Rethinking Foster Parent Recruitment & Retention

Jim Roberts
May, 26, 2015 -

How well I still remember one of the anthems of my generation “… For the times they are a changin’.” And yes, how applicable these words continue to be; especially in our world of Child, Youth and Family Services. It seems that the past One and half decades has been a blur of major public policy and service delivery paradigm shifts—but, these are changes for the better.

One of the most profound changes can be summed up in these words: Foster Care as we have known it for decades, is on its way out! With the advent of California’s “Continuum of (foster) Care Reform” (CCR) and the plethora of Child Welfare Services (CWS)reform initiatives at the federal level, the times really are changing. It is time for our industry to snap out of its “boo hoo, what are they doing to us now” mind set, and embrace change to pro-actively move forward to make it successful.

This monumental change is exemplified in the role of the “Foster Family,” soon to be aptly re-branded in California as Resource Family. The practice of a foster child going into a foster home or group home and basically remaining in the “foster care system” until they age out is ending. Group home placement, or as some refer to it as “congregate care”, is rapidly being dismantled and reconstructed to provide only short-term treatment services. This is a good thing because no child should be raised in an institutional setting. Foster-adoption services have grown exponentially as a mechanism to quickly establish a permanent family for children and youth in foster care. And Therapeutic Foster Care has moved center stage as the “intervention of choice” for children and youth, including those who have been commercially sexually exploited (CSE) and whose lives have been impacted by trauma and adverse childhood experiences. The new paradigm is Family-Based or Home-Based Services.

For all intents and purposes, the role of the traditional foster parent is quickly transforming into a Professional Parent who serves as a resource to the foster child. There will no longer be “long-term foster care.” In the new paradigm, Resource Parents will only be providing short-term care which helps expedite the child’s move to permanency. This will include providing: 1) Emergency Shelter Services; 2) Short-term foster care bundled with permanency services and supports; 3) Therapeutic Foster Care, playing a critical role in the treatment process in order to stabilize children’s behaviors and enhance successful permanency placement; and, 4) adoption/guardianship, becoming the child’s permanent family.

While this shift in care is truly best for foster children and youth, it creates a significant “systems” challenge—a sufficient pool of qualified Resource Parents. Currently, there is a severe shortage of foster parents across the country. California is not unlike other states with a 25% or greater loss in licensed or certified foster families over the past five years. For this much needed change in Public Policy to succeed, we must rethink and modify our Resource Parent recruitment and retention approach!

First, federal and state laws/regulations must change to allow the use of relatives and kin to serve in this resource parent capacity, with equal compensation and access to services. Talk about Best Practices—placing a child with a family member who they know reduces the trauma of “stranger care” and increases the likelihood of the child being adopted or the family taking guardianship.

Second, compensate Resource Parents as professionals! Reducing institutional care will produce a huge savings of public funding. Redirect some of that savings to the Resource Families to allow them to make it a career with at least one stay-at-home parent.

Third, Resource Parents need to receive far more training, services, supports, supervision and guidance. The day and age of dropping off the child and wishing the foster family good luck needs to stop. Improved parental skills, one-on-one assistance, accountability and oversight will only improve foster child outcomes.

Fourth, there needs to be honest “messaging” about the role, responsibilities and challenges associated with serving children and youth impacted by trauma as a resource parent. Sorry, this type of care is not a “love is all you need” service.

Fifth—and this may be wishful thinking—but we absolutely need well orchestrated federal and state Resource Family Recruitment initiatives with sufficient investment to make it work. Right now there are thousands of agencies, both public and private, across the United States recruiting independently of each other, and there is no consistent messaging, strategy or quality control. Coupled with this lack of strategy, there must be an effort to properly educate the public on the importance, value and positive social impact of becoming a Resource Parent in order to overshadow the stigma created by the sensationalization of a few tragic situations.

Change is inevitable and change can be a good thing. But as we transform our nation’s foster care system, let us do it intelligently and with thoughtful consideration of the Resource Families who will be the backbone of a successful system!