POSTED ON NOVEMBER 4, 2009:
Picking up the Pace
Swift Adoption Services allows for more children to have homes much sooner
The Oklahoma Department of Human Services' Swift Adoption Unit is placing more children in adoptive homes than ever before.
Before 1999, the average number of children adopted in the state of Oklahoma hovered around 300. Since that year however, more than 12,000 children have been placed in adoptive homes.
If you recall elementary math, those numbers don't add up. But the rules of mathematics have not changed, the way the state handles adoptions has.
One man along with a Herculean challenge started it all. Former State Senator and legislative representative of SoonerStart Howard Hendrick took the reigns as Director of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services in 1998, and his challenge initiated the change.
The challenge that Director Hendrick issued his employees in January of 1999 was to get 1,231 kids into adoptive homes by the end of that year (the number standing for the last day of the year, of course).
"(Director Hendrick) challenged (OKDHS) to find a swifter way to get kids into adopted families," said Audrey Banks, a Swift field representative and a 21-year OKDHS veteran. It was the wording of the challenge that "gave the program its name."
But how exactly could this be done without increasing funding or hiring dozens of new representatives? According to Banks, the primary secret of the program's success was reorganizing the already existing resources.
Before the program, the adoption staff was responsible for all of the intricacies of the adoption process, meaning that much of its time was spent not only writing profiles of children in state care, conducting family assessments, and training families for parenthood, adoption workers were often used as support staff for other programs within child services along with monetary resources, too.
The solution to the problems was evident: Increase the separation between adoptive and other services without sacrificing communication, and hire private contractors to conduct some of the more time consuming services, such as family training and home assessments. This would allow the Swift staff more time to place children and in turn increase the number of adoptees.
Swift receives federal incentive funding for the program. 'Incentive' meaning that the more children the program successfully placed, the more funding it receives. Oklahoma is ranked 3rd in the nation for incentive monies, a ranking that is representative of the success of the Swift program.
"The money is recycled back into the program," Banks said, "and it's used to fund adoption support groups, workshops, and (other) training for clients (adoptive parents)."
Partially due to 'fund recycling,' Swift can afford to provide all support services to both potential and current parents. In fact, Swift pays for everything, except a physical examination that the client(s) has to take in order to qualify as an adoptive family, including additional assistance for parents who adopt a special needs child.
These are the provisions that differentiate the state funded program from private adoption firms, where the client generally pays for the majority, if not all, of steep fees, which can reach as high as $40,000 according to adoption.com, and maybe even more for a child with special needs.
The program's success, however, has not changed the need for adoptive parents nor does it alter the nature of the people who adopt. Swift is looking for "Everyday ordinary people who can love a child (as their own)," Banks said. "You don't have to be perfect to be a parent."
While most adoptive parents typically seek infant children, Banks pointed out that children of all ages and racial and ethnic backgrounds are in the program, many of them with special needs.
"School age children are harder to place," she said, explaining the tendency of couples and families to raise a child from infancy. "There's more incentive to get them into good homes." It's even harder to place groups of siblings in a home, though sometimes families will adopt entire groups of siblings, as Swift does its best to preserve these sibling groups.
The vast majority of adoptive parents in Oklahoma are classified as "identified" parents, meaning the child to be adopted has an already established relationship with them, usually by blood. Although other established relationships like neighbors and close family friends, are also classified as "identified."
"It's best for children to be adopted by (identified parents)," Banks said. The primary reason being the child's comfort and already existing familiarity with them. Unidentified parents, those without any relationship with the child, comprise the other 20 percent. Whichever category the potential parents might fit, both fill the need for adoptive homes equally, and Swift staff does its best to find a good match for the kids.
Swift also works to preserve the child's relationship with his or her biological family, as long as that family is not potentially dangerous or disruptive to the child's development.
In many cases, the program uses a type of program called Bridge Resource Families, which serve as a sort of a hybrid of adoptive and foster homes. Bridge Families exist to prevent the child from being bounced around from foster home to foster home, while the child's biological parents work their way through their problems. This gives the child a more stable support system than a foster home can usually supply.
Bridge participants can be married, divorced, single or separated, but all must submit to extensive background checks (including fingerprinting for a national criminal background check) and 27 hours of pre-service training. In addition they must submit to a physical exam and providing information for a family assessment and home study.
Once through the barrage of requirements, the Bridge family "builds a bridge" between the child and their troubled biological family. While providing emotional support and a stable home environment for the child, the Bridge family also supports the biological family in a sort of "mentor" program, assisting them in getting their lives together and creating a better relationship with their child.
The program often succeeds in reuniting the child with their biological guardians, but in the case that the guardians don't improve their situation enough to continue their role as parents, Swift searches for a permanent adoptive home. Usually, the Bridge family fully adopts the child. Sometimes, though, the child will end up with another (identified or unidentified) adoptive family.
While it is not particularly easy to adopt, this scrutiny is for the best, as the OKDHS Web site points out. Potential parents, both identified and unidentified, are subject to the same level of careful scrutiny and background checks to ensure the child's safety and future happiness. Aside from the extensive background checks, Swift also verifies all marriages and divorces and recommendations from references.
Today, Swift Adoption Services provide a myriad of services and information for potential families, and the program's continued success is evident not only of the success of the program's reorganization, but also a moving testimony of the dedication of adoption workers like Audrey Banks.
"We've got good numbers for 2009," said Banks, adding that nearly 1,500 children in Oklahoma have been legally adopted this year. "We've got lots of good families, (but) we're (always) looking for families to love a child they did not give birth to."
For more information about Swift Adoption Services, and inquiries about adopting, contact the Adoption Families Recruiting Line at 866-612-2565 or visit okdhs.org and click on the "Adopt a Child" link to request a free adoption packet.
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