The backlog of children languishing in foster care could be sharply reduced if state agencies were friendlier and more helpful to prospective parents, according to a new report that says fewer than one in 16 adults who make initial inquiries end up adopting.
Most give up "not because they don't want to, but apparently because they decide not to deal with a system they perceive as too frustrating, bureaucratic and just plain unfriendly," the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute says. The report urges state agencies to set up hotlines staffed by well-trained employees who provide callers with immediate, encouraging responses. State employees should avoid alienating applicants, be cordial in broaching the issue of background checks, and provide clear information, it said.
A preliminary version of the report circulated among adoption professionals last year and already has had an effect. Barb Holtan, director of a new federal initiative, AdoptUSKids, said the findings prompted her program to form state recruitment response teams with the goal of providing "basic good customer services" to prospective parents.
"We recruit and recruit [parents], and then when people call, they're treated less than enthusiastically," she said Friday.
The report's lead researcher, Jeff Katz, formerly headed Rhode Island's adoption agency. He and his colleagues surveyed more than 40 states, analyzed federal data and conducted interviews in Boston, Miami and San Jose. "To me, it's shocking," Katz said in a telephone interview. "There are kids in foster care saying, 'No one wants me,' and there are parents who want to adopt saying, 'Why doesn't anyone return my calls?' "
According to the latest federal statistics, from 2002, about 126,000 children were in foster care awaiting adoption. Roughly 53,000 children were adopted from foster care, in most cases by their foster parents or relatives; Katz said less than 6% of the 240,000 other adults who inquired about adoption ended up completing the process.
Katz said state agencies should focus on making the process more welcoming, even while screening to weed out unsuitable parents. He said at least one agency seemed to deter applicants by fingerprinting them at their first orientation meeting.
For foster children, "an alienating experience for a prospective parent can mean the difference between a life spent in the uncertainty of temporary homes and the loving embrace of a permanent family," the report said.
Experts not connected with the Donaldson Institute expressed empathy with often underfunded state adoption agencies, but concurred with the thrust of Katz's report.
Gloria Hochman of the Philadelphia-based National Adoption Center said states should continue recruiting, to enhance the pool of prospective parents.
"Unfortunately, the agencies don't always have enough staff," she said. "They do the best they can, but they need more focus on what potential adopters need. It takes a lot of courage to apply, and people expect to be treated with courtesy."
Holtan said Katz's study confirmed what many in the field suspected. "We'd say to people, 'The kids are waiting. Call us.' Then they'd call us, and we'd ask crazy questions.... We need to see these folks as precious resources."
Judith St. Onge, a hospital executive in Montgomery, Ala., said she and her husband have adopted seven children while living in three states -- but six times resorted to private adoption because dealing with state agencies proved frustrating.
"We got tired of the run-around, the lost paperwork and, in many cases, the rudeness and lack of concern," she said. "There should be easy fixes -- like having a friendly person answer when you make your first call."