Foster parents are the primary intervention in the lives of abused and neglected children. In order for children placed into foster care to receive the safety and stability they need to heal and thrive, available and willing high-quality families are needed.
In California, finding enough caregivers for the state’s foster children is a key plank of the state’s current child welfare initiative, the Continuum of Care Reform (CCR). That reform effort is driven by a need to place more of these children in the homes of caregivers, instead of institutional placements like group homes.
Recruitment of foster parents — now known as resource families in California — is relatively easy to measure. We can see the number of new families who seek more information about becoming a caregiver, take training classes and get approved as a resource family. We can also measure the number of relatives that are found through intensive family finding efforts. Many innovative recruitment efforts targeting specific communities and challenging foster care stereotypes have proven successful.
However, many agencies across the state still struggle to develop and track the success of resource family retention programs, a critical part of the state’s effort to provide homes for children in foster care.
Just as you would not begin filling the bathtub without first stopping the drain, the retention of resource families should be addressed prior to or in tandem with recruitment. According to an estimate from the Foster Care Institute, caregiver attrition in 2016 ranged from 30 to 50 percent. In the marketplace, no business would invest in recruiting until retention was addressed.
Resource families are a state asset, much like a state vehicle or piece of equipment. Some California advocates estimate the price of a resource family to start around $25,000. This includes the cost of recruiting, training and approving a family. Years of experience and training, not to mention the scarcity of available resource families, only increases their value.
The retention of resource families is not only in the financial best interest of the state, but is imperative to meet the increased need for family-based care as children are transitioning out of congregate care.
Data is limited on reasons why some resource families stop fostering. There is a great deal of anecdotal evidence on reasons why families stop fostering. These include child welfare system fatigue; inability to meet the time demands of transportation, appointments and education; inability to afford child care; and oftentimes the lack of tangible support, like parent coaching and mentoring, help with transportation, tutoring and respite.
Even those families who were ready to conquer the challenges they knew a journey into the foster care system would bring quickly burn out when they feel left alone in the midst of crisis. I rarely (if ever) hear of families leaving foster care because of the kids. It is nearly always because of the lack of respect or support a family receives while taking care of a foster child.
There will always be natural attrition of resource families. Many resource families are matched with a child from the beginning, usually a relative or non-relative extended family member. After reunification, guardianship or adoption, these families usually do not take additional unrelated placements. Some families close their license after an adoption or guardianship of large sibling sets or children with exceptional needs so that they can focus on the children in their care.
There is little that retention efforts can do to mitigate natural attrition. However, retention programs can help most resource families with placement stability (fostering current children as long as the placement is needed), and with long-term service.
In an ideal world, a resource family would have an entire support team behind them. They would have access to trauma-informed respite care for when another responsibility required their time and attention, or when they just needed a few days to re-charge. Transportation would be available to help parents meet the needs of each family member while being able to maintain employment.
Parent coaching would be available for when parenting help was needed for new behaviors or with a particular child and issues. Children would have all the necessary education and behavioral health supports they needed to be successful. In times of crisis, there would be a 24-hour crisis hotline available to de-escalate a situation and avoid hospitalization or a call to law enforcement. There would be a community of support to turn to for information and comradery.
Most important, these services and supports would be available when they were needed, and for as long as they were needed. This is the heart of resource family retention — meeting the family’s need for support when they need it, and for as long as they need it.
No one would send a surgeon into the operating room without the tools, staff and support needed to perform a successful surgery. Yet sometimes families take care of children who have transportation, education, medical, mental health or other needs without the necessary support. Resource families with the least support are often relatives who have not had advance notice to prepare for the children entering their care.
Retention programs developed with input from resource families could provide the greatest return for the investment. No one knows more about what resource families’ needs than the resource families themselves. Some programs funded by the state’s Foster Parent Retention Recruitment and Support (FPRRS) fund were created without the input of resource families. Other FPRRS programs, created in collaboration with resource families, identified the barriers for families to maintain placements or to continue to take placements, and created programs to address these barriers.
One of the most promising retention programs that grew out of FPRRS funding was the resource family liaison position. This position has been used in some counties, like Orange County, for years. A good resource family liaison can help families answer questions quickly, help families navigate the child welfare system, and locate needed resources. Some can even help with transportation. Social workers are often so overburdened with high caseloads and cannot meet the immediate needs of families with new placements or with placements that need more assistance. Liaisons are well-positioned to make the lives of families and social workers easier at the same time.
Currently, many child welfare agencies and advocates in California are wondering “Who is going to take placement of children stepping down from congregate care?” With timely access to sufficient supports and services, high-quality caregivers can be found. Retention efforts will not only help to stabilize these placements, but will allow resource families to continue caring for the state’s most vulnerable children.
Jenn Rexroad is the executive director of California Alliance of Caregivers (CAC). CAC represents the voice of relative and non-relative caregivers to promote the well-being of children in foster care and advocates for programs, services and system-change that will facilitate the retention of current and future caregivers.
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