MODERNIZING FOSTER CARE
Jim and Mary Kenny
The foster care system has failed to keep pace with changing family life styles. Fewer stay-at-home moms are available when both parents work. In addition, families have become more urban. Changing jobs, more moving, and longer commuting times reflect life in the city. Fewer people reside in long-term communities. Neighborhood support has diminished. As a result, the recruitment and retention of foster families has become more difficult.
Foster families are key players along the road to permanence. The shortage of appropriate foster families has been hidden by our failure to keep track of the number and types of homes available. This lack of hard data has been partially remedied by a review of hundreds of recent local news reports. Although the shortage varies by locale and special populations served, it is real and likely to worsen.
In May, 2015, nearly one out of seven wards in our welfare system was living in a group home (Annie E. Casey Foundation). That amounts to 57,000 children at a cost seven to ten times higher than foster care. Approximately 23,000 of these children had no medical disability or behavioral problem that might warrant such a restrictive and expensive placement. These and other sources confirm a common perception:
Although general shortages tended to vary by state and by county, foster homes for special populations were in universal demand. Homes were needed for teens, sibling groups, minority groups of Blacks and Hispanics, and for health-challenged children. Homes within the child’s social and cultural milieu were rare. Distance was a factor. Too often the child had to be placed so far from the birth parent that reunification became geographically difficult.
Another serious problem was the misuse of those foster homes that were available. Foster homes in some areas were dangerously overcrowded. Also, because of the absence of any alternative, there were reports of foster parents being allowed to skip required training and to violate policies.
Adding to the problem, foster home shortages were said to be a major cause of high staff turnover. Caseworkers are already overworked. Examples were given of case loads of 90 clients where the CW was still required to handle emergencies for two additional uncovered case loads. This heavy responsibility is compounded by having to spend an inordinate amount of time searching for a proper foster home for a newly removed child. Annual caseworker turnover was reported as high as thirty-five percent.
Maintaining the Birth Home
The first and best way to deal with the shortage of foster families is to reduce our need for them. Prevention and early safe reunification offer two obvious strategies.
Removal of a child almost always offers a Sophie’s choice. On the one hand, the child has to be protected physically. On the other, separating the child from the only family he may have known is social surgery and may cause even more harm. Have we sometimes been too hasty with our “remove-to-protect” response? Can we let the child remain in the home and still keep him or her physically safe? What resources do we need to accomplish this?
Concerned relatives, if they can be found, offer the best chance for family stability and are the least disruptive. An immediate inventory of the birth parents’ extended family may open up several possibilities. Is there a caring relative who might be willing to move in as a temporary nanny or mother’s helper? They can model homemaking skills while giving birth mother time to correct the issues that might lead to the removal of her child. Background and reference checks on kin can be accomplished on an emergency basis.
If the relative does not actually move in, might they drop by and monitor progress daily until safety can be assured? Care by kin lessens the culture shock for the child and can make eventual reunification easier.
Going beyond kin, might special foster parents be identified who are willing to provide a similar form of emergency care? Going still further, an innovative caseworker might be able to mobilize community care and support for mother and child. Churches and other helping organizations might be recruited to watch over mother’s rehabilitation while keeping the initial family together. Obviously, mobilizing and supervising these support systems would require more work for the caseworker. The benefit, in those cases where such a plan was appropriate, would be to maintain the birth home.
A brief period of haphazard uncertainty usually follows the removal of a child. A three-day transitional placement would offer an interlude while thought can be given to the next step: possible reunification or a search for the most appropriate placement.
If the child must be removed, offer birth mother an initial reunification plan within 24 hours. This is not brain surgery. Address the problems directly that led to the removal and offer a way to correct them. If the housing is substandard, new housing must be found. If the parents have little parenting skill or the child was left alone, attend parent training classes. If a boyfriend abused the child, get rid of the boyfriend. If one or both parents were on drugs, they may need to seek treatment and pass random drug screens. And so on. The plan can later be approved and/or improved in court, but the clock will already be ticking, either on the way to reunification or toward termination. Most importantly, the truly concerned mother has the opportunity to begin working immediately to get her child back.
The Foster Families We Need
Foster families are the displaced child’s number one resource. To properly serve abused and neglected children, the temporary placement should be tailored to their requirements. What type of homes are we lacking? Here is a shopping list.
Foster children need experienced parents to cope with the special challenges. A training course is not sufficient. Virgin parents will have little or no hands-on understanding of how and why a neglected or abused child behaves as he or she does.
Except for sibling groups, no more than two foster children should be placed with a family. Otherwise, overcrowding is likely to prevent the individual attention that most foster children crave and need.
The foster home should be within a one-hour drive from the birth home. Without reasonable access, attempts at reunification will be badly compromised.
