Tuesday, February 03, 2009

15 Things a Good Agency Should Do

Through the years I have heard hundreds of stories about adoption agencies. We have thankfully avoided using unethical or fraudulent ones, and have only had good experiences with each of the agencies we have used. Strangely, we have used 4 different agencies for 4 adoptions of 5 children. Wouldn't you think that once we had a good agency we would stick with them? What are the odds of having a different agency for every adoption, especially when 3 of the 4 are from the same country? I guess that is what happens when you let God lead the whole thing and don't drive the bus yourself :-)

There are so many complaints that are made about agencies, I'll bet they often feel they can never do anything right! We fail to see how emotional we become, as adoptive-parents-in-waiting and that often we expect them to perform miracles. Sadly, some agencies have well deserved reputations for being simply in it for the money, and those claims of "baby selling" really don't seem to be too far off target. It IS a business, after all, and to some degree though we all don't like to think about it in that perspective, enough of a profit has to be turned to keep the lights on and the doors open.

I thought I would create a couple of lists here, comprised of things I have learned over the years, things I have experienced, things I have heard of from others. Let's title this:

"15 Things Good Agencies Should Do":

1) Be honest, be up front, don't sugar coat bad news or try and hide it. We parents might get mad, blow a gasket or otherwise act in a less-than-desirable manner but that still doesn't give you the right to lie or skirt the truth. We'll be far madder if we find out later that we were treated less than honestly, then you'll have a harder time dealing with us because we have righteous anger on our side!!

2) Don't refer children to more than one family at a time. I can't begin to tell you how many times this has happened over the past 10 years I have been active on lists. If it takes you a little longer to place a child, fine, but don't have two families reviewing the same child and then have to make up some sort of story about why the child is suddenly not available to the "losing" family. Believe me, they will find out, the age of the internet is here and it is pretty hard to hide things these days.

3) And speaking of the internet, don't tell parents they are not allowed to post on internet groups...it immediately makes you suspect and leads to mistrust between you and your clients. I have always told any prospective adoptive parent I have spoken with that if you are working with an agency who tells you something like this, run for the hills...it means they have something to hide and don't want communication between you and others who might tell you something the agency doesn't want you to hear. This has proven to be true over and over again, as many of these agencies end up folding or being investigated.

4) Listen to your clients, really hear them. Be the social workers you are trained to be. There are emotional components to adoption that are so often overlooked by agencies as the emphasis is on training the parent to handle the child rather than helping the parent work through the emotional steps in this journey. You are getting paid enough, you can spend a few minutes here or there helping a parent through the challenges of the process. Don't wait for them to tell you they need to talk, reach out to them and ask how they are doing as delays occur, as referrals are offered and declined, as inevitable fears creep in. Good agencies always want to be seen as offering something more than a business transaction...so prove it. Besides, it is the human, compassionate thing to do.

Now really, when was the last time you asked ANY of your international parents in process "What are you most afraid of right now? Was that a tough decision? How are you feeling?"

I guess what I am saying is, if you don't want to be reduced to the image of "paper pusher" in an adoptive parent's mind, don't act like one.

If this is not a skill you have, then hire a post-adoptive parent for a few bucks a month to regularly check in on clients (Gee, imagine that, feeling as if someone cares when you will be spending thousands of dollars with them!), listen to their fears, offer advice on preparations, etc. Some agencies have done this, and I think it makes a difference.

5) This one ought to be obvious, but do things efficiently. Don't take a week to get a document out to a client, don't work with so many clients and so few staff that nothing gets done in a timely manner. I have always been amazed at our homestudy agency, Adoption Alliance, and how great they are in this area...I get calls returned immediately, documents are produced immediately, I get answers immediately when possible (We have used different placing agencies each time, but the same homestudy agency for all of our adoptions). They do what they say they are going to do, and they do it well.

6) Realize that you are the experts. Most parents are not multiple international adopters like we are. Newbies have no idea what they don't know, they don't have a clue what questions they should be asking. You, as the agency, should anticipate questions. After all, many people working in agencies are already adoptive parents! Why don't you stop for a moment and think of what first scared you when you were in your client's shoes? And for those agencies who are part of that aforementioned group who don't like internet chatter between clients, perhaps if you were better at informing and preparing your clients...of anticipating their questions and answering them before they were even asked...your clients would have less reason to turn to the internet!!

7) Have compassion, recognize that it feels like a loss when a referral of a child doesn't work out, let a little grieving time occur before acting as if nothing at all has happened.

8) Completing a dossier is daunting, and many people are not comfortable with paperwork. Make it fool proof, give easy to understand step by step instructions, use flow charts, put sample documents on CD's to be modified and used, make a "Dossiers for Dummies" manual! Hahaha! Kudos to our current placement agency on this one. Pearl S. Buck/Welcome House Adoptions has provided us with their "Dossiers for Dummies" manual (although they would never call it that!) and it is very, very clear and concise. It takes work at first to set it up, but then it is only small modifications here and there afterward as things change, and it helps a family feel less lost as the approach the dossier stage.

