When Daniele and Steve Baxter took over the Foster Parent Association of Washington State in 2004, the organization was in a tight spot. It had lost some key funding, the president had resigned, and the Baxters had a hard time compiling a list of the state’s foster parents. In frustration, Mrs. Baxter sent out a survey to find out how other state organizations kept track of foster parents.
Most groups said they got the information from their state child welfare agencies, but Washington’s Children’s Administration wouldn’t provide the same information, citing confidentiality laws. Mrs. Baxter was fed up.
Today, she calls that struggle “the best thing that ever happened” to the association. Realizing how out of touch the association had become with foster parents, the couple embarked on a region-by-region outreach mission to rebuild the relationship. That bonding produced an epiphany for the Baxters: that they should strengthen the voice of the association by unionizing foster parents with other state employees.
“I think it’s definitely something that has never been done before,” says Millicent Williams, director of foster care at the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA).
Foster parents are professionals, the Baxters say, and should be treated accordingly.
Mrs. Baxter says foster parents are handling more and more difficult cases. To survive, she says, foster parents must become highly specialized professionals.
Mr. Baxter hopes that one day Washington’s foster parents will have retirement benefits and health insurance.
In May, the Washington Federation of State Employees created the union’s new Foster Care Division, which grants all association members automatic union membership. Because foster parents are not officially recognized as state employees, their membership is limited to “affiliate” status, with no bargaining rights.
For that to change, the Washington Legislature would have to designate foster parents as state employees and then lay out a procedure for them to gain bargaining rights through a state commission, which usually involves a petition.
The Baxters say about 600 foster parents have signed membership cards. The Children’s Administration says the state has 6,000 foster parents.
The Baxters are not the first to seek professional benefits for foster parents. Gordon Johnson, former head of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, started a nonprofit called Neighbor to Family, which employs foster parents as staff in Florida, Georgia, Virginia and Maryland.
On top of receiving regular government rates to help cover their costs, Neighbor to Family foster parents make about $11,000 to $16,000 per year and get retirement benefits and health insurance, Johnson says.
He says the approximately 300 foster parents working with Neighbor to Family receive about 40 hours of training each year and are involved in the decision-making at the agency, “just like any other staff.”
In Washington state, the Children’s Administration has cited legal concerns about involving foster parents in collective bargaining, but says it takes no position on the unionization movement.
Administration spokeswoman Kathy Spears says the administration understands the concern of foster parents. “There are many things that we are doing right in foster care, but it’s certainly no secret that foster parents have been left out of decision-making,” she says.
State Sen. Joe Zarelli (R) is less understanding. “We don’t pay people pensions and benefits and so forth to take care of their own children,” he told The Los Angeles Times. “And we shouldn’t do it with foster children, either.”
“This isn’t about money,” Mrs. Baxter says. “It’s about respect, and it’s about being recognized as a valuable member of society doing a critical job for our most vulnerable children.”
Putting Rights into Law
The Baxters’ complaints echo those of foster parents around the country: insufficient training and support, inadequate compensation and uncooperative state agencies. Karen Jorgenson, executive director of the National Foster Parent Association, sums it up as “respect.” Jorgenson says the biggest issues for foster parents are getting adequate notice of court hearings, getting phone calls returned and “having a voice as a member of the team in making decisions in the best interest of each child.”
Over the past decade, 12 states have tried to confront these issues through a “bill of rights” for foster parents.
Many of the documents start with a philosophical statement of intent. The first such act, passed in Tennessee in 1997, begins: “The department shall treat the foster parent(s) with dignity, respect, trust and consideration as a primary provider of foster care and a member of the professional team caring for foster children.”
Most of the bills include rights of foster parents to get adequate information about children placed in their homes; to receive adequate training, support and compensation; and to participate in decisions involving children in their care.
The documents have had mixed success delivering actual rights. “In some states, bills of rights have been effective if they’re built into the agencies, while in other states, they’re just on paper,” says Williams of the CWLA.
Linda Williams, immediate past president of the Alabama Foster and Adoptive Parent Association, helped to get a bill adopted in Alabama in 2004. One well-implemented provision, she says, gives foster parents priority for adopting a child in their care.
But “respect” is hard to legislate, she says, noting the state’s foster parents are still treated more like “babysitters” than “team players.”
Cooperation varies from county to county, Linda Williams says, citing a requirement for 24-hour foster parent support services. She says some county agencies designate staff to fulfill this requirement, while others rely on local law enforcement, which can lead to frustrating delays.
She also expressed frustration with the bill’s requirement that foster parents be given “timely” notification about court hearings involving their foster children and an opportunity to be heard at those hearings. “They’ll call you the day before. They’ll call and say, ‘We’re having a meeting tomorrow at 11 o’clock,’ ” which is not enough notification for foster parents who have day jobs, she says.
Oregon’s bill goes further: It allows foster parents to file a motion for intervention in the juvenile dependency proceeding of youths they have housed for at least one year. California also lets foster parents apply for “de facto parent” status, making them party to dependency proceedings, even though the state has no such bill of rights.
The right to receive notice about court hearings and the opportunity to participate in them was included in the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, but implementation has been spotty. In a 2004 study by the National Center for Youth Law, senior attorney Bill Grimm concluded that more specific legislation is required. He proposed standardizing the notices, including their content, delivery method and timing (that is, how long before the court hearing they must be delivered).