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Establishing Support For Foster Parents
There is a critical shortage of foster parents. The number of children requiring foster care is increasing while the number of foster parents is decreasing.39 Most children are coming into care as a result of abuse and neglect or because they are medically fragile. These children do not move out of foster care quickly. It takes time to rehabilitate birth families or to free a child for adoption. By the time they are free for adoption, many children are too old or too problematic for many adoptive families to feel they can parent them successfully.
The earlier sections of this manual have suggested the dimensions of the task that foster parents face today. To meet the needs of a child in care, foster parents need a strong commitment, a great deal of support, and specialized training. As mentioned earlier, the pool of potential foster parents has diminished. Meanwhile, the demographic profile of the American family has changed. More women are working outside the home because they wish to pursue careers or because their families need the additional income.
Although agencies are attempting to recruit and develop new foster families, children sometimes remain in emergency shelters or in hospital wards because there are no foster homes available for them. In addition to increased recruitment efforts, attempts to solve the problem include:
- placing children with extended birth family members who are licensed as foster parents;
- professionalizing foster care so that it can compete in the market place; and
- using small congregate care facilities, sometimes as shelter care or planned interim care for infants.
However, these alternate care settings can sometimes result in reduced efforts directed toward finding permanent families for these children.
Foster Home Retention
Agencies are also working hard to retrain and retain the foster parents they have as well as engaging new foster families. Efforts at retention have generally focused on funding, training, and team support. Although these factors are all important, retention efforts should be examined in a broader historical context as well as in response to contemporary issues.
For the past 50 years, foster parenting has been a volunteer service. People have become foster parents for various reasons, including the following:
- job satisfaction,
- commitment to a worthwhile goal,
- extra income,
- nonmonetary recognition,
- new opportunities for learning,
- social contact,
- personal satisfaction, and
- as an attempt to resolve personal problems.
These reasons are neither arranged hierarchically nor are they mutually exclusive.
Money is valued by most of our society, and it is time that agencies reevaluate the fiscal aspect of foster parenting. In principle, agencies generally reimburse foster parents only for the direct costs of caring for the child. A stipulated monthly amount is intended to cover most of the costs of the child's basic needs. Certain itemized expenses may also be reimbursable. Frequently, the rate of reimbursement fails to cover the foster parents' out-of-pocket expenses, so that being a foster parent usually involves considerable financial drain.
The fiscal situation has worsened over the past several years. The dwindling supply of foster homes has coincided with the increased demand for care for more difficult children. Agencies have felt pressed to pay more to get the care they need for these children, but the foster care reimbursement rates have not even increased with inflation. The solution for many agencies has been to establish new higher paid categories of specialized care.
Originally, the differences in payment between foster families depended only on the age of the child in care. Some agencies began to designate certain families as "specialized foster homes" with higher rates of payment for care. Agencies also established different categories of specialization with new rates of reimbursement for "special" specialized homes. The amounts began to vary widely, based mainly on the subjective assessment of the needs of a child, and frequently, on the availability of other options. To make the situation even more complex, some agencies set rates for relatives who provide foster care, which are different from what those relatives would receive for taking care of the same child under Aid for Families with Dependent Children (AFDC).
A few agencies have professionalized their foster care programs by reimbursing parents on a fee-for-service basis. Most agencies, however, are caught in a fiscal quagmire. There is little question that increased payments attract new foster families. But equally important is the need to establish a fair and rational system for the distribution of funds to foster parents.
Although most people work at a job to receive income with which to live, some people put as much or more effort into activities that are not essential for livelihood because of the satisfactions those activities provide. One of the most important factors is a sense of existential accomplishment. As is the case for most child welfare caseworkers, foster parents are idealistic and invest in this work because they realize that, in a very real way, their contribution to the child for whom they care will make a difference in that child's life and in the kind of world that child will eventually help shape. In this way, the foster parents give added meaning to their own lives.
Another personal satisfaction to which everyone responds is recognition. Not only are foster parents not paid for their work, they rarely get recognition within the larger community. For every newspaper article extolling the virtues of foster parents (usually around Mother's Day in the "women's" section of a newspaper), there is likely to be another story reporting on the abuse that a child received while in the foster care system (usually a news story on page one of the newspaper). Foster parents may be applauded for their good work when a child in their care excels in school or stars on the football team, but they are more usually criticized for bringing a troublesome child into the neighborhood or costing the local taxpayers money for services for a child who is an "outsider." The only real praise and support they get is from other foster parents who understand and appreciate the job they are doing or from child welfare agencies.
