More Than Checking a Box
July 10th, 2012

One week from today a social worker will come to our house.  She will arrive just as the kids are finishing supper.  She will stay for a couple of hours, I think.  She will watch us wrangle our kids into bed (with Nanny on hand to help).  Then she will sit with us and talk to us.  She will try to get to know us.  And she will try to understand what kind of parents we are.

The purpose for this social worker’s visit?  Our adoption home study.

For those not familiar with the adoption process, the home study is a critical component.  After you’ve submitted proof of your entire existence in writing (tax returns, birth and marriage certificates, child abuse screenings, criminal background checks, employment verifications, blood work, physical exam results, and a 20+ page questionnaire) the next step is for someone to actually meet you in person, visit your home, and make sure that what they find in real life jives with what you’ve submitted on paper (or, electronically, for the most part).

Not surprisingly, I have mixed emotions about the home study.  Of course, generally speaking, I think it’s a good idea.  It’s a good idea for someone to verify in person that we don’t have firearms sitting around, or food rotting on the counters, or 75 cats, or loose electrical wiring, or anything else comparably horrifying.  But beyond that, what does it really accomplish?  How much can anyone really get to know us over the course of two visits?  (A second visit will happen at the end of this month.)

The easy answer is, she can’t.  She can’t know, really know, whether I am a good parent.  She can’t know if my kids feel loved and valued.  She can’t know if my marriage is healthy.  She can’t know if I serve balanced meals, or discipline appropriately, or set fair boundaries.  She can’t know how I react to stress.  She can’t know if I am thoughtful and intellectually curious.  She can’t know whether I am joyful or sullen or uptight or lazy. … And the saddest part of all is that, by and large, those things don’t matter.

The child we will end up adopting will have spent his entire life prior to joining our family in a foster home.  I know there are some really wonderful foster parents out there, but it is often a failed experiment in child rearing.  The hard truth of the matter is that we would have to be pretty subpar as parents not to beat the environment the child has been in since birth.  And so, it is the job of the social worker not so much to determine if we are absolutely wonderful parents, but if we can provide the basic nuts and bolts of a happy and stable life.

But shouldn’t it be more?  Shouldn’t it be more than the checking of a box that says, “Fit parents.”  I think that every shade of grey should matter.  I think that nuances should be explored and personalities understood.  I think that our adoption agency should be commited to finding the perfect child for our family, and the perfect family for every child.  Merely being better than foster care is a pretty easy litmus test to pass.  

Perhaps I’m underestimating it a bit.  Perhaps I will find that our social worker is truly invested in the process of matching a child with our family.  Perhaps the written documentation of our home study visits will be more detailed than the mere statement of fact that we are able to provide for an adopted child.  Nevertheless, in the research I’ve done to prepare most adoptive parents’ responses I’ve found on the topic of the home study are in the vein of, “It was a big letdown.  They just want to make sure the home is safe.  They don’t really need to get to know you.”  The only exception to that refrain was one respondent from Canada whose social worker spent close to 20 hours with her over the course of many visits.  (There is so much that Canada gets right!)

With that in mind, there is much about our life and family that I wish our social worker would want to know.  But I fear that once she’s confirmed the presence of a fire extinguisher, refrigerator, and a non-leaking roof she’ll have seen enough.  I hope I’m wrong.

6 Responses to “More Than Checking a Box”

  1. BigLittleWolf Says:

    Absolutely, it seems like it should be more. But mostly, I wish there were more parents and households like yours – willing to undertake this journey.

    I admire you tremendously.

  2. e Says:

    I can say from our experience that the woman who came into our home was considered a family friend by the end of the process. While she didn’t know every little detail about who we were, I think she knew a lot simply from the “feel” of our home. Before the adopted kids arrived she saw a home that was filled with love….and that is the single most important thing…..
    and after the kids arrived, she again saw a home filled with even more love. Honestly, all the physical things were not issues because a home filled with love has all of the truly necessary physical things to keep your family safe. Through my years in school classrooms I know that kids can be raised in a million crazy environments but the only thing that REALLY makes a difference is the love part – and you can’t fake love – not in an hour and definitely not when the visit includes kids – so I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised. I’m not saying the items you mentioned aren’t important….but ultimately they may be less important than you’d think and they’re definitely not important if they aren’t accompanied by a huge serving of love – every second of every minute or every hour of every day. And that is what your caseworker will be looking for and without a doubt find.

