In the Declaration of Independence penned by Founding Father Thomas Jefferson, the bold statement is made that “all men are created equal.” While that may be the case for humans, the same thing cannot be said for adoption home studies. In fact, the home study process varies greatly from home study provider to home study provider. Do home studies need to be uniform as advocated by recently introduced federal legislation?
What Is A Home Study?
Before answering the question about the need for uniformity in home studies, it is essential to understand what a home study is and why it is so important. A home study is often one of the very first steps prospective adoptive parents take in the home study process. At its essence, it is a screening of applicants prior to allowing them to foster or adopt.
Determining the suitability of applicants to receive a placement to foster or adopt is a crucial task because of what is at stake. The safety, well-being, and permanence of a minor is dependent on the decision whether the applicant is a good candidate for a placement. Such a study needs to be thorough and unbiased. Failure to uncover concerns or issues with an applicant could result in great harm to a child.
According to the Adoption History Project, it was not until the mid-twentieth century that the term home study was common. (See https://pages.uoregon.edu/adoption/topics/homestudies.htm.) Nevertheless, investigations of possible foster and adoptive parents had been conducted prior to that point. Those investigations were supposed to ensure that children were placed with responsible adults with adequate means to care for them. The families approved for placement needed to have not only the financial resources to provide materially for a child placed with them, but the character to do a good job. While having adequate money was necessary, having the patience and love to nurture a child was also important.
Unfortunately, the welfare of children was often jeopardized by unregulated arrangements for placement. Reformers pointed to black-market adoptions and baby farms in demanding that minimum standards be set for placement, including the investigation of potential adoptive homes. The Minnesota Adoption Law of 1917 mandated such investigations to determine the suitability of theses home, becoming the first state in the country to require inquiries into a potential home’s suitability. Today, all states require a favorable home study for a placement to be made.
As time passed, the focus on the suitability of a potential home transitioned from an investigation to a home study. Emphasis turned to psychological factors such as the stability of an applicant’s marriage and relationship with family and friends in addition to consideration of more tangible aspects such as financial position and physical health. Because of such inquiries, adoptive applicants often felt the home study to be too intrusive and invasive.
Regardless of reaction to the home study process, the reality is that it is a mandatory process to undergo in order to adopt. An applicant must be assessed for his or her competencies, shortcomings, and abilities with the best interest of the child in mind. However, in modern times, the home study process has also shifted to assisting the prospective adoptive parent in the process; thus, training about adoption and parenting an adopted child is commonly included in addition to putting the applicant under a microscope.
Disparities in Home Studies
In the abstract, a home study sounds like a good idea. The catch is in the follow through. According to Child Information Gateway, the home study process varies greatly from agency to agency and from state to state. (See https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubs/f-homstu/.) Home study providers utilize different formats to conduct a home study. While they often include the same steps, the order of the steps and the level of detail involved, are disparate.
The elements typically comprising a home study are:
- Home Visit
- Health Reports
- Income and Medical
- Coverage Statements
- Autobiographical Statements
But these categories are quite broad, and the devil is in the details. For example, references are universally required. Nevertheless, home study providers may have varying requirements as to the number of references which must be obtained, the type of connection the reference must have with the applicant (length of time known, in what context the applicant is known, etc.), and the format of the reference (response to set questions or open-ended question of what they think of the applicant) may differ. Additionally, even if the same issues are addressed in every home study, the same questions may not be asked.
Disparities can cause difficulties particularly when it comes to interstate placements. What is required to be addressed or included in a home study in one state may not be in another. Inconsistencies in standards between the states has complicated the process and caused delays in interstate foster and adoption situations.
SAFE Home Studies—A Move Towards Standardization
To achieve uniformity in home studies, the Consortium for Children (“CFC”), developed a standardized home study. This organization, founded in 1999, seeks to support and work alongside public child welfare agencies, families, the court system, and others to provide better outcomes for children in need of forever homes.
CFC took note of the considerable discussion about the need for a uniform home study and worked to develop one. The result of CFC’s efforts is the SAFE home study which has become the first widely implemented home study process in the United State. SAFE is an acronym for Structured Analysis Family Evaluation. The SAFE process assists home study providers in conducting a thorough, structured, and uniform evaluation of applicants wishing to foster or to adopt.
Three major themes are emphasized in a SAFE home study—uniformity, comprehensiveness, and quality. The structured nature of SAFE provides a step-by-step process with common methodology, forms, procedures, and evaluation guides. Because the same tools, process, and structure is always used in a SAFE home study, it is difficult for corners to be cut or major issues to be missed.
