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Assessing support services for families: 12 questions to ask

Two parents and two children
Two parents and two children

You know that effective support services are critical to the success of foster, adoptive, and kinship families. But how do you know if the services you offer families are effective? For support services to be truly valuable to families—and provide the benefits that child welfare systems seek—they need to be both accessible and of high quality. 

Here are some questions to help guide you and focus your support service improvement efforts. 

Interested in deeper assessment? Check out our AdoptUSKids Support Services Assessment Tool and companion guide.

1. Are providers adoption- and permanency-competent?

Regardless of the type of support service, it’s critically important that service providers are well-versed in the core issues in adoption, foster care, and kinship care. The National Adoption Competency Mental Health Training Initiative (NTI) offers free training for both mental health and child welfare professionals in adoption competency. One straightforward step to improving the quality of your support service is to ensure that all providers have completed a training like this one. 

2. Is the service trauma informed and trauma responsive?

Trauma-responsive services:

  • Acknowledge the effect trauma has on individuals and their families and are modified to respond to those effects
  • Emphasize skill- and strength-building rather than symptom management
  • Avoid further traumatization by focusing on the physical and psychological safety of the youth and family

3. Does the service address families’ needs as they describe them?

If you haven’t  done a needs assessment recently, you may need to do one. Engaging families in a needs assessment is an important way to make sure that your service remains relevant and helpful to families. Learn more about needs assessments in our tip sheet.  

4. Are parents, caregivers, and youth involved in service design and improvement?

Youth and young adults who have experienced foster care and resource parents are the most knowledgeable about what families need to be successful. Services that are designed and refined with their input tend to be more effective. Here are some concrete strategies to help you meaningfully engage youth, parents, and caregivers in service design. 

5. Do we have evidence of effectiveness?

What outcomes or indicators do you track to let you know whether each service is working? Are families satisfied with the services? Are they experiencing increases in wellbeing indicators or reduction in challenging behaviors or stress indicators? Are families who received the service more likely to experience placement stability than families who haven’t received the service? If you don’t currently track outcomes such as these, does the program you offer have an existing evidence base to demonstrate its effectiveness? Learn more about evaluating family support programs in our tip sheet.

6. How well does the service engage the entire family?

Families are systems, and what happens to one member affects all members of the family. Effective support services consider the needs of all families members, including those who don’t currently live in the same household. 

7. How do families find out about the service?

Do all eligible families know about the service? How are families engaged and informed about the service? How is the service advertised? Do families need to have access to the internet or be engaged with another service in order to learn about your program? If you’re having trouble reaching families, addressing how they learn about the service can be a great first step to improving accessibility.

8. Is the service available across your entire jurisdiction?

Support services—especially in-person services—tend to be concentrated in urban areas, often leaving families in other geographic areas without access to needed services or requiring them to travel long distances.

9. What do families need to do to get to the service?

Do families need access to reliable transportation? Is the service accessible through public transportation? Can you provide gas cards or bus passes for families to get to and from the service, or can the provider come to their home? If the service is available remotely, do they need to have access to the internet, a computer, or other device to receive the service? Some jurisdictions lend out technology or internet hotspots to allow for better access to virtual services. Try to consider all barriers that a family may encounter as they seek out your service. Any barrier you can reduce or remove inherently improves your service provision. 

10. Can families afford the service?

Is the service available for free to families? If so, are there certain conditions they must meet to receive the services at no cost, such as placement type or income threshold? If there is a cost, is a sliding scale or scholarships offered? 

11. Is the service reliably available?

Is the service sustainably funded, so that families know it will be available from year to year? Is there a waitlist to receive the service, or can families receive it right away? If the services families need are inconsistently available—especially if those services were advertised to them at the time of placement—that breaks trust and discourages families from reaching out for support when other needs arise.

12. Is the service culturally accessible to all communities it aims to serve?

Is the service culturally relevant to the communities it is serving? Are the traditions, norms, and worldviews of those communities incorporated into the program’s mission and service provision? Is the service available in all languages spoken in the community? Are providers trained in cultural competency? If so, how does that training affect their practice? Do service providers come from the communities they serve? How do families safely share any challenges or concerns they have in accessing your service related to their cultural identities, such as race or ethnicity, religion, gender identity, or sexual orientation? 

If you don’t know the answers to these questions, you certainly are not alone! Often the most important step you can take toward service improvement is to improve your evaluation practices so that you can better answer questions like these in the future. 

Take the next steps

Now that you’ve answered these important questions, you might want to:

  • Conduct a needs assessment
  • Hold focus groups with diverse group of parents and young people
  • Look at your evaluation plan
  • Create a training plan for staff, including training on trauma, adoption competency, and cultural competency 

If you’re interested in deeper system assessment, the free AdoptUSKids Support Services Assessment Tool and its companion guide can help you learn more about your entire support-service array. Use it as designed, or customize it to the needs of your system or the questions you want answered. If you’d like our assistance using this tool or with other efforts to strengthen your support services, reach out to us at