Most are familiar with the online dating site Match.com, as it was launched 23 years ago. In the last two decades, this same “compatibility technology” has now expanded. To the surprise of many, the technology is now being used to place children in the foster care system with potential adoptive families. The program looks promising, and experts believe that it could solve the issues of long delays in adopting out of foster care.
Every year, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services releases the “AFCARS Report” regarding the number of children in foster care and the number of children adopted each year. “AFCARS” stands for the “Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System.”
The number of children in foster care has been increasing over the last five years. By September 30, 2017, there were 442,995 children in foster care in the United States, 123,437 of whom were waiting to be adopted. In 2017, only 58,104 of those children were adopted.
When viewed as a timeline, these increases are troubling. The number of children in foster care increased from 400,394 in 2013 to 414,129 in 2014, then again to 427,328 in 2015, and to 436,551 in 2016. While the number of children entering the foster care system increased from 2016 to 2017, the number of children who exited the foster care system during the same year decreased.
There are several reasons why children must enter the foster care system. The most common reason is undefined “neglect,” which described 62% of cases. Unfortunately, drug abuse comes in second at 36%, and physical abuse comes in fourth at 12%. Children spend an average of 20 months in the foster care system and enter the system at the average age of seven years old. Experts believe they may be seeing an increase in the number of children entering the foster care system due to an increase of drug abuse, particularly opiate addiction and abuse.
The average age for a child to exit the foster care system is between eight and nine years old. The most common reason for exiting the system is reunification with the child’s parent or caretaker, which makes up 49% of the discharges. Only around a quarter of children who exit the foster care system exit because they are adopted. Around half of the children in the foster care system who are adopted are adopted by their foster parent.
The general intent of foster care is to provide short-term care for children until whatever is going on in their household can be resolved, and for most children, it is short-term. Many children, however, languish in the system for years. These children experience multiple placement changes over the years, resulting in the constant disruption of their relationships.
At the end of the fiscal year in 2017, nearly 20,000 children had “aged out” of the foster care system. This happens when a child in the system graduates from high school or reaches the age of 18. Some states extend services beyond this age and allow foster parents to continue fostering. Some states do not, however, and even in states that do, some young adults elect to live on their own. According to the National Foster Youth Institute, 20% of the foster care children become instantly homeless upon reaching the age of 18, and children in the foster care system have a higher chance of teen pregnancy and a lower chance of obtaining a college degree than children not in the foster care system.
“Family-Match” is a program that was launched in February 2018 by nonprofits Selfless Love Foundation and Adoption-Share in Florida. The former senior research scientist from eHarmony.com developed the technology, which was originally used for private adoptions. When the technology proved successful, the creator was approached about using the program to match children in foster care with potential adoptive parents.
The program works like eHarmony.com, matching common interests or common values. After a potential adoptive family completes the required classes and home study, they create a profile, which includes photographs, written descriptions, and some things they’re looking for in a potential adopted child. Case workers then search the site and create matches based on “compatibility factor.” Matches are not necessarily filtered out if they don’t meet all the criteria – for example, if a family is looking for a five-year-old child, but a six-year-old child is a potential match, the six-year-old would still be presented, perhaps as a 75% match rather than a 90% match. This prevents children from being weeded out if they do not fit every narrow filter during the search.
The algorithm can also measure things like a child’s level of shyness, or whether a potential adoptive parent is a “talker” or a “hugger.” Or if a foster child has a love of animals, for example, he or she could match with a family who lives on acreage with farm animals. Another benefit of the program is that it may encourage potential adoptive parents to expand what they believe they want in an adoptive child after seeing photographs and personality profiles of different children. The program therefore can help the child feel more open to the idea of living with a new family, and can help the family know the child’s likes, interests, and personality before the child arrives at their home.
Over the last year, the Family-Match program has made 91 matches in Florida and has resulted in six finalized adoptions. Family-Match is significantly quicker than the traditional adoption process, making matches in just two months and giving the ability to finalize adoptions as soon as 90 days after the match. Traditionally, it takes, on average, over a year to finalize an adoption. The system provides caseworkers with the ability to search for children waiting to be adopted outside of that caseworker’s general area, which allows for more potential matches.
While the program is currently only operational in Florida, it appears to be promising and, if proven successful, will hopefully begin operating in other states. If you are considering adopting a child, an experienced family law practitioner can assist in navigating and streamlining the sometimes long and involved process.