Hard-to-Find Homes

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Many agencies experience ongoing challenges in finding homes for older youth, sibling groups, children with behavioral or medical needs, and youth who identify as LGBTQ. The overall approach for recruiting hard-to-find homes may involve:

The majority of your efforts should employ targeted and child-specific recruitment strategies.

Recruiting for older youth

Until recently, certain myths have interfered with recruitment efforts for homes for older youth, such as "people don't want to adopt teens," "teens don't want to be adopted," or "placements of teens are unsuccessful" (Louisell, n.d.). When agency staff are not convinced of the eventual adoptability of a child in their care, this skepticism translates into reduced recruitment efforts on behalf of the child (Avery, 2000).

Such beliefs are being overturned, however, by innovative child welfare practitioners. Now, the approach to finding homes for older youth is "unadoptable is unacceptable." It is also hoped that, as child welfare agencies build their capabilities to find permanent homes for younger children, the pool of older children needing homes will shrink.

A common myth is that teens in foster care have difficult behaviors, yet in reality most youth in foster care simply exhibit typical adolescent behaviors, not any more difficult than other teens. When recruiting homes for teens, it is key to normalize those behaviors for prospective foster parents. And for teens that are struggling, it is important to provide supports to kinship and foster parents to help them navigate challenging behaviors.

(See Appendix 6-1: Thirteen Reasons to Adopt a Teen, from ADoptUSkids 13 reasons to adopt a teen.)

Recruiting homes for teens requires a child-centered approach. Older youth often have much of the information necessary to find a placement, as well as an emerging sense of their own destiny and capabilities. This contributes to achieving a successful placement in a foster or adoptive home, legal guardianship, or with a relative.

Promising practices include:

Breaking down myths about fostering teens

At the Hillside Family of Agencies in central New York State, when a home-finding supervisor speaks with prospective foster families, she hears that many parents are hesitant about caring for older children.

The supervisor works to develop families that are open to welcoming teens into their home. She tells them, "In some ways, teenagers can be easier than younger kids, they process things better, and have a better understanding of circumstances." She creatively weaves this message, throughout every stage of her contact with a family—the initial face-to-face meeting, pre-service training, and even after first placement when foster/adoptive families meet for trainings and social gatherings.

Hillside also encourages people to think about caring for teens by placing older youth for respite care in homes that are awaiting placements or are in between placements. Respite care may be less threatening than a long-term placement. When families learn first-hand that there are a lot of myths about teens, they are more likely to be open to caring for them.

Explore connections

Teens in foster care usually have emotional attachments to others. They may have created their own "families of choice." These families may consist of friends, parents of friends, current and/or former foster parents, teachers, coaches, cottage parents, maintenance staff, relatives, older siblings or friends who are now adults, neighbors, church members, Attorneys for Children, social workers, employers, counselors, etc. Ask youth to help explore these connections. There are often more than a dozen people currently in the youth's life circle that could be approached about offering a home to the youth.

(See Appendix 6-2:Appendix 6-2: Asking the Right Questions of Youth.)

Recruiting any hard-to-find home involves persistence on the part of the child welfare agency. The need for homes for teens should be communicated throughout the recruitment and certification milestones, for example:

In essence, everyone across the agency should see recruitment as their business and should keep older youth in mind.

Re-recruit among current foster/adoptive families

Raise awareness among your current foster/adoptive parents about the need for homes that will accept youth and older children by:

Utilize child-focused recruitment

A child-centered approach to finding homes for teens may include child-focused recruitment methods, such as those used by Wendy's Wonderful Kids (WWK). WWK employs an intensive and exhaustive search for placement resources. An evaluation of WWK found that older children served by the program were three times more likely to be adopted (Malm, 2011). Child-focused recruitment models involve youth in the process of identifying successful placements (see Child-Focused Recruitment).

