“What did Grandma do for a job?” asked my 12-year-old grandson.
“Well,” his grandfather replied, “she raised your dad and his eleven brothers and sisters, took care of our 14-room house, and even took care of her dad when he got old and lived with us.”
“Yes, but what did she do for a job?” he persisted.
Today a stay-at-home parent is a concept that many children cannot even grasp. Yet the social structure of the single wage-earner, and the stay-at-home parent, is the foundation of the original idea of foster parenting.
Our social structure has changed in other ways as well. People move frequently and they move great distances. Communities are less stable and fewer families know their neighbors well, if at all. Empty nesters sell the family home, often moving to a far distant location. Extended families may get together only once or twice a year and then only briefly. Rarer is the household today that enjoys strong support from neighbors and extended family.
Today, two adults work in different locations, frequently requiring one or two long commutes. Children’s activities often require chauffeuring for practices, games, performances. The family is on the road much of the time. Families feel pressed to eke out any time in an entire week that is not scheduled.
Because of these many changes in our society, the current structure of foster parenting is no longer viable. Foster parents are in short supply, not because people are less generous, but because they live in a new and different world. The old social system is not coming back. And providing temporary out-of-home care for our most vulnerable children must operate within these new realities.
Certain goals for children in temporary care remain. Temporary care should be brief, safe, and lead to permanence either through reunification or with a new permanent situation. Finding ways to meet these goals within our new social structure is the current challenge. Here are some suggestions:
1) Pay foster parents a wage comparable to a second job within the family. The family thus gains an adequate income, reduces the time spent commuting, possibly even requires one less car. The foster child is cared for in a family setting. The foster parent has the time and energy to devote to parenting and can derive satisfaction from contributing both to the family and to the community and the needs of children.
2) Re-think group living. Group living has the negative connotation of living in an institution, beset by rules and headed by authoritarian figures devoid of warmth and personal concern. But group living can embrace other models. When assisting people with mental or physical disabilities, organizations can seek to maximize the skills which the residents possess. Persons with disabilities might share an apartment while assisted by staff members who serve them right within the apartment.
Such people living together create their own homelike environment. The same idea might be modified to create a homelike situation for children and youth in out-of-home care.
3) Enlist former foster youth to become advisors and staff within the foster care system. In education, health care and similar fields persons who have benefited from the system often seek a career that allows them to give back. Foster youth who have had a good experience within the system might be attracted to such a job. And who better as critics and advisors than those with first-hand experience.
These and other ideas are but brief sketches. Changing an approach requires vision and risk and probably includes many false steps along the way. But the one thing we know for sure is that a system that relies on a society that no longer exists has little chance of success.