Pay Therapeutic Foster Parents as Professionals

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. 

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Marie K. Cohen
About Marie K. Cohen 68 Articles
Marie K. Cohen (MPA, MSW) is a child advocate, researcher, and policy analyst. She worked as social worker in the District of Columbia's child welfare system for five years. She is a member of the Citizen's Review Committee for the DC Child and Family Services Agency and the DC Child Fatality Review Commission and a mentor to a foster youth. Follow her blog at fosteringreform.blogspot.org, on Facebook at Fostering Reform or on Twitter@fosteringreform.

6 Comments

  1. While I am in total agreement with the majority of your article — increase pay for foster parents and require on-going training, I am curious how providing rent-free housing so more kids could be served in 1 setting is different from group care. There are many residential and group home settings that use this format — the agency owns the home and a husband and wife live in the home. However, they still need “time-off” as required by employment laws so someone else moves in for the weekend. I agree that exceptions should be made for sibling groups, trying to keep them together unless it is determined to not be clinically appropriate, is best practice. But to put a higher number of non-related children needing therapeutic or treatment services is not good for the children. Currently in my home state Medicaid limits the number of therapeutic children in a therapeutic foster home to no more than 2 foster children and no more than 4 children total (including birth, adopted, other relatives, etc.). I think this provides a better setting for the foster children to receive the time and attention they need I also understand the reasoning for assuring a foster parent have sufficient income to cover their living expenses without depending on the stipend paid to provide foster care, but that limits a lot of good people from having the time and energy to provide quality care. Just because someone uses the stipend as their income, does not mean they are neglecting the children in their home or not providing them with what they need. Being a “professional” parent is a worthy calling and there are many good people who want to do that and are good at it.

    • You make a great point and I did think about this hard before I put it in my column. I’m not thinking about having more than 4 kids in a foster home (like you do) and group homes are usually at least 6 kids so there is some difference. However, I have been to a Boys Town “Family Home” as I wrote about in an earlier column and it actually looked a lot like a foster home. I think that when a family style group home with caring parents is more like a foster home than like a shift-style group home. Yes, limiting the number of therapeutic children per home to two might be best. But I’m asking for a big increase in foster parent pay and I just don’t know if it is realistic in our budget climate with the reluctance of the American public to fund social services the way they should be funded. I would rather have great, full-time foster parents with more kids per home. I totally agree with you about the limits imposed by requiring that foster parents don’t need the stipend to survive. I think that has the opposite effect than intended. Somehow, it attracts people who DO need the stipend to survive but they lie about it! I’m looking for people who have a calling to do this, just like social workers or teachers.

      God bless you for what you do!

  2. I absolutely agree! I think one way to weed out those who are not going to be committed is to require EU’s or CEU’s. I’m fortunate to be a stay at home mom and I would be more than happy to go to counseling conferences or anything out on by Karyn Purvis, etc. social Workers know where all kinds of conferences are. There could be a list of required books to read and maybe some credit for writing up a summary or something. I think, just like any professional, there should be a requirement for continued learning to go along with the pay.

  3. Marie
    I agree with you vary much! My husband and I are Treatment Foster Parents here in Ohio!! I would love to be able to utilize a Rent Free Home larger than ours now!!! So we could help more Children and families!! We have part of a sibling group right now we have had 2 out of the 4 for over 6 months now!! My heart breaks each week when we see the other 2 siblings (who are placed together) because my husband and I never want siblings to be split up!!! If our home had only 1 or 2 more bedrooms and we had a car that seated maybe 11-12 people instead of 8, We would be able to keep sibling groups together with out a doubt! !!!! Let’s pray your Hypothesis finds a way to work out!!

  4. Marie: I very much agree with you. We are looking at possible pilots to demonstrate this hypothesis for youth needing TFC level of care.

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