Engage community groups that work with teens

Targeted recruitment techniques are also well-fitted to recruiting homes for older youth. Focusing recruitment activities with groups that have experience with teens maximizes the chance that efforts will pay off. Such groups might include high school teachers, mental health professionals, or empty nesters. Engaging older youth and/or the families who care for them in recruitment and retention efforts can be a powerful method to find new families welcoming of teens, as well as persuading experienced foster/adoptive parents to explore caring for teens. For example, invite an older youth or his family to present at pre-service or in-service trainings (Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2012).

Once a foster/adoptive family welcomes a teen into the home, agency support is imperative. Staff should provide the family up front with as much information as possible about the teen's strengths and challenges, be available to support the family with practical support when questions or concerns arise, and provide connections with other families caring for older youth. It is also important to provide extra training to families on managing behaviors common with teens.

(See Appendix 6-3: Going Beyond Recruitment for 11 to 17 Year Olds.)

Recruiting for older youth

  • Older youth should be involved in the process of identifying their "extended family" of connections.
  • Use child-specific recruitment strategies and frequently communicate the need for homes for older youth.
  • Support foster families caring for teens through peer support and targeted training.

Recruiting for sibling groups

Keeping sibling groups together in foster/adoptive placements is now well-recognized as best practice. Brothers and sisters need each other to thrive. Children's loss and trauma are reduced and they experience better outcomes when they are placed with their siblings. Siblings may well provide the longest-standing relationships people have throughout their lifetimes, and an important source of emotional support for children in foster care (Cohn, 2012). In New York State, siblings may only be separated if placing them together is contrary to the safety, health, or welfare of one or more of the children.

Recently enacted New York State law states that it is presumed to be in a child's best interest to be placed with his/her siblings or half-siblings [Family Court Act 1089 §(d)(2)(viii)(I)]. To separate siblings, agencies must be able to demonstrate to the court that placement or visitation with siblings is not in the child's best interests or impracticable geographically. This supports the principle that, barring a real and relevant reason, siblings should be placed together. This also benefits the larger community because youth who exit foster care with family connections are more likely to grow into adulthood with greater stability. As stated in the memo accompanying the legislation, "it cannot be overemphasized that the maintenance of relationships with their siblings may be a vital lifeline."

Children in foster care have already endured painful loss and trauma from abuse, neglect and separation from their parents. Efforts to prevent them from also losing their brothers and sisters is a crucial priority for child welfare agencies, deserving attention equal to that given to meeting children's other needs, such as opportunities to heal from trauma. The importance of keeping siblings together is also addressed in federal law by the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008.

Pursue kinship placements

Recruitment of homes for sibling groups (or any child entering foster care) means seeking kinship placements first. Research shows that siblings placed with kin are more likely to be placed together, and that even if siblings are placed with separate kin, they are more likely to stay connected (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2013). Adult siblings also may be placement options, provided that they can adequately care for younger siblings, with supports similar to those provided for foster and adoptive parents. See Chapter 3 for more information on developing kinship homes. When relatives are not available to care for sibling groups, or cannot care for them safely, care by non-relatives is the next choice.

Recruiting non-relative homes for sibling groups can be a challenge for many agencies. However, finding homes for sibling groups may be easier than is commonly thought and may require breaking down some myths. Building a pool of families able to care for sibling groups involves these agency-wide principles:

infusing the philosophy and advantages of keeping siblings together throughout child welfare agencies.
an attitude of abundance of prospective families.
integrating the need for families for siblings throughout all contacts with prospective families. As foster/adoptive families are recruited, it is important to explore with them their ability to accept sibling groups (National Resource for Diligent Recruitment, n.d.).

(See Appendix 6-4: Recruitment and Retention of Kinship, Foster, and Adoptive Families and Appendix 6-5: 10 Realities of Sibling Adoption.)

Summer camp for siblings in foster care

Camp to Belong-New York (CTB-NY) offers siblings in foster care and other out-of-home care the opportunity to create lifetime memories while reunited at camp. Parsons Child and Family Center hosts the five day camp at a YMCA camp in Lake George, NY. Campers come from all parts of New York State and are supervised by camp staff consisting of Center employees. Caseworkers, caregivers, and agency staff from anywhere in New York can submit an application for a group of siblings to attend the week of camp.


