Whoever is hired as the next director of Los Angeles County’s Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) will face a stiff challenge: how to recruit and retain high-quality foster parents.
DCFS currently oversees more than 21,000 children placed in out-of-home care in the county.
With statewide Continuum of Care (CCR) reforms underway, the county faces pressure to find more foster homes. Under CCR, the emphasis on placing foster children in family settings instead of in group homes is causing concern that county child welfare agencies will be unable to meet this mandate because the number of available foster homes has declined dramatically over the past ten years or so.
According to recent press reports, Los Angeles County lost more than 50 percent of its foster homes between 2005 and 2015.
Recruiting and retaining many high-quality foster families and relative caregivers will be a major challenge for the person selected to be the new DCFS director. Advokids’ hotline staff has talked to many angry, frustrated and upset Los Angeles County caregivers over the past ten years.
Based on what they have told us about their experiences as caregivers, here a few suggestions that might help the new director locate and retain quality foster parents:
- Treat caregivers (whether they are foster parents or relatives) with courtesy and respect. Sadly, this is not a required standard of behavior for everyone who works in the foster care system. Rude, disingenuous, disdainful, dismissive or hostile child welfare professionals often cause good caregivers to quit because they have been treated so badly.
- Comply with the laws that mandate that notice of hearings be given to caregivers and that they be given an opportunity to provide information to the court. By law, caregivers are entitled to be present at review and subsequent hearings for children in their care. But foster parents are not always present at these court proceeedings. Welcome them and the information they can provide about the needs of the child instead of barring them from entering the courtroom.
- Give foster parents the required seven-day notice and an opportunity for the legally required administrative hearing before a child is moved to a different foster care placement. Sometimes the information upon which the agency has based its decision to move the child is incomplete or inaccurate. Unnecessary placement changes are not only traumatic for children – they are also traumatic for caregivers.
- If a placement change must be made, consider a gradual transition instead of an abrupt move. A gradual transition is not only better for the child, it may also help ameliorate the foster parent’s feelings of sadness and loss. Reducing that pain would reduce the instances of emotion-based decisions to stop being a foster parent.
- If a caregiver calls or emails expressing concern about the well-being of a child, respond. Caregivers repeatedly complain that when they attempt to contact the DCFS social worker and/or the child’s attorney about their concerns, no one returns their calls or responds to their emails.
- Treat the child’s caregivers (whether they are foster parents or relatives) as members of the team helping the child’s family. The prudent parent standard notwithstanding, current culture treats caregivers as temporary babysitters who have nothing useful to offer when the agency is deciding how to best meet the needs of the child and family. California’s new statutory scheme under CCR contemplates that the caregiver will be a member of the child and family team (CFT) and will be included in team meetings held to develop recommendations for each child and family (Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code §§16501(a)(1)(B); 16501.1(a)(3)). Conscientious implementation of this mandate would generate major, positive changes in caregivers’ status and engagement.
Treating caregivers with respect and giving them the opportunity – as an equal member of the child welfare team – to contribute, collaborate, and cooperate in meeting the needs of each child and family will not only encourage their continued willingness to provide a home for a foster child, it will also yield more and better foster families and relative caregivers in Los Angeles County.
Janet Sherwood is the deputy director of Advokids, a non-profit that provides legal information and support to anyone concerned about the well-being of a California foster child. She is also an NACC-certified Child Welfare Specialist with more than 40 years of experience in child welfare law.