Why have foster homes become harder to find and retain? Has child welfare slacked off in its recruitment efforts? Have Americans become more self-centered and less compassionate?
Such personal answers are minor factors. The more important cause is that society has changed and we are still trying to use out-of-date remedies. The composition of the average family has undergone radical changes over the past two generations, and our foster care system has not.
The image of a loving home with a stay-at-home mom is a fantasy for most families. Women are moving out of the home in increasing numbers to join the work force. Big-purchase items like a house and a car have made two incomes a necessity in many households. Families with a single adult are common.
Simply said, we have fewer available parents.
Urbanization has added to the changes in family lifestyle. The increasing migration from rural areas to the city has left many families without the support of a close-knit community and local churches. Busy streets and increased threats of violence generally require that city children stay closer to home. They are not as free to roam. The notion of “taking a village to raise a child” might work in rural areas, but less so in cities.
A second major problem is the child welfare department’s dependence on volunteers to provide its most important service. The money foster parents receive is provided to cover the daily expenses of rearing a child, and is meant to be a reimbursement, not a salary. It is not income and not taxed.
I cannot think of any other area where we rely on unpaid volunteers to do a critical job. We don’t expect to rely on voluntary good will to serve those who are seriously ill. Police are paid to keep us safe. Legislators are paid to debate and pass our laws.
In the child welfare system, system administrators and caseworkers are paid to manage a critical safety net. But we count on foster parents to do the daily and often thankless job of caring for our most vulnerable and damaged citizens out of the goodness in their hearts.
It is a worthy ideal, but it may no longer suffice.
My wife and I fostered teenage males who had a difficult time responding to love and structure. Their behavior frequently was a challenge, but that was only a small part.
No one takes volunteers seriously. As “mere” foster parents, we had no voice in important decisions. Often, we were not even notified of conferences and court hearings concerning the children in our care.
In sum, foster parents as volunteers do the hard work and bear considerable responsibility when things go wrong. And yet, they are not generally taken seriously. They have no status or standing, and receive no pay. This situation may have worked in the past, but it does not seem to be appealing today.
The foster home shortage is hidden by a lack of data. Our blindness to the overall problem allows us the luxury of ignoring it. We can comfortably proceed in denial and continue our less successful appeal to good will.
I was told that the foster home statistics are too hard to collect due to being scattered in different places. They are kept county by county, and separately by private agencies.
They may be hard to gather, but that is no excuse. Amazon, advertisers, sports networks and many others manage to keep more complicated stats on individual preferences and performance. Surely we can do as much for our troubled children if we have the will. To take responsible action, we need to know what is going on.
In earlier blogs, we used multiple sources to document a foster home shortfall. Here we suggest that the continuing and increasing shortage is due to basic changes in the family of today, to our dependence on volunteers to provide the vital child care services and our lack of overall data documenting the problem.
It all adds up to one conclusion. We need to rethink foster care in America today.