Just about everyone seems to agree that too many young people in foster care are spending too much time in congregate care, group homes and larger residential programs. The Obama administration has proposed requiring an initial justification that a congregate care placement is appropriate for a child, as well as renewed justification every six months that such a placement is still necessary.
Several members of the Senate Finance Committee, including Chair Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and ranking member Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) have voiced support for limiting congregate care. Hatch proposed legislation last year to tighten restrictions on group homes, eliminating the federal match for group homes for very young children and (after a certain time period) for older youth.
As a former social worker, I too support some type of restriction on congregate placement so that young people are not placed there unnecessarily and do not stay too long. But such restrictions should not be adopted until something is done to increase the supply of high-quality foster homes.
In an earlier column, I wrote about my experience as a social worker in the District of Columbia, where many foster parents treat their foster children like boarders. They refuse to attend meetings, visit schools, or speak to therapists. Unfortunately, bad foster parents are rarely fired in the District unless they outright abuse or severely neglect their children. That’s because there is a shortage of foster parents in the city, as there is in jurisdictions all over the country.
At least one reason for the foster parent shortage is clear: It takes a special kind of person to be a great foster parent. Moreover, foster parents generally receive a stipend that is designed to cover only the cost of caring for a child. Usually this is not much more than $1,000 per month, even for a child with special needs. To get accepted as a foster
parent, applicants (even family members) have to show that they do not need the stipend to make ends meet.
Thus, most foster parents have to work, and not many working people have the time and energy to do a good job caring for someone else’s child. In my experience, many foster parents are away from the house from 6:00 am to 6:00 pm and are unable or unwilling to go to the child’s school, therapist or doctor.
We should pay for at least one foster parent per home to be a full-time parent. If we did that, we could tap a whole pool of people who want to work with children. There are several programs that do this already on a small scale. Jurisdictions like the District of Columbia, where housing costs are very high, might even want to consider buying houses suitable for two to four foster children and letting foster parents live there rent-free as part of their compensation.
Of course, paying foster parents a full-time salary means screening them more carefully to make sure to rule out those who might be in it just for the money. In addition, requiring intensive involvement by foster parents in the lives of their charges, imposing strict and relevant training requirements with feedback from trainers to program staff, evaluating foster parents strictly on their performance, and dismissing those who don’t measure up, should keep neglectful and greedy foster parents out of the system.
In its budget, the Administration has proposed “specialized training and compensation for foster parents who provide a therapeutic environment for a child.” This proposal could be the vehicle for a demonstration project to begin moving toward professionalization of therapeutic foster care.
You might ask: How can the nation afford to pay foster parents as professionals? First, the savings from reducing group home placements in some jurisdictions could help pay for professional foster parents. Second, placing two or more children per home could make professional foster parenting financially viable. Clearly, children with therapeutic needs require more time, but a full-time foster parent has more time.
It is critical to deal with the foster parent supply problem before reducing congregate care placements. Let’s not restrict group homes and residential care before we have good, therapeutic homes for children who need them. Otherwise, many young people will end up in unsupportive, uncaring foster homes.
Marie K. Cohen is a former child welfare caseworker for Washington, D.C. She previously worked as a policy analyst and researcher at the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the Welfare Information Network, the Center for Law and Social Policy and the University of Maryland Welfare Reform Academy.