Foster Care Crisis - What’s an Agency to Do? Part 1

Child welfare agencies in jurisdictions across the country face a growing foster care crisis: decreasing numbers of licensed foster homes can’t support the increasing demand for licensed out of home placement, fueled, in part, by the opioid and prescription drug crisis.

What is causing this shift in the demand for traditional licensed foster homes? 

While the recent increase in agency referrals has exacerbated the crisis of too few licensed foster homes, several other factors are at play: 

  • The emphasis on placing children with relatacives who, in many jurisdictions, either are not licensed or choose not to be licensed.
  • The fact that too often licensed foster placement has been misused, provided insufficient support, and received inappropriate oversight.  This often begins with the application for licensing.  The process can take as long as one year and too often ends when foster families get discouraged because of the lack of support.
  • Changing family dynamics of prospective foster homes where the traditional two-parent home with one parent working may no longer the standard.
  • Many agencies have failed to respond to the changing family dynamics at recruitment, licensing, and training (through a review of the pay structure, method of support, provision of childcare, ease of application for medical care, and issues of transportation for visits, school, counseling, or medical care). 

How can agencies address these issues?

Agencies should consider reviewing and modifying current foster care practices regarding the full array of services and options provided to children in their care.  After a review of the vision and mission of the agency, this must include a significant review of the agency’s policies and practices.
 

The first step for an agency is a realistic review of its capacity to thoroughly and completely conduct an evaluation of the agency’s foster care system. Given the current pressures placed on agencies with increasing foster care, budget restrictions, high caseloads and changing laws and philosophy of child welfare, an initial review will likely reveal that the agency will not have the necessary resources internally to conduct that evaluation. Still, it is imperative that agencies invest resources in this effort. 

There is great risk in not conducting a complete and thorough analysis and/or doing so without sufficient expertise and resources with a project timeline. This review must not only be thorough but has to be completed in a timely manner so as to not result in outdated information and program modifications that are already ineffective at implementation. Having an outline of the needed review initiatives will be helpful to agencies – the specific review initiatives will be discussed in Part 2.
 
For now, let’s explore the four areas of focus that require special attention and review: recruitment, licensing, support, and relative foster care.

  1. Recruitment. Despite the increasing number of referrals, many jurisdictions face fewer numbers of applicants for foster care licensing and, as a result, the changing family dynamics require review and attention. Conducting a review of current/past foster parents (through a survey for example) to determine their reasons for involvement is a good first step. After reviewing survey responses, the next step is to develop a recruitment program that reaches out to likely foster parents.  

    Building Blocks for Resource Parent Recruitment and Retention” is a recent piece by PCG’s Child Welfare team that explores three strategies agencies can implement now to create a robust recruitment and retention program.

  2. Licensing. Efforts should be taken to address the problems and barriers to timely licensing of foster parents. The licensing process often includes criminal background checks, home studies, required training programs, and final certification processes. The agency should determine what is an adequate time to apply for and obtain foster care licensing—such as a target of no more than three months from initial application to final decision. The agency should then make every effort to meet that target goal. It is critical that agencies be honest and open to prospective foster parents on the issues/time frames involved as their passion and enthusiasm may diminish with time.

  3. Support. Support for foster parent applicants and licensed foster parents is important. This is not a question of pay but a question of communication, information, follow-up, support and consistency. Foster per diem is not, for most prospective or licensed foster parents, an important consideration. Once foster placement is made, pay is a recognition of the importance of foster parents; for many, pay enables them to provide resources to better support and address the complex problems of children placed in the foster care system and the trauma that they have suffered. Foster parents should be the system’s best ally and must be treated accordingly.

  4. Relative Foster Care. Virtually ignored by agencies for years, relative foster care is now an area that is a necessary, and perhaps vital, component to the foster care system and to children, who benefit greatly when placed in a home-like and familiar environment. It is important to note that relative foster care is significantly different from the traditional foster care. The needs of relative placement are often significantly different than those of the traditional licensed foster homes.  This often means they have greater need for “concrete services” such as clothing, bedding, furniture, etc. Many first time relative foster care providers require special support and attention to understand the system; this must be done much quicker than the traditional licensing process. Jurisdictions like Allegheny County, Pennsylvania have long-standing programs to address relative foster care licensing and support. 

The Administration for Children & Families (ACF) offers many helpful kinship care resources via its Child Welfare Information Gateway that explore the impact and evaluation of kinship care programs. 

Children removed from their homes deserve the best support that the agency can provide. For a variety of reasons, many agency foster/relative care placement systems are in different stages of crisis. Evaluating the foster/relative care system is a critical first step that serves as the foundation for the next step –the implementation of significant improvement in the foster/relative care process. Stay tuned for Part 2, which will provide 11 steps to support implementation.