As a shortage of foster parents continues across the United States, foster care agencies are recruiting new foster parents through social media and the internet, including, to some people’s surprise, Craigslist.
“People on Craigslist go on there for all sorts of different things,” said Jennifer Horrocks, foster parent recruiter for SafeGuards Foster Care in Reading, Pennsylvania. “These are your everyday people that are looking to make a difference and don’t really know where to start.”
Horrocks said it can be hard to recruit foster parents because of the many misconceptions about who qualifies to be a foster parent. SafeGuards specifically deals with teens in foster care — an added challenge when recruiting foster parents.
But Horrocks said that she has found the Craigslist ads to be successful and has found multiple families through that digital avenue. Although not everyone who contacts her becomes a foster parent, it’s important to simply get people to take the first step of calling or emailing her who might not have otherwise, she said.
“I find I get a wide variety of people that respond to my ad,” she said.
But should people be job searching, shopping for used furniture and recruiting for foster care, all on the same website? Many foster care advocates say no.
Denise Goodman, a leading expert on foster parenting, used to recommend this type of recruitment, but doesn’t think placing an ad on Craigslist is a viable option for organizations now.
“There are so many other avenues — if you’re going to use social media — than something like that,” Goodman said. “You never know who you are going to get and if they’re going to be appropriate.”
Horrocks said she’s very specific about how she posts on Craigslist, typically posting in the nonprofit section. But she also occasionally uses the community section to invite people to the SafeGuards office for open houses.
“A lot of people searching the nonprofit section are people already in helping professions,” Horrocks said. “Or people already looking to make that difference.”
Goodman said she recognizes the web is a powerful tool for foster parent recruitment and that each city might be different, but overall, she said, she’s found problems with posting about foster care on any job board. When people see foster parents as a job, Goodman said, they treat the children like a job, not like part of the family.
Instead, she suggests organizations focus their attention on their current foster parents, who will spread the word and find new reliable families.
“One of the best things that any agency can do is do an exceptional job at taking care of their current foster parents, who will then spread the word for you,” Goodman said.
Located in in South Florida, foster care agency Cayuga Centers calls every foster family daily to check in and provide extra support when needed. But Program Director Lisa Cohen said South Florida residents are too spread out to truly rely on word of mouth to recruit new foster parents. They might have two families in the same county that actually live an hour away from each other, Cohen said.
And that’s why they have to rely on other methods, like Craigslist.
“As long as we’re smart and safe about who we’re actually moving forward with, then I’ll talk to anyone if they seem open to hearing about the crisis of foster care,” Cohen said.
SafeGuards and Cayuga Centers aren’t the only foster care agencies using Craigslist. The posts are often made by private foster care agencies and are located all over the U.S.: Los Angeles, Houston, Miami, Florida, Minneapolis and Las Vegas are just a few of the cities with these types of posts.
The ads often say they are looking for “caring” and “nurturing” families or people who want to make a difference.
“YOU have the chance to change the world!” an ad for Lone Star Social Services reads.
They also often include incentives, such as payment, tax free reimbursements and training. An ad for Eagle Quest in Nevada offers a $1,500 sign-on incentive.
Kayla Wright, director of programs at Extraordinary Families in Los Angeles, heard about the success of other foster care agencies and wanted to try it for her own organization.
Extraordinary Families has only been posting on Craigslist since May 2018 and hasn’t had anyone become a foster parent because of it, but Wright is still hopeful.
“Craigslist is all over,” Wright said. “A majority of the world is on social media.”
In 2016, a Craigslist post in Oregon went viral after it specifically asked for foster parents for transgender teens.
The post had people calling Oregon Youth Authority from all over the state and raised awareness about the lack of homes for transgender youth as far as Australia.
Kelly Okili, Oregon Youth Authority foster care certifier, said her organization has been posting on Craigslist for about seven years. They’ve found it works best when they are more specific about their needs, such as transgender-friendly homes or for geographical areas that have proven tough to recruit in.
“It also tugs at their heartstrings a little bit more,” Okili said, “because they almost put a story with it instead of this broad call for foster parents.”
Even though the 2016 post went viral and Oregon Youth Authority had a huge response, ultimately only three families became foster parents, Okili said.
“Our vetting process is really intense,” Okili said. “We want to make sure foster parents are in it for the right reasons.”
Foster parents are required to go through a series of interviews, background checks and home visits. Overall, it can take a couple of months for anyone to become a foster parent, regardless of the type of recruitment used to get them there.
But Craigslist has a reputation for scams, including some that prey on adoptive parents.
Up until about five years ago, it was common for parents to place ads on Craigslist saying they wanted to adopt, said Denise Bierly, former president of the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys. Pregnant women would then contact the families.
But slowly the scams started being reported and people responding to the hopeful couples’ ad asking for money for things like gas and medical bills were seen as big red flags, ABC reported.
In 2013, Reuters reporter Megan Twohey reported on how people were using various websites and message boards to re-home adopted children.
This was the last straw for online adoptions, and many states passed laws to protect children from this practice. The number of Craigslist ads dwindled, Bierly said. Although a few still exist today, the overall perception of these types of ads on Craigslist were forever changed.
Those incidents have also affected the foster care community’s views on Craigslist.
“Our organization is horrified that this would be a recruitment strategy and it goes against so many values and goals in the Continuum of Care Reform, Quality Parenting Initiative and just good system work,” said Vanessa Hernandez, director of statewide policy for California Youth Connection, referring to child welfare reform efforts in California.
She compared posting on Craigslist as the modern way of posting an ad in a community’s Pennysaver, which, Hernandez said, is not the best way to find the most qualified people.
Placing ads on any social media is “really stringing away from what we know is best practice and what we know will minimize trauma for our young people in care,” Hernandez said.
The California Department of Social Services (DSS) set aside $104.16 million to help counties recruit more foster families through a program called Foster Parent Recruitment and Retention Services. Each county submits annual plans for use of the funds. In 2017-2018, about 25 counties specifically stated the use of social media in their plans to recruit foster parents.
Instead of ads and social media, Hernandez wants organizations to focus on getting people already in the child’s life to become foster parents.
“We have to set a high bar for who we’re attracting to become foster parents,” Hernandez said. “Our young people deserve a place where they can heal, where they can grow. They deserve a place where they can reclaim their childhood.”
But that’s easier said than done.
Oregon Youth Authority only has six people who work on foster parent recruitment, and that’s not their only job. Recruiting foster parents takes creativity, budget and time, a luxury that isn’t always afforded to them, Okili said.
“Recruiting foster parents is extremely difficult no matter what avenue you choose to do,” she said. “That’s why we have to use every reasonable tool that’s available to us, including Craigslist.”
Okili said Craigslist isn’t the only or best tool they use, but it has proven to be successful and that’s why they’ll keep using it.
“At the end of the day it doesn’t really matter where you’re recruiting or how you’re getting the word out, you’re going to get some questionable people applying,” she said. “That’s why we have those safeguards that we have in place.”