Game-changing new program opens doors to help children in foster system find forever homes.
Millions of singles looking for a serious relationship have found success on eHarmony.com, one of the most successful online dating sites.
It takes time to complete their comprehensive personality form, but this is the secret to their compatibility-based matching system, which takes into consideration a person’s characteristics, beliefs, values, emotional health and skills. It’s also the reason eHarmony continues to earn such high reviews from users who have found lasting love.
Turns out there’s something powerful about using science to help people find their soul mate.
Georgia social worker Thea Ramirez wasn’t thinking of finding the love of her life when she studied the achievements of eHarmony. She knew the foster system needed a game changer, and she had a different idea. Why not use the same kind of data-crunching science that helped singles find each other to match children waiting in foster care with adoptive families?
Eventually, Ramirez managed to locate the former head of research scientist responsible for eHarmony’s matching algorithms, who was no longer employed by the dating site when Ramirez contacted him. Her thought was that by identifying the factors that would lead to successful pairings of children with families, technology could help those children find forever homes.
Enter Ed and Ashley Brown.
Ed is president and CEO of the Patrón Spirits Company whose wife, Ashley, was adopted as an infant. The Browns share a passion for helping children, and when they heard about what Adoption-Share was doing through Family-Match, they wanted to spread the concept.
To this end, Ashley founded the Selfless Love Foundation, a Florida-based, non-profit organization based in Broward County. Ed and his business partner, Patrón founder John Paul DeJoria, graciously provided the funding to partner with Adoption-Share and bring Family-Match here to the Sunshine State.
“I was adopted at birth and so was my sister, both from different families,” says Ashley. “I was so grateful for the family who adopted me. My parents were unbelievable; I was so appreciative of them giving me the second chance. These kids sitting in foster care are waiting for their second chance. That’s where Family-Match comes in to help them find their forever families.”
Science Of Matching
In a nutshell, Family-Match uses predictive models to suggest placement choices. Here’s how it works.
Would-be parents, who have already passed background checks and been approved for adoption, fill out a Family-Match questionnaire, which covers everything from personality and interests to parenting styles and expectations. On the other end caseworkers, foster parents and therapists complete the forms for children in the foster care system who are awaiting adoption. Family-Match software then suggests optimal child and family pairings through a percentile score generated by the matching algorithm.
It’s a huge leap from how the foster care system has been matching kids with adoptive parents to date, a process that primarily takes into consideration the parents’ preferences for a child’s age, gender and ethnicity.
These are more superficial issues than one might think.
A family might say they want a white girl age infant to 4 years old, for example, while a 5-year-old, mixed race boy in the system might actually be a better match for that specific family, based on personality, interests, expectations and parenting style.
Family-Match can help pair families and children on much deeper levels than have ever been used before.
For example, a parent who is a good mom but expects lots of loving affirmation from her kids won’t find that with a child who is shy and reserved. A child who is independent and creative may not thrive in a home where the parenting style is rigid and authoritative. A family with a strong support system (friends, relatives, church, community, etc.) would be better prepared to deal with a child who has emotional difficulties.
“Family-Match expands the possibilities,” notes Dr. Elizabeth Wynter, executive director of the Selfless Love Foundation. “It doesn’t use age, gender and ethnicity as a stop-gap. We’ve found that 90 percent of families would consider changing the gender of the child they’re looking for if offered the opportunity.”
Family-Match customizes the way children can find a home and parents can find a child.
“Just looking at kids’ pictures on websites is not an efficient way to match families and children,” observes Wynter. “Family-Match is a much more efficient process than we are currently using and helps case managers who have an available child looking for suitable families.”
Wynter explains that there has not been any type of statewide repository of available children and approved families. There might be a child waiting who would be an ideal match for a family on the other side of the state, but until Family-Match, there was no way to pair them up.
This is life-changing news for the children currently awaiting adoption in Florida. For a variety of reasons, there has been an increase in the number of children entering Florida’s foster system over the past three to four years.
“Florida is really one of the better states for adoption and child welfare. We adopted over 3,700 kids in Florida in 2017, but there are still between 800 and 900 children available,” Wynter observes.
“It takes about 30 months to move a child from entering foster care to terminating parental rights to getting them adopted,” she adds.
Wynter emphasizes that there’s a crucial need for adoptive families willing to take children over the age of 10 and also to take sibling groups.
“The majority of kids who are waiting to be adopted are older, and they need a family as much as the babies do.”
Many adoptive parents initially request an infant or toddler, but Family-Match will especially benefit older children in the system, some of whom have been waiting years to find a permanent family.
Family-Match opens doors. There are many adoptive families who are willing to go to the ends of the earth to find a child but who don’t realize the children in need right in their own state.
With Family-Match, location won’t limit a family from finding the child(ren) right for them. A child in Tallahassee might be the perfect match for a family in Gainesville, but they wouldn’t have found each other if the search was restricted to local communities, as has traditionally been done.
“Social workers are doing a fantastic job, but they’re completely overworked and can only use the information families are providing them,” says Wynter. “Family-Match gives them a more realistic expectation sooner versus later because it is open to matching all the available children in Florida.”
“Family-Match is a revolutionary technology to find forever families,” says John Cooper, former assistant secretary, Florida Department of Children and Families and present CEO of Kids Central, which is now utilizing the program. Kids Central is a non-profit community-based care organization serving Citrus, Hernando, Lake, Marion and Sumter Counties by managing the local child welfare system and foster care.
“It has the possibility of having a major impact on how we link children available for adoption to families interesting in adopting,” says Cooper. “Kids Central is excited to be part of this innovative pilot program. Expediting permanency for our children and better matching children with families can significantly impact their futures.”
Family-Match was launched in Florida in mid-February and should be fully functioning state-wide by this summer. Virginia was the first state in the country to utilize such a system, beginning in October 2017. Tennessee is set to begin using it later this year.
The program’s founders are hopeful it will go nationwide.
“It’s garnered a lot of interest, and we’ve had many states reach out to us,” says Wynter.
“Any time you’re running a pilot program it’s about gathering data, so a big part of this is that once children are placed we’ll conduct post-adoption surveys to measure the quality of matches,” she notes. “All of this follow-up information will go back into the program’s algorithms to improve it.”
“It breaks your heart when you see these kids 16, 17 years old, and all they really want is a family. They want to have a real birthday, a real Christmas with a family. They don’t want the world, they just want a family,” says Keith Gold, president and owner of Strike Gold, the marketing communications company based in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, that represents Kids Central, as well as numerous national brands.
Gold, whose agency is a tithing company that gives 10 percent of its income to charitable causes, has sat on the board of Kids Central. He’s also been instrumental in the advertising campaigns that photograph foster children in need of a home.
“I consider myself a tough guy, but seeing these kids makes me tear up,” says Gold.
He’s ecstatic about the launch of Family-Match.
“Thea Ramirez, Ashley Brown and Dr. Elizabeth Wynter are powerful women who wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer,” says Gold. “They wanted to change the child welfare industry, and they’re making it happen. This is a non-profit endeavor; it’s something they want to give to families, not make money with.”
“Kids are resilient and able to heal. The way they do this is through families,” says Wynter. “The difference a family can make in a child’s ability to be successful in life is unbelievable.
“There is hope for every kid. They didn’t end up in foster care because they did something wrong; they were born into families who couldn’t care for them. When you adopt a child, you will change their life and they will change yours.”