Our current foster care structure is based on an outdated model: families with one breadwinner and a stay-at-home mom. This traditional family had sufficient income and personal resources to take in foster children. Not for money, but for love.
The per diem they receive is not considered income, but simply a reimbursement for expenses. In fact, while data on the amount of per diem varies throughout the United States, most reports show it well below what it actually costs to care for a child in foster care. Foster parents were, and still are, volunteers.
Family life has changed dramatically over the past generation. As a result, significant shortages of foster homes are being reported in many large states today. Recruitment is becoming more difficult. Why is this? Because women have joined the work force in large numbers, leaving very few stay-at-home parents. Most households today have two wage-earners, with children in out-of-home care of some kind, and families who state that they are busy all the time.
Our current foster care system pays everyone but the ones who work 24/7 and bear the heaviest burdens of care and responsibility. Not only that, we treat foster parents poorly. They are given little say in conferences and in court where decisions are made. And when the birth parents complain or things otherwise go wrong, the foster parents often face allegations. We have relied on their love of children to recruit and retain them.
We don’t expect volunteers to handle other serious problems. We pay people to care for those who are seriously ill, to provide residential care for our elderly, or daytime child care for working parents. We value these tasks and expect to pay for them. Yet we call on volunteers and lean on their generosity to take care of our most vulnerable children.
If we wish our wards to have family homes, the answer to our foster home shortage seems both obvious and inevitable: stop depending on volunteers.
In order to compete with the lure of a job in the outside world, provide the stay-at-home foster parent with reasonable compensation, the equivalent of a second income. Adequate compensation for foster parents offers many advantages:
- Recruitment would improve dramatically. The offer of a reasonable salary with benefits would attract a considerably larger number and variety of family homes. No more need for begging within a shrinking pool of homebound parents willing to work for free. Child welfare departments and agencies would not have to settle for just anyone who “makes the cut” but would likely have choices.
- Standard hiring practices, using references, resumes, background checks, and interviews would replace the current variety of home study formats.
- Employment opportunities would be available for those who value the opportunity to work from the home.
- Interpersonal skills, an underrated resource in our technological society, would become a job skill. Those persons who have the desire and capacity to offer nurture and effective discipline to children would be valued.
- Better maintenance and control are possible with a contract for services. As volunteers, foster parents are free to drop out as other choices beckon or the task becomes too difficult. A volunteer system is fluid and hard to count on. By signing a contract for a defined time period, the critical foster home resource would stabilize.
Some may object on the grounds that paying foster parents will prove too costly. Others may warn that money might replace love as a primary motivation, or that better compensation for foster care will delay permanence. These important issues will be discussed in a forthcoming companion blog: “For Love or Money.”