Over the course of a decade, Rosie Starks served as a foster parent to four children. For the past three years, she’s used that experience to guide another needy group in the child welfare system: foster parents.
Starks is a foster parent mentor for the nonprofit Metropolitan Family Services, in Chicago. “I’m the person who walks along beside them and tries to be a support system,” says Starks, who works with 18 to 24 clients at a time, for six to 12 months each.
Starks is part of a growing but still scattered movement in which agencies ask former or veteran foster parents to work with caseworkers to help bring new families up to speed on foster parenting issues – everything from state regulations to the vagaries of dealing with troubled youth.
The National Foster Parents Association is standardizing a foster parent mentorship program developed in Nebraska so that it can be used anywhere. The Rhode Island Foster Parents Association employs six mentors who serve about 110 families. Kentucky runs a state-funded program based at the University of Kentucky’s School of Social Work Resource and Training Center.
“We think it’s very important that new foster parents have mentors,” says Karen Jorgenson, executive director of the National Foster Parents Association.
If it’s such a great idea, why isn’t it more widespread? Jorgenson sees time as the main barrier, especially if an agency doesn’t pay the mentors. Some agencies, such as Metropolitan Family Services, pay salaries to the mentors, while others offer monthly stipends or just a “thank you.”
“It’s difficult to ask foster parents to step forward and do one more thing without compensation,” Jorgenson says.
That lack of compensation, however, is part of what makes John Johnson, director of Foster Family Service, wonder why other agencies don’t run such programs. “It’s a zero net cost,” says Johnson, whose program covers 17 counties from its base in Placerville, Calif.
“Dare I say we often become a little elitist” in the foster care industry, he says, thinking that “those with master’s degrees and a business license to do foster care know best – when, in fact, there’s a tremendous knowledge base among foster families.”
Some agencies that have tried foster parent mentoring have found it not worth the trouble. The Parent Educational Advocacy Training Center (PEATC) in Springfield, Va., once received U.S. Department of Health and Human Services money to offer foster parent mentoring, but that funding dried up more than five years ago, says Executive Director Cherie Takemoto.
“Our evaluation of that program did not give us the kinds of results that we thought we would get,” she says. “Foster parents weren’t really calling” in search of mentors, “even though we did outreach to advertise. We never figured out why that was the case.”
One reason might have been that foster parents got their answers in other ways. The local county and other entities held periodic training programs for foster parents, Takemoto says.
Millicent Williams, director of foster care for the Child Welfare League of America, suspects that informal foster parent mentoring may be more common than structured programs. “The term has been around a long time,” she says. “It doesn’t happen in a formal way in most agencies. People just come together and do it.”
She says that in a handful of places, such as New York City, agencies achieve much the same effect with geographic clusters of foster parents. “There are some foster parent clusters that agencies have, of foster parents living in the same neighborhood,” she says. “They have an active support group for each other.”
Tamikia Dumas, program coordinator for the Kentucky program, believes the concept for formal mentoring is catching on, based on the number of phone calls she receives from agencies seeking to set up mentoring.
Following are several examples of how different agencies provide and fund such programs.