With increasing regularity, there is comment by publication, news article or editorial about the need for foster parents. Why? Because foster parents are an important partner of the child protection system; they provide care and safety to children who are unable to remain in their home environment. The ever evolving philosophy of child welfare reflects the research, practice, and leadership at any point in time in a state, county, or local organization. Jurisdictions are also affected by the service provider community and its philosophical, financial, and operational practices. All of these together complicate the capacity and practice in the foster care system.
The Changing Landscape of Foster Care
Approximately a decade ago, there were 505,000 children in foster care. Over the years, that number was reduced to approximately 400,0001 , not only a substantial reduction but a reflection again of the philosophy and practice within the child protection system. Only one of those factors was the emphasis of placing children with relatives, not only as a preferred and best practice model, but also because of the recognition of the changing nature of family dynamics and the ability or willingness of families to provide foster care
placement for children removed from homes. Another important factor was that there were newborns, babies, and infants available for adoption, and many interested in adopting a child saw foster care as the vehicle toward adoption.
Recently, there has been an increase in the number of children removed from their homes. Therefore, there is an increasing demand for out-of-home placement, especially in foster care. Two things must be evaluated to address the current demands for increased out-of-home placements:
- What has caused such an enormous increase in the need for out-of-home placements? Given that the data shows that a 25% reduction of kids in foster homes was achieved at one point over the last decade, why the recent resurgence?
- Is relative care being utilized to its full potential?
Certainly each state, county, and jurisdiction is different; its needs and philosophical underpinnings are often reflected by leadership, finances, geopolitical considerations, and community engagement. Too often, however, the nature of child protection causes this crisis because of the workload and/or lack of capacity to plan and respond. The fact is that regardless of the nature of the issues that the agencies face, children coming into care and requiring placement are primarily the responsibility of the agency and its leadership. Too often children coming into care in some jurisdictions are being moved from one placement to another too quickly and do not receive the immediate services they need to treat the trauma caused by the removal.
All of this reflects the need for the agency to prepare for the inevitable foster care crisis. This is complicated for almost any jurisdiction whether it is a large metropolitan area or rural setting. Complicating placement variables include:
- single child vs sibling group
- minimal physical or emotional needs vs severe physical or emotional needs
- rural vs urban
- locality of available foster care
- transportation needs
Factors such as the removal time of day and the lack of portable technology to make placement arrangements while in the field can also make finding a timely placement for a child overwhelming.
5 Steps to Ensure Adequate and Safe Foster Care Placement
The responsibility of leadership at every level of government and in a child protection agency is to research, plan, and prepare for the inevitable and increasing need for placement of the child or children removed. The following steps are minimum requirements to ensure that the children- once removed from their home- have a timely, adequate, nurturing, and safe placement.
- Data – recognize the research. It is an absolute certainty that there will be a crisis, for one individual child or even a systemic demand. The recent opioid and prescription drug crisis has exploded in many jurisdictions. The agency must evaluate its data, present and historical, and interpret the recent trends for the causes of removal. Whether it is drugs, domestic violence, inappropriate supervision, mental health or other issues, understanding the causes, projecting the trends and preparing for an impending crisis are the first critical steps. The data must be accumulated in a variety of categories so that further study, projections, and decisions can occur.
- Evaluation – understanding the trends. Having the data available does not answer questions but will cause further discussions and reviews. The evaluation should be conducted by a broad base of individuals within the child protection system – not just within the agency. Evaluations should include others such as law enforcement, medical professionals, counselors/therapist, housing education, to only name a few. There are multiple causes for removing children from their homes and therefore multiple participants in the solutions. Ultimately, the responsibility for determining foster care needs is that of the agency; and agency leadership must seek advice from other disciplines in the evaluation of the data.
- Recruiting – think broadly. Once the evaluation of the data has occurred, decisions must be made. Assuming that there is a demonstrated need for increased foster placements or in the alternative that a broader based foster placement system is indicated, recruitment of additional foster placements should begin immediately. Gather and review data on individuals who currently provide foster placement – their interest, motivation, and success. Historically, many foster parents come with a faith-based interest in helping and supporting those in need. Assuming that that the data reflects that, steps should be taken to recruit based upon past and current foster families. Often the decision is made to use billboards or public service announcements as a tool for recruitment. Evaluation should think more broadly than historical methods of recruiting foster families.
- Training – timely and relevant. Research has shown over and over again that the licensing process for foster families can take as long as a year. Training must be more timely so those interested in foster parenting do not lose interest or enthusiasm. The steps to conduct the initial interview, fingerprinting, and home study should occur without delay and concurrently. Training must be relevant, informative, and supportive of the issues and conflicts which often occur when individuals foster parent.
- Support – no one does it alone. The agency must review its support network for foster parents, particularly those who are just starting out. The best way to do this is for the agency to designate an agency foster parent specialist who is available to communicate and address questions and issues that arise with a foster family. The issue is not the relationship between the agency and the foster family, but rather the safety, care, and support for the child removed from his/her home and the trauma suffered. The agency must establish a rapport and relationship with foster families –including relative families – so that they are true partners and aligned in the care for children they are responsible for.
Foster parenting should be one of, if not the most, important allies of an agency. Especially during a crisis, which many jurisdictions struggle with in this era of opioid and prescription drug issues. Each agency must know the data and decide how to address the data. Ultimately, the agency will find its best efforts are addressed in looking at faith-based institutions as the traditional and most likely ally and advocate during a crisis. Many jurisdictions such as Texas are directing their efforts at foster care recruitment toward faith-based institutions as the most promising source for resolving foster care issues.