We have fewer families today to handle the increasing influx of foster children. Women are joining the workforce in large numbers, leaving fewer stay-at-home moms. Lifestyles have changed. Our foster care system needs rethinking, but that may be long and slow in coming.
What can we do in the meantime, today? Here are several strategies for recruiting and retaining foster families. Some are new. Others are in place, but may require a more concerted effort.
The child’s extended family is the number one resource for a temporary placement or a permanent home. As soon as a removal is contemplated, the caseworker should search for available, responsible kin. For reasons of personal commitment and possible reunification, kin families come first.
With the internet beckoning, new strategies for recruiting foster families abound. Here are a few:
- Design appealing ads using the faces of children in need, coupled with catchy phrases. The old Peace Corps slogan comes to mind: “The toughest job you’ll ever love.”
- Hire emancipated foster children and adoptees to use their internet skills in blitzing YouTube and Facebook with advertising for foster parents.
- Hire foster and adoptive parents to do the recruiting from among their many contacts. Hire them for foster parent training as well.
- Offer premiums for those who attend a program on foster care. Perhaps a free meal or craft items made by foster children. Award bonuses to successful recruiters.
- Go beyond traditional family lifestyles. Target single parents, gay parents, parents who work from home on their own time who might have more time for child-rearing.
- Appeal to and target special families who might be attracted to a child with different personal or cultural needs. The successful approach of You Gotta Believe with “Ten Really Great Reasons to Foster a Teen” is one example. Consider ethnic appeals to black and Hispanic families.
- Approach local churches directly with visits and flyers. Provide programs to church groups on the need for foster parents. “One church/One family” is an example of a successful religious commitment.
- Make national appeals for foster parents. This will help local and state recruiters, and may also open the way for placements and adoptions across state lines when parental rights have already been terminated.
- To fill in our shortfall of foster parents, we might also recruit mother’s helpers for struggling birth parents, mentors for foster children, and other support persons.
Foster parents do all the hard work of day-to-day child care. When things go wrong, they bear the primary responsibility. They often suffer allegations, many of them unwarranted.
Despite their critical importance, however, they may not even receive notice of a conference or court hearing concerning the child in their care. In any case, they rarely have a significant voice in conferences or in court where decisions are made. To retain our best foster parents, we need to treat them better. Here are some suggestions:
- Foster parents should receive notice of all case conferences and court hearings along with an invitation or request to attend.
- Foster parents should have the right to present oral and written reports and make recommendations. They are very likely to know the child in their care better than any other attendee.
- Foster parents, like everyone else, need respite. Enlist other licensed foster parents to give them an occasional weekend off.
- Customer service. A caseworker or help line should be on call to answer questions about allegations, per diem, subsidies, medical and school problems, issues with the birth parent, parenting, and much else.
- To find and retain the families we most need, we must do better than simply offer a reimbursement for child care expenses. We must increase compensation.
These suggestions may be the best we can do with today’s system. For healthy and safe development, children will continue to need care within a family setting. Recognizing that our past foster care system has failed to keep pace with changing times, we need to do more than tinker. We need new models for the future.