New York's children and youth who are placed into foster care have the right to live in a safe, nurturing, healthy, and suitable residence where they are treated fairly and with respect. This principle was reaffirmed in the OCFS "Bill of Rights for Children and Youth in Foster Care" (OCFS, 2015). The majority of these children and youth are cared for by foster parents, including kinship foster parents, who are the key to making this "right" a reality. (See Appendix 1-1: Bill of Rights for Children and Youth in Foster Care.)
Foster families act as healing agents for children in care. They are often the first step in helping children cope with the new reality of their lives. In turn, local social services districts (LDSSs) and voluntary agencies (VAs) are responsible for recruiting, training, and supporting foster parents. The system is expected to provide a pool of qualified foster parents who are able to accommodate the needs of children and youth in placement. To meet that expectation, each agency must have a robust recruitment and retention program for kinship, foster, and adoptive families.
Historically, recruitment has been focused on developing a pool of foster and adoptive parents who have not had previous connections to the child in their care. Now, practice and policy have evolved to prioritize placing children with kin.
"Kin" are individuals who have had previous, positive relationships with the child, including relatives, family friends or community members. Research confirms that placing children in kinship foster care helps them maintain important family and community connections. In addition to finding and keeping certified foster and adoptive homes, LDSSs and VAs must devote their resources to identifying, engaging, and supporting kinship homes. Placing children in traditional, non-relative foster and adoptive homes should be considered as a last resort when placement with kin is not possible.
There continue to be unique challenges and opportunities in recruitment of non-relative foster and adoptive parents, such as finding homes where siblings can be kept together, homes for older youth, and homes for children with complex physical and emotional needs.
Based on data and anecdotal evidence from service providers, there is a gap between the number of foster/adoptive families available and the needs of children coming into foster care.
Needs for specific types of foster homes vary among jurisdictions and fluctuate over time. It is important for local districts and voluntary agencies to collect and analyze data frequently to identify trends and reassess needs related to the availability of foster/adoptive homes for children with specific cultural and ethnic backgrounds, older youth, sibling groups, and children with special physical and behavioral needs.
Children of color continue to be disproportionately represented in the foster care system. Disproportionality rates show varying improvement in the United States, but troubling gaps remain. "In most states there are higher proportions of African American/Black and American Indian children in foster care than in the general population" (National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, 2015). According to one report, "[Children of color] wait far longer than Caucasian children for adoption and are at far greater risk of never experiencing an adoptive home" (National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, 2014).
The Multiethnic Placement Act of 1994 (MEPA) and its associated amendments require that a pool of foster/adoptive homes be available to decrease the length of time children wait to be adopted. It requires that states must diligently recruit foster and adoptive parents who reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of children who need homes. It is the basis for New York State's requirement that local districts and voluntary agencies involved in recruiting foster/adoptive parents provide periodic recruitment and retention plans to OCFS. Tools have been created to help agencies take a closer look at how to overcome barriers in recruiting kinship, foster, and adoptive families to address racial disproportionality.
(See Appendix 1-2: Racial Disproportionality Questions.)
Kinship homes help meet common recruitment challenges. Kinship foster homes offer cultural continuity for children, may support children staying in familiar neighborhoods and school districts, and are more likely to keep siblings together. Identifying and engaging potential kinship foster homes decreases demand for non-relative foster homes, thereby reducing an agency's need to maintain a sizeable pool of such homes.
This resource offers strategies for child welfare professionals in New York State and elsewhere who are looking for more effective ways to find and keep foster/adoptive families. It is a compilation of research, publications, and practice models that may be helpful in the process of reimagining recruitment and retention programs at the local level.
These summaries were prepared with the understanding that there is no one size-fits-all model for agencies across the state. There are, however, promising practices that have resulted in successful outcomes, and a range of resource materials based on research and experience. In general, the most successful programs pursue kin as the first option, and use more targeted and child-focused recruitment strategies, with less focus on general strategies, such as public service announcements and billboards.
A significant message that emerges from many of these resources is that good retention leads to good recruitment. Foster/adoptive parents who feel respected and valued for their work with children are more likely to continue fostering. Experienced, well-supported foster/adoptive parents become natural recruiters in their communities, leading to more qualified foster parents. Kinship foster parents who have positive experiences with the process may consider being certified as traditional foster parents for other children in need.
Although the priority is to place children with kin, kinship policy and practice may need to evolve to fully realize this goal. Many child welfare professionals have observed that the child welfare system was built around the process of finding and certifying non-relative foster care, and that its systems and processes may not fit neatly into an expanding kin-first culture and practice. Agency policies and business processes may need to be revamped to effectively shift practice into kinship care.
Many effective approaches require new techniques such as data analysis, social media, and "case mining" in order to succeed. However, they also emphasize long-held principles such as:
Other characteristics of successful programs include:
Effective recruitment and retention practices are agency-wide responsibilities and they should be agency-wide priorities. Everyone on staff, from the receptionist to the agency director, should be committed to supporting prospective and current foster/adoptive families, and responding quickly and appropriately to their needs.
Supporting children in foster care is also a community-wide responsibility. Engaging faith-based organizations, businesses, major employers, educational institutions, and other community partners strengthens an agency's capacity to promote the safety and success of children in its care.