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November 2000Vol. 1, No. 7States Streamline Foster and Adoptive Home Approval Process

Historically, people who wanted to foster parent and people who wanted to adopt followed different paths within the child welfare system. Now, in an increasing number of States, prospective foster and adoptive parents are considered fellow travelers along one path leading to the permanent placement of children.

The practice of recruiting and preparing families simultaneously as foster families and adoptive families has been evolving for at least two decades. Currently the practice is known in the child welfare field as "dual licensing" or "dual certification." In earlier incarnations, the strategy was variably known as "flexible family resources," "permanency planning foster parents," and "high-risk adoptive parents."

In part, the move toward dual licensing reflects an existing trend toward foster parent adoption. The latest national statistics available indicate that 64 percent of children adopted from the child welfare system are adopted by their foster parents.

The aim of dual licensing is to streamline procedures, avoid delays, and minimize moves by children in the system. In these respects, dual licensing also responds to new Federal laws aimed at expediting the permanent placement of children who enter the child welfare system.

Practitioners familiar with the practice generally agree that dual licensing is a strategy that can benefit children and families. They also generally agree that to reap those benefits, policy makers and child welfare professionals must plan carefully to overcome institutional barriers to implementation.

Then and Now

Before establishing a dual licensing system, practitioners, policy makers, and other stakeholders should understand why and how separate systems for licensing foster parents and approving adoptive parents evolved.

As recently as the early 1970s, most public agencies did not allow foster parents to adopt or strongly discouraged them from doing so through both written and unwritten rules. Underlying agencies' reluctance were the following concerns--not all of them articulated but understood within the field:

  • Agencies feared losing their valuable cadre of foster families
  • Agencies believed that foster families hoping to adopt would undermine agency attempts to attain the primary goal of family reunification
  • Agencies approved foster families based on their ability to provide temporary care, not a lifetime commitment
  • Decisions to place a child in a particular foster home frequently were based on available space and not because a foster family was determined to be the best possible match for a particular child
  • For complex reasons involving class, culture, social attitudes, and history, foster parents were considered "less qualified" than couples seeking to adopt--less capable of parenting, less concerned with the child's well-being, less solid citizens.

These and other issues, both practical and biased, became encoded in longstanding agency policies and procedures, which in turn shaped agencies' institutional cultures, organizational structures, and professional roles.

While the child welfare system was changing slowly, the population of children served was changing significantly. Beginning about 20 years ago, children who entered the child welfare system were more likely to be older, members of a minority, members of a sibling group, or have special physical, emotional, or mental health needs. Child welfare agencies increasingly found it difficult to recruit adoptive parents who could meet the needs of the children in their custody.

In addition, researchers were establishing the crucial role that attachment between a child and a stable caregiver plays in a child's long-term healthy development. The advantages of keeping a child with experienced foster parents in a familiar, safe environment became more apparent. But, the institutional structure was not in place to support foster parent adoptions. The process remained cumbersome, and outdated perceptions of "appropriate" adoptive families continued to impede change.

Change Takes Time

Kathy Ledesma of the Oregon State Office for Services to Children has observed the institutional culture gap firsthand. In Oregon, reports Ledesma, a widespread perception that adoption workers are the wheat and foster care certifiers the chaff has caused adoption workers to distrust information provided by their counterparts in foster care. Oregon also has tussled with issues of confidentiality and privacy during its 10-year effort to implement dual licensing.

But "the end is in sight," says Ledesma. Oregon will launch a common homestudy in November during a biannual conference targeted to foster home certifiers and adoption workers.

As Oregon's timeline illustrates, States making the shift have put time, thought, and resources into the change.

Texas expanded its dual licensing system statewide two years ago, but launched the effort as a pilot about 10 years earlier. And, like Oregon and other States, Texas grappled with issues of cultural change.

"It was a matter of rethinking and changing the perspective that training and assessing foster and adoptive parents separately was not in the best interest of children," recalled Janis Brown of the Texas Department of Health and Human Services. "A child's first placement should be [a child's] last placement."

Dual licensure abolishes the philosophy that foster parents and adoptive parents can't be one and the same, says Brown. The policy is friendlier towards foster families who previously had entered into adoption through the "back door" and "helped them be honest about their intent to adopt."

One downside, according to Brown, has been a larger shortage of foster homes, since foster families tend to leave the system once they adopt.

Tailored to Each State

The definition and terminology for dual licensure can vary widely by State, making comparisons difficult. For example, some State laws may prohibit placement of children in foster/adopt homes prior to termination of parental rights, while others may allow it.

Another State that is working to streamline the process is Colorado. However, Barbara Killmore of the Colorado Department of Human Services explains that "dual licensure" isn't really a term that applies to her State. "We don't do 'licensure.' We approve adoptive homes and we certify foster homes." A State Rule, passed in 1994, provides for a single assessment of foster and adoptive parents but all other aspects of the program differ by county.

Colorado is one of a dozen States whose child welfare programs are State-supervised and county-administered. Therefore, some counties recruit and train foster and adoptive parents separately. In some areas, adoption and foster workers are different positions, while in rural areas, one worker might do everything. "The kids that we're placing in foster care are generally the same as we're placing for adoption, so we're trying to focus on joint recruitment," said Killmore. "It [recruitment] currently is based on the individual needs of a county but we're looking for funding for statewide recruitment."