Keep sibling groups in the spotlight

Attracting foster/adoptive families for sibling groups starts with implementing customer-friendly practices across the entire agency. An agency's interaction with a prospective family needs to be engaging and welcoming, communicating that families are valuable partners. With this foundation of respect, the agency can encourage prospective foster/adoptive parents to consider sibling groups. All agency staff should be prepared to describe the need for homes for siblings, the size of sibling groups in need of placement, their age ranges, etc. Information shared in orientation and pre-service training should highlight the importance of sibling relationships and the need for homes for sibling groups.

Several milestones in the certification process present opportunities to recruit and equip families to care for sibling groups:

(See Appendix 6-6: Sibling-Friendly Agencies and Practices Keep Children Together.)

Cluster Home model for JD/PINS youth

Youth identified as Juvenile Delinquents (JD) or Persons in Need of Supervision (PINS) tend to be a placement challenge in most jurisdictions. Genesee County has been successful in using a Cluster Home Model for JD/PINS and other youth with behavioral issues who may otherwise be placed in a residential setting.

Cluster Homes are traditional foster homes that have demonstrated success in caring for youth with significant behavioral issues. The county currently has four homes that are certified to provide care for two to six youth in each home. These homes are earmarked to accept only youth that have higher-level behavioral needs. Foster parents in these homes have an additional five hours of training each year that focuses on the unique needs of the children in their care.

Cluster Home families receive a higher board rate and have access to enhanced in-home supports. Each home has an assigned child care worker in addition to a caseworker and case manager. The child care worker ensures that the youth attend all necessary appointments and facilitates visitation. This worker also coordinates communication among foster parents, caseworkers, school staff, and other service providers that are involved with the family.

Child care workers continue to work with all youth from the Cluster Homes who transition from foster care with a trial discharge. Genesee County has used its Cluster Home model for about 10 years and has successfully reduced its reliance on the use of residential care for youth with challenging behaviors.

Use child-specific recruitment methods

Some recruitment of foster/adoptive homes for siblings, especially larger sibling groups, may come down to specific recruitment for specific situations. One expert notes, "No one wakes up one morning, calls an agency, and says 'Do you have a sibling group of four children that includes three boys, ages 8-14?' " (Kupecky, 2001). In some instances, recruitment of a home may require methods similar to those used in child-specific recruitment, resulting in a specific plan for that situation.

Train and reward foster families for sibling placements

The Neighbor to Family program developed by the Jane Addams Hull House Association in Chicago is a child-centered, family-focused foster care model. It is designed to keep sibling groups, including large sibling groups, together in stable foster care placements while working intensively on reunification or permanency plans that keep the siblings together. The program uses a community-based, team-oriented approach, including foster caregivers and birth parents as part of the treatment team.

Trained and supported foster caregivers are key to the model's success. Neighbor to Family professionalized this key role by placing these trained foster caregivers on the payroll with salaries and benefits. Foster families, birth families, and children receive comprehensive and intensive services including individualized case management, advocacy, and clinical services on a weekly basis. See the Neighbor to Family Sibling Foster Care Model for a more detailed description of the program.

Hold homes for sibling groups

Some agencies have designated certain foster homes for large sibling groups and offer incentives to hold them open for placements. While it may not be an option to keep a large number of homes available for this purpose, a select few could be earmarked by agencies.

Provide support and resources for families

Successful recruitment and retention of homes for sibling groups requires building support systems for parents, including material and financial resources, and policies and procedures that make it easier for families to care for sibling groups. Some agencies have designated certain foster homes for large sibling groups, and offered incentives to hold them open for placements. Families caring for sibling groups need the "plus" version of the usual supportive services, such as respite. Ask families what they specifically need and respond effectively. These needs may include:

Community members and businesses can be asked to help support foster/adoptive families by donating or reducing the cost of items such as vans and bunk beds.

Agencies and local districts are instrumental in building support systems for these unique and valued families. Support groups of new and experienced foster parents allow foster/adoptive families to share and learn from each other. Families who have fostered or adopted sibling groups can act as mentors to newer families, as well as recruiters of prospective families (National Resource Center for Permanency and Family Connections).

