Identifying retention successes and challenges

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Keeping foster homes open – what works best?

On average, how long do foster parents stay with your agency? Is this period of time getting longer or shorter in recent years? What is the most common reason a foster parent closes their home? Data related to the retention of your agency's foster homes can help shape your strategies for meeting the needs of children in care.

Agencies often set goals for retention, such as, "We'd like to have a retention rate of 85 percent." But what exactly is meant by "retention" and how do we measure it? To take a first look at retention, consider your open homes and your closed homes.

Analyzing your open homes helps you understand which homes you are keeping in your pool and what those homes offer your agency. Assessing your closed homes helps you understand which homes have left your agency and why.  At face value, open homes appear to be those that your agency has retained, and closed homes are those not retained. However, this is not entirely the case - retention involves multiple factors, such whether homes are both open and active.

Open homes can be inactive homes

Your pool of open foster homes consists of homes that are "active and "inactive." Active homes are regularly used for placements and inactive homes are rarely or never used for placements.

Nationwide, an average of 20 percent of foster families provide 60-80 percent of placements (Gibbs, 2005). Approximately one third of available homes do not have placements at any given time. Underutilization of certified foster homes is not healthy for a foster care program, and creates additional strain on an agency that is striving to recruit families (Rhodes et al., 2006). Families that are rarely utilized still require precious staff time, for example, during the re-certification process. And underutilized families may become disengaged with the foster care agency, lessening their willingness to accept placements. This, in turn, decreases the agency's ability to meet the needs of children in care.

One way to determine which of your homes are active versus inactive is to do a utilization study. Utilization studies shed light on how many homes are under-utilized, the reasons why, and importantly, what would it take to increase usage of inactive homes? Breaking down your pool of foster homes into "active" and "inactive" helps you understand your retention successes and challenges.

For example, if 80 percent of your homes remained open during the last year, but only half of those were active, your actual percentage of available homes is 40 percent. This means that 40 percent of your certified homes are inactive.

Undertaking a utilization study requires some time and effort by caseworkers, but should produce valuable information for recruitment planning. This sample utilization study template was created by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Calculating retention rate

The trend in an agency's retention rate can indicate whether some practices need to change.

Using numbers of open and closed homes, there are various methods for calculating a measure of retention. No matter what method you use, the important thing is to be able compare a numerical measure of retention over time to understand trends. Agency data and/or the "Facility Detail Report" provided by the New York State OCFS Data Warehouse will tell you the number of open foster homes you have.

Here is one way to calculate a rate of retention. For the previous 12 month period, determine the number of open homes at the start of the period, and the number of open homes at the end of the period, then factor in newly recruited homes.

Description Count
Number of open foster homes on Jan 1 120
Number of foster homes that were certified between Jan 1 and Dec 31 34
Number of open foster homes on Dec 31 110

Sample Formula

Percentage of retained homes or rate of retention =

Number of open homes at end of the year - Number of new homes certified during the year

Number of open homes at the start of the year

Example: (110 - 34) ÷ 120 = .633< or a 63.3 percent retention rate.


Enter your agency's data in this table to calculate a retention rate:

  Number of open foster homes on Dec. 31 Number of homes that were certified between Jan 1 and Dec 31 Number of open foster homes on Jan 1 Percentage of retention rate
Enter Values:

Drilling down to the "why?"

After identifying retention trends in their data, agencies will want to explore what those trends mean. Specifically, they need to determine why families stopped providing foster care.

Agency staff who interact with foster families may know their individual reasons, but may not be in a position to see the big picture. Are there reasons that are much more common than others? Do these reasons occur often enough to indicate a systemic problem?

The number of foster homes that have closed during the previous three months can be run from the OCFS Data Warehouse "Closed Facility Report." Almost half of foster parents quit within a year of their first placement (Rhodes et al., 2006). Some reasons are positive, such as the adoption of a child from foster care and subsequent closing of the home. Other reasons involve changes in the foster parents' circumstances, such as a move out of the area or a health problem.

In a survey conducted by OCFS, the second most commonly cited reason that foster parents closed their homes voluntarily was dissatisfaction with the agency. This reason is preventable, indicating that a change in agency policies and procedures could have a positive effect on retention. More in-depth information about "why" can be obtained through a survey, a questionnaire, case reviews, or an "exit interview" when a foster home is closed.

Taking the pulse of your foster parents

It is recommended that agencies conduct annual surveys of foster parents. Satisfaction surveys can be distributed to all, or to a sample of, current foster parents.

Some agencies have used an online survey tool such as Survey Monkey ( or SurveyGizmo (, both of which allow users to conduct simple surveys at no charge. "Customer Satisfaction" survey templates can be used as starting points for foster parent satisfaction surveys.

This foster and adoption parent survey was developed by Child Trends, and has been used in the pilot counties. The survey instrument could be completed online or on paper.

