In an increasingly digital world, adopting a child is still too often an analog process that can drag on for years. Take the experiences of Trish and Steven Williams. The couple, whose names have been changed for privacy reasons, wanted to adopt a child and received approval through a home study—a critical first step. But they never got past this initial stage, despite considering or being considered for nearly 200 children.
Their lives changed almost overnight when the Florida couple completed a profile through Family-Match, an online tool to help facilitate adoptions. Within a short time, they were able to adopt four siblings and later a fifth child.
“Arguably, these are children who have been failed dozens of times prior, so it’s important work,” says Thea Ramirez, founder and CEO of Adoption-Share, which created Family-Match. “We believe families are key to turning these kids’ lives around. That is our passion and purpose—getting these kids into permanency and adoption.”
Digital tools are emerging
Family-Match is part of a wave of technology and digital tools that are helping to change the way adoptions are handled in the U.S., especially for older children in the foster care system. And the need is great: There are nearly 424,000 children in the U.S. foster care system, with almost 30% eligible for adoption, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. However, the average wait time for them to be placed with an adoptive family is four years.
Adoption agencies, government child welfare departments, organizations that provide supportive services and prospective parents all have access to a range of new tools. These include algorithms, database management software, photo listing websites that showcase available children (a.k.a. heart galleries), and even personal websites from prospective parents—all meant to help close the gap between people who want to adopt and children in need of homes.
“Person-to-person connection technology and online search tools have become an integral part of the adoption process by assisting in finding potential adoptive families for children and by enhancing individual real-time virtual connections,” says Rita Soronen, president and CEO of the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption. “These tactics have also benefited individuals who have been adopted, whether at birth or as an older child, by providing a mechanism to find displaced extended family members and helping to complete missing medical histories and other risk factors.”
One of the Thomas foundation’s key initiatives, Wendy’s Wonderful Kids, provides funding for adoption professionals—known as recruiters—to deploy Connect Our Kids, an online family search and engagement program. The recruiters use the technology to help identify potential adoptive parents from a child’s “natural network” of family and friends.
“Technology and specifically family search and engagement platforms provide critical support in finding extended family and other community members who may already be known to children, particularly older youth and teens,” Soronen says. “This is an important strategy for family matches responding to and supporting the child’s unique identity.”
Taking a different approach
Bringing children and prospective families together is also the focus of Family-Match but through a different lens. Instead of families applying for specific children, as is often the case with other adoption services, caseworkers contact families who have been vetted about prospective adoptions that might prove a good match.
The process revolves around an algorithm that factors in 23 attributes—including personality, attachment style, expectations, resiliency and affect—that are likely to indicate the potential success of a match. “The power in the matching system isn’t identifying the better or worse parents and kids in terms of matchability,” Ramirez says, “but what’s the proper mix up of these attributes, so that the amalgam of the attributes together produce an enhanced likelihood of success.”
Under Family-Match, families complete a compatibility assessment and a profile, which are reviewed by a caseworker. The algorithm directs caseworkers to families who have a high relational fit with a child in need of adoption. The service is free for families and child welfare agencies, with the cost in Florida covered by individual donors. In other states, a combination of funding from state governments and private partners pays for the program, according to Ramirez.
In Florida, where officials started using Family-Match in July 2018, there have been 847 matches and 375 finalized adoptions. Preliminary analysis of data from one agency shows that the use of Family-Match boosted by 25 to 50% the number of adoptions among children who have experienced a termination of parental rights (TPR), no identified family or special needs. Family-Match claims its average time to match is less than six months from when a case was entered and only 22 days from when a worker used Family-Match to consider families for the child they were trying to match. The children who were matched on average had waited as long as 13 months for a placement—prior to their being onboarded with Family-Match.
We have seen half of adoptions occur outside of a family’s home area—they live across the state or county line from the child, but the caseworkers would not have known about the match without our technology.
—Thea Ramirez, founder and CEO, Adoption-Share
The average age of the adopted children has been nine, with the overall age range going from infants to 18-year-olds. Some six in 10 children were adopted as sibling groups and 45% have had more than one placement in a facility—meaning they lived outside of a traditional home. About 40% were over age 10 when they were adopted, and about the same number have physical disabilities or medical complexities.”We have seen half of adoptions occur outside of a family’s home area—they live across the state or county line from the child, but the caseworkers would not have known about the match without our technology,” Ramirez says.
Better tech needed
Sixto Cancel knows firsthand the challenges of living in the foster care system and trying to find a forever family. The CEO and founder of Think of Us, a research and development lab for child welfare, grew up in foster care—he entered the system as an 11-month-old baby and finally got adopted at age 9. The placement didn’t work out, and by age 13, he was “couch surfing” before re-entering foster care at 15.
Part of Cancel’s mission is to ensure technology leads to “advances” in the system instead of some of the “consequences” he’s witnessed. For example, he learned as an adult about family members who could have potentially adopted him. However, the system failed him because—without a virtual, connected case file—his caseworker didn’t know about their existence.
“I could have been raised with family who were only 58 miles away,” he says. “But the software didn’t connect to say, ‘Alert, alert, these folks are related to this case.'”
In 2016, Think of Us, in partnership with HHS, hosted the first hackathon for foster care technology at the White House. At the same time, the feds announced a series of changes meant to bring the child welfare system more firmly into the 21st century, including regulations for the use of tech in child welfare; a $1 million initiative to help states set up “agile” child welfare data systems; and a “toolkit” from the U.S. Department of Education to help foster youth transition from care into higher education and careers.
While these and other changes indicate progress, Cancel believes the system can better leverage tech to be more proactive rather than reactive. “We’ve leaned into using algorithms to predict abuse—it’s the wrong use case for technology,” he says. “Instead of trying to figure out how to help families, we’re using it to separate families.”
A brighter future for all kids
Towards the goal of uniting families, Think of Us is working to facilitate so-called kinship adoptions, in which children are adopted by family members. “There are 2.4 million children living with kin in mostly informal—not licensed—situations,” he says. “They don’t know they qualify for resources.” Think of Us has partnered with the state of California on a program called Virtual Support Services, which connects families applying for cash grants and other supports with resources to help stabilize their home environment quickly.
For additional progress, Cancel also points to Binti, a software company using digitization to improve the process for onboarding prospective foster and adoptive parents. Binti has teamed up with county and state governments and private adoption agencies in 27 states, working with more than 10,000 social workers who use the company’s data-driven technology as their “primary workspace,” according to the company. Binti claims to have boosted by 80% the number of families that are okayed to adopt or foster. “By streamlining this process—more people have stepped up to complete the process,” Cancel says.
Technology can also play a key role in ensuring families that successfully complete the adoption process thrive—and grow.
“Children in the foster care system may have profound and unresolved issues of grief and loss, they may have been re-abused or moved multiple times, and frequently they have layers of trauma that need to be addressed,” Soronen says. “Online links to information on the array of financial and emotional supports available to families have been instrumental in assuring they have the information that they need to adopt a child with trauma-related needs. Technology also reinforces adoptive family stability by providing easy access to virtual networking with other adoptive families, continued learning and physical or mental health assistance.”
The positive impact of technology on these families and children’s lives is very real. The Williams family, for one, has continued to grow—using Family-Match, they adopted another sibling set of five. “It’s crazy to think that the whole time we were waiting to be matched,” Trish Williams said in a testimonial, “my kids had been right there—just two hours away—waiting to be connected to us.”
Lead photo by of Kelly Sikkema/Unsplash