The number of children in foster care has increased for the third straight year. Foster parent shortages have been reported in at least 24 states, with children staying in offices and hotels. The move by some states to close residential programs will only exacerbate these shortages. At the same time, many current foster homes are failing to provide the nurturing and attention that their wards so desperately need.
Yet child welfare leaders are surprisingly devoid of bold and creative ideas to address this problem. A case in point is the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s (AECF) recent report, Practices to Build Better Partnerships Between Foster Parents and Agencies. This document rehashes the same old ideas of better training and support, better treatment of foster parents by agencies, enhanced recruitment and more flexible licensing that come up in any discussion of the foster care crisis.
These are all good ideas. But something more is needed to meet the increased need and improve the quality of foster parents. We need a new model of foster care based on two pillars. First, foster parents should be paid as professionals, with one parent in each household parenting full-time. Second, foster parents should be part of a community.
First, professionalism. Raising any child takes time, and all working parents struggle. But foster children require more. They have more medical needs, therapists, Individualized Education Plans (IEP’s), and school meetings. Of the best foster families I met in five years as a foster care social worker in the District of Columbia, most had a parent at home full or part-time, or at least a flexible schedule.
AECF argues against professionalizing foster care. They say it “risks marginalizing many of the families that agencies are trying to attract but who lack professional training, such as kin, families of color, and caregivers who live in or near the same communities as children in foster care.”
Clearly, a qualified relative is the preferred placement choice for any child. But many relatives, as well as caregivers from backgrounds and communities similar to those of foster youth, are not in a position to provide the kind of care our most vulnerable children need. In my personal experience, I have seen such caregivers dip into the stipend to pay their own expenses, run out of gas by the end of the month, fail to get children to appointments, and lead chaotic lifestyles similar to those of the families their wards were removed from. Children in foster care deserve something more.
AECF also argues that “Children and youth in foster care want to believe and feel that the people caring for them do so out of love — not because it’s just a job they are being paid to do.” That is very true. The problem is that many current foster parents (including kin and those from similar backgrounds to the kids) are doing it for the pay. If you don’t believe that, ask any foster care social worker or any child who has been in several foster homes.
Of course many foster parents already do it for love of children. But paying foster parents a salary will allow more such people to step forward. It will attract a new breed of foster parents — people who want to work with at-risk kids as a career and might otherwise work as social workers, teachers or other helping professionals. With this new supply, foster parents could be much more rigorously screened.
There is a way to pay foster parents a wage without drastically increasing foster-care costs, and that is allowing each foster family to take in more children. This allows larger sibling groups to be kept together. At the three SOS Children’s Villages in Chicago and Lockport, Illinois, up to six siblings live in a single home with a professional foster parent.
Community is the other key element in a new model of foster care. By being part of a community, foster parents can provide mutual respite and assistance. It is also a way to have more eyes on each family to make sure that there is no abuse or neglect.
A foster care community can be physical. The SOS Children’s Villages and several other programs provide such physical communities. A physical community makes it easier for foster parents to help each other and allows for the provision of services and activities to multiple children in one place. Providing housing allows accommodation of larger sibling groups and can attract foster parents to areas where housing is expensive.
An alternative is a virtual community, such the Mockingbird model of foster care. Six to ten foster families live in close proximity to a “Hub Home,” which “assists in navigating bureaucracy and offers peer support, social activities and respite care.”
We needed bigger, bolder ideas for transforming foster care. It is too bad that AECF and other leading agencies have not yet responded to this need.