We Have to Stop Losing Half of Foster Parents in the First Year

foster parent recruitment and retention
Irene Clements (center, in blue) with her adopted children, some of the 127 kids she and her husband fostered over the years.

One hundred and twenty seven. That’s the number of children that were entrusted to my husband Billy and myself over our 27 years as foster parents.

Each year, as we celebrate National Foster Care Month, I like to take a few moments to reflect on the children who came into our lives as foster parents.  We adopted four children, three from foster care, and today we have 18 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, not to mention the many others who stayed with us that we still keep in touch with. That’s a lot of lives and laughter, and love.

We never intended to become life-long foster parents, but feel fortunate we had the opportunity. Because the truth is, although foster care is an important safety net for children, it’s not a great place to spend one’s childhood. As foster parents, we were able to make things a little better.

This week, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution that for the first time ever designates May 31 as National Foster Parent Day to honor the many critical contributions of foster parents as part of our safety net for vulnerable children.

Foster care is intended to be a short-term solution, while child welfare agencies work to reunify a child with his or her birth parents, place them with a trusted relative or find them a new permanent family. But while they are in foster care, children need someone to love them unconditionally, and help them to grow and flourish. Foster parents try to fill that role.

We saw children blossom in our home, time and time again. And, as the executive director of the National Foster Parent Association, I’ve seen and met many caring families who have taken in children needing a home, and given them love and the support they need.

With the right supports from child welfare agencies, foster families can help children who were abused, neglected or otherwise traumatized begin to heal. In fact, foster parents are the primary “tool” we have to help our nation’s children while they are in foster care. And, these foster parents not only help the children entrusted to their care, they can help families recover and heal, so that children can return home safely.

I am lucky to have developed close, supportive relationships with a number of birth mothers of children I cared for. In fact, just last month, I spoke with a birth mother who I’ve known and mentored for over 30 years. She called to talk about her daughter who is now 34.

Unfortunately, we lose too many of our quality foster families. Nearly half of foster parents quit in their first year of fostering due to lack of support, poor communication with caseworkers, insufficient training to address child’s needs and lack of say in the child’s well-being.

Foster parents do their best for children when they’re valued as important partners. That’s why the National Foster Parent Association has recently joined CHAMPS, a national campaign working to improve foster parenting policies throughout the United States. CHAMPS, which stands for CHildren need AMazing Parents, is working with child welfare agencies, advocates, foster parents and youth formerly in foster care to promote the highest quality parenting policies.

CHAMPS builds on research that shows loving, supportive families – whether birth, kin, foster or adoptive – are critical to the healthy development of all children. Leveraging this research, CHAMPS aims to spur policy reforms in 20 to 25 states over five years to ensure that foster parents are equipped with the training and support they need to be the best they can.

Fostering children changes lives one child at a time. It can also bring positive change to birth families. There’s a continuous need for families to step up and become foster families, but there’s an equally urgent need for policy makers and agency leaders to improve policies and practices so that all foster parents have the support they need to provide the stable, loving care children deserve.

I hope you’ll take a few minutes to learn more about CHAMPS and the fostering policies that could make a huge difference for children while they are in foster care. And, that you’ll join us in honoring foster parents, not just on May 31, but throughout the year, as they work to provide a safe, nurturing family for the children we’ve entrusted to their care.

Irene Clements is the executive director of the National Foster Parent Association. More information on CHAMPS can be found at www.fosteringchamps.org.

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