Engaging foster parents as partners is the key factor in both recruiting and retaining foster/adoptive families. Partnership is built on the attitude that each participant in the child welfare system—from line staff; to the agency director; to the judge; to the foster, adoptive, or kinship family—must feel like a valued member of the team and be committed to providing good customer service.
First impressions are critical in determining one's perceptions about a product or service. In child welfare interactions, how people are treated at the first point of contact sets the tone for how the relationship will move forward (Geen, 2004). When your agency responds to inquiries, is the first interaction a welcoming one, or does the caller feel interrogated, unimportant, or ignored? Is the agency employee that answers and returns the calls smiling on their end of the phone? Research has shown that a smile can be felt through the phone and improves customer satisfaction. It is standard advice in sales and customer service to smile while talking on the phone (Customers That Stick, n.d.).
It is also standard advice to use the words "thank you." Saying "thank you" both engages customers and makes them receptive to the rest of the conversation. Are prospective foster/adoptive parents thanked for their interest? A simple "thank you" in the first conversation tells them that their interest is both wanted and taken seriously.
How timely is a response to a prospective foster/adoptive parent? Best practice suggests that a timely response is within 24 hours. The NRCDR recommends, "Return all phone calls to prospective and current foster and adoptive parents and kinship caregivers within 24 hours. Even if you are waiting for more information and can't answer the caller's questions, call them back to let them know that you're working on their questions."
(See Appendix 7-1: Five Things You Can Do to Improve Customer Service—Phone Interaction with Families.)
An early visit to the home of a prospective foster parent is another best practice that encourages foster parent engagement. Visiting a prospective foster parent's home early in the application process builds the foundation for an ongoing relationship. During the initial visit, the worker emphasizes to the family that they will be part of a team, advises them of the supports and training the agency will provide, assures them the worker will help them through the certification process, and shares the mission of the agency.
The home visit is an opportunity to provide face-to-face technical assistance and to answer lingering questions about fostering. This visit should be a positive experience for the prospective foster parent which will strengthen the likelihood of more inquiries, certifications, and ultimately a strong pool of foster parents.
The initial home visit also allows the homefinder to develop a sense of the home environment. The worker can observe the physical space and discuss any concerns related to safety, such as the number of bedrooms, the presence and placement of smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, and other environmental requirements.
Early identification of potential issues will allow prospective foster parents to start rectifying them at the front end of the process and makes it easier the agency to assist the family with these issues, when possible. Relatively small problems can delay certification and may be avoided with an earlier home visit.
"For the time invested in making an early home visit, the return is invaluable," said Elizabeth Roberts-Laura, Schenectady County Department of Social Services Foster/Adoptive Home Finding Supervisor.
In some jurisdictions there may be a significant gap between the time that a family is certified and their first placement. This may become even more common as jurisdictions prioritize kin to care for incoming placements. How can an agency keep the family engaged and ready for that all-important first placement?
First, prioritize communication with waiting families. Frequent communication will help the foster parent remain engaged with the agency while waiting for a first placement. The agency may periodically send an email or postcard to say that the agency is aware of the family and will be in touch as soon as a placement is available. Waiting families may also be invited to attend a social gathering or a special meeting to discuss their "open but unfilled" status.
While a lull in child welfare removals and placements is a good thing for all families and communities, foster families may need to be reminded about how the process works and the short turnaround time when a child needs a foster home. Agency staff also may reinforce the need to place siblings together and the supports available for families that take large sibling groups. Waiting families can also be encouraged to participate in required and optional trainings to keep their skills sharp and to be certified as respite foster homes.
All future steps in the process should also be timely and respectful. Retention starts with recruitment, so every piece of the process sets the tone for how the prospective foster/adoptive parent and the agency will engage with one another.
For example, prospective foster/adoptive parents are invited to attend an orientation or information session. Are there current foster parents at the session to answer questions and give advice? While it is not normally considered to be "customer service," providing opportunities for prospective foster parents to interact with current foster parents sends a strong message that the agency values its foster/adoptive families.
(See: Appendix 7-2 10 Things You Can Do to Improve Customer Service—Prospective Parent Orientation Sessions.)
Streamlining paperwork is another way to respectfully engage prospective foster/adoptive parents. Review your current documentation to identify duplicative paperwork, unnecessary paperwork or hard-to-understand paperwork. Thoughtfulness and consideration in the application process help prospective foster/adoptive parents to fully embrace the process. Some agencies schedule paperwork days, when prospective foster families come to the agency for help in completing documentation. Technical assistance should be offered to all foster parents to help them complete their documents in a timely fashion.
