Is This Any Way to Treat Foster Parents?

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Buddy the Foster Care Bear works the crowd like a pro. His birthday cake and balloons brighten the lobby of a Trenton, N.J., office building, luring hurried workers as they pass through. The fuzzy mascot cavorts with them and directs them to youth and family services staff to talk about becoming foster parents. A number of people say they’d love to.

Big deal.

That is to say, now comes the hard part. Public foster care agencies have little trouble melting people’s hearts and getting them to say they’ll take needy kids. But those agencies operate in perpetual crisis, say two new federal reports, largely because the agencies recruit the wrong people and treat the right ones so badly that they quit.

Thanks largely to lousy recruitment and retention efforts, foster parents flee the system even as the number of foster children climbs (from 405,700 in 1990 to 588,000 today), say the reports issued in late May by the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

Dressing a staffer like a bear won’t solve the problem, New Jersey officials say, but such attention-grabbers are among dozens of try-anything approaches being employed by public agencies, with the help of nonprofits and foundations, to attract the right foster parents and keep them.

New Jersey offers foster parents low-interest, no-down-payment mortgages. In Chicago and Boston, Hull House and Casey Family Programs turn foster parents into full-time employees with annual salaries. The nonprofit Utah Foster Care Foundation uses ZIP code data and teams up with community-based organizations to recruit foster parents in neighborhoods that foster kids come from. Kentucky recently brought its foster payments close to what it actually costs to care for a child.

Some observers say all this just dances around what the foster care system really needs: massive infusions of money for more caseworkers as well as for foster parents. Others say the solution is to put fewer kids in foster care by helping to keep more troubled families together.

With states cutting budgets, people like Jennifer Agosti, who is helping to launch a 10-site foster care initiative for the Seattle-based Casey Family Program, take a practical approach. “There’s no contesting that we need more money,” she says. “That doesn’t mean we can’t do a better job with the money we’ve got now.”

Efforts to do a better job focus largely on the recruitment and retention of foster families. While this may take a little more money – New Jersey pumped in an extra $22 million for recruitment in 1999 – the initiatives rely just as much on changing procedures and attitudes at public child welfare agencies.

‘Frustrated and Exhausted’

Rare is the foster parent who doesn’t consider giving up. When HHS interviewed 115 foster parents in five states for its recent reports (“Recruiting Foster Parents” and “Retaining Foster Parents”), every one of them “said they had … considered leaving the foster care system.”

Various reports have warned since the 1980s that the number of foster homes is decreasing. There are no firm national figures, but there is clearly an incessant drain that keeps agencies scrambling to fill the void. When Karen Jorgenson, administrator of the National Foster Parent Association, began recruiting and training foster parents for Nevada several years ago, she was shocked to learn that 42 percent of the parents had been foster parents for less than a year.

“Many leave because they are frustrated and exhausted,” the HHS reported. “They are weary from navigating a foster care system that is difficult and inoperable.”

The most basic problem is money. The average cost of raising a 9-year-old child, excluding medical care, was $8,260 per year in 2000, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The average annual amount provided to foster parents to care for a 9-year-old child, according to Casey Family Programs, is $4,932.

Private foster care agencies tend to pay more – which exacerbates the problem for public agencies, because some of their better foster parents switch to private agencies.

But money just tops a long list of reasons that foster parents quit public agencies. Among other reasons cited by HHS, foster care agencies and foundations that study foster care:

• Little agency support: Foster parents have trouble reaching staff to help solve problems or deliver basic services. Training and supervision are lax.

“The single most important thing you can do to retain foster parents is to make them feel supported, be there for them 24-7,” says Jay Berlin, executive director of Alternative Family Services, a nonprofit foster and adoption services agency in San Francisco.

In Washington, where a civil jury in December found that the state’s foster care system violated the constitutional rights of children, witnesses testified that staff shortages had compelled the Department of Social and Health Services to reduce home visits from once every 30 days to once every 90 days.

• No respect: “There is still is this authority thing that many social workers get hung up on. ‘We’re not in this together, I’m actually your boss,’” says David Richart, director of the National Institute on Children, Youth and Families based in Louisville, Ky. “That just drives foster parents absolutely crazy.”

“The public agencies tend to define foster parents as service recipients, as welfare recipients,” rather than service providers, Berlin says. “They’re very seldom made to feel like a member of the team.”

• Too many kids too fast: In Nevada, Jorgenson had to create “Karen’s Rule”: No more than one foster child in a home at a time for the home’s first year.

• Sexual abuse allegations: In every focus group conducted by HHS, the reports say, “foster parents expressed concerns about being investigated for false allegations of abuse and neglect.” At the NFPA, Jorgenson says, “we get at least one [call] a week” about a foster parent who says the children were taken from the home because of a false allegation. Even after they’ve been cleared by police, the parents often drop out of the system or find that agencies won’t place more children with them.

