Michigan wants to improve post-adoption support for families

Michigan wants to improve post-adoption support for families

Michigan wants to improve post-adoption support for families

When parents sign adoption papers, they are supposed to give their child a permanent home. They usually do: Less than 2 percent of adoptions in Michigan are canceled. But not all homes are happy ones. Some children have been irreparably damaged or hardened by the trauma they have experienced. Some parents realize too late the toll that bringing a child home can take on their time, their finances, their relationships and their lifestyle.

Most of these parents struggle to navigate these unforeseen difficulties, turning to online communities and support groups for resources and connections (and, if they can afford them, therapists). But even those who worked with troubled and traumatized children before adopting said the state could do a better job of preparing families for what it really means to adopt outside of the foster care system and making it easier to access help before problems become crises.

“There are a lot of options for support,” said Melissa Jenovai, president and CEO of Spaulding for Children, a nonprofit child welfare agency based in Southfield. “But that doesn’t mean it’s easy and doesn’t require a lot. It’s an imperfect system.”

Michigan is trying to improve the preparation and support it provides to families adopting outside the child welfare system, while also trying to recruit more prospective parents to open their hearts and homes to some of the state’s most vulnerable children.

Updated training provides parents with honest preparation

Adoptive parents — and the experts and specialists who advise them — say that having a clearer idea of ​​what adoption outside of foster care is like is the first step toward preventing pain and speeding healing.

“If I could explain to parents what to expect, this wouldn’t be such a big surprise,” said Kim Seidel, a therapist and author who trains foster and adoptive parents across the state. “It wouldn’t be so devastating to them… There wouldn’t be so many broken placements and tears.”

Amanda Zimmerman recalled laughing at the training videos she watched before becoming licensed as a foster parent nearly 10 years ago, when there was already a curriculum. She thought they were silly, over-the-top and contained concepts that were too foreign.

That training didn’t work for her. After years of hesitation, Zimmerman learned most of what she knows now about being an adoptive parent to a daughter with special needs by Googling and reading books like Seidel’s. She didn’t even know about Post Adoption Resource Centers — one of the state’s main supports for adoptive parents — until a year ago.

“That’s why a lot of kids end up leaving home, unfortunately, because their parents give up,” Zimmerman said. “They don’t know where to turn for help and resources.”

Zimmerman, who is now a foster care navigator for the state of Michigan, said the GROW training program, which has been running for two years, does a much better job of giving prospective parents access to people who have been in their shoes and have real-world insight.

The curriculum places more emphasis on early childhood trauma and how it affects development, offers many videos and links, and allows for group discussions with people who have lived the experience.

Previous training “wasn’t working and families felt like they didn’t have what they needed when they started fostering or adopting,” Jenovai said. “The fact that Michigan decided … to have a curriculum designed specifically for our state speaks to their commitment.”

Seidel agreed that the training included a lot of good information about trauma, but said it was missing some of the guidance that parents of traumatized children might need. For example, what do I do when my house has been destroyed?

She constantly sees online posts from excited prospective adoptive parents and is eager to offer them a free orientation session. “I really wish we would spend more time with the adoptive parents and foster parents so they know what to expect,” Seidel said. “That would prevent so many disruptions and multiple placements.”

Wendy’s wonderful children

One way the state is trying to create more successful adoption options is by partnering with the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, which runs a child-focused adoption program called Wendy’s Wonderful Kids. The program currently supports Spaulding for Children to pay professional adoption recruiters who are dedicated to finding permanent families for foster children, with a special focus on teens, sibling groups and others who have additional challenges finding permanent homes.

Under this program, adoption recruiters like Danelle Stiffler conduct extensive searches to find foster families while also getting to know the 12 to 15 children in her care. She attends their soccer games, makes scrapbooks with them, practices basketball after school and sits in the audience at their dance recitals.

Once they trust her, they can talk openly about their hopes, fears and dreams. Instead of helping a family find a child, she meets the child and then finds a suitable family.

The first Wendy’s Wonderful Kids recruiter in Michigan started in 2005. One more was added in 2006 and two more the following year. But in 2020, 27 recruiters joined the ranks and today 37 adoption recruiters work in partnership with the organization and the state.

A five-year national evaluation showed that children referred to the program were three times more likely to be adopted. And its recruiters are committed to finding placements that last, especially since one-third of the children the program places have already had a failed adoption, according to Rita Soronen, the foundation’s president and CEO.

“The family was not prepared, or they didn’t understand, or maybe they didn’t know what they were getting into,” Soronen said. “And for us that would be the biggest scandal: that we didn’t adequately prepare the family.”

A $20 million opportunity

Michigan sees the struggle that foster parents face, especially when it comes to serious behavioral health needs.

“We really stand in solidarity with our parents,” said Demetrius Starling, principal deputy director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children’s Services. “Our department has been working tirelessly over the last several years to meet this urgent and growing need for specialized behavioral health therapeutic treatment for our children, including children who have been adopted and children in the foster care system who are experiencing really severe issues.”

Starling said there has been an influx of funding to recruit infant mental health professionals and the state hopes to expand infant and toddler programming to support families with young children involved in the child welfare system.

Michigan continues to review how foster and adoption caseworkers are trained. Pre-service training currently lasts nine weeks.

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According to Lara Bouse, president and CEO of Fostering Forward Michigan, the state put out contracts to bid to expand the pool of respite care providers. “It will take a lot of pressure off of them and make it a little bit easier for them to be able to provide some of those natural breaks that are needed and that some families never get,” she said.

And with the announcement that Spaulding for Children recently received a $20 million cooperative agreement to launch the National Center for Enhanced Post-Adoption Support, a state that has offered slowly improving assistance could be poised to serve as a national example.

The center will help build evidence-based post-permanency services in 25 U.S. jurisdictions. It will help close the gap between what child welfare agencies provide and what families need, according to Jenovai.

If Michigan becomes a project site, it will benefit from intensive in-person technical assistance with the goal of having a comprehensive post-adoption support system, including a training curriculum now used in more than 15 other states.

“Parents say it has dramatically improved their understanding and sense of preparedness before fostering and adopting,” Jenovai said.

Whether or not Michigan participates, its child welfare leaders say they are committed to continually improving the experience of families who take children out of the system and make them their own.

“A lot of us have started working really hard to make sure these adoptive parents have access to more than they used to,” Bouse said. “Are we doing it too quickly? No. Some of these things are not easy to implement and make a reality. But is there growth and expansion? Yes.”

This is the last of three stories about parents adopting outside of Michigan’s child welfare system. Read the others: Parents who adopt children from foster care lose support and services. Could Michigan improve their situation? And: Adoptive parents often learn the hard way: It takes more than love to overcome trauma..

Jennifer Brookland covers child welfare for the Detroit Free Press. This story was produced with support from The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University.