Foster parents are the best option to care for children in transition, children who have suffered from abuse or neglect and are awaiting a permanent remedy. Foster families are less expensive than institutions, and better able to focus on children as individuals. Perhaps most important, according to 2014 data from AFCARS, foster families adopt 52 percent of the foster children who are adopted.
Our most vulnerable children need these homes. Yet we do not have enough foster families to provide for the children who currently need them.
Most foster families are recruited with high ideals about helping children without a home, but end up leaving foster care a rate similar to that of jobs in the fast food industry. Why?
Part of the reason is that we take our foster parents for granted, and do not treat them well. We dismiss them as mere providers of room and board, with low reimbursement and minimal say in what happens to the child.
But a major reason that many foster parents quit is the way our welfare systems handle allegations against them.
In an understandable attempt to protect a child from abuse and neglect, our child welfare systems have placed foster parents in a difficult position. To encourage reporting of child endangerment, anonymity is granted to the accuser. Minimal standards of proof are accepted. Hearsay is allowed. Often, what the case manager believes to be credible is enough to initiate some action. The child may be removed. The foster family may lose their license.
As the most vulnerable party, the child’s well-being is the number one priority. Yet the child’s needs are not necessarily contrary to those of the foster parent. In fact, an unexamined precipitous separation of the child from his foster family may be harmful. In many ways, the child’s best interests and those of the foster family are tied together.
If we want to keep good foster parents, some changes need to be made in the way the child welfare system handles allegations. Here are some suggestions:
- Start with well-screened and well-trained foster parents. Require a complete home study that does more than run a check on negatives like prior health and criminal records.
- Cover allegations in foster parent training. Let the potential foster parents know that they can expect complaints. Include a thorough and frank discussion about how best to handle them.
- Raise the standard of proof for allegations. If hearsay is to be acceptable, have the CPS (Child Protective Services) worker require at least three sources to back up the complaint.
- Make the foster parents aware of the charges in writing and get the foster parents’ written response before attempting to substantiate.
- Separate violations of agency policy from child abuse. The CPS worker could handle a policy violation with a reprimand or a requirement for corrective action.
- Turn all allegations over to a separate reviewer. The caseworker should not be the one to judge the merits of the charge, especially if the caseworker is the one making the complaint.
- Evaluate all allegations, even if the foster parents drop out. Don’t hesitate to “unsubstantiate” for insufficient evidence.
Foster parents deserve better treatment than the substantiation of unproven charges based upon hearsay. We can still protect the child while providing foster parents with all the rights that our legal system guarantees.