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The Story of a Standard:  Updated Adoption Standards

The Story of a Standard: Updated Adoption Standards


Over the years, I’ve been amazed at just how extensively adoption touches us all.  Almost every time I talk about the work that I do, someone shares a personal story with me about their connection with adoption.

For me, the journey of updating COA’s adoption standards has brought me back to my beginnings at COA.  When I first joined the staff in 2002, I was tasked with the responsibility of updating COA’s child welfare standards.  Working with a team of seasoned standards writers and experts from the field, we sweat through every little detail and spent hours upon hours reading, talking, editing, editing again, and sometimes editing again!  While I stepped away from directly working on updates to the standards to launch COA’s intercountry adoption accreditation program, I was happy to return to this work once again with this latest update.   

When we set out to update the adoption standards this year, we had a few goals in mind:

  • Streamline the standards by eliminating redundancies and removing standards that are no longer appropriate or relevant in the context of accreditation

  • Update existing standards and add new standards to address what has been learned about unique needs and effectiveness in adoption services 

  • Learn about emerging and promising practices

  • Ensure the standards remain relevant and structured simply so they can be used by programs with varied, unique, and innovative program models

  • Ensure the standards appropriately reflect the needs and perspectives of each member of the adoption triad and those who are directly involved with or impacted by adoption

While all aspects of the adoption process and standards are important, we understood that there were certain topics that would require some special attention due to information that has emerged in recent years about unique needs and effective practices.

Youth in Out of Home Care

The evidence of the harmful long-term effects of children aging out of foster care and having spent a significant amount of time in out of home care and institutions has received growing attention, while the goal of adoption remains unmet for many youth.  According to the Child Welfare Outcomes 2015 Report to Congress, approximately 21,000 youth exited foster care in 2015 through emancipation without a permanent home.  Officials suggest there may be a number of barriers for these children, such as having a shortage of families who are willing and able to adopt youth, programs and workers who aren’t committed to adoption as an option for youth, and the resistance youth might have towards adoption.  Practices geared towards reducing and eliminating these barriers and meeting the needs of youth have been incorporated into COA’s standards, including the initial engagement of youth in discussing adoption, assessment practices, obtaining consents, maintaining connections, and preparation for adoption. 

The Children’s Bureau has set out on an ambitious campaign for National Adoption Month in 2018 to focus on raising awareness about securing lifelong connections for teens in foster care.

Birth Parent Needs

As we learn more and more about the experiences of birth parents before, during and after adoption, there is a deeper understanding of their needs throughout the process, including the lifelong impact of adoption.  The standards highlight the importance of practices such as outreach to prospective birth parents, disclosure of key policies, practices and requirements, notice and consent, and preparation and post adoption services. The standards also continue to recognize the importance and frequency of birth parents planning for open adoptions and maintaining connections for children in foster care.

Maintaining Safety, Stability, Permanency, and Well-Being

The rare, but tragic stories of children who are neglected or abused by adoptive parents, placed in unsafe situations through unregulated custody transfers (sometimes referred to as “rehoming”), and adoptions that are disrupted or dissolved must be examined so that every effort can be made to ensure that children who experience those traumas receive the best possible care and to prevent such tragedies in the future.

The Center for Adoption Support and Education (C.A.S.E.), Child Welfare League of America (CWLA), Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute (CCAI), Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption (DTFA), Donaldson Adoption Institute (DAI), North American Council on Adoptable Children (NACAC), and Voice for Adoption (VFA) were among many who affirmed their belief in the need for greater protections for adopted children nationwide when they issued their joint statement on rehoming.  Authors cite a significant variation in training for prospective adoptive parents along with an increasing trend of children with more significant needs being placed for adoption and suggest that “strengthening the preparation and training received by families, prior to the adoption finalization, can lead to improvements in parents’ ability to assess their readiness for adoption and build skills needed to raise children with special needs or previous trauma exposure.”  Additionally, the authors cite the need for more post-adoption services to support the majority of adoptive families who remain committed to their children, but struggle to meet their sometimes significant needs.

In its role as an accrediting entity the Council on Accreditation has received and reviewed self-reports provided by accredited organizations of child deaths, serious injuries, and dissolved and disrupted adoptions.  Beginning in 2015, COA’s team of staff working on intercountry adoption accreditation and COA’s MSW Interns implemented a more robust data collection system for the reports on disruptions and dissolutions and began to more systematically aggregate and analyze the data collected.  The goal was to better understand the factors that can contribute to disruptions and dissolutions and identify practices that may be effective in reducing those risks and meeting the needs of children whose adoptions were disrupted or dissolved.  A few observations and recommendations of note included the following: 

  • Contributing factors cited by adoptive parents (as reported by the program) were not always consistent with the factors cited by the programs. 

  • Behaviors exhibited by the child, which were unexpected or more significant than the parents, were prepared for and behaviors the parents were unable to adequately respond to were common factors cited as having contributed to the disruption or dissolution. 

  • Placement of more than one unrelated child at the same time and out-of-birth order placements seemed to present unique challenges that some adoptive families were not adequately prepared for.

  • Obtaining and providing comprehensive information about a child’s medical and social history is critical to the matching process and adequate preparation and training for prospective adoptive parents:

    • Using a systematic process for reviewing medical and social information received can help a program identify important information which may be missing, for example, a gap in the child’s placement history or missing medical reports or tests that are commonly available.

    • Training prospective adoptive parents on the possibilities of unknown or undisclosed issues with examples that are common to children with similar backgrounds can be helpful in preparing them for unknown issues.  For example, training on identifying and responding appropriately and safely to signs of undisclosed abuse is important when adopting an older child.  

I want to thank Rebecca Slife and COA’s MSW interns for their dedication to collecting and studying the data that informed the process.

It was been a privilege to collaborate over the years with so many dedicated and talented professionals who work tirelessly to support children, adults, communities, nations and countries impacted by adoption.  I look forward to continuing to help COA to ensure that it remains an active partner improving outcomes for children and families by updating, applying, and promoting its standards for adoption services.

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