In “California Bill Aims to Create Better Foster Homes,” Holden Slattery reports on new legislation (AB 507) that would require social workers to help foster parents develop training plans tailored to the needs of the children in their homes. This legislation is the top priority of the California Youth Connection (CYC), an Oakland-based advocacy organization led by current and former foster youth.
Slattery leads with the story of CYC member Serena Skinner, who experienced three placements in one year after coming into foster care at age 17. Skinner believes that with better training, her foster parents might have understood and been able to deal with her behaviors.
CYC’s legislative coordinator told Slattery that the success of California’s Continuum of Care Reform (CCR) depends on passage of the bill. CCR attempts to move most foster youth from group and institutional settings into foster homes.
Of course, foster parents should receive training that is relevant to their specific circumstances. In my experience as a foster care social worker in the District of Columbia, I observed foster parents choosing classes based on time and proximity rather than subject matter. As a result, a foster parent with normal teenagers might take a class in fetal alcohol syndrome; that’s a real-life example.
I can attest to the importance of receiving training in all the important knowledge about trauma, attachment and brain development that we have acquired in the past ten years. Much of this new knowledge helps explain some of the behaviors that foster parents might otherwise misinterpret as hostile or disrespectful.
But I’m a bit skeptical that this legislation will achieve its grand purposes of ensuring the success of CCR, for a couple of reasons.
Simply ensuring that foster parents develop relevant training plans does not ensure that they will actually receive appropriate training. For that to occur, there has to be enough training available that a busy foster parent does not have to find child care in order to travel an hour to a training class. And the bill does nothing to ensure a supply of relevant training throughout the state.
Moreover, even if great training were available, the foster parent has to be interested and open to learning new information and new ways to look at human behavior. The foster parents I knew who would absorb this kind of information were already doing a great job. Good training might help them do their jobs even better.
I hate to say this, but in my experience, the foster parents who are doing a bad job – the ones who give their kids back at the first sign they are not perfect – are probably not going to be open to the lessons of training. Their lack of flexibility, openness to new information, and compassion are exactly the factors that will prevent them from benefiting from training.
In order to understand better the expectations that advocates have for AB 507, I searched the Internet, and found only a Facebook video of a CYC rally to support the legislation. It was disappointing. There was no discussion of the specifics of the bill. One foster care alumna spoke of her wonderful experience being cared for by a loving foster mother and adoptive family. She suggested that the bill would somehow ensure that other children in care would share her experience, but no explanation of how it would occur.
Even if training could turn bad foster parents into good ones, I don’t see how it could increase the supply of foster parents to accommodate the children being removed from congregate settings in the wake of CCR.
It is much cheaper to create a training mandate than to invest in alternatives to unsuitable foster parents, such as quality boarding schools for foster youth. One California example: San Pasqual Academy in San Diego, where more than 90 percent of students graduate high school or achieve a GED, 60 percent of alumni have attended college, and less than one percent have been incarcerated. But San Pascual is only half full.
A San Diego County Grand Jury report found that San Pasqual alumni had significantly better outcomes than other youth in foster care and recommended that the academy be fully utilized to better serve foster youth.
According to a 2013 article about San Pasqual, “The academy believes teenagers should bond with a community of their peers and a group of adults rather than be folded into a series of potentially dysfunctional families.”
But that solution would be a lot more expensive, and require a lot more courage on the part of legislators, than mandating a training plan for foster parents.