An optional documentation tool, the "Foster Parent Paperwork Checklist" has garnered some positive feedback from homefinders and applicants. This tool allows all parties to know what document is required and when the document should be completed.
(See Appendix 7-3: Foster Parent Paperwork Checklist.)
A key component of Roots and Wings in Santa Cruz County, California, is the contract position of Outreach and Recruitment Coordinator. The coordinator supports and guides applicants through the certification process by helping them to access, complete, and submit applications and other required paperwork. Prospective foster families have one consistent person to help them navigate each step to certification. The county also created the role of Resource Family Liaison to augment the work of casework staff within its service delivery system. The liaisons are paraprofessionals hired by and paid by a community-based organization to provide intensive support to foster parents and relative caregivers. It included activities such as maintaining contact through home visits, making referrals to support groups and mentors, identifying training needs, and either providing or referring families for training (County of Santa Cruz Human Services Department, n.d.).
A person who is interested in fostering a child may not have the option to be a foster parent. This fact may become evident at any point along the path to certification. Despite this, people who opt out of fostering may choose to support the child welfare mission in other ways.
Many counties and agencies have found creative ways to provide volunteer opportunities for those who have left the certification process while continuing to keep individuals open to the possibility of fostering in the future. Some agencies develop a list of volunteer opportunities based on the actual needs of the children and foster parents in the local community. For example, older youth may benefit from part-time employment at a local business, job search assistance, career counseling, character references, and other services. Volunteers may also provide mentorship, transportation, educational assistance, cultural connections and activities, or sports and arts experiences.
Encouraging volunteerism also opens up opportunities for the agency to get support from the community. Volunteers can help contact community partners to meet an agency need, such as free or low-cost car seats. A creative approach to volunteering enhances the lives of the children, the foster parents, the agency, and the volunteers.
(See Appendix 7-4, Generic Template for Volunteers.)
Research has shown that up to 25% of foster/adoptive families discontinue providing foster care each year. It is estimated that 40% of these families left because they received inadequate support from the certifying entity (Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2012). Even if they are challenged by limited resources, it is recommended that counties/agencies provide intensive first placement supports, which are critical in maintaining a robust recruitment and retention program.
A First Placement Protocol provides ways in which agencies can anticipate potential challenges for foster parents during the first weeks of the first placement and support them through these challenges. The protocol may include:
At the time of a first placement the new foster parents should also be reminded of any other supports available to them which may include:
Supporting prospective foster/adoptive parents throughout the certification process improves the retention of foster/adoptive families over time. It is equally important to provide essential supports to foster/adoptive families after children are placed in their homes.
Supports to foster/adoptive parents increases stability of children in care and it a key strategy in recruiting new foster, adoptive, and kinship families.
(See Appendix 7-5: Six Reasons to Offer Support Services to Foster, Adoptive, and Kinship Families, http://nrcdr.org/_assets/files/NRCDR-org/6-reasons-to-offer-support-services.pdf)
It is especially critical to provide timely and tailored support to kinship foster homes. Kinship families have unique needs, as often they are faced with the unexpected arrival of children during a moment of family crisis. While early material supports are crucial (beds, car seats, clothes, food), emotional supports are equally important, as families attempt to manage feelings of guilt, loss, and ambivalence at finding themselves in this caregiving role. Kinship families need help navigating "the changes in their relationship with the child and other members of the family; coaching families to maintain safe boundaries with the child's birth parents; and managing expectations regarding the child's return home" (Redlich Horwitz Foundation, 2017). https://www.rhfdn.org/resources/FosterandKinshipParentRecruitmentand Support/
The Annie E. Casey Foundation offers practice tips for caseworkers on addressing the complexities of the dynamics within kinship foster care placements. They have a short video training series which can be found here: Engaging Kinship Caregivers (https://www.aecf.org/blog/engaging-kinship-caregivers-with-joseph-crumbley/).
The Kinship Center, which is a member of Seneca Family of Agencies in California, offers specialized Adoption/Permanency Wraparound services for families who are adopting or have adopted children from the foster care system, relative caregivers, and legal guardians. Since its inception in 2001, the program has preserved 95% of the highest-risk participating adoptive families. In particular, the relative caregiver support program helps to ease the transition that many caregivers encounter as they move from retirement to full time parenting or from one child to multiple children. This time can be very challenging for most caregivers. Through tailored education and support, the Kinship Center's Wraparound model helps relatives stay connected through these difficult transitions and remain willing to provide long term supportive care for the child.
