Support for foster parents means better lives for foster youth

BlogChild WelfareMay 9 2016

Imagine you are a child who has just been removed from your home and placed in foster care. While waiting to return to your family or move into a permanent home, there’s a good chance you will move around a lot. Almost a quarter of children in care have experienced four or more placements (such as foster or group homes). That could mean four or more new caregivers, schools, neighborhoods—and four or more goodbyes.

Not surprisingly, this instability has a negative effect on children’s well-being. Children thrive in stable homes where they build relationships with caring adults and have structured routines.

Now, let’s imagine you’re a foster parent. You might feel overwhelmed caring for a child with so many needs. Children in foster care have experienced trauma from past abuse and neglect, and placement moves likely add trauma. Many have medical conditions, developmental disabilities, and behavior problems that require extra care. You may be asked to foster multiple siblings of varying ages, with different needs. You may feel isolated — perhaps your friends and family don’t understand why you are fostering and can’t relate to its challenges. Even experienced foster parents can find that caring for a foster child just becomes too hard, and request that the child be moved to another home. This difficult experience might make you less likely to answer the call the next time a child is in need. You may even decide to stop fostering altogether, which means one less home for children in care.

Thankfully, an important shift is occurring! Child welfare agencies are going beyond recruitment to focus on recruitment and retention efforts. An important component of retention is providing support to foster families: learning what they need, providing information and encouragement, and connecting them with trainings that build parenting skills and confidence.

Two programs show promise in this area. Both received support from Diligent Recruitment Grants, awarded by the Children’s Bureau within the Administration for Children and Families, with Child Trends as their external evaluator.

Clark County’s Foster Parent Champion Program

Imagine a foster child was just placed in your home. A “Foster Parent Champion” from the child welfare agency calls and asks how things are going. Maybe you need help getting a new crib, locating daycare, or finding a child therapist in your area. She gives you referrals and numbers to call. When things get tough, the Champion is also there to offer help, even if it’s just a listening ear.

Clark County Department of Family Services in Las Vegas, NV, has implemented the Foster Parent Champion program, in which they hire Foster Parent Champions (who are foster parents themselves) to provide information, emotional support, and encouragement to foster families (including relative caregivers). The Champions also help families locate resources and connect them with community services. Champions are also there in times of crisis to help troubleshoot the challenges that arise. One Champion describes her job as “Foster Parent 911.”

Through experimentation with different models for the program, staff found that hiring foster parents was a key to its success. Foster parents may feel more comfortable opening up to Champions who are able to empathize with their experience, rather than a paid professional who has never fostered before. Champions are also department employees, so they have a solid understanding of agency policies and procedures to share with foster parents.

Fostering Futures NY Program

Picture this: you have six foster children in your home. You sit down with your team of volunteers and their coordinator. You look through your calendar and tell them what you need help with in the upcoming month. Maybe it’s grocery shopping, dinners on hectic Thursday nights, tutoring help for a foster child’s upcoming science test, or assistance fixing a creaking step. Volunteers from the nearby community are able to help in these tangible ways. You, and the children in your care, build relationships with the volunteers—they become “extended family.”

In 2014, Welfare Research, Inc. began piloting the Fostering Futures NY program in the Albany area. The program recruits, screens, trains, and coordinates teams of volunteers from the community that provide support to foster families, including emotional encouragement, household chores, and enrichment activities with children. The program aims to reduce foster parents’ stress levels, thus supporting the stability of foster placements. It also provides community connections for foster parents and the children in their care.

Positive Program Feedback

Feedback from foster parents suggests that these two programs have been successful thus far. Foster parents have told Foster Parent Champions they have been able to keep children in their homes because they have felt supported by the Champions. But beyond creating stability while in foster care, these programs may increase families’ ability to adopt the children they care for. One family told Fostering Futures NY staff that if she had had the support of the program sooner, she would have adopted more children in her care. We encourage these innovative programs to further examine their impact on foster parent retention as they continue to develop.

A great way to help provide stability for children is to support the foster parents who care for them. The more supported a parent feels, the better they will be able to care for a child. That might just mean one less goodbye.