Information gathering tools, structured analysis tools, and a pre-formatted home study report are the three components to a SAFE home study assessment. The information gathering tools consist of standard Questionnaires I and II, Reference Letters, and the Home Study Interview. The Psychosocial Inventory and the SAFE Desk Guide are the Structured Analysis Tools. A pre-formatted home study report is uniform in organization but is also tailored to meet the requirements of each state.
The psychosocial analysis done for a SAFE home study is based on 70 psychosocial factors research has shown to be necessary for safe and effective parenting. These factors are to be considered by the home study provider conducting the home study and provides a structured approach rather than hit or miss methods otherwise used. This inventory reviews issues, behaviors, and events which have occurred in an applicant’s life and determines if they have an impact on applicant’s current ability to function or to parent a child. The SAFE Desk Guide offers criteria to guide the assessment of an applicant’s strengths and issues of concern.
The SAFE home study method takes a considered and in-depth approach to assessing an applicant. It requires gathering pertinent information across nine dimensions. The areas taken into account include personal characteristics, interpersonal relationships, and physical environment.
Once an inquiry about an applicant is concluded, a home study report is prepared. The SAFE home study format contains five sections: information on the applicant; introduction to the applicant; psychosocial evaluation; conclusions and recommendation; and signatures, including those of applicants as well as the professional conducting the home study and any supervisor approving it. The report is produced in a standard report format. For a sample of the SAFE format see:
While a number of jurisdictions, such as the State of Wisconsin, require use of a SAFE home study, not all jurisdictions do. States with such a requirement have home studies produced in a uniform format addressing the same issues in the same manner. Those jurisdictions without such a requirement have home studies produced there which vary in format and content depending on who conducted the home study.
Pending Federal Legislation To Standardize Home Study Process
The fact that current home study requirements can vary greatly from state to take has come to the attention of federal legislators. Some of them have realized that when professionals conducting home studies are not all asking the same list of questions, it is difficult to compare the applicants and assess who would best meet a child’s individual need for a forever home. Based on their concern, a bipartisan group of federal lawmakers comprised of members of both the House and the Senate introduced legislation to standardize the process of conducting home studies.
The measure sought to be enacted is the National Adoption and Foster Care Home Study Act of 2021. Sponsoring this legislation are Democrats Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Rep. Jared Huffman of California and Republicans Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma and Rep. Don Bacon of Nebraska. The Act, introduced in both the House and the Senate in June 2021, is characterized as a crucial step towards creating a comprehensive evidence-based system with national standards for home studies.
The proposed legislation would amend the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) by creating a new program under the Adoption Opportunities Program with three main components. First, it would be charged with developing a research-based home study assessment standard. Second, it would be required to develop and establish a national database containing information related to completed home studies to allow effective and efficient matching of children with prospective adoptive parents for child welfare agencies. Third, it would institute regular independent evaluations of the home study assessment standard and the national home study database.
The National Adoption and Foster Care Home Study Act has received broad support from various organization and individuals. Included among the supporters are the National Association of Counsel for Children, the Consortium for Children, and the Military Family Building Coalition. The issue is especially important to the Military Family Building Coalition as military families regularly face frequent moves and varying requirements for home studies from state to state.
New York Times best-selling author of Three Little Words and founder and executive director of the Foundation for Sustainable Families, Ashley Rhodes-Courter, has also thrown her support behind this legislative initiative. Rhodes-Courter spent some ten years in the State of Florida’s foster care system before being adopted from a children’s home at age 12. Now holding an M.S.W. and having both fostered and adopted herself, Rhodes-Courter offers an experienced perspective on home studies. Regarding the National Adoption and Foster Care Home Study Act of 2021, she states:
“As the child welfare system strives to find permanency and support for all youth, it is
imperative that each State work collaboratively to implement consistent national home
study standards for potential adoptive and kinship families so that we maximize the
number of homes available to waiting children, give agencies access to top practices
and models, and help streamline communication with groups across the country….”
A national home study assessment study will not appear overnight. Even if the federal legislation is passed, pilot projects would first be launched in states which wish to participate. Funding may be provided to entice participation. But, unless all states get on board with any assessment developed, standardization and uniformity in home studies will remain lacking
Home studies are an essential tool to protect children in need of forever families and to ensure effective matches are made. Current disparities in how such home studies are conducted often result in difficulties with interstate placements and great differences in the product produced by home study providers. Given the importance of the task, aiming for a considered, in-depth, evidence-based assessment process is a laudable goal for the federal government to mandate. Only time will tell if a national government directive will result in home studies being created equal.