Timely and responsive communications between agencies and foster/adoptive families is critical in keeping and sustaining foster parents. This is never more important than when a situation arises in the middle of the night, and the foster parent needs the agency for support. It is essential that the agency be available 24/7 for its foster/adoptive families.
It is recommended that agencies develop a crisis response protocol and that everyone is aware of how it applies to them and their role and responsibility. Agencies may develop their own 24/7 phone trees of internal contacts or assign this role to a subcontractor. An emergency number can be staffed by agency employees during the day and by a contracted answering service after normal business hours.
Foster/adoptive families are members of the treatment team and should have an opportunity to provide input along with other team members throughout the time of the child's placement. Foster/adoptive families have tremendous responsibility in their role within the foster care system. Having a voice in decision making can lead to successful and positive outcomes for the child in their temporary care.
Agencies are advised to periodically survey their foster/adoptive families to determine their unique needs and then find ways to best meet those needs. Guidance for conducting surveys may be found here: ocfs.ny.gov/programs/fostercare/recruitment/retention.html (go to "Taking the pulse of your foster parents". Sample surveys may be found under Tools.)
Organized support can be used to both engage and retain prospective foster parents while they await the availability of a MAPP class. Peer support is a key factor throughout the entire certification process, which can take up to six months. The negative effects of this lengthy process can be mitigated by facilitating and supporting connections between a prospective foster parent and current foster/adoptive families. These types of initiatives support both recruitment and retention, because the agency is showing prospective foster parents that it values them enough to connect them to the "pulse" of foster parenting. Current foster parents are given the message that their contributions are valued.
Developing a culture of support also enables new foster/adoptive families to adjust to their roles. Mentoring programs match a "seasoned" foster/adoptive family with new foster parents. The current foster/adoptive family can provide valuable insights and share successful techniques they have used in dealing with difficult situations. A viable mentoring program may decrease the need for agencies to respond to crisis situations in new foster families.
In a survey conducted by the New York State Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS), foster/adoptive families indicated that peer support groups were very helpful to them. They provide opportunities to network and be engaged with others experiencing similar challenges. Peer support groups can help foster parents feel less alone in dealing with a problem, provide helpful information from others who have had similar experiences, discuss ideas for dealing with a problem, allow foster parents to express their feelings, and bring about change. Agencies may assist foster/adoptive families to establish support groups by providing meeting space at convenient hours for foster/adoptive families and providing contact information. Agencies can also proactively encourage new foster/adoptive families to join existing associations and support groups.
Nonprofit, community-based programs can play a role in supporting foster children and foster/adoptive families.
Fostering Futures NY (FFNY), a program of Welfare Research, Inc., recruits and trains small teams of volunteers from the community that offer natural and practical supports to foster families, including kinship families. The NY model is based on a similar program spearheaded in Colorado. Serving as an "extended family" for foster parents and children, the FFNY teams provide stability, enriching experiences, and vital community connections. Team members pitch in when foster parents ask for help, affirming the value of what foster parents do and encouraging them to keep on doing it.
(See Appendix 7-6, Fostering Futures NY.)
The Mockingbird Society in Seattle, WA, has implemented the Mockingbird Family Model, a unique model that includes Hub Home providers. The Hub Home is the lead home for six to 10 foster homes that make up a "constellation." The Hub Homes are experienced foster parents who help families in their constellation navigate resources in the community and create an extended network of support. Constellation members share experiences and actually become an extended family. This model provides a resource that allows families to solve problems before crises occur. See the practice model, Mockingbird Family Model.
Innovative, intentional communities are being designed to support families who are fostering and adopting children from the public foster care system. These models draw elders into the community to be a part of the support system available to children and their families.
The first such community, established in 1994, was Hope Meadows in Rantoul, Illinois. Since then, other communities have been established, such as the Treehouse Intergenerational Community in Western Massachusetts in 2006 and another community, Bridge Meadows, in Portland Oregon in 2011. At this time, three new communities are in the planning phase, one in MetroWest Boston, one in the San Francisco Bay Area, and one in the Capital Region of New York State. The New York intergenerational community will also include adults with developmental disabilities.
The primary goal of such an intergenerational community is to bring children, families, and elders together in an economically and culturally diverse setting, to meet the unmet needs of children and youth placed in foster care, their foster/adoptive parents, and elders. Research has shown excellent outcomes for children and youth living in the Treehouse Intergenerational Community, including educational attainment, placement stability and other measures of wellbeing, which extend to the elders. To learn more about this model, visit The Treehouse Foundation (https://refca.net).
