Hannah Rule was getting questions from others around the Division of Family and Children Services on how the agency was seeing such high adoption finalizations between July and August.
As it was just her third day on the job as Hall County DFCS director, she didn’t have the full story.
Another 10 or so Hall children are on track to be adopted before New Year’s Eve, and the department has already matched the number of adoptions for all of last year.
To Rule, one secret is having a backup plan from the get-go.
“From the beginning of the case, you’re working with the parent, but you’re also working the other end with relatives and anybody else,” Rule said.
Since Jan. 1, 129 children have been discharged from Hall County foster care, 35 of them adopted. In 2015, Hall County DFCS finalized 34 adoptions.
Between July and August, Hall County adoption case manager Megan Chancey was the No. 1 “finalizer” in the state with six adoptions, according to Rule.
Chancey did not respond to requests for comment.
A key element Rule sees in the increase is a system of concurrent case planning not being used in other counties. It is often common practice elsewhere to exclusively work with the parents on re-establishing parental rights before going to a Plan B, she said.
“It truly is a joy to be able to take a child that has been removed from their family and to really instill more love into their life when they really feel like they have nobody else,” adoption case manager Ashley Smith said.
The number of children returning to their homes, however, will almost double compared to last year. Rule said the department is seeing an average of more than three children per month returning to their birth parents, and expects to have 46 children returned by year’s end.
In 2015, 25 children were reunited with their birth parents.
Hall County DFCS has two adoption case managers, a supervisor and an administrator. Rule said the adoption work in DFCS is often seen as a “coveted position” within the department.
“It takes workers who are very skilled, especially with detail and legal stuff, because so much of their role is to walk that adoptive parent through the legal process,” she said.
The front half centers around recruitment, where a case manager reads multiple home studies to determine the best fit for the child. The home study consists of a safety examination of the prospective parents’ home as well as interviews to assess suitability.
“They’re recruiting for a family like you would shop for real estate, with that attention to detail, I guess, in terms of the matching,” Rule said.
Smith said she spends a considerable amount of time with the child to be placed, learning about likes, dislikes and personality. She’ll observe how they interact at home as compared to school.
For prospective families, Smith will look at what kind of child they can accept and their own interests.
“I really get a lot out of a home study when I can read about their hobbies, interests and things they do as a family,” Smith said.
Although Rule is seeing a good number of the adoptions coming through relative placements, a large portion of the adoptions start with foster families that began with the intention of just fostering.
“When you really do a good match up front ... that foster parent is much more likely to adopt that child than if that child has been in four or five different homes,” she said.
A case manager recently pored over 15 case studies before whittling the pile down to three prospective homes. Another group came in, Rule said, and looked over these final three before making any phone calls.
“Those girls spend hours reading home studies from all over the state trying to find families that they think would be a good match for their kids,” she said.
The “coveted position” is not without its unsettling conversations, such as moments when prospective adoptive parents leave the process in the final stages.
“They then have to explain to the child the person you’ve been visiting with for the past six months — this is no longer your forever family,” she said.
There are also 14 children in Hall County free for adoption, Rule said, meaning the biological parents’ rights have been terminated but do not have any adoptive resources.
“These are the children who are not going home and have no one on deck to adopt them,” she said. “They are either placed in foster homes where the foster parents aren’t interested in adopting them or they are placed in group settings.”