The landscape of international adoption has shifted dramatically since the early days when families were primarily bringing home young children with few known special needs. But the need for a high quality home study process that appropriately evaluates, educates, equips and supports prospective adoptive families is more important than ever.
In light of recent regulatory changes from the U.S. Central Authority that are spurring lots of conversations in the adoption community about home studies, perhaps this is a good time for all of us – adoptive parents and adoption professionals alike – to pause, reconsider our perspective, and reset our thinking about the purpose and goals of the home study.
Agape Adoptions Executive Director Myriam Avery (MA), Director of Social Services Debby Fields (DF), and NCFA Vice President Ryan Hanlon (RH), weighed in on some of the most common questions and issues surrounding home studies today. In Part One, they talk about the essence of the home study, address common criticisms, and offer possibilities for the impact of recent regulatory changes.
MA: The home study should be the foundation of an adoption. I think for a long time, there was this notion that home studies were a “product” and not a process. To some extent, there is still this sentiment. Families sometimes think of it as something to “get through” and be done with. Of course we want children to get home to their families as soon as possible. But we also have a responsibility to ensure as much as possible on our end, that we’ve appropriately assessed and prepared the family for an adoption.
The home study process has definitely evolved with more requirements over the years. The basic standards are set by the Hague, the sending country, USCIS and individual states. Agencies can also implement policies and standards into their home study requirements. For example with training, agencies have different guidance on the amount of training needed and if previous training can be used. With more older children being adopted internationally and primarily children with special needs, several agencies require specific assessment and training in older child adoption. Family feedback is always important and is a helpful tool for many agencies to evaluate the effectiveness of their training and support and make changes where needed.
Some of the most common criticisms from prospective adoptive parents is that the intercountry home study process takes too long, costs too much and requires too much work on their part. Are these concerns valid? Or, do we need some course correction in our thinking?
DF: It’s so important to remember why we are doing the home study. Agencies have a responsibility to ensure that families are able to care for all of their new child's needs, have realistic expectations about the challenges they may be faced with, and have the knowledge and tools to effectively parent their child with sensitivity and compassion for their history. Parents need preparation for this challenging task and agencies must ensure that families have the resources they need to help their children heal and thrive. Parents should be able to use their social worker as a resource for building knowledge and skills they can use with their child. Yes, there is a lot of paperwork that is needed and yes that takes a lot of time to gather and the fees may be a challenge for many families. But, a large portion of that is set by government regulations rather than agencies, and in the end those are just part of the process and should not be the focus. It can’t be about cost and time. The homestudy is one of the biggest investments you will make in your family and new child’s life. Invest well.
RH: If they’re getting poor service, I think they should be frustrated. However, I think that they should not have a mindset that home studies are useless, inappropriate, or a waste of time. Any reasonable person would, I think, say that we should have a “safeguard” process including background checks, etc. For those who think it’s a long process, they should compare timeframe to state/county led home studies.
MA: I think it’s important to note that there is a difference between speed and efficiency. We want to be efficient with the time and energies of our families and social workers. Unnecessary delays are not in the best interests of waiting children and do not serve families well. At the same time, we are not willing to skimp on quality or shortchange standards for the sake of speed. So I would recommend that families have a conversation up front with a prospective home study agency about everyone’s expectations and projected timeframe. But keep in mind that it’s just a projection. For us, best practice means communicating the big picture of the home study process but being clear that the timeframe does vary. Each family is unique and it is impossible to predict what may or may not come up during the assessment that we would need to appropriately address with the family to ensure they are prepared and ready for the next step in their adoption process.
As the first big step in the adoption process, completing the home study is a major milestone. And with the recent regulatory changes from the Department of State, there’s an even bigger focus on the home study. What do you see as some of the potential impacts?
RH: I see at least three possibilities for how this will impact the home study process.
1) It could stay relatively the same
2) Home study process may be rushed to get to a place of “matching/locking” files
3) Home study workers may feel less pressure to approve for a specific child, if the family is not presenting them with a specific child.
In particular I am very concerned about home studies being rushed and the proper training and assessment not being completed. It’s really important that families and social workers are careful to maintain the purpose and integrity of the home study process.
MA: I am concerned. I think that there will be families who will want to “rush” through the home study process and potentially minimize the importance of it. It is our job to do our due diligence in the assessment process. The quality of the home study may be compromised some because there is definitely a benefit to completing a home study for a family who knows the child they want to adopt, as they can really prepare for that type of child. It’s harder to approve a family for a wide range of ages and needs.
Read Part 2 Now, an outline the hallmarks of a good home study, what families should look for in a provider, and pitfalls to avoid.