospective adoptive parents, the birth parent, and the child, one might consider a “team approach” to adoption as offered by the Cecil County Department of Social Services. Instead of using the more standard approach of having one worker to address the needs of the child, the birth parent, and the foster parent, the County’s team approach uses a family-centered model where one worker focuses on the child in placement and the other worker focuses on the birth and foster parents. For example, one social worker may support the parents by conducting an assessment plan for service, providing reunification services as appropriate, or preparing for termination of parental rights, while the foster care worker might work with the child by conducting an assessment plan, ensuring school attendance, making necessary referrals, and arranging court appearances or regular monthly visits. An evaluation of the program shows that the team approach achieves, in general, shorter lengths of time than the traditional approach, leading to increased rates of reunification, guardianship, or relative placement (Ayer, 2005).

Further, NASW suggests that child welfare agencies provide ongoing professional training in cultural competence, support changes in federal, state, and local laws and policies, and uphold best practices that are based in research (NASW, 2001). Foster care and adoption agencies must be administered and staffed by professionally educated social workers, licensed social workers, or both, and should provide competitive salary levels and professional opportunities to recruit and retain social workers (NASW, 2003). This approach will ultimately improve the services for prospective adoptive families, birth parents, foster parents, and children.

Ayer, D. (2005). Focus on foster care services: Evaluation of Cecil County’s team approach (Policy Brief). University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Casey Family Programs. (2005). Fact Sheet on Foster Care [Online]. Retrieved from on May 12, 2005.
Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute. (2005). Listening to parents:
Overcoming barriers to the adoption of children from foster care [Online]. Retrieved from on May 13, 2005.
National Adoption Information Clearinghouse. (2004). How many children were adopted in 2000 and 2001 [Online]. Retrieved from on May 10, 2005.
National Association of Social Workers. (2003). Foster Care and Adoption. Social work speaks: National Association of Social Workers policy statements, 2003-2006 (6 th ed., pp. 144-151). Washington, DC: NASW Press.
National Association of Social Workers. (2001). Standards for cultural competence in social work practice. Washington, DC: NASW Press.

NASW, May 2005
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