The primary way to deal with the shortage of foster families is to lower the need for them by not being so quick to rely on foster families and shortening the average time a youth spends in foster care. Prevention and early, safe reunification are the two obvious strategies to achieve this.
Removal of a child almost always offers a Sophie’s choice. On the one hand, the child has to be protected physically. On the other, separating the child from the only family he may have known is social surgery and may cause even more harm.
Have we sometimes been too hasty with our “remove-to-protect” response? Can we let the child remain in the home and still keep him or her physically safe? What resources to achieve this might be available?
When it involves helping a parent and child in need, other people are most important. Who might these people be? And how might they help?
Concerned relatives, if they can be found, are a first possibility. An immediate inventory of the birth parents’ extended family may open up possibilities. Is there a caring relative who might be willing to move in as a temporary nanny or mother’s helper? They can model homemaking skills while giving the birth mother time to correct the issues that led to the removal of her child. Background and reference checks can be accomplished on an emergency basis.
If the relative does not actually move in, might they drop by and monitor progress daily until safety can be assured? Care by kin lessens the culture shock for the child and can make eventual reunification easier.
Going beyond kin, might special foster parents be identified who are willing to provide a similar form of emergency care? Call them Foster Mentoring Families. As suggested above for kin, they might be prepared to offer temporary care as a mother’s helper or a mentor and daily supervisor.
Going still further, an innovative caseworker might be able to mobilize community care and support for mother and child. Churches and other helping organizations might be recruited to watch over mother’s rehabilitation while keeping the initial family together. Obviously, this would require a lot more work for the caseworker. The benefit, in those cases where such a plan was appropriate, would be to maintain the birth home.
Bad publicity abounds about the haphazard uncertainty following removal in some systems, where the child may remain in a government office, in a hospital, or be placed “temporarily” in a hotel or group setting. A three-day transitional family placement would offer a standby remedy. This would allow time to locate the best available foster family, an opportunity for medical and /or psychiatric evaluations, and for second thoughts about a quick and safe reunification. Foster families might indicate ahead of time their willingness to accept such brief placements.
Reunification is almost always the initial goal. A reunification plan can be developed within 24 hours of removal; this is not brain surgery. What the caseworker needs to do is directly address the problems that led to the removal, and offer a way to correct them. If the housing is substandard, find new housing. If the parents have little parenting skill or the child was left alone, attend parent training classes. If a boyfriend abused the child, get rid of the boyfriend. If one or both parents were on drugs, they may need to pass a few random drug screens. And so on.
The plan can later be approved and/or improved in court, but the clock will already be ticking, either on the way to reunification or toward termination. Most importantly, the truly concerned mother can start working immediately to get her child back.
The Family First Prevention Services Act of 2016, if passed, will provide some new funds for in-home care and services for birth parents. While additional funding is vital, knowing where and how to use any monies most efficiently is even more essential. Prevention and early safe reunification are obvious first steps in coping with our shortage of foster families. Needless to say, these suggestions require well-trained caseworkers and manageable case loads.