Most agencies recognize foster families because they know that a good foster care program is the backbone of all child welfare programs. Agencies cannot offer services to help keep children anchored in their birth families unless they can provide the short-term care that some children need while their families are being stabilized for their return. Agencies need to be creative in finding more ways to provide recognition to foster families both within the agency structure and within the general community.
Recognition and increased job satisfaction come together when foster parents are given the opportunity to participate not only in the decision-making process for the child in their care, but also in the process that shapes the child welfare system. Increasingly, foster parents are participating on agency committees and community task forces. The contribution of foster parents can be invaluable and the reward to them well worth the effort expended.
Foster care also offers another way for people to have their unique needs met or to gain new perspectives on troublesome issues. Some people become and remain foster parents to satisfy some idiosyncratic whim or to resolve some personal problem. Foster care puts people into new family constellations. Foster care gives them a chance to have new emotional experiences, while offering an opportunity to work out family problems. Many foster parents consciously view foster care as a way to undo or redo some aspect of their own maturation experience. One of the best foster parents in one agency spent a lifetime devoted to providing excellent care for several children born to her and for a series of very difficult foster children, fully aware that she was out to prove her mother wrong for telling her she would never be a good mother. There is nothing wrong with foster parents working out their own issues and having their own needs met through providing foster care, as long as this works for the benefit of the child in their care.
Foster parent training is an essential component of a good foster parent program. Training enables an agency to provide better care for a child and it helps retain foster parents. A characteristic of the best foster parents is their strong drive to grow and change. Training satisfies their thirst for knowledge and increases their job satisfaction. It provides opportunities for the parents to learn new ways to meet the needs of the child in their care and to help that child move along to a permanent home.
Most States have mandated training for all licensed foster parents. Some States use training manuals, curricula, or programs developed, tested, and marketed by national resources or training centers. (See the Appendix, "Foster Parent Training Programs," for examples.) Although such programs are excellent and comprehensive, other agencies prefer to develop their own training programs. Staff and foster parents involved in generating their own curriculum frequently have a higher investment in the success of the training. The curriculum is also more likely to meet the needs of that particular agency. Sometimes, agencies contract with State foster parent organizations or community colleges to develop and provide the training.
Differing approaches to foster parent training grow out of differences in goals and focus. These differences influence the timing, content, and format of the training programs. Some agencies train foster and adoptive parents or caseworkers and foster parents together. Others train each group separately. Some agencies believe that without extensive advance training, foster parents are not equipped to take a child; others believe that until a child is in the home, training is an intellectual exercise with little lasting benefit. Some agencies develop the training content in response to changing populations in care; others use a core curriculum; and yet others use a combined approach.
Foster parent training should be provided throughout a continuum of agency involvement. Agencies make independent decisions about approaches in the various phases, but most break training down into two major categories—preservice training, which occurs before the placement of a foster child, and inservice training, which occurs periodically while the child is in placement.
Agencies differ in the way they perceive and use preservice training. Some incorporate it into their assessment and preparation process for prospective foster families; others offer it to new families after they have been approved, but before they begin serving the child. Some agencies believe extensive training before the placement of a foster child reduces foster parent anxiety and helps them succeed. Other agencies feel that preplacement training should be minimal. They argue that the capacity of foster parents to learn at this point is blocked by their anxiety about whether or when they will get a child. Until the foster parents actually have a child in their care, specific training has limited impact. The following questions illustrate the debate. When should foster parents be trained to deal with a sexually abused child? With so many children in foster care acknowledging previous sexual abuse, should all foster parents be trained in handling a sexually abused child before any child is placed with them? Is such training a poor use of time because new foster parents may not be able to relate to the material in the absence of caring for a real child? The issue remains unresolved.
Learning more about foster parent applicants is one of the major advantages of preservice training. When the training involves a considerable amount of group interaction, members sometimes become aware of areas of individual concern before the trainers can address such issues. Often through subsequent discussions, applicants themselves realize that they are, or are not, suited for foster parenting.
The length of the training and the content of the curriculum vary according to the goals and format. Preservice training offered by agencies usually attempts to accomplish the following goals:
- To explain the legal and policy framework within which foster care is provided.
- To orient new foster parents to the goals of the agency's foster care program and permanency planning concepts and to describe the types of children the program serves.
- To provide concrete, procedural information to reduce foster parents' anxiety in critical areas (e.g., handling medical emergencies, parental visits, procedures for reimbursement of expenses, etc.).
- To begin to develop foster care team affective and cognitive alliances.
- To answer questions, address myths, and alter stereotypes about foster care.
- To provide basic child development knowledge and beginning skills in foster parenting.
Content directed toward the last goal, of course, is the most flexible. Courses offered outside a given agency tend to spend more time on these components. Agencies offering their own training usually view the preservice training as part of a continuum, with training in foster parent skills occurring later in the process.
