What Does It Take to Create a Great Foster Parent?

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Marie Cohen

A minority of the foster parents I knew in my five years as a social worker in the District of Columbia foster care system were great.

Mr. and Mrs. C had grown children and grandchildren but lots of energy and love to spare. They took in 3-month-old baby S when his mother abandoned him in a bout of rage. Mrs. C was retired and stayed home full time with the baby, playing with him, talking to him and loving him. She brought S to every well-baby appointment, which some foster parents leave to social workers or other agency staff. When they brought S to visit his mother at the agency, Mrs. C thanked her for letting them take care of S until she would be able to take him back. (Sadly, S's mother did not get him back, but he did end up going to his father.)

Ms. T was a single parent of a boy but wanted at least one girl in the household. She took in two sisters after the younger one was abused by her previous foster parent. Ms. T worked from home one day a week, allowing her to take the girls to medical appointments or see their teachers. Every weekend, she drove the children to visit their mother and picked them up at the end of the weekend. After the girls were reunified with their mother, Ms. T would often take them for the weekend at their request or their mother's. She continued to give them gifts and sometimes money when requested. Ms. T has now adopted a second set of girls whom she fostered.

Mr. and Mrs. F took in a 10-year-old girl and her 4-year-old brother. Mrs. F. worked part-time so that she could spend most of her time being a foster parent. She drove the children daily to their previous school so that they did not have to put up with a long van ride. When the older child was in fifth grade, the F's researched and visited charter schools in order to find a more challenging placement. They were able to get her into one of the most highly regarded charter schools in the District .

Two siblings, K and M, were placed together in the home of a couple, but they soon expelled K due to her disrespectful behavior. Luckily, K ended up in the home of Ms. W, who saw the wounded child behind the defiance and let her know there was nothing she could do to get herself kicked out. K's behavior improved in response. Ms. W was so anxious for K and M to see each other that she hosted sleepovers as often as M's foster parent would allow, picking M up and dropping him off. She also picked up their mother from her nursing home so that they could see her as well.

These great foster parents shared two important things — motivation and time. They all became foster parents because they wanted children in their lives and to make a difference in the lives of children. Secondly, they all had the time to devote to their foster children. Two of these foster families consisted of two-parent families in which one parent worked part-time or not at all. The two single mothers worked, but both had jobs with flexibility that allowed them to do things for their children during weekdays.

These families were very much a minority of foster parents I've met. How can we attract more such foster parents?

Full-time work, with rigid hours and a long commute, makes it impossible to find the time that foster children need. If we paid foster parents a salary, this would open up a new supply of potential foster parents — people who view it is a career.

Financially prohibitive in most states? Perhaps, since few foster families around the country receive more than $1,000 per month per child. But what if we asked foster parents to take more children?

Until 2013, the District of Columbia contracted with one agency that paid foster parents as employees to care for four children each. This program was eliminated in the District's effort to close private agencies in light of decreasing foster care caseloads. But such a model might merit a closer look in foster care systems around the country.

Marie Cohen (MSW, MPA) is a policy analyst and researcher who worked as a child welfare social worker in the District of Columbia from 2010 until early 2015. She is now blogging at fosteringreform.blogspot.com and can be found on Twitter @fosteringreform.