Various reports have warned since the 1980s that the number of foster homes is decreasing.

• Adoption: Each year foster parents adopt about two-thirds of the foster children who are placed for adoption, according to the U.S. Administration for Children and Families within HHS. Most of those adults then stop serving as foster parents.

• More troubled kids: Foster care operators and observers agree with the HHS conclusion that “children entering the foster care system are older and often have more mental, behavioral and emotional challenges than in the past.”

The last item leads to one of the biggest recruitment and retention problems: getting the right foster parents, i.e., those willing to take school-aged children, teens and troubled youth.

Many new foster parents “have a romanticized idea of what it’s going to be like,” Agosti says. They want babies and cute little kids. “They get the first couple of placements, and they’re gone.” Or they don’t accept the children that the agencies try to place.

The ironic result: At a time when public agencies don’t have enough homes for all their foster children, many foster beds sit empty. Of the 41 foster care program managers surveyed by HHS, 36 said “they had licensed foster care families who were not currently caring for children.”

Child welfare workers and foster parents told HHS that “their agencies are spending a lot of time and money licensing foster family homes which may never receive a child because these families are unwilling to accept adolescents, sibling groups or children with severe psychological or medical needs.”

Explains Dallas Pierson, president of the Utah Foster Care Foundation: “It’s not really a numbers game. It’s a matching game.”

The question is whether foster care agencies can learn how to play.

Focused Recruitment

Pierson knows well how easy it is recruit a lot of the wrong people. Faced with rising foster care caseloads and declining beds, Utah decided in 1998 to contract with a nonprofit for recruitment. The Utah Foster Care Foundation was born for that purpose, with a state-funded budget of $2.7 million.

The foundation increased the number of licensed foster homes from 944 in 1999 to 1,325 in 2000, Pierson says. But then, he says, “We realized we’re getting a lot of people, but … they had licenses and empty beds,” because many of them wouldn’t take the kids the state needed to place.

Last year the agency focused its recruitment more on families that would take hard-to-place kids. “We’ve dropped back down to about 1,200 foster families,” Pierson says, but placements are up.

More agencies are instituting that kind of “focused recruitment.”

That starts with being blunt about the children who need homes. It means saying, “We’re not looking for homes for adorable 2-year-olds,” says Casey’s Agosti. “We’re looking for homes for 11-year-old boys, for fairly troubled teens.”

It also means trying harder to recruit foster parents with the same ethnic backgrounds as most of the unplaced foster kids – usually minorities.

And it means looking more for foster homes in the neighborhoods that the foster children come from. Agency administrators say it’s better to keep children in their neighborhoods (so they don’t lose their schools or their friends, for instance), and adults seem to respond to the concept that a community should take care of its own children.

The Utah Foster Care Foundation analyzes ZIP code data about the children’s biological homes and neighborhoods, Pierson says, then contacts churches, service providers and civic groups to help find foster homes in those same communities. The local agencies put out word in their newsletters and at their gatherings, and host open houses on foster care.

Casey Family Programs plans to try the same thing in Boston, says Fran Gutterman, director of Casey’s Enterprise Development program, which is working with the state to boost recruitment and retention of foster parents.

Key to the Massachusetts effort, as in Utah, is creating more partnerships with community-based organizations to find foster parents. “The smaller community agencies had access to the neighborhood residents” that the Department of Social Services “did not have,” says Mia Alvarado, a senior enterprise development specialist who oversees Casey’s Boston initiative.

In some states, the outreach includes churches. In Tennessee, the Child and Family Policy Center at the Vanderbilt Institute for Public Policy Studies is working with the state Department of Children’s Services to develop a church-based foster and adoptive parent recruitment initiative. It would include training church members to conduct foster parent certification classes.

In a couple of places, getting and keeping foster parents has led to one of the most radical shifts of all: turning foster parenting into a full-time job.

Sibling Revelry

When Illinois was sued in the early 1990s over the separation of siblings in foster care, it needed outside help. Hull House, the legendary Chicago-based nonprofit founded by Jane Addams, developed a model to literally hire people to care for brothers and sisters.

Called Neighbor to Neighbor, the program pays one foster parent per household $16,000 a year, plus benefits and the monthly stipend for each child (which, at $600, is higher than the regular state stipend), says program Director Vanessa Lankford.

The Hull House program (now serving 214 children in 59 homes) has been copied in several places, including Boston. There, the Casey initiative that Gutterman oversees pays five full-time caregivers $20,000 a year, along with the stipend and benefits. Aside from caring for youths, the parents regularly attend meetings with staff about treatment and other issues. “They’re in the office almost on a weekly basis,” Alvarado says.