(See Appendix 6-7: Engaging, Developing, and Supporting Prospective Families for Sibling Groups.)

Solve issues related to space

Finding housing with enough room for all the siblings to stay can be a concern. However, creative solutions can be found for space issues. For example, New York State amended its regulations to allow flexibility in sleeping arrangements for foster homes with sibling groups, specifying that siblings of the opposite sex over age seven may share bedrooms, and that over three children may share a bedroom if necessary to keep siblings together. Both exceptions must be consistent with the health, safety, and welfare of each sibling (New York State Office of Children and Family Services, 2010b).

Maintaining sibling connections

When it is not possible to place siblings together, there are other ways to keep siblings connected. Persistence and commitment from caseworkers and foster/adoptive parents are critical to sustain these key connections. Specific strategies include: placing siblings in the same neighborhood or school district, arranging regular visits, encouraging other forms of contact (e.g., texts, social media, phone calls), planning joint outings, camp experiences or respite care, and helping children work through the emotional toll of being separated from siblings.

Recruiting for sibling groups

  • Kinship placements are more likely to keep siblings together.
  • Communicate the need for sibling homes to current and prospective families.
  • Build support systems for foster parents of sibling groups that meet their specific needs.

Recruiting for LGBTQ youth

LGBTQ youth are overrepresented in the foster care system, and are more likely than other foster youth to be placed in group homes and other residential care facilities. Many have been the victims of violence and most have been the victims of verbal abuse. Between 25% and 40% of homeless and runaway youth identify as LGBTQ. They are at a higher risk of substance abuse than other youth in foster care (Family Builders, 2014).

In addition, LGBTQ youth are four times more likely, and questioning youth are three times more likely, to attempt suicide than their straight peers (The Trevor Project, n.d.). Children who are identifying as LGBTQ want homes where they feel accepted and safe to be themselves. Recruiting LGBTQ-affirming foster/adoptive homes serves that need. The recruitment effort has a two-pronged approach:

Preparing families to foster LGBTQ youth

In New York City, the Administration for Children's Services (ACS) and its partner voluntary agencies are developing strategies to engage LGBTQ-affirming families for all youth. Their approach includes a fundamental shift towards equipping all foster/adoptive families with the tools needed to be prepared to parent LGBTQ youth in a healthy and stable environment. This shift includes changes to both training and engagement practices. As a rule, all prospective foster/adoptive families are required to attend ten weeks of MAPP training to prepare to become a foster parent. ACS' policy requires all prospective foster/adoptive families to attend an additional mandatory session that is focused specifically on engaging and supporting LGBTQ youth. The training policy also requires four additional hours of training for all foster home recertifications. The training emphasizes how parents can demonstrate both affirming behaviors and language for youth. After the training, parents take an LGBTQ Affirming Pledge to further solidify their commitment to this and other vulnerable populations.


Prepare all families to foster LGBTQ youth

The need for homes for LGBTQ youth must be clearly articulated from the start of engagement and throughout the process. Reminding all prospective foster/adoptive parents of the critical needs of this population allows them to be actively involved in solving the problem.

Create training and learning workshops for prospective parents to challenge their own biases and to practice affirming language that will help them support all young people through their sexual discovery, no matter the outcome. It also strengthens the parenting skills of the foster/adoptive parent and gives LGBTQ children in care a safer space to grow.

Prospective parents must be emotionally prepared for the many facets of sexual and gender identity exploration that any child may present, and should receive continued support throughout the foster/adoptive parenting process. Agencies can engage current foster/adoptive parents and LGBTQ youth in care to help illuminate what it is like to foster, adopt and to be fostered and/or adopted.

Engage the LGBTQ community

Recruitment of LGBTQ adults should be a natural extension of an agency's existing recruitment practices so that prospective LGBTQ foster/adoptive parents are not isolated or treated as a separate population, but rather are recognized as an additional community that your agency seeks to actively engage. As with any new effort to reach out to a community that has not been previously engaged, it is important to think about how to work in culturally competent, effective, and respectful ways. See Chapter 4 for targeted recruitment strategies for the LGBTQ community.

