We have reached the end of May and National Foster Care Awareness Month, a well-deserved acknowledgment of the incredible, selfless work done by the thousands of individuals and families providing family-based treatment, care and supervision. Having worked with Foster Parents for over 40 years, I have unwavering respect for these children’s champions, along with some strong opinions about our foster care system. Here is a perspective that I think deserves to be considered, especially as we struggle as a community, state and nation with recruiting new foster parents.
A number of years ago I was shocked by what one of my employees reported after a mandatory training he had attended in the Bakersfield area. The gist of his report was that the organization providing the training referred to the foster youth they serve in their residential treatment program as “RGUs”, Revenue Generating Units! This approach to care was absolutely appalling and unacceptable, especially considering that this was a state mandated training. These are children and youth who had experienced trauma, brutal abuse and neglect, and were now being identified as “revenue generating units!” To them, these kids became a commodity, a means to generate income! I seriously hope this organization is no longer in business.
I have come to the conclusion that for decades, Foster Parents have likewise been treated as a commodity, when in fact they are a Customer! By “Commodity”, I mean that they are treated like something of use, an advantage or value, usually for trade or commerce. A Commodity is a product, not a service. Slavery is the most flagrant, vulgar form of using people as a commodity; it is complete dehumanization for the sake of material gain. A commodity is expendable, people are not!
I know, these are strong words. But I have seen our government treat Foster Parents as a commodity time and time again, and not like valued customers serving our kids. I have seen foster parents manipulated into taking a child into their home or to adopt when they weren’t really prepared or ready. I have heard too many stories about foster parents receiving a child or children into their home, and then not seeing a worker again for weeks or even months--made to feel like they’ve been left to fend for themselves! I know counties that have recruited large numbers of foster parents, but failed to properly train or support them, and then sometimes never even placing a child with them. I’ve also heard of Foster Parents begging for more services and supports only to be ignored until the placement explodes and then they find themselves being blamed.
And it only gets worse if there is a problem in the home. State licensing has always taken the position “guilty until proven innocent!” Foster Parents get dropped like a hot rock, and treated like they have the black plague or some infections disease. A local pastor once told us that he was quite reticent to promote foster care when Foster Parents are so poorly treated by the system they are called to serve. Again, they are treated as expendable and not valuable. I have personally heard state level administrators make comments to the effect, “they chose to be foster parents, so can’t you make them take difficult kids?” Seriously!
Being a Foster Parent is very challenging. I like to use the “missionary” analogy. Folks travel to Third World countries all the time to do “good works” and make people’s lives better, only to be challenged by significant cultural differences. Foster parenting is like having cultural conflict come to your home in the form of a foster child. Unlike missionary work, you can’t leave to come home--you are home! Everyone who works in the foster care system needs to change strategies and practices, starting with treating Foster Parents as the very valued Customers that they are.
So how do we do this?
First, understand the value of the Foster Parent “Customer” Role. In a traditional business model, customers are “recruited” or enticed through advertising, marketing, promotion, et cetera, to buy a product or service. In foster care, Foster Parents are equally “recruited,” or enticed through advertising, marketing, promotion, et cetera, to serve victims of child abuse and neglect as an extension of the government’s legal responsibility to provide care, supervision and protection. Government cannot properly perform without Foster Parents as their customers, just like a business cannot survive without customers buying their products.
Second, the Foster Parent “Customer” needs must be met as a high priority. A customer-driven marketing strategy focuses on meeting the needs of customers and examines how products or services can meet those needs. For instance, Amazon has built one of the most effective and profitable businesses in the world by being obsessively “customer-driven.” The paradigm must shift from the thinking that Foster Parents are here to serve the system’s needs, to the system learning how to serve the Foster Parent’s “Customer” needs!
Third, the Foster Parent “Customer” must be given a stronger voice in the process. An effective practice of a successful business model, is collecting customer feedback and being responsive to it. Foster Parent feedback is absolutely essential for two important reasons: first, it is critical in the development of appropriate treatment plans and modifications necessary to effectively serve foster youth; and second, their feedback is critical to making necessary changes and improvements in the foster care system, and how they, as a vital customer, can be better served.
Fourth, effective Foster Parent “Customer” management must focus on Building Loyalty. Consumers always return to a favored brand. We must learn how to build loyalty with our Foster Parents by making their experience rewarding rather than not frustrating. We must help them achieve success at every level, doing whatever it takes to get them through challenges so they can be content and fulfilled!
And finally, the Foster Parent “Customer” deserves to be shown tremendous appreciation and thankfulness. What foster parents do is hard work, and often thankless, with a high risk of failure, rejection and self-doubt. Our job is to take every opportunity to let them know how valuable they are for meeting a critical need in the lives of foster children, and for the betterment of our society as a whole. Plus, there is another benefit that every successful business understands--content customers are your best sales force. We need more Foster Parents! There is no better way to add to the pool than to have very content Foster Parents spreading the word.
If you are a foster parent, THANK YOU! You are not an expendable commodity. You are a Valued Customer to the Child Welfare System, whom tens of thousands of foster children depend on each and every day!