When Roxanne Williams became a foster parent four years ago, she started in the deep end of the parenting pool. New York City child welfare workers brought her a boy with limited English on a Friday afternoon and left after confirming her home was safe, leaving Williams to muddle through their first days together on her own.
“It was rough – you weren’t getting the calls back [from her foster care agency] as fast as you wanted because they had other kids to deal with, so I was bombarding the placement department,” Williams said. “I had my notes, but when the reality hit me and I have a stranger in my home, it was like, what do I do next? I really needed and wanted someone to walk me through it and hold my hand.”
Being a foster parent brings a host of challenges, and nationally, half of foster parents quit after the first year. That’s why New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration announced last month it wants to expand programs connecting foster parents with more experienced caregivers who can step in on short notice to provide childcare, transportation and moral support.
The Queens-based, nonprofit foster care agency Forestdale came across the Mockingbird Family Model while searching for ways to improve foster parent retention. Originally developed in Washington in 2001, the model involves recruiting veteran foster parents to serve as paid, on-call “hub homes” for a network of six to 10 foster families known as a “constellation.” In addition to caring for their own foster children, hub parents take around-the-clock calls from other parents, organize social gatherings, and keep two beds open for foster youth who need extra care.
By connecting foster parents to each other, and to mentors who’ve walked in their shoes, the “constellation” aims to resemble an extended family. Better-supported foster parents, the theory goes, means more stability for vulnerable children.
After two years, Forestdale says it saw notable improvements in two pilot constellations serving 15 families with 40 children. In the first year, 12 foster parent-child pairings reported that their networks helped them overcome challenges significant enough to put the child at risk of being moved to a new home. Moreover, all of the foster parents stayed on for two years, and just two left after the second year.
“Two years of 100 percent retention is very unusual,” said Bill Weisberg, the executive director of Forestdale. “The third year we had something like 13 percent drop-off, but that’s still a very high retention rate.”
The city child welfare agency, the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), which contracts with Forestdale to serve foster youth, wants other foster care nonprofits to consider the model. In its just-released, long-term vision plan for funding foster care services, ACS named the Mockingbird model as one “innovative” approach they may target for tax-dollar investment, to improve foster parent recruitment and retention.
At Forestdale, foster parent Roxanne Williams said the extra support from Mockingbird helped her overcome concerns about taking in girls. At first, Williams didn’t think she could style a girl’s hair properly or find time for long salon visits. Her hub leader, Barbara Emmanuel, assured her that they would be able to manage together. Williams soon welcomed a foster daughter, and Emmanuel enlisted a neighbor to do the girl’s hair after school.
“The hub leader assists the foster parents, so no one becomes too overwhelmed. One time, I picked up a child and took her to the park because she was having an episode,” Emmanuel said. “If you don’t get support, you’ll throw up your arms and say ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’”
Typically, foster families have to rely on foster care agencies to provide respite care. It can take hours or days for an agency to make arrangements, and often the child is placed with a family they’ve never met. Sometimes, agencies have no choice but to put a child up in a hotel with a social worker. Mockingbird hub homes, though, are just a phone call away and already have a relationship with the foster family.
“The case planners are certainly well meaning, but they are not [all] parents, and they’re certainly not parent of kids who come with extra challenges,” said Mary Keane, an adoptive mother to 14 young adults and executive director of You Gotta Believe, a nonprofit focused on finding permanent families for older youth. “This model addresses that with support from people who are living the same kind of experience and are really credible messengers.”
The approach comes with extra costs, primarily to fund the hub homes, staff and parent training, and ongoing support from the Mockingbird Society in Seattle. Hub homes receive a stipend of about $2,400 per month, or about the rate for foster homes with two children. Forestdale estimates the model’s cost at $2,500 per child per year so far. Weisberg believes that cost could be reduced by scaling the model.
A preliminary analysis of outcomes in Washington suggested the long-term benefits of the program outweighed the financial costs, according to the Washington State Institute for Public Policy. The evaluation found some evidence that Mockingbird parents were remaining licensed longer than traditional foster parents, although the researchers didn’t have enough data to be certain.
The evaluation found results for foster youth were more mixed. Compared to a similar group of foster youth in traditional placements, Mockingbird foster youth were slightly more likely to graduate from high school and less likely to get arrested or experience inpatient mental health treatment. Youth also experienced more stable placements, with fewer subsequent moves between foster homes if they were in care over two years. However, Mockingbird youth were more likely than the comparison group to run away from their foster home.
Eighteen years after its development, Mockingbird’s model hasn’t been widely adopted. Outside of the 16 constellations in Washington state, the U.S. is home to just one constellation in California and the two run by Forestdale. But interest is growing; Weisberg at Forestdale reports that several peer agencies in New York are trying to emulate the model. Currently, they lack the funding to engage the Mockingbird Society to lead them through an official, full-scale implementation.
Overseas, the United Kingdom embraced the model in 2015, with 43 active constellations operating. A handful of constellations have also sprung up in Australia, Japan, and in a First Nations tribe in Canada.
In New York, where the number of foster families recently began rebounding after a seven year decline, advocates hope the model will help increase recruitment.
“If you’re a foster parent and you have a very tough, miserable experience, and you don’t get the support you need, you think, ‘I wouldn’t recommend this to my worst enemy,’” said Weisberg at Forestdale. “But if you’re having a good experience doing it, you’ll recommend to your cousin or someone at your house of worship that this is a good thing to do.”