As California continues to implement sweeping changes to its child welfare system through its Continuum of Care Reform, fewer youth are placed in group homes. But the demand for supportive family homes continues to increase.
California has invested in programs and services to support resource families, both foster homes and relative caregivers. But there are still a lot of things that public and private agencies do that cost them the continued service of families. These are, in my opinion, the top ways that agencies fail at resource family retention.
- Fail to support families after they close their home because their family has been made complete through adoption or they’re ready to start a new chapter of their life beyond fostering.
To start with the positive, most families never regret their experience as foster or kinship families. Many enjoy this role for years and end up filling their home with more children than they ever imagined they would have the love/space/time/patience to handle. Some families are no longer able to foster because after adopting one or more children from foster care, their homes are full. These homes are “closed” for the best possible reason.
These families can still contribute to foster care by sharing their advice and experience with other families and are often the best recruiters! Maintaining a good relationship with families as they leave the system is just as important as when they are currently fostering!
- Inadequately provide support to foster families experiencing primary or secondary trauma.
Most foster families do not have access to therapeutic support for themselves or their biological children during or after caring for children in foster care. Marriages and healthy family functioning can be greatly impacted by witnessing the effect of trauma on children in foster care. Transitioning to life without a beloved family member is similar and different to experiencing the death of a family member.
The UCLA Nathanson Family Resilience Center has services for families who have experienced trauma, including foster families. FOCUS on Foster Families is a program that all families can access for support and skills to overcome challenging situations.
- Fail to communicate in an honest, respectful and timely manner.
Everyone is stretched to their maximum capacity when a child is placed in foster care. Foster parents may be desperate for details to help them properly care for a child. They may be desperate for dates of: visits with parents, meetings with social workers, individualized education program (IEP) meetings, child and family team meetings, and court hearings.
When caregivers receive incorrect information about children in their care, it can result in children being in an unsuitable home, leaving the placement is at risk. Over time, many foster parents learn to mistrust all they are told by the child welfare agency.
Foster parents want to know of meetings in advance. They would like clarity and full disclosure of important information prior to the placement of a child in their home. Placements are at high risk of failure if a family is not given a true picture of what is needed to best support a child.
Some counties have used their Foster Parent Retention, Recruitment and Support dollars to hire “Resource Family Liaisons.” These workers support social workers by answering questions and returning phone calls. They are also an important link between the agency and families. Many resource families who have access to a Resource Family Liaison cannot imagine fostering without this type of support.
- Lack organization, lose paperwork and fail to document or misrepresent key information in a case.
There is a great deal of bureaucracy to get approved to foster a child. It involves paperwork, classes and meetings. Many potential resource families do not complete the resource family approval process because of the disorganization, length of time and lack of communication involved in that licensing process. An adoption process can be so lengthy and unnecessarily complicated, that families decide not to continue fostering other children after the adoption is complete. Caregivers are even more frustrated when key information is lost or not included in reports. This has led to children waiting long periods of time for funding and services.
Social workers are over-worked. Resource families who have a good working relationship with agencies can support workers by documenting key information, keeping copies of paperwork, and asking for updates.
- Fail to respect the time of resource families.
The time of resource families is best spent caring for children and not on other onerous activities. Driving to family visitations, cancelled visitations and missed visitations are all an expected part of foster care. However, when resource families are asked for an unreasonable amount of time to supervision visitations, driving or other activities, in addition to the normal parenting that children need, resource families can burn out quickly.
Agencies that offer support with transportation and keep a family’s overall schedule and well-being in mind have happier resource families who are often more than happy to go the extra mile to help out.
- Fail to show appreciation.
Resource families typically do not foster for awards or acknowledgment. But it is difficult for resource families to continue fostering if they feel unappreciated.
Children in foster care should not be expected to show appreciation, though they often do. Biological families should not be expected to show appreciation, though they also often do. Hence, it falls to the agency to ensure that their resource families feel appreciated. One caregiver was shocked that after a medically fragile child died while in her care for a long time, the agency did not reach out with any kind of sympathy or acknowledgment.
A supportive community or resource family liaison can show appreciation to resource families. Many communities have annual picnics and other activities to show appreciation for resource families. We hear that the most effective way of showing appreciation is an ongoing and overall attitude of respect and acknowledgment of what resource families do for vulnerable children and families.
- Retaliate against resource families.
Unfortunately, it is very common for families to experience real or perceived retaliation for disrupting placements, advocating for a child, asking too many questions, and more. Retaliation often comes in the form of removing a child or not placing a sibling, or refusing to place in a home again. Sometimes families are “rewarded” for taking harder to place children by being “first in line” for the next infant with a low legal risk, and high potential for adoption.
A child’s best interests should always be the top priority when a placement decision is made. Placements should never be made or disrupted to punish or manipulate resource families. In addition to harming children, this has a disastrous effect of overall morale of a fostering community and to resource family retention.
- Fail to provide appropriate support to children with extensive needs and behavioral issues.
Resource families say that they are receiving more children with a higher level of needs than ever before. Because of neonatal exposure to substances, and because of the level of trauma that children are experiencing before entry into foster care, higher levels of support are needed. Higher rates are provided for families who need to provide advanced levels of care, supervision and behavioral intervention. More often than not, families are not given the support that is intended for children.
- Fail to create a community for resource families.
Resource families have a day-to-day life that can only be understood by other resource families. Relatives are usually brought into this new reality overnight, with little time to prepare. Seasoned resource families may have ongoing secondary trauma and loss to process. Without a community to feel a part of, resource families can feel alone and unable to reach out for the support that they need.
Agencies that offer peer mentors, support groups and social activities for resource families ensure that they have a place to connect with other parents who walk with them on their journey through the child welfare system. Resource families who have been fostering for a long time usually are part of a fostering community that sees them through the highs and lows of foster care.
- Show a lack of respect.
Oftentimes people forget that foster and kinship parents are volunteers. They receive a maintenance payment to cover some of the cost of caring for children placed with them by child welfare agencies. Their time is valuable. They are donating a great deal of time, energy, and ”bandwidth” to care for the most vulnerable children in our communities, and although most do not expect a badge of honor, most expect to be shown respect. This includes being treated as a stakeholder in the case, and as a partner with the child welfare agency.
Jenn Rexroad is the executive director of California Alliance of Caregivers (CAC), which represents the voice of relative and non-relative caregivers to promote the well-being of children in foster care.
Join us for a free webinar on Oct. 30 to learn more.