They also serve as mentors to the biological parents, helping pave the way for returning the children home.

Casey pays the salaries, Gutterman says, but it is unclear how long that will last.

Even as that concept spreads, however, it will apply to only a select few foster homes. To keep more foster parents on board, states are trying other incentives, like raising monthly stipends, relying more on kinship care, creating liaisons in their agencies for foster parents to contact for help, providing more respite care, hiring Spanish-speaking staff, and organizing charity drives for essentials such as school supplies and kids’ clothes.

Yet no public agency appears to have pulled off a cohesive overhaul. Asked to name a state that seems to have demonstrated how to fix foster care recruitment and retention, foster care experts often chuckle, then name a few states that have tackled one aspect of the problem.

That’s why Casey Family Programs’ Collaborative on Recruiting and Retaining Foster Families is geared toward “making dramatic, rapid changes to an entire system, as opposed to these little steps,” said program director Agosti. Co-sponsored by Casey and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the program will aim for dramatic changes at 10 public child welfare agencies (which have not been chosen).

“We need to do something big,” Agosti says.

Some observers say the only big thing that will work is big money. Alabama’s Department of Human Resources says money is the main reason it’s been able hire more caseworkers over the past several years – and that happened only after the state settled a lawsuit over the treatment of foster children.

“The system is so grossly under-resourced that it is amazing,” Berlin says. “The single most important thing you can do to make foster care better is to lower caseloads. And that costs money.”

Patrick Boyle can be reached


Kathy Barbell, Director
National Center for Resource Family Support
Fran Gutterman, Director
Enterprise Development
Casey Family Programs
1808 I St. NW, 5th Fl.
Washington, DC 20006
(202) 467-4441

Karen Jorgenson, Administrator
National Foster Parent Association
7512 Stanich Ave., #6
Gig Harbor, WA 98335

Dallas Pierson, President
Utah Foster Care Foundation
136 East S. Temple, Ste. 960
Salt Lake City, UT 84111
(801) 994-5205

“Recruiting Foster Parents”
“Retaining Foster Parents”
Office of the Inspector General
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
(202) 619-1343

Family To Family
Resources to reform child welfare
Annie E. Casey Foundation
701 St. Paul St. Baltimore, MD 21202
(410) 547-6600

Oh Won’t You Stay?

Some recent public agency efforts to retain foster parents:

Higher stipends: When foster care advocates pointed out to state legislators that Kentucky hadn’t increased its stipends to foster families for a decade (1988-98), the legislature acted. It passed a law that brings the state’s per diem payments close to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s estimate of the monthly cost of raising a child in that region of the country. A similar effort is under way in New Hampshire.

New Jersey’s $22 million recruitment and retention initiative launched in 1999 included $8 million to raise stipends to foster parents, says Donna Younkin, assistant director of the state Division of Youth and Family Services. “We moved our board rates up an average of 30 percent,” to between $400 and $500 per month. “They hadn’t been moved up in years.”

Kinship care: States have been trying to recruit more family members to serve as foster parents since the 1980s, but some observers (such as Jennifer Agosti at Casey Family Programs) believe more should be done. The David and Lucile Packard Foundation reported (in “The Future of Children,” Spring 1998) that 31 percent of children in out-of-home care were living with relatives in the early 1990s. In 2000, 26 percent of foster children were living with relatives, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Mentors and liaisons: In Massachusetts, the Kid’s Net program provides various supports to foster parents, including a liaison to the state bureaucracy, mentors and training.

Foster parents: Several states now use foster parents in recruitment ads and at recruitment events, and as trainers and mentors for new foster parents.

Multilingual: Some agencies, like the Utah Foster Care Foundation, are printing more of their materials in Spanish and hiring Spanish-speaking recruitment staff. But Jay Berlin, executive director of Alternative Family Services in San Francisco, says, “I haven’t seen any jurisdiction make a reasonable effort to recruit and retain” foster parents by putting all of its materials in Spanish and hiring significant numbers of bilingual workers.

Respite care: Foster parents can never get enough of it, some observers say. Santa Clara County, Calif., provides eight hours of respite care a month. Over in Riverside County, the Children and Families Commission just awarded $114,000 to the Friendship Community Youth Center for a new respite care program.

Sex abuse allegations:
Even when police clear foster parents of sex abuse allegations, they often remain ineligible for years because the foster care agency also has to clear them. Kentucky’s Cabinet for Families and Children recently began an effort to try to speed up that process.

Other support: The New Community Corp. in New Jersey offers foster parents low-interest, no-down-payment mortgages for townhouses.