Bridging the Gap

Bridging the Adoption and Foster Care Community Together Through Advocacy

Not too long ago, I was asked to present at an adoption conference on this topic. As I prepared what I planned to share, I thought carefully about what my approach would be in hopes of providing a perspective that would make the attendees think about how they view adoption and foster care. There were a number of things that ran through my mind. One of those things is how the word “advocacy” jumped out at me. Most often when people want to advocate for something, they are hoping to change the minds of others. They are hoping to get someone else to think differently about something that is meaningful to those advocating.

When I think about adoption and foster care, from my personal and professional experience the two have seemed to rival each other although, they are merely two different strategies for helping a child experience the benefits of being a part of a loving and nurturing family. I wholeheartedly believe that before one can effectively advocate for any cause or any action, the person advocating must fully understand where they stand on the issue and why. So many times individuals and groups are advocating for others to do the work of accepting their cause when they don’t realize that there is immense internal work needing to take place first.

Why is there a need to bridge the gap?

Before one can advocate to bridge a gap between Adoption and Foster Care, the need to do so must be understood. As I introduced myself and the topic at the conference, I made it clear that the people in the room were the experts on this. They were professionals in the field, adoptees and adoptive parents. I know this because I asked the attendees to introduce themselves one by one, their names and how they were connected to adoption. You know who wasn’t heavily represented? Public foster care agencies, foster parents and alumni of foster care.

How can we have a discussion about bridging a gap when the other side is not present? This is the question I posed to the attendees which was answered in part by nods and affirmations. I then asked them to tell me what they believed the disconnects were. There were a number of responses that included, but weren’t limited to: poor communication between public and private adoption agencies, the attitudes and unrealistic expectations of the parents expecting to adopt and the attitudes some public foster care agencies held about adoption and how some of them felt some foster children were “unadoptable” or that older children in foster care did not want to be adopted. They shared that there were barriers that could be corrected if policies and procedures of collaboration were set by federal, state and local government agencies.

This is the type of high-level responsibility shifting that we tend to participate in when it comes to advocacy. All of their insights on what needed to change to make for better collaboration between the two approaches to finding children families were extremely valid and have been valid issues existing for decades. I, however, wanted to dig a little deeper and have the attendees examine how they felt about foster care and adoption by sharing the words that came to mind when they thought of the two, dare I say, “systems”.

Image Influences attitude

When trying to understand the habits, attitudes and norms of a system, look at the individuals that it is comprised of. Most likely, their habits, attitudes and norms determine how work is done and how collaborations across systems take place, if at all. I asked the attendees to first tell me what comes to mind when I say “adoption”. Words such as safe, permanent and noble were used. When I asked the same about “foster care” words such as risky, bad parents, dangerous, unstable, stubborn social workers, troubled children were used. Again these were individuals whose work was heavily in or with private adoption agencies. Foster Parents, foster youth/alumni nor social workers with public agencies were present.

My point was made. If the individuals working within the system hold these views of agencies they are needing to work with to provide family options for children, advocacy efforts of those further removed from the work will not be successful.

Recognizing Similarities and Common Goals

It is important to acknowledge the similarities and common goals of both foster care and adoption approaches to finding children families. Establishing a common ground is imperative to moving forward in a collaborative effort to meet the needs of children in desperate need of family. Everything that can be said about adoption (positive and negative) can be said about foster care. The challenges and successes of both are the same. From the disconnect between agencies entrusted to provide services to vulnerable children to the positive impact that the loving and nurturing families have on the lives and development of children disconnected from their biological families. From the need to not be afraid to say “no” to a family that does not fit the expectations of the agencies even though there is a shortage of families to having passionate frontline workers dedicated to adding value to the lives of children in need.

When the very people that work within foster care and adoption are able to see that foster care and adoption are merely two different strategies/options to finding loving families for children whose biological parents are unable to care for them, progress in bridging the gap can begin.

Communication and Collaboration

This requires communication and collaboration. I shared with the attendees that a step in the direction of change begins with them. As individuals, it is up to them to step outside of their comfort zone and do something differently. Perhaps it is to attend a Foster Care Conference if they are heavily involved in private adoption work. Perhaps it is bringing both foster care and adoptive families together to be trained. Perhaps, it is becoming aware of their own biases of adoption workers, if they are heavily involved in public foster care work.

As we move about in our work, it is important that we are aware of what we say and how we talk about the two to people who are not familiar with either approach to family. You attract the type of foster and adoptive parents that mirror your strengths and weaknesses as it pertains to the work of finding families for children. If you believe older foster youth do not want to be and should not be adopted, the social workers and foster parents you recruit will believe this as well. If you believe children should be seen and not heard and that there is no value in what the youth and families have to contribute, the social worker and parents you recruit will believe the same. What is even worse is the very children you have set out to help will begin to believe the same of themselves. Be careful of your personal biases as you attract what you project.

Utilizing the Voices of Experience

If you are someone that has been giving serious thought to what could be done to bridge the gap between foster care and adoption, I urge you to consider utilizing the voices of those who have experienced it. It seems child welfare is one of the only business models (yes I said business model) that do not effectively engage those who are supposed to benefit from it. Not only should foster youth, adult alumni of foster care and adoptees be meaningfully engaged in this work but so should the biological families and foster and adoptive families. Their experience and feedback has tremendous value and can help to more aggressively tackle many of the issues that are preventing seamless service delivery between the two approaches.

Mahatma Gandhi said to “Be the Change You Want to See in this World” and I say “Be the change you want to see in this Work”. Before a system can change, the attitude of those individuals within it must change. It starts with you.