Our child-oriented culture of the 1950s has changed and the foster care system has failed to adjust. The result is a decline in available foster homes.
Headlines like these throughout the U.S. have been screaming at us about a growing crisis in foster care:
- “Foster parents feeling burned out, cleaned out”
- “L.A. County foster care shortage reaches crisis level”
- “Foster parent shortage dire as heroin overdoses rise“
In the absence of any hard data, I downloaded hundreds of news reports documenting critical local shortages in 24 states and still counting. The pervasive message was that we have many more needy children than available foster homes and recruitment and retention are becoming quite difficult.
The number of children in foster care has increased from 397,000 in 2011 to nearly 428,000 kids in 2015, according to federal data. At the same time, the number of available foster homes appears to be declining. The available evidence supports a growing crisis in foster care.
Fewer foster homes are available today, primarily because of changes in family structure and a steady migration to the cities. The image of a loving home with a stay-at-home mom is a fantasy for most families today. In addition, an increasing number of families contain only one adult with one income – many of whom are frequently struggling financially. As a result, fewer families are able to offer their homes and hearts as foster parents.
Urbanization has added to the changes in family lifestyle. The continuing migration from rural areas to the city has left many families without the support of local churches and a close-knit community. Busy streets and increased threats of violence generally require that city children stay closer to home. The notion that “it takes a village to raise a child” might work in rural areas, but less so in cities.
Foster parents are volunteers. They have no official voice in important decisions. Often, they are not even notified of conferences and court hearings concerning the children in their care. The money (per diem) they receive is provided to cover the daily expenses of rearing a child, and is a reimbursement for expenses, not a salary. It is not income and not taxed. And it falls short of the necessary costs of raising a child.
Here are six strategies that might help alleviate the foster home shortage:
- Shorten the time in foster care. The best way to meet the wise timelines in the Adoptions and Safe Families Act is to jump start permanence. Begin with a reunification plan within 24 hours of removal and monitor the plan weekly.
- Find alternate ways to protect the child within the birth home after charges of abuse or neglect have been leveled. Consider providing appropriate in-home help to the birth parent. That would also allow on-the-spot continuing evaluation.
- Welcome the use of stabilizing kin either as in-home help or as a temporary placement for the child.
- Mobilize the community. “It takes a village to raise a child.” Explore the meaning of this proverb. Find resources among friends, local churches, and former foster children to help birth and foster parents cope with otherwise disabling problems.
- Give foster parents a significant voice in case conferences and in court. Treat them with the respect they deserve by giving them legal standing along with the CASA. This will help with retention.
- Pay foster parents a living wage. Per diem provides a minimal reimbursement for expenses, far short of a salary. Most households today require two incomes to survive. The child welfare system must compete in this market to find a sufficient number of stay-at-home parents.
Volunteers are neither appropriately valued nor sufficient today. To serve our most vulnerable children, we must do more than offer lip service to the importance of children. Our true priorities will be reflected in our government budgets. Who are we as a people? What value do we honestly invest in our future, our children?