We have a shortage of foster families that is hidden by a lack of centralized data. In order to propose a remedy for this deficiency, I used data and information from the federal government, the Casey Foundation, state program directors and evidence from hundreds of recent news reports documenting critical local shortages throughout our nation.
The overwhelming message was that we have fewer foster family homes than in the past, and recruitment is becoming quite difficult.
Since a foster family is the displaced child’s number one resource, this deficit is extremely serious. Before making any attempt to suggest new approaches to the foster care system, we need to understand where our deficits lie. The shortfall is not simply a matter of quantity but a lack of certain types of homes and in specific locations. Where is our shortfall, and what types of homes are we lacking?
If we are to properly serve the abused and displaced children who are in our care, we need to tailor remedies to their requirements. Here is a shopping list of the types of families that ideally should be available.
Family: With very few exceptions, every child removed from an abusive or neglectful family should be placed in a family home. Not in an institution or group home.
Experienced Foster Parents: Foster children present challenges beyond ordinary parenting. A training course in parenting and child development is not sufficient. New foster parents will have little or no hands-on sense of how and why a child behaves as he or she does.
Manageable Size: Except for sibling groups, no more than two foster children should be placed with a family. Otherwise, overcrowding is likely to prevent the individual attention that most foster children crave and need.
Near to the Birth Home: The foster home should be within a one-hour drive from the birth home. Without reasonable access, attempts at reunification will be badly compromised.
Transition Homes: Short-term holding places, ideally with a family, should be recruited for newly removed children to allow for proper home-finding, as well as medical and psychological evaluation. This also allows time for immediate reunification if the crisis can be quickly resolved. Time in the transition home should be no more than 72 hours.
Kin Care: If a suitable relative can be found, a kin family should be a first option. This allows the child to maintain ties with his or her extended family and culture. Reunification is facilitated. While kin families cannot be recruited in advance, a thorough survey of available relatives should be the caseworker’s first priority upon removal.
Minority Homes: Hispanic, black, and other minority families are currently in short supply. Language, hair styles, food, music and many other ethnic customs need to be understood and accommodated to avoid more severe culture shock. The foster child has suffered shock enough.
Therapeutic Homes: Children with medical and psychological disabilities will require families capable of dealing with their special needs. This requires families with additional experience and/or training.
Obviously, there is much more to consider. We need to work diligently toward permanence on a child’s timeline. Foster parents need support from a competent and well-paid child welfare staff. Holistic services like wraparound have much to offer.
The system has yet to make full use of technology for evaluations and monitoring. However, without a family setting, all other efforts are diminished. Having an appropriate family available for foster children is a vital and necessary first step.