Be sure to inform participants before the survey is distributed, and send several reminders during the survey to encourage participation. Your announcement and reminders should explain the purpose of the survey, the importance of foster parents' participation, and how the results will be shared. An acceptable response rate for an online survey is about 30 percent.

Child welfare agencies have improved response rates by placing laptops in visitation areas so foster parents can complete a survey while children are visiting with their birth parents. The survey can be publicized through the agency's foster parent Facebook page or newsletter, foster parent meetings, and email lists. Giving participants an option to complete a paper version of the survey also can increase the response rate.

It may be helpful to partner with a local university to create the architecture of the survey, provide distribution advice, and analyze results. Usually this can be at little to no cost, as students may be able to help design the survey and analyze the results.

With appropriate review and analysis, surveys can become an integral part of obtaining foster parent feedback. Surveys can be utilized at various phases of programming: during the certification process to follow up with families who do not complete the entire process, after training, upon first placement, at regular intervals (e.g., annually), or when a home is closed. Surveys also can spark dialogue between foster parents and staff around issues that matter to both the foster parents and the agency.

With any survey, it is important that the results are analyzed, and that findings are shared with staff and foster parents. Here are some other ways to gather information on foster parents' needs and opinions:

Using data to build an effective retention plan

Open But Inactive = Opportunity
Can some of your dormant foster homes be reactivated? It's worth the time and effort to contact qualified foster parents about emerging needs that they could fill.

You have collected data about the number and characteristics of active, inactive, and closed foster homes. When paired with a survey tool that asks the "why?" question, you're in a good position to develop a plan to both recruit and retain foster homes.

For example, your utilization study has identified homes that have not received placements for six months or more. While these homes are technically open, they are inactive. Perhaps some of these homes need to be closed, if they are unsuitable for placements.

On the other hand, you may want to re-recruit from this inactive pool, based on your newly acquired data that describes the current needs of children coming into care. Steps could be taken to reactivate inactive homes so they will take placements again. For example, a foster family that had expressed a preference for young children might be given information about the needs of teens. With additional support, that family might agree to take a 14-year-old into their care.

Your current retention rate should be viewed in the context of previous years as your team begins to discuss what this number means.

In the previous example, an agency calculated a 63 percent retention rate for the current year. To establish the meaning of that number, the team calculated the rate for two previous years and compared the results:

  Year 1 Year 2 Year 3
Retention Rate 72% 70% 63%

The agency's retention rate decreased steadily over the past three years. What does this mean? What additional information do you need to understand this trend? Bring this information to your team and discuss this question. A review of "closed home reasons" in CONNECTIONS or case files may show that most of the homes closed for non-preventable reasons, such as an increase in adoptions or the agency's effort to close long-inactive homes. It is also possible that the declining retention of foster homes is due to a preventable reason, such as inadequate support for foster parents. Case file reviews or the results of "exit interviews" would help to support or remove this possibility.

Analyzing survey results

During the survey design process, your team should discuss how the responses will be analyzed and interpreted. Survey data will only be useful if it is tabulated and analyzed.

One agency noted that a survey of foster parents had been done several years before. When asked about the results of the survey, however, staff explained that the data had never been tabulated or analyzed for trends. This can be discouraging both to staff and the foster parents that completed the survey.

If you have partnered with a university or third party, or if you have conducted the survey with an online application such as Survey Monkey, data tabulation will be part of the package. Websites such as these offer a wealth of tools that can help you understand the data, as well as to share the data in useful terms.

If you have created an interview form or simple questionnaire, these analysis tips might be helpful:

Tabulate the results.

For instance, if foster parents checked boxes or circled numbers to indicate their level of satisfaction, you just need to count the answers. In this example, foster parents were asked their agreement or disagreement with a statement. Count the number of responses for each category and enter them in a table, and the results are clear.

  Strongly Agree Somewhat Agree Somewhat Disagree Strongly Disagree Total
I receive adequate information about children at placement. 8
Review written answers.

It can be more complicated to analyze responses to open-ended questions that require individual, written answers. Look for patterns in the responses. Are there some topics that appear more often than others? If so, how many participants mentioned this topic?

Identify trends.

If surveys are done on a regular basis (each year, for example), be sure to compare the results to previous surveys to see if there has been significant change. This is especially important in areas where the agency has made an effort to improve practices.

Write up a brief report — one page is sufficient — summarizing the results of the survey. Distribute the report to all foster parents. Share the findings with the Recruitment & Retention Team and brainstorm the results. Are there opportunities for greater transparency? What are you doing well that can be replicated or built upon? Are there recommendations for short- and long-term improvements?

This project is funded by the Children’s Bureau, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, under a Cooperative Agreement, Grant Number 90CO-1109. The contents of this publication are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of the Children’s Bureau, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services or the New York State Office of Children and Family Services.

Children's Bureau
NYS Office of Children and Family Services
Welfare Research, Inc.