Separation and loss are part of the foster parent experience, and should be acknowledged and addressed with care. Foster parents are expected to develop relationships with children in their care. When those relationships end, foster parents may experience grief and pain (Adoptive and Foster Family Coalition, n.d.). http://affcny.org/fostercare/shared-parenting/going-home/helping-foster-parents-grieve/
These are profound feelings that should be recognized and supported to allow a healthy transition for both children and foster parents. Counties/agencies may choose to start grief and loss support groups for foster parents and are encouraged to conduct brief interviews with foster parents after children leave their care. Interviews provide critical information on how foster parents respond to separation and loss. Support can help mitigate those feelings, as can offering parents a short term break from fostering to help them recharge and prepare for the next child in their home.
The Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services, in partnership with the University of California at Los Angeles Department of Pediatrics and Psychology, has developed grief support group counseling for relative and foster families who are facing loss associated with a child or youth leaving their home for reunification with his or her birth family. To learn more about this innovative approach to grief and loss please see Loss Intervention for Families in Transition (LIFT).
Respite care provides planned, temporary, periodic relief to foster parents from foster care responsibilities. No single model program or blueprint is preferred—each agency provides this service in a way that best meets the needs of its foster/adoptive families. In general, however, respite care programs meet a specific need, promote teamwork and trust, use trained respite providers, and are flexible to meet changing needs (Office of Inspector General, 1994).
Respite care is especially beneficial for foster parents who are caring for children with special needs. Research indicates that, after receiving respite care, caregivers reported reduced stress levels, improved family relationships, and a more positive attitude about fostering (Owens-Kane, 2006).
Providing effective respite care involves assessing and understanding the needs of foster/kinship families in the community. Families' needs vary widely. Some families prefer only in-home respite care, while others do not like people coming to stay in their home. Some families like sending children to camp, while others feel uncomfortable sending their children away. It is also important to understand the barriers families may encounter in accessing respite. Are respite services provided by someone they know and trust, conveniently located, and available at needed times of the day or week? Can families trust that the providers are trained and capable of caring for the special needs of their child? Providing high-quality respite care requires taking the pulse of the community of foster and kinship families to understand their true needs (AdoptUSKids, 2013).
Other respite options include:
Fresh ways of approaching respite care are emerging. For example, some counties/agencies utilize newly certified foster parents as short-term providers of respite care prior to their first placement. This approach gives a new foster parent a glimpse of caring for a foster child in their home and also gives the county/agency an opportunity to see how the family integrates a foster child into their day-to-day life. The experience of providing respite to another foster family may encourage new foster parents to broaden the range of characteristics of children for whom they are willing to provide care.
Agencies also may be able to increase the number of respite foster homes by analyzing their unused and underutilized certified homes. This exercise may lead to a subset of providers that are able to solely provide respite services.
Providing training opportunities for foster parents confirms their value in the child welfare system. Training that helps caregivers deal with the realities of foster parenting, especially equipping them to manage the behavior of children they are caring for, is highly sought after in many jurisdictions, both during the pre-certification period and as an ongoing support. Today's foster parents are juggling multiple responsibilities and have hectic schedules. Agencies need to bring relevant training to the foster parents by making it accessible through a variety of formats: in-person education, online courses, live webinars and other distance learning modalities.
Prospective foster/adoptive families are required to complete training before certification or approval. In New York State, local districts frequently use GPSII/MAPP or Deciding Together for prospective foster parents and Deciding Together or Caring for Our Own for kinship families. The success of the pre-certification training experience depends on training being provided fairly soon after orientation, at a time and location convenient for prospective foster parents, and in a training environment conducive to engagement and openness. Each participant should have an opportunity to complete an evaluation after each training session and at the end of the entire training.
While the education of foster parents starts with MAPP and may include recertification trainings, it does not have to end there. In the business world, when a company offers professional development opportunities to its employees, it is demonstrating their importance to the organization by investing in them. Providing similar opportunities to prospective and current foster parents shows them that the agency recognizes their importance to the work of the organization and wants to invest time and money in their growth. Training in topics such as communication, parenting, and stress management, as well as attendance at conferences and other large-scale educational events, can be useful to foster parents. It can also be an opportunity for foster parents to develop as trainers. For example, if they attend a conference, they can be asked to share what they learned in a staff or support group meeting. It is another reminder that they are part of a larger team and their contributions are critical to overall success.
