Day three began with a round table session with two organisations working out of Ann Arbor, with remits across the State; PARC (Post Adoption Resource Centre) and MARE (Michigan Adoption Resource Exchange).
MARE - Michigan Adoption Resource Exchange
MARE are essentially a recruitment service for children in need of adoption. This is not to belittle or oversimplify their service, but MARE's core service steps in once children have been placed up for adoption with a view to promoting their availability (NOTE: in a discussion later in the week I pondered the ethics of 'marketing' children; a member of a focus group also commented on the ability to use photographs to search for more information about a child without full consideration for a child's welfare).
There are 13,000 children in care in Michigan. 2,500 have the 'goal' of adoption, which means that 12 months have passed since being placed into care, during which time the birth family have been unable to fulfill a reunification plan. (By comparison, the UK had around 93,000 children 'in care' in 2014 with 5,800 placed into adoption). This 12 month period can and does vary on a case by case basis but typically once this stage has passed, parental rights are terminated. These rights will usually be replaced by adoption, guardianship (with the State acting as the parent) or independent living. Children over 14 can deny consent to be adopted.
Of the 2,500 kids per year that reach this point, most are placed with relatives or family members. Roughly 300 are left. These children are photo listed on the MARE recruitment page. Professional photos and well written profiles accompany them and they are advertised in various media outlets. Data is collected on these children (in fact all children in Michigan are tracked and they advocate a 'worker to worker' approach, where representatives for families and children are connected quickly and efficiently. It is an interesting concept. Promoting children in this way is not new, but MARE's online resource seems more established, data-wise and holistic than others I've seen in the UK. I didn't ask questions about their success rates - how long it takes children listed on the site to be placed etc, though this would be useful to follow up on.
PARC - Post Adoption Resource Centre
PARC work closely with MARE (sharing office space), providing support for families after adoption has been formalised. This includes:
- Educational seminars and training for adoptive families
- Support groups for adoptive families and adopted children
- Liaison for adoptive families with community services
- Information and referral to appropriate community services
- Adoption-sensitive, time limited, case management and crisis intervention services
- 24 hour telephone access for adoptive families looking for support services
The meeting taught me more about the adoption process in the US; or more specifically in the State of Michigan. It transpires that processes vary greatly across the country. There are 52 counties in Michigan, each with a different court system. Whilst some communicate fairly effectively (allowing cross-state domestic adoptions to take place), others don't. Similar problems are caused by the sheer number of private adoption agencies in Michigan (who typically work alongside resources such as MARE to take adoptions forward from initially matching to legal, formal placement). There are over 100 companies registered with more than 200 sites in operation. These don't communicate effectively either. It results in occasions where children are placed miles from their home towns, when available homes are almost literally available next door.
This made me think about the local authorities in the UK. A meeting I had in mid-2015 with John Simmonds at CoramBAAF highlighted the problems faced by 'competing' LAs and opportunities for greater synergies between them. To contradict my previous concern, this opens up the likelihood of children being placed beyond their 'home' towns - but ultimately we want situations where safe homes are found in an appropriate time frame, and that excessive institutional care is not brought about due to shortsighted, closed systems.
Tracy, PARCs senior Project Manager, raised an interesting point about engaging boys. Where good male staff are supervising projects, it is very clear that boys will become more engagement.
The group told me about the implementation of a new, sector wide database called MiSACWIS. It stands for the Michigan Statewide Automated Child Welfare Information System. It took me back to my conversation with Dr Philip Gillingham about his research into new systems in social care organisations. True to form, though the theory and intention behind the new system was logical and fair (increased inter connectivity, quicker access to case workers, adoptive children and adoptive parents) the delivery has been very challenging for the sector, resulting in slowed, delayed or cancelled placements as workers adjust to changes and data catches up. Of course, workloads do not adjust and social workers are busier than ever managing their cases. There are positives about MiSACWIS, it will bring about meaningful changes to the way adoption and foster care is managed. It is just interesting to witness another example of failures to engage with technology in spite of the clear need for service improvements.
- The duality of the 'solution' of adoption - two stigmas face adopted families; first that they are defined by problems - and even though large portions of adopted children face learning and emotional difficulties, some adoptions are relatively positive, happy no more troublesome than childhood unaffected by adoption. On the flip side, there is sometimes a feeling that once an adoption is finalised, problems have been saved (in a 'hallmark' emotional moment). This invites a different kind of challenge.
- Michigan faces familiar problems - a shortage of foster and adoption families. MARE aims to connect social workers as part of a deeper network that aims to bring the right children and families together more quickly. There is still the issue of finding and training more adoptive families; or more transitional foster families. This takes time and should not be rushed in the name of finding quick placements - a problem exacerbated by financial incentives for adoption agencies to place children as quickly as possible.
- Adoptions have been know to hinge on court systems, including a 6 month supervision period whereby an adoption is overseen before being fully endorsed. The people at my meeting were divided on the usefulness of this step - on one hand it makes sure a placement is fit for purpose. On the other it creates a lingering sense of temporariness, where things can still go wrong and things are still not settled. The balance here needs to come with good social work and honest communication with children.
- There was a passing reference to an interstate technology system that would integrate State databases. Watch this (large) space!
- PARC and MARE described the interesting context in Michigan surrounding a modified settlement agreement that resulted from a lawsuit placed on the State for unsuitable social care processes. It results in reforms to training, timelines, caseloads and funding for programmes (PARC being one of them).