Redefining Foster Parenting

A Look Back and a Look Forward
Jim Roberts, CEO
May, 2, 2017 -

“Foster Care” has come a long way over the past couple of centuries and is yet experiencing another significant transformation. Foster care in the USA has its origins in English Poor Law, which basically allowed an abandoned or orphaned child to be forced into indentured servitude until they became of age. Kids basically became slaves for the individuals housing them. The argument in favor of this practice was that this arrangement provided children with the “basic skills they needed to survive in life.” America’s first foster child was Benjamin Eaton, age 7, in the Jamestown Colony.

In the mid-19th century, Charles Brace, director of the New York Children’s Aid Society, began to advertise for families to care for orphaned immigrant children who were overwhelming the streets of New York. Mr. Brace’s efforts are considered to be the predecessor for our current foster care system. Unfortunately, there were no laws in place to protect the health and safety of these children, and many of them were exploited and severely abused.

Since the 1850s, Foster Care has gone through numerous iterations. In 1865, Massachusetts became the first state to pay families for fostering. In 1885, Pennsylvania initiated the first foster parent licensing requirement and the use of orphanages burgeoned due to the lack of families. Interestingly, it wasn’t until after World War I that public agencies began to take a role in supervising children in foster care. The crux of the matter, foster care was more of an “out of sight, out of mind” activity rather than a compassionate concern for the wellbeing of orphaned children and youth.

Currently, our society has a basic view of “Foster Care” as a service provided by big-hearted people raising kids who don’t have their own parents. It is seen as an alternative to adoption which connotes “permanency,” while still providing a family experience. For decades, this perception has been the case. Individuals or families would take in the foster child and often raise them until adulthood. But this is no longer the case.

Beginning in the 1970s, a concerted national effort was initiated to reduce the amount of time a child or youth spent in foster care . Foster care was rightly beginning to be viewed more as an obstacle rather than a benefit to children. There were often multiple placement moves and disruptions, there was a pronounced lack of commitment on the part of foster parents, and those foster youth who “aged” out of the system were failing miserably in adulthood. Foster care became synonymous with instability!

In an attempt to ameliorate shortcomings in the Foster Care system, Congress passed “The Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997.” This legislation required state Child Welfare Agencies to make reasonable efforts to find permanent families for foster children whenever family reunification was not possible. In essence, the practice of Long-Term Foster Care was supplanted by Permanency, thus substantially more pressure was applied to Foster Parents to elicit a commitment to adopt. This change produced a dichotomous effect. First, more foster children were moved to adoption and more quickly. And second, fewer individuals and families were willing to become Foster Parents for fear of having their arm twisted into adopting (which was not their desire).

Added to the shift to Permanency in the early 1990s was the burgeoning use of specially-trained Foster Parents, combined with intensive clinical services and supports to create Therapeutic or Treatment Foster Care (TFC) as an alternative to residential-group home placement. Here again was another major shift in the traditional role of the foster parent. No longer was a foster parenting just occupied with providing quality care and supervision, but now they were to become “Professional Parents”, and operate as part of a very important treatment process. TFC is a short-term “intervention” designed to stabilize foster children/youth and initiate a healing process to enable successful reunification or permanency.

Now, California is leading the way to a new redefinition of the role of Foster Parents – as of the first of this year, foster parents are now called “Resource Parents.” The term “foster” in and of itself implies raising up, rearing and caring for in a longer sense of time. The historical role of the Foster Parent was an individual/family raising a child as their own. This no longer applies in today’s Child Welfare System where the goal is to properly promote permanency. Resource Parent is a much more apt description of this responsibility.

Think of it this way, every child needs a Permanent family! Foster care is temporary, but there remains an important need for a competent, nurturing and caring family for an interim period of time as a critical step towards achieving Permanency. Thus, the temporary parent becomes a “Resource” to the child, providing necessary family support, assistance and guidance within this interim period so they can achieve Permanency. Resource Parents are like mentors, which can transition into a lifelong relationship.

As we have journeyed through this historical discussion about the evolution of Foster Parenting, there is one consistent element – The Parent! The role has changed in relationship to its function within the Child Welfare System, but the role has not changed with respect to the importance of the Parent. Every child needs a Parent figure, be it short-term or permanent.

Regardless of the iteration of one’s Foster Parenting role, the challenges remain. There is lots of paperwork and training required; these folks are continually “under the microscope,” having very little privacy; there is continual judging and evaluating; their “strength of character” is constantly being tested; there is ongoing “cultural-conflict”; there always remains the risk of being brokenhearted at the hands of the child or the system; it is not always economically easy; and, it is undoubtedly a life changing experience!

If most people were to look at the real life job description of a Foster Parent, they would not apply for the position. Foster parenting is a unique calling and gifting, with rewards the foster parent alone can experience. It is certainly not for the faint of heart.

As life often has it, negatives inappropriately skew the foster parenting picture in the public’s purview. Sure, there are bad actors in every vocation, but with foster parenting it is less than .1% which is an amazing track record! More notable are the tens of thousands of children and youth whose lives are better because of this amazing group of individuals. I applaud and salute every Foster Parent who has positively impacted the life of a child. Be it one day or one decade – their influence last a lifetime.