May is Foster Care Month, and it is a great time to sing the praises of the many wonderful foster parents who are changing children’s lives every day. As a social worker in Washington, D.C.’s child welfare system until a year ago, I came across several of these super foster parents. Many, though not all, of these foster parents were church members who felt called to share their love with children who needed it.
These great foster parents had several things in common. Most importantly, they treated their foster kids as their own children. They took them to the doctor, school meetings and parental visits, rather than asking overwhelmed social workers to perform these functions. They participated in the children’s therapy, the only way it can possibly work. The children accompanied them on family vacations, and became part of their extended families.
Many of these stellar foster parents worked closely with the birth parents, and offered to be a continuing resource to these families once the children returned home. But if reunification did not work out, many of them were ready to step in as adoptive parents.
Unfortunately, for every super foster parent, there was more than one who rarely or never visited the child’s school or talked to teachers, refused to take the child to medical or therapy appointments or even pick them up from school when sick, and avoided meeting the birth parents. These people were fostering for one reason only: the money that helps pay their monthly bills.
Why did these bad foster parents keep their licenses? The answer is simple. Foster parents were, and are, in short supply. That may explain the occasional stories about abusive foster parents who keep their licenses despite frequent complaints until they actually kill or injure a child.
With the foster care population increasing, the reluctance to fire bad foster parents will only increase. In the meantime, the harm to the children from these loveless placements may last a lifetime, and we will all pay the costs.
A recent briefing, co-sponsored by Fostering Media Connections, which publishes The Imprint, and the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, convinced me that these bad foster parents can be replaced. The increasing need for foster care can be met through kinship care and church-based recruitment programs.
Kinship placements provide a number of advantages. Relatives or family friends (also considered to be kin) may have a previous relationship with the child, thus lessening the trauma to the child. They are likely to be more invested in continuing the relationship with the parent and facilitating reunification. And they are more likely to be available as permanent caregivers if reunification fails.
In Allegheny County (home of Pittsburgh), Penn., 55 percent of foster youth are in kinship care, as opposed to 29 percent nationwide according to data from 2014. How does Allegheny do it? As described in The Chronicle of Social Change, Allegheny’s child welfare agency contracts with A Second Chance, a nonprofit that handles 95 percent of the county’s relative caregiver placements.
A Second Chance leaves no stone unturned in helping relatives get licensed. It provides financial assistance if necessary, and then provides the continued wraparound support they need to successfully foster the children until reunification or permanency can be achieved.
Not all jurisdictions will be able to place more than half of foster children with kin as easily as Allegheny County, where housing is not a problem. In my experience in the District of Columbia, housing was one of the biggest obstacles for relatives wishing to care for children in foster care. Jurisdictions may have to get creative in enabling relatives to take custody of foster children, particularly large sibling groups.
For example, why not buy or build an apartment building or neighborhood of large homes to shelter large sibling groups? These homes could be offered rent-free or at below-market rents to relatives or non-relative caregivers who otherwise could not take in these siblings. These “foster care neighborhoods” would allow families to help each other out, and activities and services to be provided on site.
The forum also highlighted the work of Project 1.27, which works with the State of Colorado to recruit and train foster parents through churches around the state. The Colorado project has trained over 800 foster families since its creation in 2004.
Affiliated organizations are springing up around the country, including DC127, which was recently profiled in The Imprint. Foster parents recruited through these projects are motivated by their faith to love and shelter children who need a family.
Despite the foster parent shortage, we need to remember that we are looking for more than a place to put kids. We are looking for the love and commitment to permanency that are best provided by kin or those very special unrelated foster parents who can often be found through church-based recruitment programs.