Although LGBTQ adults have been historically discouraged from fostering or adopting, changes in legislation and policy over the past 10 years in some states reflect a more open attitude towards them as parents. New York State law prohibits discrimination in adoption based on sexual orientation, as do five other states. New York State's recently issued Bill of Rights for Children and Youth in Foster Care includes the statement, "[I have the right] to be treated fairly and with respect and to receive care and services that are free of discrimination based on race, creed, color, national origin, age, religion, sex, gender identity or gender expression, sexual orientation, marital status, physical or mental disability, or the fact that I am in foster care (New York State Office of Children and Family Services, 2014)."

One way to encourage the LGBTQ community to become foster parents is simply by asking! Be sure that all of your promotional materials reflect the myriad of families that you welcome into your foster parent community. For example, in New York State, OCFS has made strategic efforts to modify the statewide application to reflect gender neutral language. In Ulster County, they developed their new webpage with pictures that reflect the LGBTQ community and chose language to encourage members of the LGBTQ community to become foster parents (Ulster County Social Services, n.d.).

The Human Rights Campaign's All Children - All Families Program (ACAF) serves as a clearinghouse for resources that child welfare agencies can use to improve LBGTQ cultural competency. Resources include an online agency self-assessment tool, comprehensive staff training, free technical assistance and more. Agencies across the country are using ACAF resources to improve practice with LGBTQ youth and families (Human Rights Campaign, n.d.).

Recruiting for LGBTQ youth

  • Prepare all current and prospective foster families to care for LGBTQ youth as part of training and policy.
  • Engage with the LGBTQ community to identify foster/adoptive families for all children and youth in care.

Recruiting for children with special needs

Finding homes for children with special needs (those with exceptional physical, emotional, developmental or health care needs) requires understanding each child holistically: his/her interests, hobbies, connection to siblings, and experiences with trauma, etc. Although a child may have complex medical, developmental, or mental health needs, the goal is the same as for any other child: to reach positive outcomes for the child and family and to achieve a successful, permanent in-home living situation.

Effective recruitment strategies may include:

Promote availability of support systems

Like most states, New York provides enhanced board and care rates for foster/adoptive families that are caring for children with special needs.

Foster families may qualify for a Special Rate if they are caring for a child with a pronounced physical condition that requires a high degree of physical care; a child that has been diagnosed as moderately developmentally disabled, emotionally disturbed, or with a behavior disorder requiring a high degree of supervision; or a child that entered foster care directly from inpatient hospital care within the past year.

Foster families may qualify for an Exceptional Rate if a physician certifies that a foster child requires around-the-clock care by a healthcare professional; has severe behavior problems involving violence, severe mental illness, severe developmental disabilities, brain damage, or autism; or has been diagnosed as having AIDS or HIV-related illness. (New York State Office of Children and Family Services, 2010c).

Provide ongoing support for families

Families need assurance that the agency is with them every step of the way, providing available and responsive help around the clock. An involved multidisciplinary team is critically important to reaching positive outcomes. Working alongside foster parents, a team may be made up of caseworkers, social workers, behavior specialists, medical, mental health and recreational staff. Connecting to other foster/adoptive families caring for children with complex needs strengthens foster/adoptive families.

Healthcare support for foster families of children with special needs

Another support to foster/adoptive parents, children, and families is the Medicaid Home and Community Based Services Waiver Program. This program, also known as "Bridges to Health" (B2H), became effective in 2008. The New York State Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS) designed a foster-care-specific B2H waiver program to serve children with serious emotional disturbance, developmental disabilities, and medical fragility. The B2H program provides family and community support services to children statewide that supplements existing foster care and Medicaid funded services. Benefits can involve multiple families, e.g., foster parents, biological parents, and pre-adoptive parents (New York State Office of Children and Family Services, 2010a). The child can continue to receive services after discharge from foster care and up until age 21 if she/he continues to meet the eligibility requirements.

Additional Resources

Practice Models



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.