• May 2010
  • Vol. 11, No. 4

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Making the Case for Permanency With Youth, Workers, and Families

In 2005, the Children's Bureau funded nine demonstration projects through an Adoption Opportunities grant, "Improving Permanency Outcomes by Developing Services and Supports for Youth Who Wish to Retain Contact With Family Members." The following article draws on lessons learned from these Youth Permanency projects about changing attitudes.

One of greatest barriers to finding families for older youth in foster care is the common belief that teenagers are not adoptable. Prospective families may shy away from older youth, workers may be caught in a mindset that focuses only on preparation for independent living and emancipation, and even the youth themselves may reject the possibility of adoption. The Youth Permanency grantees sought new approaches to address these myths about adopting teenagers and identified successful practices for changing attitudes about permanency for older youth.

Youth often have mistaken ideas about what adoption means. In many cases, no one has discussed adoption with them, or the youth rejected the idea early on and no one ever introduced the subject again. In addition, they may have experienced rejection and instability in foster care and may be understandably reluctant to trust any promise of permanence.

Some approaches that the Youth Permanency grantees identified for changing youths' attitudes about adoption included the following:

  • Extensive one-on-one preparation that includes talking and more talking: Youth may need basic information, such as an explanation of why they're in foster care, what "termination of parental rights" means, and what open adoption entails. Opportunities for conversations may occur when least expected—such as during car rides. 
  • Group information sessions: Among their peers, youth may feel more comfortable asking questions about adoption and sharing their concerns.
  • Allowing youth to participate in adoption programs before they've committed to being adopted: Youth may not be comfortable actively pursuing adoption until they've met a potential family. A commitment to adoption shouldn't be a prerequisite for participation in permanency programs. Youth can—and often do—change their minds.
  • Identifying relatives and other family members: Mining case files and following up on youths' leads may result in a permanent connection. This can include paternal relatives, fictive kin, former foster parents, teachers, and others.
  • Exposure to potential families: Opportunities to meet families may include mentoring programs, weekend visits with host parents, and structured group events at which teens and families participate in fun activities.
  • Family team meetings: Meetings that involve everyone in the teens' lives, including birth relatives, provide a chance for teens to hear about the realities of their situation as well as the possibilities for permanency.

Caseworkers may not be aware of permanency potential for youth. There are still workers who think that youth don't need families, or the workers don't view permanent placements as a priority. Youth Permanency grantees found a number of useful strategies for changing workers' attitudes, including:

  • Supervision that emphasizes youth-centered practice
  • Placement of project permanency staff (grantees) among youth and caseworkers, allowing project staff to interact regularly with caseworkers and youth and build relationships
  • Training in child-specific recruitment, so that workers had the tools for recruitment and began to see the potential for youth permanency
  • Training that emphasizes helping youth rethink the possibility of adoption

Families may be reluctant to consider adopting older youth. Grantees found the following strategies useful in overcoming this reluctance:

  • Using multiple opportunities to expose families to older youth: Youth panels can be part of parents' training, and youth can be present in offices, at structured activities for teens and adults, and in public media events.
  • Allowing families to get to know youth one-on-one: Mentoring and weekend host visits are good opportunities. A family who knows a particular youth may be more open to considering adoption than a family who just has a general curiosity about adoption.
  • Building a community: Hosting regular events at which families and youth can spend time together on a regular basis (at least once a month) eventually leads to a community interested in helping youth find permanency.

And there is one strategy that helps change attitudes of youth, workers, and families: Providing them with examples of successful adoptions of youth. Showcasing families and youth who can talk about their successful adoptive experiences is the best way to demonstrate the potential of youth permanency.

For more information about the Youth Permanency grantees, visit their webpages:

http://www.nrcadoption.org/resources/ypc/grantee-projects

Many thanks to Susan Punnett of Kidsave in Washington, DC, and to Pat Dudley of You Gotta Believe! in New York City for providing the information for this article.

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