Most agencies are able to use local community experts for in-service training. For example, agency staff may conduct a training on permanency; Child Protective Services supervisors may do an overview of reporting procedures, the investigation process, rights of the subject and child, and standards of proof; a Family Court Judge may summarize the Family Court process; the fire department could provide home safety training; or the local police department could conduct a session on home safety or avoiding cyber crimes.
In addition to traditional classroom training, other training modalities such as webinars and live-streaming learning sessions are becoming more available. In New York State, free online training is delivered to the home computers of foster and adoptive parents by iLinc, a service created by the Center for Development of Human Services (CDHS) at Buffalo State College in partnership with the New York State Office of Children and Family Services. Other online educational programs are available, but it is suggested that trainings not conducted by CDHS or OCFS should be previewed by the agency before recommending them to foster parents.
Cross-training between agency staff and foster/adoptive families is also becoming more common. For example, some states conduct joint training for foster/adoptive families and the child welfare staff. This approach enhances communication opportunities, helps both groups to have the same knowledge base, and encourages mutual respect. In New York State, the mini-MAPP curriculum can be accessed by child welfare staff through CDHS, and offers a condensed curriculum that introduces child welfare staff to the philosophy, concepts, activities, terminology, and tools provided to foster parents during the full MAPP training.
Families caring for children with special needs often require higher levels of support. While training and support groups are important, other systems should be in place to adequately engage families around challenging situations that may disrupt a foster home.
As the needs of children in foster care become more complex, supports for foster/adoptive families must expand. For example, foster parents need additional resources when caring for children and youth who have been affected by trauma. Trauma-informed care is part of MAPP training for foster parents, and is an approach for managing behavioral issues and other needs stemming from trauma. In some cases, additional support and resources may be needed beyond MAPP training.
Complex trauma involves the repeated or long-term exposure to traumatic events. It is widely accepted that the majority of youth placed in care have been in some way traumatized by direct abuse, witnessing the abuse of other family members, long-term neglect, and/or being removed from family and community due to placement in foster care. Foster parents should be well-equipped to recognize behaviors resulting from trauma, to make the connection between the behaviors and trauma, and to adequately address the behaviors without further traumatizing the children in care by having them removed from the foster home.
There is no expectation that foster/adoptive parents should become trauma experts, but they should be trauma-informed. According to the Trauma Informed Care Project, "becoming 'trauma-informed' means recognizing that people often have many different types of trauma in their lives. People who have been traumatized need support and understanding from those around them. Trauma survivors can be re-traumatized by well-meaning caregivers and community service providers. Understanding the impact of trauma is an important first step in becoming a compassionate and supportive community." (Trauma Informed Care Project, n.d.)
Youth need to be engaged and educated about the trauma in their lives and about how it may affect their behavior. At the same time, the foster/adoptive parents need the training and skills to recognize the connections between current behaviors and past events in children's lives. This requires varied types of agency and community support. When a child's behavior is indicative of trauma, agencies should provide timely, strategic, and appropriately balanced support to keep foster/adoptive families intact, encourage relationship building, and limit further victimization of the youth in care.
Multidimensional treatment foster care
Multidimensional treatment is designed to be an alternative to group or residential treatment, incarceration, or hospitalization for adolescents who have problems with chronic antisocial behavior, emotional disturbance, and delinquency. Treatment Foster Care Oregon (TFCO), formerly Multidimensional Treatment Foster Care, is a widely used model of support for troubled youth, their birth parents, and foster parents. Foster parents are an integral part of the treatment team, which also includes program supervisors, the birth family, individual therapists, and behavioral skill trainers. With the support of the team, the foster/adoptive family implements a structured, individualized program for the youth in care. TFCO program supervisors are available to foster/adoptive families around the clock for consultation, support and supervision.
See the practice model TFCO.
KEEP was developed by the Oregon Social Learning Center and has been effective in increasing foster parent retention and preventing placement breakdowns. It functions as both a training and a support group for foster and kinship families with children in care between the ages of 4 and 12. KEEP groups typically include seven to ten foster parents who attend 16 weekly 90-minute sessions that focus on practical, research-based parenting techniques. While the facilitators draw from an established protocol manual, they tailor each session to the specific needs, circumstances, and priorities of participating parents and their children. Each week, the facilitators gather specific information about the children's current behaviors by telephone. This information is then incorporated into the weekly sessions to make sure the group is both current and relevant.
See practice model, KEEP model.
Grief and loss
Partnering with the Community and Volunteers