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Successfully recruiting and supporting African American families

Multi-generational African American family taking a selfie
Multi-generational African American family taking a selfie

Angela Williams is the adoption program administrator for Iredell County in North Carolina. She has been working in child welfare more than three decades. Angela is also an adoptive parent.

We talked with Angela about her county’s successful efforts to recruit and support African American families.

When you started working in foster care 30 years ago, were there many African American families fostering and adopting?

We did have some African American foster parents, but not very many of them adopted. I think a lot of it had to do with the state policies at the time and the way we looked at people’s ability to adopt. For example, using finance as a means test. Another barrier was that many, many years ago, the state was not as open to licensing relatives and allowing them to adopt and benefit from financial subsidies.

How have things changed—hopefully for the better?

Our policies and practices have improved dramatically, and the number of African American families has grown leaps and bounds over the years.

Overall, there’s been a shift from screening families out to screening them in. At some point, we started looking at what families can do, and working to remove barriers that were preventing people from fostering and adopting.

For one thing, the state has reconsidered restrictions on the number of children a parent can have in their home. That’s really important. Because many of us come from large families and are very capable of caring for five or more children.

The key is assessing an individual’s ability. I am the youngest of 10 children. If someone had said, “that’s too many children,” then I wouldn’t be here!

We also started looking at how we define kin years ago—way before it became popular to do so. In our community, it’s always been true that “it takes a village.” And we work with children and families to determine who is in their village—who they consider kin.

Where does your passion for adopting come from?

I am the mother of a daughter who I adopted. She was eight weeks old when I adopted her, and she is 23 years old today.

I’d always wanted to be somebody’s mom, from the time I was a little girl playing with dolls. I wasn’t able to have a child by birth. I truly believe that God gave my daughter to me. From day one, my daughter knew she was adopted. We have attended national and state adoption conferences together, and she’s written blog articles on the topic, and has begun to share her own story about being adopted. My daughter has been an awesome addition to my life. I have someone I was able to give love to and somebody who has given me a lot of love back.

What do you see as some remaining barriers to adoption in the African American community?

I am a strong advocate for adoption, especially having gone through the process myself. And we’re making great headway. There are barriers that we are still addressing to some degree.

Many of our families are faith based. They were taught that the Bible says: ask for anything in God’s name, and he will grant it. People believe that if they have enough faith, they will conceive. Some believe that looking at other plans, like adoption, shows God that they don’t have faith.

Shame for not being able to give birth. Women can be made to feel that they are less than, that something is wrong with them.

The unknowns! Can I afford it? How do I do it? Of course, these questions extend beyond the African American community. But if people don’t learn about foster care through their community, then they often don’t see it as a viable option.

The myths about children in foster care: That they are bad, dangerous children. That when you foster, you are borrowing somebody else’s troubles.

What has your state and county done that other organizations might learn from and replicate?

The state of North Carolina has worked diligently over the 30 years that I’ve worked within child welfare, and we’re always learning. These are some of the things we are doing that I would highlight:

  • Understanding and respecting family dynamics. Identify who is making the decisions in a family. Some African American households have very strong paternal leadership. That family is not going to make decisions without Dad’s OK. So don’t call Mom for placement decisions!
  • Licensing the village—not just the immediate family. When we home study a family, we try to incorporate the people who will be part of that child’s life into their license. Those people might be their neighbors or members of their church group. We do background checks on them so they can babysit and provide respite without the family having to take that extra step.
  • Recruiting through relationships. We have a saying in our community: I’d rather see a sermon than hear a sermon. We learned early on that people are more likely to respond to the story of someone they know than something they hear on TV. Our families speak on our behalf at recruitment fairs at their churches and to their civic groups.
  • Meeting people where they are. We modify our training schedules to accommodate people’s job schedules. We’ve had staff deliver one-on-one licensing trainings and hold trainings on Saturdays because people work on weeknights. We do whatever we can to make training available to interested families.
  • Making monthly in-home visits and providing ongoing support. The state of North Carolina requires quarterly visits in every home. But we visit family’s homes at least monthly so that we can be more available. If they call and say: “I’m struggling,” then we come back out. Our workers are are continually asking families what they need, and we have an adoption support group for parents.
  • Offering additional training opportunities. Our staff are trained as trainers in therapeutic foster care through a pilot program with Duke University. Those staff take parents through that trauma-focused training.
  • Giving families the facts! It sounds simple, but one of the biggest keys to our success reaching and retaining all families is to be honest with families. Getting licensed and fostering is a process, and it’s not for everybody. We take the mystery out and address the barriers that families are facing.