By Richard Heyl de Ortiz
Executive Director, Adoptive and Foster Family Coalition of New York
Much misunderstood and sometimes maligned, foster parenting is a key component of our child welfare system. This cannot and should not be underestimated. Even in the face of all of the work and advocacy of recent years to improve preventative services that promote family preservation and limit foster care placement, foster care remains essential to our child welfare system.
In general, it is better for children to remain safely with their families. Removal from the family is an incredibly traumatic experience for most children. Still, the fact remains that no matter how many resources we put into preventative services, there will always be circumstances in which foster care is both necessary and in the best interest of the child. Acknowledging this, we must support foster parents. They are key to healing and nurturing our state’s most traumatized children.
Foster parenting is not for the faint of heart. Every foster parent has been tested. Every foster parent has felt the joy in helping a child. Sadly, many foster parents have also felt alone and unsupported.
We can change this. I propose five ways that we can better support New York’s foster parents.
#1: Provide a deliberate, always available continuum of support
This starts right at the beginning. It falls on our homefinders to screen and, yes, “bless and release” those who are not right or ready to foster. If they truly want to help children, there are many other opportunities in their community. Foster parenting is not the only option.
Next, it falls on our MAPP trainers to present a realistic and balanced picture of what being a foster parent entails. Challenge assumptions. Correct misunderstandings. Encourage those who are right and ready. Bless and release those who are not.
The support must be continuous and always available. Let’s face it, families whose children enter the foster care system bring challenges and chaos with them. Caseworkers often must focus on “where the fire is,” which is most often the parent or the child.
Caseworkers are accountable to many. Foster parents are not high on that list. For example, caseworkers have a responsibility to Family Court – to ensure that the parent has all reasonable support and assistance to meet the goals established by the court in order to regain custody of their children. This is not well understood by many and forgotten by others. Between this and addressing crises of the parent and child, little time is left to support foster parents proactively. The result, unfortunately, is burnout among our best foster parents and more disruption for children.
So, acknowledging that our front-line workers are often overburdened and more immediately accountable to others, what do we do? We must build in the resources and expertise for continual support of foster parents when and how they need it. Some local departments of social services in our state have staff designated as foster parent advocates. We need more of them and we need more resources for them.
Another interesting model I learned of recently is the “stay interview,” and this speaks to proactive support of foster parents. A stay interview is one technique in creating the space and focus for the foster parent and staff to discuss challenges the foster family is experiencing and for the caseworker to learn what the foster parent is doing well or feels is particularly rewarding (a good model, incidentally, for sharing best practices on a micro level).
Currently, “support” comes to the foster parent only in the midst of the crisis, when the straw has already broken the camel’s back. By this point, the relationship between the foster parent and their agency is already significantly compromised. In addition, this focus on “crisis support” reinforces the circle of trauma endemic to our foster care system.
Every dollar, every hour spent on a proactive continuum of support for foster parents has the potential to save much more resources spent on expensive, time-consuming crises, to retain our best foster parents and promote stability in placement for children in foster care.
#2: Adequate Financial Support
It is a commonly understood but little acknowledged fact that the financial support provided to our state’s foster parents is inadequate. Presently, there is no state minimum for the “boarding rate” provided to foster parents (and yes, we still call it a boarding rate, though we all know that foster parenting is so much more than this). This leads to a crazy quilt of foster care boarding rates, which vary significantly from county to county. The Coalition is so concerned about this that we filed suit against the state in 2010 because the current rate structure does not comply with federal law. Our suit, which is based on a successful California lawsuit, seeks to bring New York into compliance with federal law, create equity in the system, and increase the base of support provided to foster parents.
#3: Peer Support: Parent Support Groups and Parent Mentors
The Coalition has long taken a leadership role in advocating for and promoting peer support in our state’s foster care system. This is the foundation of the Coalition’s work. We were founded some fifty years ago, when parents across the state came together to advocate for change.
The support provided between one foster parent and another is powerful. Being able to share without restraint, shame or feelings of inadequacy is liberating.