  3. Bridget Says:

    Being observed in your home setting twice and having your background thoroughly investigated makes you much more vetted than any biological parent. I would presume through these visits social workers can tell where children will have an opportunity to thrive and I’ve got to think it has more to do with the feel of the house than the condition of the roof – or at least I hope so. There are so many ways to ‘do it right’ that trying to show all the things you mention above seems almost impossible without living with you for an extended period. To me, 4 hours or 20 hours all seem like very short amounts of time. But considering you’ve already been screened, and this additional layer checking for any red flags at your home, it sounds like a functioning system. I suppose there has to be a certain amount of trust in the intentions of the adoptive family that if you’re willing to jump through all the hoops, that you are doing so out of a desire to love a child.

  4. Lori Says:

    Having a safe home is obviously important, but maybe what the description of safety is should really be the question for adoption, or, really, any home for children. If you ask me for my definition of safe, it would include:

    A place, regardless of size or location, where the child
    ~feels confident in his/her own skin (physical appearance, capabilities, voice, etc.)
    ~has the ability to speak his/her opinion and KNOW that that opinion is valued because it belongs to that child
    ~has the opportunities and confidence to take risks/chances/opportunities to learn, both for themselves and from other people
    ~feels that no matter what, the adults around him/her live and breathe what they have to say and how they view the
    world…because the child’s way could not be the wrong way
    ~knows that they will never be hungry or thirsty
    ~knows that they will be able to rest when needed, for as long as needed
    ~knows that they can find comfort, both physical and emotional, when they are sick or sad or in need of something
    ~knows that they are physically safe from any type of harm

    I tried my best to create such an environment for every student that walked into my classroom, about 200 weird and hormonal and wonderful middle school kiddos every semester. It was amazing to me to see how kids thrive regardless of, or in response to, a wide variety of influences. They pick up on the tiniest things like a poster being moved to a different wall, or if you stray from the routine even just a little, or even a little playful messing of the hair on the walk to the cafeteria. So, that silly teacher in me says,

    Maybe take this opportunity to force the social worker to see more than just the “check the block” things? Create a complete environment in those few hours that make him/her want to stay longer…come back again…share your story with other people. Take the opportunity to show some one just how good life can be. And how good life is.

  5. anne Says:

    Wow, I hardly know where to begin. But yes, there is so much more to parenting than simply meeting minimum safety requirements. Obviously the home study won’t provide the agency with a full picture of your parenting style, values, etc, but at the very least, I hope it shows your genuine intention to know, love, and provide for your children. In essence, I imagine they look for signs that you simply try to be good parents.

    I remember in that Freakonomics book there was some positive correlation between parents owning child-rearing books and their child’s development. And it had zero to do with whether or not they read or retained any of the info in the books. Just the fact that they were the kind of parents who cared enough to buy a book about parenting meant they were trying. And it showed up in their child’s development.

    I may not be making sense, but my hope would be that whoever comes to observe you is looking for the realy simple clues that show you try. That you care. That you’re being the best parents you can be.

  6. Gale Says:

    Anne – Uh oh. We have very few parenting books. Hope that doesn’t ruin things for us! :) I’m sure you’re right, though. I think she will look for signs of good parenting, whatever they may be.

    Lori – You highlight some really important traits here. And some of the things remind me of how great most American kids have it. My children never have to worry about being able to rest, or being given food or water, or fear for their physical safety. It’s so easy to take these things for granted, and yet they are not givens for many, many kids. I don’t agree with some of your beliefs about unilateral and unconditional support for every belief and opinion a child has. I think an important part of raising a child is teaching that child to understand that they aren’t always right and to handle being wrong graciously. But I think most of what you say about creating a safe environment for a child is completely on point.

    Bridget and E – I have such mixed emotions about the idea of the social worker just getting “a feel” for our home. On the one hand, I agree that so much of this type of work is probably done this way – by being in a place, getting in tune with it, and assessing it at a gut level. Nevertheless, there has to be more, right? When writing up the home study paperwork there have to be concrete items that the social worker evaluates. She can’t just say, “I got a good vibe from this family,” or “This family seemed a little creepy to me.” That would never fly. So what are those concrete criteria they’re looking for? What are the things that they can evaluate objectively? And how telling are those things about the nature of the adoptive family?