Supporting children’s connections to birth families and ethnic heritage
Growth and development of the child
Responding to family reunification decisions
Bring children to court for hearings
Here is some more details of what we have heard from foster care professionals including State Government managers during our many discussions over the years.
Caring for children’s physical and mental health: Here the foster parent is really performing a role of a good foster parent. In case the child has an injury in a school sport field you need to be able to able to help them cope medically and personally.
Coordinating services and medical care: Everything is paid for by Medicaid, but as a parent you will need to take the child for services. See more details from Child Welfare website.
Supporting children’s connections to birth families and ethnic heritage: Remember why the child came into foster care. The removal from the biological family was because of neglect,abuse or trauma. If somehow, the biological family became functional again – all would be well for the child. Meanwhile, your role is to allow help the child to keep up with their biological family and kin. If your ethnic heritage is different from the child’s you need to develop an interest in the child’s heritage. On a lighter note, everyone thinks that their culture is better than the other’s. Culture scholars call this ethnocentrism. No culture is good or bad- it’s just different is the view of StartFosterCare. See a nice note from Ken Barger at the University of Indiana, explaining this.
Growth and Development of the Child: This is one of the most important goals where you make a difference to the child. Anyone who is a teacher or coach tries to do this for their students. Prospective foster parents need to do this for the child in their care.
Responding to family reunification decisions: It’s hard to give up a foster child that you have grown to love and care. In case, re-unification becomes possible, you say goodbye to the child with a heavy heart and become ready to take in another child. Remember that you’ll be always a part of the child’s life.
For those not deeply familiar with the Child Welfare System there is a common confusion that Foster Care is somehow similar to Adoption. Multiple website’s content from different folks often use the terms interchangeably. Since this adversely affects the recruitment and work of foster parents we wish to clarify for all prospective foster parents out there:
About 50% of foster kids in the US Foster Care system are not able to be reunited with their biological families. And yes, 26% of Foster Kids were adopted by foster parents according to Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System- AFCARS:2020 (page 3) by the foster family. The average time in foster care is about 2 years and more details are available in the AFCARS report.
Here are some thoughts on the changing concept of family and how the the child enters foster care:
Family- the Marxian Perspective: There was a time till the 1980’s when Marxian sociologists argued that “family” was a capitalist invention. The husband was exploited by the factory owner and the wife was the unpaid worker at home who had to calm down the annoyed husband who returned after feeling mistreated and exploited at work. Kids were socialized to follow orders so that they became obedient cogs in the capitalist machine. See the brilliant explanation in the Family Chapter of Sociology Themes and Perspectives by Michael Haralambos. The older thinking was that family is formed when a man and woman is married and have children.
Natural Family in the 2020’s: The meaning of the “natural” family has radically changed in the 2020’s. Parents can be married or not, hetrosexual or not and single parents are common in the US. So long as the child is loved and cared for- everyone seems to agree that the best option for any newborn child is growing up in their biological family. Today foster parents can be diverse by gender, gender identity, sexual orientation etc. in and are actively sought in many US states.
How does the foster child originate? If the biological family is unable to take care of the child the public through the State Government takes charge. The reasons listed in the 2020 AFCARS ( table below from page 2 , 2019 data)
Why Foster parent orientation and training is so important : Given the challenging history of the kids who come into foster (see table above) the prospective foster parent needs to be highly motivated and trained. To be a successful foster parent it’s important to recognize that the primary goal is to try and reunite the child with the biological family- see our post on kinship care. Since 26% foster parents do eventually adopt – it indicates the kindness and nobility of the foster parent community.
As a prospective foster parent when you attend a session with a local foster care recruiter on the StartFosterCare.org platform be sure to ask questions you have. That interaction is made easy in our system and should help clarify your own feelings and needs so that you make a great foster parent!
If a trained, licensed foster parent quits – it is a tragedy for all involved. Particularly the child who needs to now move to another foster home. We have all seen TV images of foster kids moving from from one home to another with their meagre belongings in a garbage bag. It is those heartbreaking images that motivates us at StartFosterCare.org to try and find the right foster parents and match them with the right foster care agencies.
We will be putting out a detailed post on why we should think of Foster Parents as volunteers. Note that the stipend paid is for the child and is not income for the foster parents and so no state or federal taxes apply.
Meanwhile see: Melissa Hardesty,. “It’s not a job!” Foster care board payments and the logic of the profiteering parent.” Social Service Review 92.1 (2018): 93-133.
