Couples who adopt children can face special challenges. While private adoption agencies may choose to be somewhat selective about the ages and background of the children they agree to place, public adoption agencies serve many children from difficult circumstances. Children may be older, have special and sometimes severe physical, health, behavioral or emotional problems and needs, or have siblings from whom agencies are reluctant to separate them. Couples who adopt such children may experience many personal rewards, but are also subject to stresses and strains, especially when first bringing the new child or children into the family.
The Adoption Assistance Program of DHS is a component of Oklahomas child welfare services. Public agencies such as this typically provide a variety of financial and other supports to adoptive parents. A few years prior to the OMIs involvement, the Adoption Assistance Program offered additional support in the form of weekend retreats for adoptive parents. The retreats, funded by a private foundation, gave parents a weekend away together, information about available support services, and an opportunity to meet other adoptive parents.
In 2002 OMI approached the Adoption Assistance Program with the idea of providing marriage skills education to adoptive parents. DHS agreed that giving married adoptive parents tools to enhance and maintain their relationships might help increase the chances that these parents would remain together, thus keeping these families intact. With its previous foundation funding coming to an end, DHS applied for and received a three-year grant in 2004 from the federal government to continue operating retreats and to add PREP® workshops and other activities focused on the couples relationship as central components of the program. Another grant was received in 2007 to continue operating the workshops.
General Approach. The OMI coordinates retreats for married parents who have adopted children, through the states child welfare agency. At first the program was open only to couples who had recently adopted, but over time this criterion was relaxed until anyone receiving adoption assistance could attend. If circumstances warrant it, couples may attend more than once, though priority is given to new attendees. So far, a few couples have done so. To add to the appeal of the retreats, they have been held for several years in Guthrie, Oklahoma, a charming historical community. Under the new grant, some will also be held in Tulsa to reduce transportation barriers. Between 30 and 50 couples are enrolled in a typical retreat.
Although logistics, format, and target population have all evolved, retreats follow a consistent structure. They are held over a weekend. Initially this included a two-night stay, but later this was changed to a single night in response to participant feedback and to reduce costs. After a welcome and introduction, couples complete a written inventory known as ENRICH that assesses their relationship on multiple dimensions. After lunch a PREP® session is presented. On Saturday evening, couples spend time together having fun and networking with each other. PREP® instruction continues Sunday morning, then couples receive feedback on results of their ENRICH inventory. The final session is a review of resources available to adoptive families through DHS and other sources. In addition to these formal activities, couples typically network with one another throughout the weekend.
Implementation. Retreats began in 2003, as a joint effort of several partners. DHS provides lists of adoptive parents to PSI, which mails invitations, enrolls couples, and makes logistical arrangements for the retreats. Child Guidance counselors employed by the states Department of Health present the PREP® material. Dr. David Fournier of Oklahoma State University administers the ENRICH inventory, and he and several graduate students debrief and counsel couples on their results during the retreat. Graduate students also coach couples on PREP®-related skills during the workshop sessions. DHS staff present the informational session on adoption supports.
Participant reactions. According to a focus group with participants, attendees find the retreat format appealing and enjoyable, although they often arrive expecting a relaxing, romantic weekend and find that they have a busy agenda instead. The group felt that the ENRICH inventory, information they received on supports and resources, networking with other similar couples, and PREP® were very useful , although they were positive about all aspects of the retreat and stressed that each element was essential to the overall experience and success.
PREP® presenters and couples had different ideas about what makes an effective presenter for these retreats. Child Guidance workers stressed the need for professionally trained counselors as presenters, so they could deal with any issues or personal crises that might arise. However, participants wished that more presenters were themselves adoptive parents who could share experiences similar to those of the participants.
Both workshop leaders and participants agreed, however, about the value of PREP®. Although some modifications were needed for the retreat, the Child Guidance counselors were enthusiastic about the curriculum. They stressed the importance of providing adequate time during the weekend sessions for the couples to practice communication techniques they were learning. Presenters and couples who had attended more than one retreat expressed concern that serving larger groups was cutting back somewhat on the time available to practice communication skills during the retreat sessions. Both groups also felt that a follow-up or short booster session for couples who had participated in a retreat would help reinforce and maintain their learning and skills. As part of the second federal grant, the OMI plans to pilot test such a session.
Curriculum adaptation. Professionally credentialed counselors employed by the states Department of Health Child Guidance Services created the adoptive couples curriculum adaptation, in consultation with the PREP® authors. Since the standard PREP® curriculum is 12 hours in length, some material had to be removed to shorten it to 7 or 8 hours. Child Guidance staff worked together to modify examples used in the lectures and to add material that directly addressed core adoption issues, such as integrating the new child into the family or using PREP® tools to enhance communication between the couples and their children. They also reorganized the material and workshop leader manuals to be used for the retreat.
Achieving Sustained Implementation. All organizational partners have been enthusiastic about the retreats, so much so that they have offered them to other groups. In addition to adoptive couples, retreats have been held for adoptive singles, foster parents, grandparents raising grandchildren, parents of autistic children, and several other high- risk groups. Trained workshop leaders from the community sector have presented at retreats for some of these other groups, and the session on supports has been tailored to the participants.