How well I still remember one of the anthems of my generation: “For the times they are a changin’.” And how applicable these words continue to be, especially in our world of Child, Youth and Family Services.
It seems that the past decade and a half has been a blur of major public policy and service delivery paradigm shifts, and these are changes for the better.
One of the most profound changes can be summed up in these words: Foster Care as we have known it for decades is on its way out.
With the advent of California’s “Continuum of [Foster] Care Reform” (CCR) and the plethora of child welfare services reform initiatives at the federal level, the times really are changing. It is time for our industry to snap out of its “Boo-hoo, what are they doing to us now?!” mindset and embrace change, proactively moving forward to make it successful.
This monumental change is exemplified in the role of the “foster family,” soon to be aptly re-branded in California as a “resource family.” The practice of a foster child going into a foster home or group home and basically remaining in the “foster care system” until they age out is ending. Group home placement or “congregate care,” as some refer to it, is rapidly being dismantled and reconstructed to provide only short-term treatment services.
This change is a good thing because no child should be raised in an institutional setting. Foster and adoption services have grown exponentially as a mechanism to quickly establish a permanent family for children and youth in foster care. Therapeutic Foster Care has moved to center stage as the “intervention of choice” for children and youth, including those who have been commercially sexually exploited (CSEC,) and whose lives have been impacted by trauma and adverse childhood experiences.
For all intents and purposes, the role of the traditional foster parent is quickly transforming into a professional parent who serves as a resource to the foster child. There will no longer be “long-term foster care.” In the new paradigm, resource parents will only be providing short-term care to help expedite the child’s move to permanency.
This change in care models will include provision of the following options through resource parents:
- Emergency shelter services.
- Short-term foster care bundled with permanency services and supports.
- Therapeutic Foster Care, with resource parents playing a critical role in the treatment process in order to stabilize children’s behaviors and enhance successful permanency placement.
- Adoption/guardianship, with resource families becoming the child’s permanent family.
While this shift in care is truly best for foster children and youth, it creates a significant “systems” challenge at the moment because of the lack of a sufficient pool of qualified resource parents. That is not a California problem either; currently, there is a severe shortage of foster parents across the country. For these much-needed changes in public policy to succeed, we must rethink and modify our resource parent recruitment and retention approach.
First, federal and state laws and regulations must change to allow the use of relatives and kin to serve in this resource parent capacity, with equal compensation and access to services. Placing a child with a family member they know reduces the trauma of “stranger care” and increases the likelihood of the child being adopted or the family taking guardianship.
Second, compensate resource parents as professionals! Reducing institutional care will produce a huge savings of public funding. Redirect some of this savings to the resource families to allow them to make resource parenting a career with at least one stay-at-home parent.
Third, resource parents need to receive far more training, services, supports, supervision and guidance. The day and age of dropping off the child and wishing the foster family good luck needs to stop. Improved parenting skills, one-on-one assistance, accountability and oversight will only improve foster child outcomes.
Fourth, there needs to be honest “messaging” about the role, responsibilities and challenges associated with serving children and youth impacted by trauma as a Resource Parent. Sorry, this type of care is not a “love is all you need” service.
Fifth—and this may be wishful thinking—we absolutely need well-orchestrated federal and state resource family recruitment initiatives with sufficient investment to make it work. Right now, there are thousands of agencies, both public and private, across the United States recruiting independently of each other, and there is no consistent messaging, strategy or quality control.
In addition to this lack of strategy, there must be an effort to properly educate the public on the importance, value and positive social impact of becoming a Resource Parent in order to overshadow the stigma created by the sensationalization of a few tragic situations.
Change is inevitable and change can be a good thing. But as we transform our nation’s foster care system, let us do so intelligently and with thoughtful consideration of the Resource Families who will be the backbone of a successful system.
Jim Roberts is the CEO and founder of the Family Care Network and a 42-year veteran of human services.