We studied the research on why foster parents quit. We also reflected on what we have learnt working with foster care agencies in the recruitment of prospective foster parents:
Foster Care Professionals are always under pressure: Whether you are a Government manager or a Foster Care Agency person you have a lot of distributed moving parts (human beings!) to manage. Since the public feels so strongly about children you can be sure that someone will complain to the State Governor for the slightest problem.
Foster Care as an interorganizational system: In a sense the link between the State Government- Foster Agency-Foster Parent reminds us of industrial networks with Tier 1 and Tier 2 Suppliers. [ Clarification: We are not trivializing the huge challenges of managing the foster care system.This post attempts to apply inter-organizational theory from industrial domains to human services. We appreciate that human services are more complex than industrial services. However, organizations do share similarities across industries. Please see the Business-to-Business/Supply Chain sections in the StratoServe blog. ].
Tier 1 ,Tier 2, Tier 3 Relationships: If Tier 1 is the State Government Department of Children and Families (along with the Family Court and Legal system) then Tier 2 is the Foster Care Agency and Tier 3 is the Foster Parent. An example from the Defence industry in Connecticut will make the idea clearer. For Sea Defence the US Navy decides that they need a new submarine. The DoD (Tier 1) has the budget (approved by Congress) to buy a submarine. They contract with General Dynamics (Tier 2) to build a submarine that might take years to manufacture. General Dynamics has a whole bunch of parts suppliers (Tier 3 sub contractors ) who might have a whole bunch of Tier 4 suppliers that provide some component to the part to Tier 3 suppliers, as subcontractor. However, the quality of a part supplied can be precisely measured before payments flow down the chain. If the part fails on quality or timeliness, the supplier can be fired.
In human services, failure occurs if the foster parent quits. If the Tier 3 or Tier 4 supplier for a submarine quits it’s a minor problem. Normally there are several suppliers who supply the same part and they can generally pick up the load. The submarine or other component parts don’t feel devastated.! The US Navy is happy so long the submarine gets delivered on time.
Not so in foster care.
Let us say the foster parent is trained,licensed and takes in a child. After two months the parent notifies the agency that they want to quit. There is a notice period of say 30 days by which time Tier 2 Foster Agency or Tier 1 The US State Government must find an alternative parent or make alternative arrangements. It’s challenging enough for these managers. But the terrible trauma and a feeling of rejection by the child is hard to visualize:
Since human beings are involved all across the foster care system there are more complexities involved. Here are some suggestions/thoughts on this quitting problem:
For State Governments/Foster Agencies:
Support the Foster Parent: Everyone else in the Foster Care system are paid folks except the Foster Parent. The Foster Parent is a volunteer and the stipend is to partially support the foster child. In fact, as we will explain in later posts the stipend is for the child but since the child is a minor the foster parent gets paid. It is NOT income for the foster parent and is not to be included in Federal or State Taxes by the foster parent. The Foster Parent is a volunteer and becomes an expert on the child in their care. Seeking their input and giving them the limelight in all child specific decisions is a show of respect that can make your work that much easier.
Including the Foster Parent in the child team : Let us face it. The actual work of caring for the child is done by the Foster Parent. It turns out that Foster Parents who quit or feel like quitting mention a top reason of not feeling included. The StartFosterCare platform allows you to talk with prospective parents in large numbers. Be very careful in selecting the right foster parents. Once you select the right prospective parents, train them well and then trust them to do a good job.
Respect and Acknowledgement: Everyone loves respect and acknowledgement for the good work they do. Foster Parents are no different. If you think about it, once a child is placed in foster care, the foster parent spends the most time with the child. Yet research in social work suggests that foster parents feel left out in the court processes and in the other decisions like family reunification. See Kathryn W. Rhodes, John G. Orme, and Cheryl Buehler. “A comparison of family foster parents who quit, consider quitting, and plan to continue fostering.” Social service review 75.1 (2001): 84-114.
For Foster Parents:
Your become the expert on the child: Although you might sometimes feel like a Tier 3 or 4 supplier of human services- you actually are the person who provides the service 24 hours to the foster child. This is the service that the Government is trying to provide on behalf of the public. Your service is different from your Doctor’s office or your child’s school teacher or coach. The doctor sees you for a few minutes and a child spends only fixed time with the teacher or coach. As a foster parent you are in constant contact with the child. That alone makes you an expert on the specific child. You are a volunteer and that makes you a noble soul. You also have a Bill of Rights that we will explain in a forthcoming post.
But you are part of the organization: Despite being a volunteer – remember that you are part of the tiered organization that is trying to provide a social service. Never forget why you got into this, in the first place. Right from the licensing and training stage build strong connections of trust and confidence. The Foster Agency folks must feel that they can rely on you. Communicate often. Once you earn the trust and confidence of the Agency, chances are that the Agency will consult you before they take decisions about the child in your care.
Foster parents are kind and caring people. It takes a good heart to step up and care for a child unrelated to you (foster care) or even related to you (kinship foster care). We found a great piece of research on what motivates foster parents by Tracy E. MacGregor, Susan Rodger, Anne L. Cummings, and Alan W. Leschied. titled “The needs of foster parents: A qualitative study of motivation, support, and retention.” in the journal Qualitative Social Work Vol. 5, no. 3 (2006): pages 351-368.
Here is a summary of intrinsic and extrinsic and motivators based on research in the US and elsewhere:
Intrinsic motivators: These are your internal motivators because this is the person you are. One or more motivations should be there if you are thinking of foster parenting. These are not in any particular order:
Empty Nesters: Your own children have grown and left the home. You do want to take care of children who need you. You have interest in foster parenting.
Wanting to adopt children/increase family size: This motivation is for wanting to adopt children. You might start with fostering with some intention to adopt eventually.
Provide company for an only child: This is also one of the motivations. Your child is alone and another child can provide company.
Societal influences like religion: How religious you are can be an important motivator.
Former foster child: You could be a former foster child or have relatives that had foster children. This might make you more aware of the needs of foster children. And now you want to step up.
Feel Blessed and want to give back: You feel that you are blessed and want to give back by caring for someone less fortunate.
Want to provide a stable home environment: You want to provide a stable environment to a foster child as you see yourself as capable of doing so. This one is a critical requirement and this is something prospective foster parents need to ask themselves.
Help Children-Love Children: This could be someone who generally loves children and loves taking care of children.
Extrinsic motivators: These are external motivators. They come after you have one or more internal motivators as above.
The monetary stipend: Research indicates that foster parents are not primarily motivated by the stipend awarded to start fostering. Yes, it provides you some supplementary funds to do good without being out of pocket. However, research also indicates that people stop foster care because they find the stipend to be inadequate for the level of “work” that is involved. Thus, unless there are strong internal motivators a foster parent might want to give up. And naturally that is disastrous for the foster child. For there is nothing sadder than a child being moved from one foster home to another for any reason.
To summarize, prospective foster parents need to ask themselves about their internal (intrinsic) motivators.
Many prospective foster parents hesitate from stepping up to become a foster parent. One of the concerns is the potential mental health issues of foster kids. The concern is valid because if you are a kid and are removed from your difficult biological family situation there are two sources of stress. The first is the maltreatment endured in the biological family and the second is the stress of moving and adjusting to a new foster family.
There is a segment of kids that grow up in biological families and have mental health issues. The question is whether foster care kids are any more likely to have mental health issues than the the general public where there is evidence of maltreatment.
The answer to this fascinating question has become available in a research paper from Montreal, Canada just this month. The paper is:
The authors conduct a meta-analysis or a summary of prior research on the topic by summarizing the data from 41 studies that did some comparison of mental health in foster kids and kids in the public. While 26 of these studies were in the U.S. other countries were also included. These were England (3) , Belgium (2) , and one in each of the following countries: Australia, Canada, Chile, Croatia, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Serbia, Spain, and Turkey. According to the authors the studies were published between 1988 and 2017.
Here is an overview of how the authors identified the 41 studies:
The research is methodologically rigorous and includes unpublished studies like dissertations. Including unpublished studies is a neat technique because published studies tend to be only the ones that show strong effects. Ph.D. dissertations that are still being written up for journals might also get excluded if only published studies are reviewed. The authors use an interesting software Meta-Analysis.com to analyze the data from the 41 studies.
Here is what we take away from this excellent paper:
Maltreatment drives mental health issues: When compared to the general public foster care kids (by almost definition maltreated) seem to have a similar level of mental health issues like maltreated kids in functional families in the general public. In other words, maltreatment is a prime reason to move the kid to foster care. While in foster care these kids are no more likely to develop mental health challenges than maltreated kids in “normal” homes. To clarify, maltreatment need not be a necessary cause of mental illness. [Disclaimer: We are not mental health experts please consult a mental health professional].
Stability helps: Whether at a kinship or unrelated foster home a sense of stability at the new home helps foster kids cope better. This is a recurring theme at our meetings and its interesting that this is brought up in the context of mental health.
Professional support matters after placement: Once a kid is placed in foster care, professional support can make all the difference. This includes licensed social workers, psychologists,psychiatrists who are available for counselling. It is therefore important for prospective foster parents to know what type of support the foster care organization will be able to provide.
We were fascinated with the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis Reporting System (AFCARS) data that provides a great overview of the nationwide foster care challenge. Here is the table from the AFCARS data for 2019 reported in 2020 . This is for children enteringfoster care in 2019.
Since this table is useful to both prospective foster parents and foster care professionals given the kinds of questions we heard at our May National Foster Care meetings here is a brief discussion:
Biological Families Do Work: There were 73 million children in the US in 2019 according to the Children’s Defence Fund. Seen as a percentage of the total child population the number of children entering foster care is about 0.34%. This is extremely positive because it indicates that more than 99% kids are in their biological families. A small fraction has a problem at their biological home. Generally the American Family is strong!
What Age do kids enter foster care?: The age table and median age suggests that majority of the children are between 6-7. One of the interesting discussion points at our last month’s meetings was that younger kids are not able to articulate what is bothering them. Hence they can act out at the foster home. It is here that the skill and patience of the foster parent comes in. Teenagers are able to articulate their feelings and in that sense the foster parent is more likely to know what is bothering them.
Race of kids entering foster care: One prospective foster parent had enquired whether we have sessions in Spanish at StartFosterCare.org. Foster care professionals at the local level probably need to consider offering sessions in Spanish (21%) depending on their local needs. As explained in our Kinship care or Foster Care post, this is a local effort in the community , and Spanish speaking foster parents are more likely to be able to connect with the biological parents.
Why Children are moved to foster care?: This section of the table above is fascinating. 64% Children are removed for neglect. There are 39 parental behaviors that are associated with Child neglect according to Maughan and Moore (2010). They studied predictors of adult delinquency and came out with two predictors from a parent behavior point of view. These are supervision and a disorganized/chaotic home environment that predicted adult delinquency. We need to do more research on exactly how “neglect” is defined in the foster care system. Interestingly, we heard foster care professionals keep emphasizing the need for prospective foster parents to provide supervision and a stable home environment to the foster child. Exactly what keeps the general population away from delinquency!
Our May 29th event provided new insight to the situation of some foster kids. We were shocked to learn that some kids come from biological families that are so poor that they have never been to McDonald’s.
Our dear US readers (because you are reading this post on your smartphone,tablet or computer) might find this hard to believe. For a McDonald’s burger in the wealthy parts of the world is the cheapest cooked food you can buy.
In marketing terms, since only the affluent in poorer countries can buy a McDonald’s burger, the prices and experience is adjusted. Price is adjusted downward and the experience seems more exclusive.In these parts McDonald’s is marketed more as a premium experience than the commoner’s fast food. The Big Mac index of the Economist explains the very popular PPP (Purchasing Power Parity) concept.
It turns out that a foster parent might give the first chance to the foster child to have the special experience of going to McDonald’s. Yes the financial support (the stipend) that foster parents receive helps in creating these small pleasures. But to think that in the US there are many poor kids who cannot go to McDonald’s even rarely as a”special treat” is heartbreaking.
Child poverty in the US is a big topic and numerous good organizations are trying to make a dent in the problem. A great example is RedNoseDay.org. This year RedNoseDay was on May 27, 2021 just two days before our May 29 event. A YouTube video featuring Paul Rudd and Julia Roberts gives a sense of the broader challenge.
We had a very successful first virtual meeting on May 19,2021 between prospective foster parents and foster care professionals. Some of the parents had a lot of knowledge about foster parenting and had new questions that sparked spirited discussion. One of the questions was between authoritative and authoritarian parenting.
There is a great article on Parentingforbrain.com that explains the difference between authoritative and authoritarian parenting styles. We quote a nice table that summarizes the differences:
While the above applies to all kinds of families the question is what is better for foster parenting?
We look at the issue from the start:
Question 1: Why does a child need foster care in the first place?
Answer 1: Because the biological family is unable to care for the child.
Question 2: What is needed most in a foster home?
Answer (strictly our take, please feel free to disagree) A sense of stability for the foster child.
Question 3: Let’s agree that stability is needed most. So what type of parenting between authoritative and authoritarian works better?
Answer 3: Let’s see what academic research has to say to this question.
A fascinating meta-analysis published in 2021 attempts an answer to the authoritative and authoritarian style for foster parents.
The article authors are Sabrina Chodura, Arnold Lohaus, Tabea Symanzik, Nina Heinrichs & Kerstin Konrad and the full text of the article is available here.
They summarised findings from 43 primary studies to identify what foster parent behavior was helpful in foster child development.
Given the surprising nature of their findings, we quote a section from their Discussion section on Parenting Styles.The italics and text color is added.
Like all careful researchers the authors do identify this as an under-researched area that needs more study. We concur with the author/s italicized observations. Because it is popularly believed that authoritative parenting is somehow better than authoritarian parenting.
Who is to decide? our dear readers might wonder. Well that is where the developed expertise of foster parenting comes in. Do consult with your social worker and other professionals familiar with your particular situation.
Kinship care refers to a relative (including grandparents) who takes care of the child with the inability of the parents to do so. Kinship Foster Carers can be paid or unpaid. This varies by the State Government/County depending on policy,funds available, and preference and financial situation of the kin. Foster care is when a non-related,unknown family takes charge of the child and receives a stipend to cover costs. And then there are hidden foster carers, where the parents are theoretically incharge but the hidden foster carers are in practice responsible for the child.
In each of the above scenarios, the carers are kind and caring people and we salute them.
A lot of research has been done by the Social Welfare academic community as to whether kinship care or foster care has better outcomes for the child. As far as we could tell from the academic research, it depends a lot on the cultural and social context of the child.
In multi-ethnic America many communities are close knit and when parents fail relatives and friends are happy to take charge. The child achieves permanency or stability and avoids being shunted from one foster home to another or foster care drift.
If you think about it, many cultures have a strong community feeling. Quite simply a child feels “at home” if a member of the specific community steps up.
From the above, its intriguing why foster care has more adoption while kinship care seems to have more guardianship.
Becci A. Aikin of Kansas University in her Ph.D. theses (2010, pages 117-18) makes the point that current policy (as of 2010) thinks of permanency as a hierarchical process viz. reunification, adoption and guardianship. Adoption takes longer and happens more with unrelated foster parents while African Americans are more culturally accepting of guardianship. If quick permanency is the goal, maybe guardianship should be promoted.
The goal of permanency can be seen as providing a stable home and human connection. And this is probably the central question that all types of prospective foster parents need to ask themselves.
The goal for everyone is to do what is best for the child. The judgement call of kinship care vs. foster care is for the social worker on the ground.
In management this is decentralized decision making. Sure, there are laws,rules and guidelines at the Federal,State and County level but because we are dealing with a human situation – its best to let the social worker decide.
Therapeutic or Treatment Foster Care deals with the challenge of kids who have support needs that are more than that of traditional foster kids. According to the Child Welfare Information Gateway the therapeutic foster child needs a structured home environment that adds to a feeling of predictability and comfort in daily life.
The paper itself is highly readable (download the full paper here) and explains things clearly. While published in 2000, we think many of these findings apply today for foster care outcomes.
We quote the section (pages 437-438) on Foster Parent Recruitment and highlight an observation made back in 2000:
“The recruitment of motivated and skilled foster parents is essential. Careful recruitment of qualified foster parents, followed by the training and support provided to foster parents, contributes to successful placement outcomes. Unfortunately, recruitment may be the biggest barrier to a successful TFC program; many researchers and practitioners (e.g., McIntyre & Keesler, 1986) argue that the demand for additional TFC placements far surpasses the current supply. The problem may not lie in the scarcity of willing and capable families, but rather, in the failure to devote sufficient energy to recruitment activities, to target the appropriate population, and/or to provide sufficient pay to attract parents interested in the professional aspects of treatment parenting (Chamberlin et al., 1992; Dawson, 1989).”
It’s only in the last few years that digital marketing and social media has exploded. Similarly, despite the many challenges of COVID-19, being forced to work,shop and play from home has made everyone technology savvy.
There is opportunity now to improve the parent recruitment process for both traditional and therapeutic foster children.