The common home study rule applies to both prospective adoptive families who decide to foster a child who is not legally free and foster families who decide to adopt. "A few extra things are required for foster homes, for example, space requirements, but generally it's easy to certify a family for foster care based on the single assessment. It's also not uncommon to approve adoption for foster families," explained Killmore. "For families, it makes it easier not have to go through two studies. It really expedites and makes the process easier." Killmore has heard some concerns that with concurrent planning, resource families who can either foster or adopt don't really understand how important it is to work towards reunification first.

Arizona uses the "same methodology," according to Belva Stites of the Arizona Department of Economic Security, to assess adoptive and foster parents. The common paperwork and home study was introduced a year ago. Since so much of their agency's work is contracted to private agencies, internal logistics and systemic issues have been a problem, noted Stites. "Some contracts don't do both pieces [adoption and foster care], so oftentimes it is not a smooth process for parents," said Stites. "Arizona is also one of the only States to require court certification of all adoptive homes." Agencies receive the same logo and materials for combined recruitment and orientations but each one tailors them to fit their own agenda. "We realize that people often change their mind, but if they really only want to consider one path, they are guided to an agency that only handles adoption or only handles foster care," said Stites.

Training Essential

Worker training is still an area that needs improvement, according to Stites. Arizona has no standard curriculum, but rather each agency adapts core training to meet their needs. "We are moving toward merging their training but we still have a problem with people being comfortable," observed Stites. "There are still some staff that feel there is a difference in the population of people who want to adopt and people who want to foster." Although there are still holdover issues and perceptions to deal with, Stites feels Arizona is "slowly coming on track." She notes that kinship family assessments are beginning to be conducted like foster home studies, with the view that the basic home study only need to be updated for adoption or legal guardianship to proceed.

Maine's experience with dual licensure also underscores the importance of training. After seven years of planning, Maine implemented dual licensing in June 2000. The initiative involves a common inquiry, intake, informational, and home study process. Once families are qualified to be licensed, they are approved to adopt and vice versa.

Before implementation, administrators met districtwide with both groups of workers to learn their training needs and convened a huge statewide joint training. "Licensing and adoption workers are teamed up in the office so they can rely on each other to answer questions," explained Proulx. She said they will continue to meet quarterly with supervisors and periodically with workers to see how the new system is functioning. "Getting people to buy into it and bringing them to a common ground were the biggest glitches," said Proulx. "People are starting to see the value--that it's much better for families." Proulx noted that foster and adoptive parents were enlisted to share their insights and reactions to the combined recruitment materials that are in development.

Support from the Children's Bureau

Patsy Buida of the Children's Bureau is a strong supporter of dual licensing. As the former foster care manager in Texas when dual licensing was being implemented, she gained first hand insight. "It's a tool to maximize use of resource families in a flexible way that lets them decide how to interface with the system and what type of parenting fits their lifestyle--short-term foster care or long-term adoption," said Buida.

Dual licensing also opens up options for birth families. "It allows for the opportunity to meet ASFA timeframes in working with biological families and resource families and coming up with a long-term commitment to the child," said Buida. She finds that it often sets up a situation where birth families build trust and comfort with foster providers resulting in their granting immediate termination and possibly an open adoption. As an example, in a grant-funded program in Texas, foster parents acted as trainers for birth parents about what to expect from the agency, courts, case planning, and other processes. "Foster parents can become a positive ally and model to birth families," said Buida. She recalled one case, in which the non-abusing, birth father relinquished custody after receiving training from the foster mother in caring for his medically fragile child and deciding a better plan was to let go.

Buida cautioned that parameters need to be carefully set up when introducing dual licensing so that all the staff, resource families, and birth families involved have clear expectations and conflicts are avoided. Also, workers need to overcome their fears. "People think adoption and foster care are two bodies of knowledge and that you can't transition your skills," said Buida. However, she learned from personal experience that a lot of skills overlap in assessing and supporting families.

Although only a handful of States has fully implemented dual licensing, Buida finds that more and more States recognize the need. "This is a tool that can be used in quite a variety of different ways."

Contact information:

Oregon State Office for Services to Children and Families
Kathy Ledesma
HSB 2nd Floor South, 500 Summer Street, N.E.
Salem, OR 97310
Phone: (503) 945-5677
Fax: (503) 945-6969

Texas Department of Health and Human Services
Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS)
Janis Brown (Div Manager. Fed.& State Support)
701 West 51st Street, Mail Code E-558, PO Box 149030
Austin, TX 78714-9030
Phone: (512) 438-3412
Fax: (512) 438-3782

Colorado Department of Human Services
Child Welfare Services
Barbara Killmore
1575 Sherman Street, 2nd Floor
Denver, CO 80203-1714
Phone: (303) 866-3209
Fax: (303) 866-4629

Arizona Department of Economic Security
Administration for Children & Families, Region IX
Belva Stites
Site Code 940A, PO Box 6123, 1789 West Jefferson
Pheonix, AZ 85005
Phone: (602) 542-2431
Fax: (602) 542-3330

Maine Department of Human Services
Martha Proulx
221 State Street, State House
Augusta, ME 04333
Phone: (207) 287-5060
Fax: (207) 287-5282

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Administration for Children and Families
Children's Bureau
Patsy Buida
330 C St.,SW
Washington, DC 20447
Phone: (202) 205-8769

Related Items

For a related article about the partnership between the Casey National Center for Resource Family Support and the National Resource Center for Foster Care and Permanency Planning to survey States on dual assessment, see "NRC for Foster Care and Permanency Planning Partners With Casey Family Programs" in this issue of the Children's Bureau Express.

Visit the National Adoption Information Clearinghouse website for a factsheet on Foster Parent Adoption: What Professionals Should Know at: