Words Matter: A Strengths-Based Approach for Family Foster Care

The social work profession emphasizes the strengths-based approach, understanding that while individuals, families, and communities have challenges or needs (not weaknesses), it is essential to recognize the positives. These can be relationships, resources, abilities, skills, knowledge, and networks. In child welfare, strengths-based words and expressions remind us that we are serving children and families who deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.

In 1991, the National Commission on Family Foster Care, convened by the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA) and the National Foster Parent Association (NFPA), reinforced the importance of using strengths-based language. It reframed the previously used term foster family care to family foster care, emphasizing the importance of caring for children in families.

It was essential to respect the voices of former youth in care serving on the commission who had strong feelings about the words adults used to describe them and their experiences. They did not like to hear that they were removed from their parents and kin, because garbage and snow are removed. Instead, they preferred the word separated. They did not like to be referred to as damaged, like cars and furniture, but rather fragile or challenged. They did not like aging out of the foster care system or emancipating, as those are not words that most families use when their birth children move away or transition from home.

Later in that decade, CWLA published the PRIDE Model of Practice to recruit, prepare, assess, select, train, and retain foster and adoptive parents, now known as resource parents. This model reframes recruitment and retention to development and support. It also advances terms created by earlier foster parent training programs, such as having prospective resource parents select in rather than being screened or weeded out. Sharing a common goal and language is an essential component of a model of practice to help prospective resource parents at the beginning of their relationship with their agencies. Other words that matter include the following:

From “Up for Adoption” to “Preparing for or Ready for Adoption”: This comes from the 19th century orphan trains movement. The newly formed Children’s Aid Society moved thousands of destitute, orphaned children from New York City to families in the Midwest. When the trains arrived in the towns along the routes, the children were placed up on the train platforms or theatre stages to be viewed and selected by the local townspeople, so the children were literally “up” for adoption.

From “Home Study” to “Family Assessment”: It is not the home that heals, helps, or hurts children, but the people living there who do. Those early foster parents who gathered around the train platforms or theatre stages to choose the “orphan train” children were approved by local committees comprised of community leaders such as store owners, bank presidents, and sheriffs. If you had good credit and were an upstanding citizen, you were approved on the spot. Now the home study has evolved to a family mutual assessment. Mutuality implies that while the foster care and adoption agency is assessing the prospective resource family, the family simultaneously is assessing whether it wants to affiliate with the agency.

From “Children Placed with Families” to “Children Joining Families”: Children were described as being “placed”– from one family to another – as if they were objects. According to the PRIDE Model of Practice, children not only are separated from families but then they must be joined with other families and expected to stay for as long as they need to have those families keep them safe, nurtured, meet their developmental needs, and ensure permanency (connection to relationships that are safe and enduring).

From “Hard to Place Child” to “Safe and Nurturing Families are Hard to Find”: Prior to the 1970s, children needing foster and adoptive families were identified as dependent and neglected. With the increase in emotional and behavioral challenges, children began to be viewed as having special needs. “Hard to place” became a “convenient” label for children who were medically challenged, siblings, of color, and older. Hard to place is a “blame the victim” expression. It can never be that children are hard to place but, instead, families that are safe and nurturing can be hard to find.

According to the PRIDE Model of Practice, being any type of parent – birth, step, grand, foster, adoptive – is a privilege and not a right; but for children to be protected and nurtured, that is a right, not a privilege.


Staff and board members from the National Foster Parent Association and the Child Welfare League of America contributed to this article: Eileen Mayers Pasztor, DSW, member of the Board of Directors of the National Foster Parent Association, consultant/trainer with Child Welfare League of America, and professor at California State University, Long Beach School of Social Work; Irene Clements, executive director, National Foster Parent Association; Donna D. Petras, PhD, MSW director of training and models of practice, Child Welfare League of America; Jean Fiorito, consultant for the National Foster Parent Association; Karen A. Poteet, MPA, member of the Board of Directors of the National Foster Parent Association. 

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