• May 2009
  • Vol. 10, No. 4

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Promoting Openness With the Family Connections Project: An Interview

The Family Connections Project is one of nine projects funded by the Children's Bureau in 2005 under the Adoption Opportunities Grants for "Developing Adoption Services and Supports for Youth Who Wish to Retain Contact with Family Members in Order to Improve Permanency Outcomes." Adoptions Unlimited, Inc., partnered with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, Lutheran Social Services of Illinois, and Hull House to develop and implement the Family Connections Project, which includes training for parents and professionals and direct services for older youth in the Chicago area.

Children's Bureau Express (CBX) recently spoke with Margaret Burke, Project Director, about Family Connections.

CBX: Why is it important for older youth adopted from foster care to maintain connections with their birth families?

Burke: Many youth aren't interested in adoption if they can't maintain their relationships with their birth families. They don't want to be put in a position of having to choose one family over the other. Older youth especially may have strong attachments to parents, siblings, extended family, and even to foster siblings or former foster parents. Agencies need to safeguard these attachments and ensure that adoptive families can help their teens maintain these ties through an open adoption. If youth know that they aren't going to lose their relationships with their birth families and other important people, they are more willing to consider adoption or guardianship. Our Family Connections Project promotes this openness through education, training, and services.

CBX: What kinds of training does Family Connections provide?

Burke: We offer training for parents, professionals, and youth. Our goal is to educate the parents and professionals about the importance of openness in adoption. One of our training exercises puts adults in the position of listing their five most important people or connections and then experiencing their removal—one by one. The arbitrariness of losing important connections and the lack of control the adults feel makes an impression!

We provide 3-hour trainings for foster and adoptive parents. Our evaluations from parents indicate that the trainings have been highly effective, and we've seen a significant shift in parents' attitudes toward recognizing the importance of maintaining birth family contacts for the well-being of their youth.

We also offer training for both social workers and legal professionals. An important component of this training has been hearing from the youth themselves about the losses they've experienced and their need for continuing contact with their families. In fact, the legal professionals cited this as the most valuable aspect of the training. And social workers showed a significant move toward openness after their training.

In our training with youth, we focus on the importance of identifying and maintaining permanent, healthy connections with adults who have been important in their lives. We don't want them to leave the system without being connected.

CBX: What types of training materials have you developed?

Burke: Our curricula are available on the website of the National Resource Center (NRC) for Adoption at http://www.nrcadoption.org/youthpermanencycluster/resource.html. They include a trainer's guide for a parenting curriculum (by Virginia Sturgeon), a guide for presenting to the legal community (by Peggy Slater), and a guide for training youth (by Virginia Sturgeon and Darryl Clayton). We also have a free online training ("Maintaining Connections") available for workers on the Adoption Learning Partners website at www.adoptionlearningpartners.org/maintaining_connections.cfm.

Foster care alumni provided significant input for all of our training materials, especially two videos (also available on the NRC for Adoption website). A 16-minute "Family Connections" video shows foster care alumni from our program talking about their experiences and the importance of their birth families. We also have a video of a live theater performance by foster care alumni called "Strong Connections."

"Strong Connections" was developed with the Still Pointe Theatre Collective, which performs around peace and justice issues. We thought this theater group could help our youth put their words and experiences into a live performance. Eight former foster youth were selected to write about and perform their experiences, with a director from Still Pointe. So far they've performed before several different groups, including foster/adoptive parents, juvenile and family court judges, and social workers, always to great acclaim. The theater performance is effective because it impacts the audience in a different way—on an emotional level that stays with them.

CBX: What types of services does Family Connections provide to older youth in foster care?

Burke: We work with youth (14 and older) who already have caseworkers. We don't duplicate the caseworker services, but we provide other services to youth referred to our project. For instance, we help them research and put together Lifebooks. We can mine their files, do searches for relatives through US SEARCH, and contact former foster families and others for photos and information. The Lifebooks help our youth put together some of the pieces of their lives.

Another service we offer is helping youth identify and develop a relationship with a mentor. It might not be someone who is able to adopt them, but it should be someone who can give them a lifelong connection. The same is true with locating relatives or other significant people with whom they've lost contact.

Of course, our goal is open adoption or guardianship for these youth, but when that doesn't happen, we want to be sure that they leave the system with at least one permanent stable connection.

CBX: How has the Family Connections Project helped promote openness in adoptions for older youth?

Burke: We've provided training to almost 250 parents and professionals on the importance of helping youth maintain connections, and we've worked directly with 61 youth. Our training materials are available on the Internet to anyone, and that includes both videos we've produced. The "Strong Connections" live theater performance continues to touch audiences.

We still have a lot of work to do to change attitudes and policies so that adopted youth and youth in foster care can maintain their family connections and leave foster care with a permanent connection. Policy change has to come from the top, but it's helped by funding opportunities like the Children's Bureau grant that supports this Family Connections Project. In fact, all of the grantees in this Children's Bureau grant cluster have exchanged ideas and communicated about their projects, so that we all benefit from each other's work on promoting openness in adoption and foster care.

To find out more about all the grantees, visit the NRC for Adoption website:
http://www.nrcadoption.org/resources/ypc/grantee-projects

Many thanks to Margaret Burke for providing the information for this article. She can be contacted at mb@adoptinfo-il.org.

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