To allow time for locating the best placement and a brief med/psych evaluation, short-term holding places, ideally with a family, should be recruited for newly removed children. Time in the transition home should be no more than 72 hours.
Hispanic, black, and other minority families are currently in short supply. Language, hair styles, food, music, and many other ethnic customs need to be understood and accommodated to avoid more severe culture shock. The foster child has suffered shock enough.
Children with medical and psychological disabilities will require families capable of dealing with their special needs. This requires families with additional experience and/or training.
Recruiting Strategies for Today
Here are several strategies for recruiting and retaining foster families. Some are new. Others are in place, but may require a more concerted effort.
• Hire emancipated foster children and adoptees to use their internet skills in blitzing YouTube and Facebook with advertising for foster parents.
• Design appealing ads using the faces of children in need, coupled with catchy phrases. The old Peace Corps slogan comes to mind: “The toughest job you’ll ever love.”
• Hire foster and adoptive parents to do the recruiting from among their many contacts. Hire them to do foster parent training as well.
• Offer premiums for those who attend a program on foster care. Perhaps a free meal or craft items made by foster children. Award bonuses to successful recruiters.
• Recruit beyond traditional family lifestyles. Target single parents. Gay parents. Parents who work from their home who might have more flex-time for child-rearing.
• Appeal to and target special families who might be attracted to a child with different personal or cultural needs. The successful approach of You Gotta Believe with “Ten Really Great Reasons to Foster a Teen” is one example. Consider ethnic appeals to black and Hispanic families.
• Approach local churches directly with visits and flyers. Provide programs to church groups on the need for foster parents. “One Church/One Child” is an example of a successful religious commitment.
• Make national appeals for foster parents. This will help local and state recruiters, and may also open the way for placements and adoptions across state lines when parental rights have already been terminated.
• To fill in our shortfall of foster parents, we might also recruit mother’s helpers for struggling birth parents, mentors for foster children, and other support persons.
Modernizing Foster Care
The suggestions made so far call for a more concerted effort within our present system. To continue to provide personal in-home services in today’s world, however, foster care must be open to more significant changes.
Today’s business world offers many instances of how service enterprises have streamlined their efforts. Take UBER for example. UBER is not just another taxi service but an entirely new model, using technology to directly connect drivers and clients. Quality is monitored by a digital request for customer comments and ratings. Despite preliminary skepticism, the approach has been successful, with significant customer satisfaction.
What might the foster care system glean and adapt from some of these innovations? Clearly there are major differences. Foster children need a home, not a brief service. The involvement of biological parents, foster parents, case manager, agency, courts, CASA, and more make utilizing foster families more complicated than selecting transportation. Nevertheless, here are four innovative ideas adapted from the UBER approach that might benefit the foster care system.
Maximize Income for the Basic Service Providers
Our current foster care system pays everyone but the ones who work 24/7 and bear the heaviest burdens of care and responsibility. That is a lot to expect of volunteers. The per diem foster parents receive is not considered income but simply a reimbursement for expenses.
We don’t expect volunteers to handle other serious problems. We pay people to care for those who are seriously ill, to provide residential care for our elderly, and those who provide daytime child care for working parents. We value these tasks and expect to pay for them. Yet we call on volunteers and lean on their generosity to take care of our most vulnerable children
To compete with the lure of a job in the outside world, we need to provide the stay-at-home foster parent with reasonable compensation, the equivalent of a second income. Treat women’s work fairly for the great value it provides.
Adequate compensation for foster parents offers many advantages. Recruitment would improve dramatically. The offer of a reasonable salary with benefits would attract a considerably larger number and variety of family homes. No more need for begging within a shrinking pool of homebound parents willing to donate their services. Child welfare departments and agencies would not have to settle for just anyone who “makes the cut” but would likely have choices.
Standard hiring practices, using references, resumes, background checks, and interviews would replace the current variety of home study formats. Contracts would provide for better control. By signing a contract for a defined time period, the critical foster home resource would stabilize.
Employment opportunities would be available for adults who wish to work from the home. Those with the desire and capacity to offer nurture and effective discipline to children would be valued. Interpersonal abilities, an underrated resource in our technological society, would become a job skill.
Can we afford to pay foster parents? Where will we find the money? The answer lies in assessing our priorities. Our economy is the largest in the world. How we allocate our resources is a subject constantly being debated. We need to ask where our vulnerable kids fit within our financial system.
Some savings would result from compensating foster parents. Recruiting and retention would become less costly. Contracting for services would encourage the use of standard cost-saving business practices. Weekly monitoring of both the birth and foster home would shorten the time spent in temporary care. Permanence within one year, the desired goal set by federal legislation (ASFA), could be achieved more frequently. This would be good for children as well as the budget. Spending to minimize damages today will save money later in increased social costs like public assistance, homelessness, and mental health needs.
