The United States foster care system has a higher turnover rate than most fast food industries. Of the estimated 200,000 licensed foster homes, between 30 and 50 percent drop out each year. With 500,000 children in foster care, we have a critical shortage of homes.
Foster parents begin with a love of children. Most of them leave not because they cannot face the challenges of handling troubled youngsters, but because they fail to receive support from the system.
Foster care itself is often viewed negatively. Children may be threatened: “If you don’t behave, we will have to send you to a foster home.” Then there is always the occasional neighbor or friend that does not want “those kids playing with my kids.”
Foster parenting is a tough job. Often, these children are faced with multiple problems. They may lie and steal. They have behavior problems and learning difficulties. They may suffer from a variety of physical and mental illnesses. Foster parents quickly learn that a nurturing love is often misunderstood and is not always enough.
Yet foster parents generally rise to the challenges, knowing that they have the chance to make a difference in the life of a child.
Much is expected. First, foster parents are vetted by a thorough home study, which usually includes a background social history, police check, medical records review, and collateral information from references. Then they must complete hours of parent training and they must keep up their skills with annual continuing education. Foster parents qualify as professionals.
So here you are as a new foster parent. You have welcomed your first foster child and you are excited. Your caseworker is supportive. You are dealing with the multiple issues that neglected and abused children bring with them. Things seem to be running relatively smoothly.
Then you have a disagreement with your caseworker over what is considered best for the child. Perhaps you believe therapy is unnecessary. Or you feel your child needs extra help. Unless a compromise is reached, you will lose this battle.
You are apt to be treated as a mere hotel keeper, there to provide room and board while other wiser “professionals” make all the important decisions. Although you have been trained, and do all the hard work, you frequently have a minimal say in planning the child’s future.
Foster parents are held to a higher standard. As a result, complaints and allegations are common. They come from everywhere and nowhere, and often as a surprise. No one warned you that this was likely.
Someone may call in to say that you spanked your child. The child may have told her teacher that you touched him “improperly” during a bath. The birth mother may have charged that you left the child alone or locked him in his room. The caseworker may even charge you with neglect for failing to keep a doctor’s appointment or for not taking the child for visitation, even when there were extenuating circumstances. My wife and I, together with most of the many foster parents we know, have suffered such complaints.
To make things worse, the accuser is usually protected by anonymity. This allows for hearsay evidence without the opportunity to question your accuser. Many foster parents choose to return the child at this point and drop out. However, an unexamined accusation is likely to remain on your record and may surface later.
Here are four obvious recommendations that would improve matters.
- Recognize publicly the valuable service that foster parents provide, despite obstacles from all sides.
- Give them a stronger voice over what happens in the daily life of the children under their care.
- Deal with allegations more appropriately. Separate charges of policy violations from actual child abuse. Develop guidelines for evaluating allegations that require stronger evidence and due process.
- As a foster parent, insist that all charges be evaluated and either dropped or substantiated. If you feel they may be substantiated, hire an attorney familiar with foster care policies.
We must cherish our foster parents for their unselfish willingness to tackle a critical task that few others will take on.