9) Provide better pre-travel information. This is where Joshie's agency, Tree of Life, really shined. We knew every single step of the way what to expect every single day, we even had an anticipated schedule in writing to take with us along with contact numbers for in-country staff! While everyone knows those schedules can change, it was still fairly accurate and let us know what we could roughly expect. Want another hint? Give us photos of your overseas staff. It is SCARY to travel to a country where you don't speak the language and have never met someone. You feel like a sitting duck waiting in a foreign airport with thousands of dollars of cash in your pocket waiting to be picked up by someone whom you have never met and don't even know what they look like!! Let us know if our passports will be taken by coordinators, we are scared of letting them go and sometimes no one has explained that they will be needed to register us as visitors in that city/country, or as part of the adoption process. Give us a few pointers about what is safe, what to bring with us, what to have in someones hands back home in case of an emergency, etc.

10) Don't push a parent to accept any child. EVER. You may desperately wish for a particular child to be adopted, you may need to "get rid" of a child to get another healthier referral from your in country coordinator. You may just think a certain child would be a good fit with a certain family on paper. It's not your job to do anything more than present parents with information and let them decide.

11) Check in with us via email or phone call while overseas. Don't add to the feeling of isolation that we encounter naturally by being so far from home and away from loved ones, sometimes having to make decisions that will affect the rest of our lives. Is it so hard to email once every few days saying "Hey! How's it going? Any problems? Anything we can help with?"?? Why not be proactive in keeping communication open rather than getting a parent on a plane and then just leaving it all in the hands of the coordinator, acting as if you are completely disconnected? That would take very little effort or cost, but would make a big difference in how a client feels.

12) Once everyone is home and settled in, call...and more than once...to see how things are going. Attachment can take time, dreams versus reality can be a wake up call, post-adoption depression is real. You don't have to be a pest, but 3 or 4 calls over a 6 week period would be nice for the several thousand dollars you received from this client. It doesn't add up to much cost or time to have a quick 10 minute call to reassure a new parent that what they are going through is normal...or to determine that something is not going well and provide assistance as you can.

13) Although adoption is appropriately child-centered, and a child's needs should always come first, remember that doesn't mean that the parent's needs also shouldn't be taken into account. Why can't the needs of both co-exist and be met?

14) Love what you do, not the money you earn. When money becomes more important than the children you are trying to find homes for, go sell real estate or become an Amway salesman. You no longer belong in adoption work. Of course, those that enter in it solely for the money are usually the unethical agencies who end up involved in FBI investigations.

15) Go to the country where your programs are, meet coordinators and translators in person, go on an adoption trip with a family, see the experience through their eyes and then learn what might be helpful to pass on. Yea, I know the travel is expensive...but an unhappy and unprepared client can cost you thousands in bad word-of-mouth advertising. Likewise, a happy and well-prepared client who brags about you on the internet is worth their weight in gold.

I would love to read what other parents would add to this list, or if they disagree with anything I have written.

There are many great agencies out there, many who do a lot of things really well and who show great concern for their clients and represented children. The media only highlights the ones who are criminals, and it taints the entire community. Names like Orson Moses, Yunona and Focus on Children have all given the industry a bad reputation.

But many agencies do a wonderful job of working with families, placing children in a responsible manner, providing support and resources when needed. We just don't hear much about them, as it has always been the squeaky wheel that gets the grease. It is not an easy job!

I guess it is only fair that next we will take a look at adoptive parents and their expectations of agencies...both realistic and unrealistic. I'll try and post more on that tomorrow!


Michelle said...

I LOVE the idea of an adoptive parent who has been through theprocess acting as an agency resource...contacting families being a liaison what a great idea!

Anonymous said...

Joining the Adoption Agency Research group on yahoo is also a good idea as you can check agencies out.

Lori said...

Amen...sadly, my caseworker AND the consultant I talked to before I signed with my agency are BOTH international adoptive moms...you'd think I would have gotten more honesty and compassion, much less information. I almost feel like that because the process was not easy for my caseworker, she's out to make sure that we ALL know that it ISN't EASY and that's just the way it is, so suck it up.

That may be the case...but some humanity? Some compassion? Some heart?

I wish I had your list about a year ago...but...experiences lead us to where we are supposed to be, I guess.

In any event, again, AMEN!

smctiver said...


Your 15 points are EXCEPTIONALY well articulated!!


Tammy said...

This may seem obvious, but a social worker should act like they actually *want* to see you adopt. I had a social worker who made it very clear through her choice of words, her body language, the questions she asked and the things she asked me to do that she would be just fine if I never adopted. This social worker lost my trust...and my business. I now have a social worker who acts like she would like to see me adopt. I know she fakes it sometimes - I'm a social worker too and I fake it sometimes - but it makes all the difference to feel like she actually *wants* to see me bring a child home.