Others have objected that paying foster parents is hopelessly complicated. How could compensation be tailored to amount to a second family income? Would separate contracts be offered for each child in care? Would they be time-limited, a pairing of part-time contracts? Would foster parents be paid a token amount simply for being available? What about benefits? For tax purposes, income would need to be separated from reimbursement. While complicated, the structuring of foster family contracts is certainly not impossible. Workers today perform in a variety of settings, time frames, and structures. Foster parents too can be compensated using similar models.
The most serious objection is that paying for foster cares will delay permanence. Reunification or adoption might be discouraged. However, a judicious use of contracts and bonuses might resolve this problem. Contracts for payment might be time-limited for each child, with a bonus offered for a permanent home.
Some have argued that the love of money would replace the love of a child. This is bogus. Many employees love what they do and do it well. Payment for child care does not mean that foster parents will be less compassionate.
Use Technology to Reduce Administrative Costs
By putting the customer and the driver in direct contact with each other, UBER has made their taxi services both more efficient and less expensive. Digital technology offers all service enterprises the chance to streamline their operations. For the hiring of new foster families, the internet offers a quicker and more thorough way to perform background checks, obtain resumes and references, and document the information provided in a home visit.
Further, caseworkers can use the internet to monitor the birth parents and the foster parents on progress with the case plan. Checks on compliance with medical appointments, school attendance, visitation, handling of complaints, and other required actions can be updated regularly. Home visits are still important but digital checking makes it easier to keep track of weekly progress and provides digital documentation of compliance or the lack of it.
Technology can reduce administrative costs by streamlining many middle and upper management jobs. Administrators might be freed to focus more directly on providing client services.
Promote a Team Approach
Think of the foster parents and birth parent(s) as a ground-level team similar to the relationship between the UBER driver and passenger. The caseworker can involve the birth parent from the beginning. Ask the birth parent to suggest relatives who might help. Describe potential foster families and seek her input in the selection of where her child might be placed. Work with her to plan the time, place, and conditions of visitation. Would she like to bring a friend or relative with her to visits in the foster home or meetings with her caseworker?
Treat foster parents as partners. Notify them of all case conferences and court hearings along with an invitation or request to attend. Support the right of foster parents to present oral and written reports and make recommendations. They may know the child in their care better than any other attendee. Provide them with some respite. Enlist other licensed foster parents to give them an occasional weekend off. Offer a “customer service” hotline to answer questions about allegations, per diem, subsidies, medical and school problems, issues with the birth parent, parenting, and much else.
Teamwork implies transparency. Secret and hidden reports beget paranoia. Non-confidential information, positive and negative, might be open. The team members would know where they stand. By sharing concerns, birth and foster parents might better understand one another. Birth parents might feel less competitive and resentful. Foster parents might become more sympathetic toward the birth parents and even slip into the role of mentors. Teams are a good antidote to one-way thinking. If a team can be built, the real beneficiary will be the child.
Control Quality through Feedback
Invite regular feedback from all parties, following the example of companies like Amazon and UBER. Ask the caseworkers, birth parents, and foster parents to regularly assess one another. Each player would thereby have the opportunity to rate and comment on the other two. Birth parents and foster parents would gain a voice which hopefully would encourage better service and help reduce the current diet of complaints and allegations. The caseworker would be kept abreast of the situation, and permanence might be achieved more quickly. Failure to participate in a feedback system would be documented in the case record and convey its own message of lack of cooperation. A wise use of feedback might lead to better communication. To the extent feedback is positive, it could encourage the players to work as a team.
When a child is seriously neglected or abused, the role of state welfare is to protect the child, usually by removing him or her from an unsafe situation. Temporary placement in an appropriate foster family setting provides the best intermediate step en route to finding a permanent home through reunification or adoption. The best interests of the child are served if this can be done expeditiously, within one year. Foster families provide the key link between abuse and a safe permanent home.
We are currently facing a shortage of available foster homes. The first remedy is prevention: Maintain the birth home when safety can be assured and monitor the case plan weekly to shorten the time in foster care.
What can be done to reverse the loss of foster families? Both traditional and new recruitment strategies have been suggested, along with four innovative approaches that might make fostering more attractive and our system more effective. The easiest path is to do nothing. Change always involves difficulties. If the issue is important and critical, however, and the will is there, a way can be found.
About the Authors-Jim and Mary Kenny are the parents of twelve children, four of whom were adopted, and have been foster parents to many more. They have authored nine books and many articles on parenting and foster care matters. Jim was a social worker and a practicing psychologist with doctorates in both psychology and anthropology. Mary is a CPA.