The U.S. family foster care program dates back over 150 years. Known as the father of foster care, a young minister – Charles Loring Brace – was horrified by the thousands of orphaned and destitute European immigrant children he found roaming the streets of New York City or barely surviving in tenements and orphanages. His idea was that children of “poor fortune” and “misery” could have another chance at life through “God’s Reformatory,” the words he used to describe the American family.
He raised the funds to create the Children’s Aid Society and the Orphan Trains, sending hundreds of thousands of children to live with families in the growing Midwest. Trains packed with children made their way through small towns, where billboards were posted at places of worship, on storefronts, and at other gathering places announcing the arrival of the orphaned children. Children were “viewed” on the train platforms or theatre stages, resulting in the expression “up for adoption.”
The practice of having a “home study” – the cornerstone of the contemporary selection process – was really a house study. It was conducted by local leaders (sheriff, bank president, newspaper editor) who would decide if the “home” had the appropriate well water and floor space. The PBS documentary, Orphan Trains, provides a valuable historical perspective.
The 19th century house study was the precursor to today’s home study in which foster parents are licensed, certified, or approved depending upon their respective jurisdictions or whether the program is run by public/government or private/non-profit agencies.
Recruiting foster families has always been a challenge because of the lack of clarity around what role foster parents are expected to fill. Are they more like clients of a child welfare agency, wanting to fill the empty nest once their birth children left home? Or perhaps they want a companion for an only child? Or maybe an infertile couple wants to try out fostering before committing to adoption?
The assessment and selection process got more muddled as the needs of children became more complex, and the role of foster parents remained unclear. By 1941, an article in Social Service Review asked, “Are foster parents colleagues, clients, or something in between?” How do we select foster parents if we are not sure what role we’re selecting them to fill?
In 1971, recognizing the inter-relationship among training, support and empowerment, social workers Helen Stone from the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA) and Beatrice Garrett from the U.S. Children’s Bureau inspired the creation of the National Foster Parent Association. They developed the first national training program for foster parents, Parenting Plus, published by CWLA. It provided 16 hours of training but left unclear exactly what the “plus” was.
In the 1970s, considerable progress was made regarding expectations, with the Nova Model produced by the Institute for Behavioral Sciences at Nova University in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. It identified criteria for foster parent selection, and increased pre-service training to 21 hours. Nova moved the field away from viewing foster parents as child rescuers to foster parents as team members, joining with Emily Jean McFadden, a social work professor at Eastern Michigan University, who suggested that foster parents could also be team leaders and advocates.
In the 1980s, assessment and selection was advanced through MAPP (Model Approach to Partnerships in Parenting) developed by the Child Welfare Institute, increasing pre-service training to 30 hours. MAPP combined both prospective foster and adoptive parents, advanced the term “resource parent,” and shifted language from “home study” to “family assessment.” This resulted from research in the 1980s documenting that foster parent adoptions were the most stable of all because foster parents knew the children, their birth family histories and their behaviors.
Recruitment messaging changed from “selling the child” with phrases like “open your home and your heart” to “promoting the role” with “foster parents are special people – like you and us!” Photos featured singles, couples, older, younger, ethnic diversity – but no gay and lesbian couples, yet.
Simple contracts of indenture for families selecting a child from the 19th century orphan trains have given way to a complicated maze of modern child welfare law. Before the 1980s, foster parents had to sign documents indicating that they would not attempt to adopt the children in their care. Now foster parents are asked for a commitment to adoption, if family reunification is not possible, even as the agency is working with birth parents toward reunification (known as concurrent planning).
In the 1990s, competency-based training was introduced through the PRIDE (Parent Resources for Information, Development, and Education) Model of Practice to develop and support foster parents as team members. Created initially by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services and CWLA, with support from over a dozen other state child welfare agencies, a foundation and a university, it advanced five competency categories to form the basis of mutual selection between prospective foster or resource families and agencies:
- Protect and nurture children.
- Meet their developmental needs and address any delays.
- Support children’s relationships with their birth families.
- Connect children to safe, nurturing relationships intended to last a lifetime.
- Work as a member of a professional team.
PRIDE is a “model of practice” because it is more than a pre-service preparation and assessment process. Instead, it provides the vision, values, practice principles and tools to guide family foster care and adoption programs through each step in the resource family development and support process, from role clarity to the end of the agency’s relationship with resource families. Prospective foster as well as adoptive parents, once selected, must have skilled agency staff who work with them as members of that professional team to ensure that children are safe, their well-being is ensured and they are connected to relationships that are nurturing and enduring.
In 2015 CWLA joined with FosterParentCollege.com to create the “New Generation PRIDE Model of Practice to Develop and Support Resource Parents as Team Members in Child Protection and the Trauma Informed Care of Children.” The New Generation integrates five in-person group training sessions with four online clusters of 11 courses and mutual assessment (home studies).
Look for strategies to minimize trauma for children and maximize teamwork for foster/resource parents and agency staff coming next.
Staff and board members from the National Foster Parent Association and the Child Welfare League of America compiled this history. Contributors include: Eileen Mayers Pasztor, DSW, member of the Board of Directors of the National Foster Parent Association, consultant/trainer with Child Welfare League of America, and professor at California State University, Long Beach School of Social Work; Irene Clements, executive director, National Foster Parent Association; Donna D. Petras, PhD, MSW director of training and models of practice, Child Welfare League of America; Jean Fiorito, consultant for the National Foster Parent Association; Karen A. Poteet, MPA, member of the Board of Directors of the National Foster Parent Association.