This year it is 160 years ago, Massachusetts passed the Adoption of Children Act, generally recognized as the first modern adoption law. Most other states followed Massachusetts' example in the following decades. At the time, adoption was mostly a legal matter, but that changed during the Progressive Era.
During the first decade of the 20th century, the field of social work started to develop, and became the centerpiece of modern day child placement practices.
One of the primary activities of social workers in adoption and foster care is the screening of prospective parents, but despite formal requirements in almost all states, there is hardly a set of best practices to guide social workers in their screening job.
How to Screen Adoptive and Foster Parents: A Workbook for Professionals and Students, fills that void. James L. Dickerson, Mardi Allen, and Daniel Pollack have written a practical handbook for social workers faced with the task to screen adoptive and foster parents.
The book is divided in twelve easy to read chapters, guiding the social workers through the intricacies of the screening process.
Much emphasis is given to the legal position of the social worker, who may face litigation from authorities when adoptive or foster parents have not been properly screened and from prospective parents for libel, defamation or invasion of privacy.
Working as a screener is an ethical minefield, and How to Screen Adoptive and Foster Parents provides lots of practical information to deal with the various ethical issues that may arise in the process.
Dickerson, Allen and Pollack propose an interview model that borrows more from forensic models, used by psychologists and investigative models used by journalists, than the therapeutic models often used in social work.
This aspect is the corner stone of their approach and also explains the tension that exists between what a social worker is trained to do (help their clients when having social problems), and the requirements of a screener (weed out inappropriate prospective foster/adoptive parents).
How to Screen Adoptive and Foster Parents makes a compelling argument in favor of an investigative approach, though at times, it lacks examples showing what goes wrong when screeners approach their task with a therapeutic mindset.
This lack of practical examples is the biggest weakness of the book. While the authors do explain very well the reasons why their approach can be successful, they fail to document the consequences of an improper approach to screening.
A more compelling argument for the necessity of their approach could have been made if the book had spent more time analyzing the down sides of current screening practices.
The largest part of the book is devoted to various interview techniques. Complete questionnaires are provided, which, step-by-step, guide the social worker through the screening process. For each question an analysis is given of possible answers and guidelines are given for follow-up questions. This part part of the book is detailed and practical in nature and shows a wealth of experience as it relates to the screening of prospective foster/adoptive parents.
Even for an outsider, without experience in social work, the advice given is easily understandable. This is also one of the dangers of the book. It can easily be used by ill intended prospective foster/adoptive parents to prepare themselves for screening interviews.
Though the book addresses various ways to detect disingenuous answers, it does not provide tips on how to detect overly prepared prospective foster/adoptive parents.
The book also runs a bit out of gas towards the end and finishes quite abruptly, without really wrapping up the arguments made.
With these few exceptions, How to Screen Adoptive and Foster Parents, is very complete resource. The authors tackle most of the dubious motivations people can have to become adoptive/foster parents, and they even dedicate an entire chapter to the screening for child predators. The book is also very complete in its unraveling of improper family dynamics, which again shows the practical experience of the authors.
How to Screen Adoptive and Foster Parents is not a flawless book, but it certainly is an important book. One can see how this book, if used as a mandatory study material for all screeners, can help create safer foster/adoptive homes and prevent fewer adoption disruptions for the fostered/adopted child.
Dickerson, Allen and Pollack deserve credit for the wealth of practical knowledge they provide and praise should be given for the simple terms in which they translate their experience. The advocated approach to screening makes perfect sense and seems to cover all bases, even if it could use a more thorough introduction.
We recommend this book to all social workers, active in the field of child placement, and we hope this approach becomes standard practice for all screeners.