Solving the 'connection problem' in foster care adoption

Adoption in the state of Florida is about to become a much more efficient process thanks to a software program that will allow agencies to access a statewide database of potential families, but it’s not just a database. It’s also a matching program built by Adoption-Share, a non profit organization, with help from the former lead researchers of e-Harmony. Family-Match which will give caseworkers the ability to match foster children with parents based on markers of compatibility. Typically agencies are looking for potential parents within their local area. Family-Match will open the pool of possible matches by providing child welfare agencies a repository of approved families from across the state. Two nonprofits- Adoption-Share and the Selfless Love Foundation came together to launch Family-Match in Florida. The story of how Family-Match came to be begins with Adoption-Share’s founder Thea Ramirez. Adoption-Share’s mission is to provide “solutions to leverage technology to bring reform, efficiency, and innovation to the private and public domestic adoption arena.” Ramirez, originally from Central Florida and a graduate of Winter Park High School gave a brief synopsis of how she developed Adoption-Share - which paved the way for Family Match. “My first job out of grad school was an adoption social worker. I was working for a privately licensed infant adoption agency. That’s very different than adopting a child through foster care.“ She explained that going into the field really not knowing anything about adoption - what she expected to find and what she actually did find was “starkly in contrast.” Kate & Chris English, Leesburg FL, Prospective Adoptive Parents,  "I’m so excited that a program like this is being created as there are just so many children waiting for permanency". “There were so many inefficiencies that were keeping families from being formed. And so we created Adoption- Share really as a solution for families who wanted to adopt through private infant adoptions- so that they could do so in a faster more efficient way. In our early years our technology was able to help families adopt within 9 months of having their home study completed.” She explained that active duty and deployed Air Force officers were able to get matched and adopt while serving overseas. “Some really cool things were happening,” added Ramirez. Adoption-Share’s amazing results attracted the attention of child welfare leaders who wished to use their technology to help kids in foster care get adopted. Ramirez remarked, “I realized very quickly, understanding the scope and the depth of the complexities that surround adopting through foster care that we were going to need a more robust system.” That began a two year period of researching, investigating and listening to stories. “What we found was kind of quite shocking. Although the infant adoption stage is very different from adopting a child in foster care, some of the same problems existed in both buckets. What we noticed, just like in private infant adoption, families were pigeonholed into one little pool of waiting families whereas their forever child could be in a different state or with a different agency. We saw the same problems in the child welfare community where agencies were really dependent and over reliant on just their list of families.” Ramirez compared current practices to working in a darkened room. “If you could just turn that light switch on in their room, that would just help everyone so that you’re not just working with your pool of families, you can now see the entire pool of families across the state,” urged Ramirez. That led to the question, “Well if you are going to create a matching system, then why not look at the data that supports best matches and understand who works best with who?” To build a repository of families who were eligible and qualified and able to take placement today and develop a matching system, they reached out to the former lead researchers at e-Harmony, who developed Family-Match’s compatibility model and the assessments that go with it which are based on over 250 peer reviewed research articles about attributes that have been found to scientifically relate to disruption. John & Liz Allport, Greater Orlando Area, Prospective Adoptive Parents, "I love the concept of having some sort of way to find a good match based on family compatibility" Ramirez remarked that the software development was an evolving process which started on the tail end of 2014. The process included compiling feedback from state leaders and child welfare workers, building the system out, receiving input and finally program implementation. In terms of the assessments developed for the software, Ramirez explained, “The goal of these assessments that families can take on their own and caseworkers take on behalf of the child are to give them (access to) not just the entire pool of families that are available, but to also show them which ones they might want to reach out to first.. due to a greater likelihood of success. That’s how we got Family-Match- the culmination of those two very pivotal tool sets within the application.” Family-Match is currently in the Commonwealth of Virginia and by the Fall of 2018- Ramirez hopes to have Family-Match starting up in Tennessee. Families are now signing up for Family-Match in Florida, and the matching application will be enabled in July. With support from the Selfless Love Foundation, Family-Match is rolling out in Florida. Selfless Love Foundation is a 501c3 founded in 2015 by Ashley Brown with her husband Ed Brown, President and CEO of Patron Spirits Company. Ashley Brown had a personal impetus for creating Selfless Love Foundation. It was a way for her to payback the blessing she was given as an infant adopted at birth. “Growing up I always felt I was given a second chance at life and I want to pay back that blessing,” Ashley Brown said. “I truly was given the most unbelievable life and the best family. I always knew how lucky I was and what a gift that was.” In lieu of wedding gifts, the Browns asked their friends and family to donate to their newly formed 501c3 foundation- which they knew would be a platform for foster children but had not yet worked out the details. Dr. Elizabeth Wynter, LMHC, EdD, joined the Selfless Love Foundation as the Executive Director to guide the organization’s child welfare initiatives. She serves as the vice chair for the Florida Coalition for Children Foundation, co-chair of the FCC Independent Living Committee, FCC-DCF Strategic Initiative Lead, and adjunct professor at Nova Southeastern University College of Psychology. For more than 20 years, Dr. Wynter has worked on behalf of abused, neglected, and abandoned children, providing leadership for local, state, and national efforts to improve the child welfare system. “We are so fortunate to be a privatized child welfare state. This