Most agencies offer inservice training for their foster parents. Some States have mandated a certain number of hours of training annually as a requirement for foster parent relicensing. There is no dearth of content. As permanency planning has become more clearly defined as the goal of foster care, and as the special needs of the child coming into care are more apparent, the scope of the curriculum for training has expanded. The specific demands of the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act (P.L. 96-272) and increased reporting and documenting requirements have also added training content. Frequently, all-day workshops, focused around a particular theme or problem area, such as discipline, meeting the needs of a medically fragile child, or foster parenting a sexually abused child are provided for foster parents.
As with preservice training, agencies use various approaches to provide inservice training. Some agencies offer it themselves; others join in cooperative efforts; and others rely on courses in foster care, parenting, and child development offered through community colleges or adult education programs.
Some agencies have worked out their own curricula for training foster parents; some have used curricula that have been developed for use by the State or that are marketed by national resource centers or training organizations; and others have combined the two. Most agencies use their own material for teaching basic foster parenting skills and developing their agency teams, but rely on published material for specific topic areas, such as working with sexually abused children.
Because there is so much essential material to be included in foster parent training and because the content is expanding daily, it is difficult for any training program to be inclusive. The task is to decide what content is most essential at any moment and to constantly revise the training in response to new information and the evolving needs of foster families. Agencies have found that training programs are more effective when foster parents have been involved in making the decisions that shape the content and format. Several content areas, however, are common to inservice training programs. These include the following:
- critical issues in foster care;
- the basic developmental needs of children;
- the special needs of foster children;
- families as systems;
- working with children and families of color;
- the impact of placement on children, their birth families, and their foster families;
- dealing with separation and loss;
- helping children with attachment;
- developing self-esteem in foster children;
- the impact of abuse and neglect on children;
- helping the sexually abused child;
- caring for the medically fragile child;
- helping the older child in foster care prepare for independent living;
- fostering the developmentally disabled child;
- fostering gay and lesbian youth;
- first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation;
- disciplining foster children;
- dealing with family crises;
- helping the foster child move on to another family;
- working on the team;
- knowing and using community resources; and
- advocating for foster children.
Agencies should always be mindful that training offers opportunities for providing foster parents with special recognition by awarding training certificates or diplomas and by providing chances for media coverage. Further, many agencies utilize foster parents as trainers, thus providing additional recognition and enriching the training program.
Social Contact and Support
A positive foster family support system offers parents easy access to agency personnel and other foster parents. Agency contact should not occur only at the agency's convenience or at a point of acute crisis, but must reflect the agency's perception that foster parents are valued team members whose input is solicited and used not only around the child in their care, but around the operation of the agency's foster care program. The agency begins to generate this sense of support in its initial orientation, assessment, and preparation, and maintains it by regular contact once the family is caring for the child.
New foster parents, especially, need to know that they can get help in an emergency at any time of the day or night. This can be done in a number of ways. An agency can establish a "crisis hot line" that enables a foster family to reach staff when the foster parents need help. A less costly approach is to develop a "buddy" system that pairs every foster parent with another, usually a new foster parent with an experienced parent. In an emergency, or just if they wish to talk, either parent can call the other. If the call comes as a result of an emergency, it may be possible to handle the crisis on the basis of the combined experience of the two sets of parents.
The sense of support, then, comes from an environment that begins with the formal agency structure and the professional assistance that is available, includes formal and informal contact between agency staff and foster parents, and encourages interaction among foster parents. Formal and informal contact with other foster parents helps meet the social needs of many foster parents. There are very few people in this world who are truly fascinated by stories about one's child or grandchild. There are still fewer who want to hear about one's foster child. Other foster parents are the best audience because they really understand and are truly interested.
Sometimes, foster families become so comfortable with each other that they care for each other's child at points of crisis or for occasional weekend breaks. Homes may have to be licensed for this sort of informal respite care, and the agency (or court) must always be informed of the plan. Such casual respite may not meet the needs of all families, and agencies need to develop formal respite homes as another source of agency support.
Foster Parent Associations
Groups external to the agency, such as State foster parent associations, are still another source of support. These organizations allow foster parents to learn what is going on with families who are working with other agencies, focus their attention on common issues, and develop advocacy power they can use to bring about change.
Recently, many foster parent associations have developed. In addition to the National Association of Foster Parents, State and local associations have been established. These associations serve many useful purposes, including mutual support, information sharing, training, and advocacy. Some State agencies, recognizing the value of these organizations, encourage and support the operation of foster parent associations in various ways, including providing office space and supplies. Foster parent associations are of great value to agencies in offering training, gathering information, enlisting political support, orienting communities, and assisting with policy development.
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