To provide this support, our system should set aside modest funding to assist both start-up and established groups, offer space for groups to meet and encourage foster parents to engage in parent support groups or one-on-one parent mentor programs. Finally, our system should balance support and autonomy by promoting “safe spaces” in which foster parents can share freely without undue agency oversight or interference. A particularly good model for this is one I experienced recently in Tompkins County. The local parent support group is co-facilitated by an experienced foster parent and an independent social worker experienced in foster care (but not an employee of the local department of social services). The local department makes space available in their building for the group to meet.
#4: Follow the Law
Our child welfare system is layered, a fact that is especially true in New York. Our state is one of only nine states with a state-supervised, county-administered social services system. This leaves more room for federal and state laws and guidelines to be overlooked, ignored or improperly applied at the local level. Already mentioned is the lack of uniform and adequate financial support for the costs of foster parenting. Another example is in the implementation of the Reasonable and Prudent Parenting Standard, a pro-child, pro-foster parent component of the 2014 Federal Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act.
This legislation gives our well-trained foster parents the ability to make routine parenting decisions that impact that day-to-day life of children in their care – basic, simple decisions such as visiting friends’ houses, participating in Little League and local travel that most families and children take for granted. The goal of this legislation is promote a more “normal” experience for children in foster care.
In response to this legislation, the Coalition has developed an interactive training about the law specifically for foster parents – a training meant to complement the guidance and training provided by the state to local departments of social services and private foster care agencies.
What I have learned is that this law is simply not being followed in many parts of our state. Time and again as I have delivered the training, foster parents or caseworkers have interjected to let the rest of the audience and me know that while this may be a federal law, “We don’t do it this way here.” The result is that foster parents are confused and cannot make those very decisions this law intended. It is not good for foster parents and it is not good for children.
Our law does not offer a “choose what you like” option. This practice of ignoring, of “making it up,” while it may suit local leaders and professionals, breaks the bond of trust that must exist between foster parents and agencies. To fully support foster parents, all local departments and agencies must follow the law – both the pieces they like and the ones they don’t.
#5: Support Transitions, Acknowledge Grief
Finally, we need to better support transitions and acknowledge the grief these transitions create.
Foster care is meant to be temporary. Transition to permanency – safe return to parents, placement with extended family or adoption – are the intended outcomes. Knowing this, our system needs to change. Presently, ours is a “winner take all” system. Someone wins (the parent) and someone loses (the foster parent). Parents and foster parents too often find themselves in opposition, vying for a child they both care about. This paradigm is good for no one. It must shift.
Training is the logical place to initiate this shift, but it must also permeate every aspect of our foster care system. The temporary nature of foster care cannot be stressed enough. Nor can the need for foster parents to approach foster parenting with an open mind. Foster parents should never take in a child with a fixed outcome in mind – no matter what a caseworker or anyone else may say. Foster parents need to be trained and supported in being open and supporting transitions however they may occur.
Foster parents have valuable and instructive roles to play in transitions:
- Whenever possible, working with the parent to support the smoothest transition home;
- Mentoring and supporting the parent who, given the prevalence of substance abuse in child neglect cases, may have never parented their child sober before;
- In doing this, show a parent how to reach for and accept support and demonstrate to a child that love does not end when you leave your foster parent’s house.
At the same time we support, train and encourage foster parents about transitions, we must acknowledge the very real grief that foster parents feel. Seeing a child who you have come to love and who has become part of your family return to their parents is not easy even under the best of circumstances. It leaves a hole. Our system needs to acknowledge this, support foster parents through this transition and give foster parents the space to grieve.
Colleagues all around us at the Adoptive and Foster Family Coalition of New York are working day in, day out, as we are, to improve our child welfare system. The five suggestions will not solve all of our system’s issues, but they will, if promoted and enacted, have the promise of increasing the retention of foster parents, bringing more qualified foster parents into the system and improving the outcomes for all involved in our foster care system.