allows us flexibility to implement innovative approaches to impact the permanency for children,” Dr. Wynter said. The Department of Children and Families contracts with local Community-Based care lead agencies to oversee the child welfare system. Kid’s Central, which manages Citrus, Hernando Lake, Marion, and Sumter Counties, is a key partner in the Family-Match project. Ashley Brown explained that the stars aligned when Dr. Wynter found Adoption-Share, granting them the opportunity to meet Thea Ramirez up in Virginia. She was impressed with Ramirez’s work and spoke with her husband upon her return. Ed Brown urged his wife to call Ramirez to get going on a pilot program for Florida. He said, “Well what are you waiting for? Pick up the phone and call her- Let’s do this.” “It’s been an unbelievable really fast journey,” Ashley Brown remarked. Dr. Wynter explained why Family-Match peaked her interest, “Being in the nonprofit world, because of resources, we don’t take advantage of some of the innovations that streamline our work…” Dr. Wynter explained that Florida is hitting their numbers for adoptions, adopting close to 3700 kids last year, but there are still kids that are waiting to find a family and there are families that are waiting just as long to find a kid. “Really the issue isn’t a resource problem, it’s a connection problem,” said Dr. Wynter. This ability to pool all of these kids into one database creates a repository. When Dr. Wynter approached the Lead Agency CEOs with this concept- they told her, “Well that makes perfect sense.” She continued, “Secondary to the repository- now we have something evidence based that creates a science for our decision making. This technology solidifies the criteria for making those decisions.” Dr. Wynter explained that three or four years ago there was a huge jump in the number of kids coming into foster care, resulting in a large number of children now available for adoption in Florida: 800-900. Now how do we find homes for the difficult to place children such as sibling groups, teenagers and those with medical issues. We do have families who are interested in adopting these children, but prior to Family-Match it was a struggle to connect them. “That really is a game changer for child welfare,” remarked Dr. Wynter. Ramirez commented that Selfless Love Foundation is more than the financial backers of the Florida pilot program, “We’re calling them our strategic partners in this because they are more than just financial stakeholders. They are investing into this cause. They are the most proactive, get involved partners you could really dream of." She stated that she works closely with Dr. Wynter to ensure Family-Match is a success in Florida. "We have her strategic leadership, 25 years of experience in the field to leverage the relationships with individuals she has across the state. Selfless Love Foundation- we see them as our partner and our team. We would not be in Florida today without Selfless Love Foundation.” Florida’s pilot was originally intended to be small, including a few counties and circuits but Ramirez explained that within 6 to 8 weeks, the pilot covered nearly the entire state. In Florida there are over 200 families who have begun creating profiles on Family-Match. These parents have already gone through their training and home-study approval. Their goal is to reach at least 300 by summertime, when they will turn on the matching component. They are well on their way. Ashley Brown said that they have nearly 300 families that have indicated interest on the Selfless Love Foundation website which has resources for anyone even considering adoption. Everyone who registers through the Selfless Love's website, Dr. Wynter reaches out to personally to discuss adoption with them. Ashley Brown stated, “For a family, this means so much. They feel like they’ve been lost in the system, waiting for a child for months and sometimes years. Just having somebody reach out and say ‘Hey, we’re here for you- if you have questions let us know.’ I just think that is monumental for these families.” Ashley Brown commented that while she is very excited about the repository and matching program, she’s also excited that the program educates families on realistic expectations on what children are available for adoption. Ramirez agreed remarking that Family-Match gives parents a better sense of need and who is actually in the pool. She explained that forty percent of all families that have created profiles in Family-Match are interested in adopting a child over the age of 10. “We’re seeing in Virginia, it’s around the same mark,” she added. As far as the assessment goes, each parent fills out their own assessment which is a mix of drop down questions and scales. There are no open ended questions, but Ramirez explained, “It’s a really deep dive into not what kind of kid do you want to adopt, but more along the lines of how do you cope, how do you form attachments, how much value do you place on education, if you’ve never parented before- what do you expect it to be like?” For married couples, Family-Match contains basic marriage related questions. Ramirez said, “Your parenting is going to be adversely affected if your marriage is on the rocks.” She mentioned that marital satisfaction, how much you can depend on your spouse, what is your support network are areas that the assessment takes into account. On Family-Match there are no photos of kids which really sets the program apart. Ramirez stated that this flips the script on the way matches happen- since parents can usually browse through a list of children waiting to be adopted. “It’s giving caseworkers all of the available families that are eligible and able to adopt today.” The child’s caseworker completes the assessment for the child, although Ashley Brown and Dr. Wynter are working on ways to allow older children to participate more in the assessment process. Ramirez expects that it would take between 30 and 60 days to solidify the potential of a match. That doesn’t necessarily mean a placement, just that the family and the caseworkers are in agreement. Placement varies on a number of factors and there is a lot of lead up to ensure the transition goes well. Family-Match will follow up after the child is placed in the home, to monitor the results of the placement. Families complete brief post placement assessments at 1 month, 3 months, 6 months, and 12 months after placement. They also follow up with the caseworker at those times. Both follow-ups aim to measure the quality of the match. As more measurements and outcomes are recorded, the strength and accuracy of the matching algorithm for the predictive model will increase. Ashley Brown explained that once Florida’s program is setup- they hope to continue with others. “We already have our phones ringing off the hook from other states. People are really excited about this.”

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