How Eval of One Program Could Provide Real Insight on Issue of Failed Adoptions

The Dave Thomas Foundation (DTFA) has established that its flagship program is effective in getting older youths adopted; nearly twice as effective as the business-as-usual approach to permanency for those youths.

But it has no idea how those adoptions are going, and apparently it wants to find out.

Thomas will work with Child Trends to conduct research in some states to find out what the pre- and post-adoption experience was like for youths, according to Karin Malm, whose organization conducted the control study that confirmed the impact of Thomas’ Wendy’s Wonderful Kids program (WWK).

Malm mentioned plans for the study at last week’s Alliance for Children and Families national conference, and suggested it might rely on interviews with youths from a small cadre of the WWK 186 sites.

Youth Services Insider humbly suggests that it would be a worthy investment for some grant maker to help make that a universal study of the nearly 4,000 adoptions achieved with the help of WWK. That would expand the value of such a study beyond the walls of the Dave Thomas Foundation to the adoption services community at large.

The research, done right, could provide some modern insight into failed adoptions, a point on which there is little in the way of good knowledge. The federal government does not require states to track re-entries to care from adoption, and the last robust attempts to study this are a couple decades old.

Here’s the deal, for those uninitiated with WWK. The foundation awards grants to public and private adoption agencies to hire adoption professionals who implement proactive, child-focused recruitment programs targeted exclusively on moving America’s longest-waiting children from foster care into adoptive families.

In 2011, Child Trends published an impact study on the Wendy’s Wonderful Kids program, a huge undertaking that assessed the outcomes of all WWK sites and also used a smaller sample in a randomized control group study.

WWK-supported recruiters have worked with 9,680 children, and that work has led to 3,708 adoptions. If that doesn’t sound like a high rate of success, consider the following:

1) These were mostly children who statistically have horrific odds of getting adoption. Seventy percent were over nine years old; 45 percent were over 12; 45 percent had a disability; and 23 percent had more than one disabilities.

2) The control group comparison showed that WWK-supported recruiters were 1.74 times more likely than others to successfully place a child with an adoptive family. In the parlance of researchers: Highly significant impact.

Of the youths placed in adoptions through WWK, about 20 percent had already been adopted and were returned to foster care. And since the WWK program hones in on the recruitment and matching aspects of the process, it makes sense that the foundation is now interested in learning about the youth’s experience during and after that part’s over.

In YSI’s opinion, it will be unfortunate if the assessment stops at simply gauging the experience of some adoptees. That would mostly be helpful to DTFA in calibrating its own mission. If the foundation and Child Trends can actually pinpoint the success rate of the thousands of adoptions achieved through WWK, that will be a win for the entire child welfare industry.

Two reasons:

1) It would be the first large-sample study ever to specifically look at the success rate of adoptions for youths with challenging cases (older, disabled, multiple siblings, etc). It is well-known that far too few of these youths are adopted at all; but what’s the success rate for the adoptions that are finalized? This would be the first real attempt to answer that question.

The last large efforts to assess failed adoption rates for any youths took place in California (mid-1980s) and Illinois (1990s), both before the Department of Health and Human Services offered states incentives based on finalized adoptions.

2) If and when the feds took a broader look at adoption success, and parsed those numbers by age, it would be really valuable to have the comparative value between that and the WWK numbers. One would be able to see the difference (if any) between failure rates on average versus rates for areas with specialists dedicated to matching the toughest cases.

It would be no small feat to track down 4,000 adoptive families and adoptees. But if DTFA has access to those contact points, it is sitting on a research gold mine for the many advocates who want to know more about adoption success/failure rates.

Youth Services Insider is mostly written by Chronicle Editor-in-Chief John Kelly

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John Kelly
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John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.