LARGO — Successfully matching the teen girl with an adoptive family, Hana Cowart said, was part good memory, part good timing and luck.
Over the years, Cowart, an adoption case manager, and her colleagues had generated thousands of pages of interviews with more than 5,000 Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco county families hoping to adopt formerly abused or neglected foster children from Eckerd Community Alternatives. The thick folders containing those pages teetered in stacks on caseworkers' desks and filled drawers in dozens of cabinets.
When a child became available for adoption, caseworkers struggled to remember the details about the families in the files.
"It's our hope that we can keep all these in mind, think back," Cowart said, "and remember this is the family I studied four years ago and they'll be the perfect match."
But caseworkers don't have to rely on their memories alone anymore.
Eckerd has teamed up with Seminole computer engineer Mark Livings on ParentFinder, new software that provides a searchable database where prospective families can upload photos and video to an online profile that is then viewed by caseworkers who can easily match the families' strengths and preferences to children's needs.
The software simplifies caseworkers' jobs by putting thousands of pages of home studies and other documents online; gives families a never-before-seen outlet to express interest or gather information about the adoption process; and expands the search for children and families beyond county lines.
The site, adoptionsrvs.com, also has a social networking component where pre- and postadoptive families can connect.
"It's really a way for us to connect to the families and empower the families so they can connect with us," said Eckerd spokeswoman April Putzulu.
Livings says he created ParentFinder, a product of his CAIRS Solutions company, two years ago in response to his and his wife's own experience adopting two boys. The couple created an online space to showcase the kind of life they could offer a child, helping the private adoption agency attract two birth mothers in 18 months versus what potentially could have taken years.
Adding photos and video "allow you to portray yourself in 3-D, so that birth mom can have everything she needs to make that important choice," he said.
Livings initially rolled out the software to about 70 private adoption agencies nationwide. But he quickly realized a similar interface was even more vital in the foster care sector, where adoption managers were using an antiquated manual system.
"If the right person there doesn't know a family, that family could be overlooked," said Livings, who says he has more than 20 years of computer systems experience. "So what we did is say let's provide the ability for the families to go register themselves so it doesn't put any more work on the caseworkers."
Added Cowart: "That's the missing piece right now — families don't feel empowered to help themselves. They're waiting on a case manager they may never see to get back to them. This empowers them to be their own advocate."
About 150 adoptive families and 40 Pinellas and Pasco caseworkers representing 150 children are using the site so far. Eckerd will open the site to Hillsborough caseworkers in a few months after training.
The site is free for basic users who want to simply create a profile to post their home studies, research training opportunities or interact with other parents. The system periodically clears out inactive profiles.
For a one-time $99 fee, users can upgrade to a permanent profile, where they can upload photo galleries and video of their home and family. The fee covers ParentFinders' server maintenance and other costs.
Families outside the Tampa Bay region can also register.
Child predators are locked out, officials say, by Eckerd officials who monitor message boards as well as verify uploaded home studies, then conduct interviews before prospective parents ever come in contact with a child.
Florida's Heart Gallery, where families can view professional photos and stories about adoptable children, will feature a link to ParentFinder, which itself won't showcase child photos.
Adoption specialists expect the site's offerings will also lead to a widened pool of prospective families by allowing them to take training, talk to other parents and, in turn, possibly consider options they hadn't before, such as gender, ethnicity or disability.
"Our goal is to really roll this out as a best practices option statewide and beyond," Putzulu said.
Keyonna Summers can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4153.