This article originally appeared in The Chronicle of Social Change.
It takes a special type of person to step forward to be a foster parent. There’s no greater responsibility than caring for children who have been placed in foster care after experiencing abuse or neglect in their homes.
One of the goals of new federal legislation, the Family First Prevention Services Act, is to prioritize the placement of those children who must enter care with foster families, rather than in group settings – moving the country away from its over-reliance on congregate care. This is unquestionably the right thing to do, but it is coming at a time when the number of children in foster care across the country has risen.
Communities across the country will need to act quickly and utilize the most effective strategies if they are to succeed in this important work.
First and foremost, children in foster care should be placed with kin – relatives or family friends – whenever possible. Research shows that children in foster care who are placed with kin experience less trauma, have greater overall well-being and are more likely to find a permanent home. And, when placement with kin isn’t possible, children should be placed with well-trained foster parents who are properly screened and supported.
A recently released report details the results of New York City’s “Home Away from Home” initiative, and those results are very promising. New York City has turned around a six-year decline in foster parent recruitment, increasing the number of new foster homes by almost 50 percent, while simultaneously increasing the proportion of children placed in kinship homes from 31 percent to 39 percent over the last two years.
One of the key strategies that we implemented in New York City was utilizing existing foster parents to help recruit additional foster homes. Rather than relying on general marketing campaigns and setting up tables at fairs – which increase public awareness but frankly haven’t been effective recruitment strategies – we have focused on supporting existing foster parents as credible messengers to recruit prospective foster parents from their own networks. This has worked.
In addition, we now ask experienced foster parents to support other foster parents, which is a critical strategy for foster parent retention. Studies often cite that many foster parents quit because they feel a lack of support for the responsibility they’ve taken on. In addition to improving communication between case planners and foster parents, New York City has worked to strengthen its “customer service” for foster parents by facilitating peer-to-peer mentoring support for foster parents and convening foster parent support groups.
Home Away from Home also focuses on a new approach to “recruiting” foster parents specifically for older youth and teens. Teens often face the harshest consequences from the shortage of family foster care, and they’re more likely to be placed in congregate care than younger children. Under Home Away from Home, we learned that foster homes for teens need to be developed, not recruited. In other words, the majority of foster parents to teenagers did not start out in that role. Instead, they often began fostering younger children, and learned about the challenges and resources needed as foster parents before moving on to caring for teens.
To increase the pool of foster homes for older youth and teenagers, New York City proactively worked with existing foster parents to increase their comfort and capacity with teens. And when experienced caregivers develop the skills to foster teens, it creates more opportunities for new foster parents to start by fostering younger children.
To increase kinship placements, we found that a key barrier was the amount of work it requires to identify and screen potential family or friends as foster care resources. A closer look revealed that when child protective workers had sufficient time and tools, appropriate kinship resources for kids could be found more often. To address this need, New York City hired 10 dedicated “kinship specialists.”
Early on in child protective investigations where serious safety issues are identified, these kinship specialists help child protective staff ask parents about potential kin resources and initiate the steps necessary to screen and support them should they be needed. And, when we are not successful finding kin when children are first placed in care, our foster care agencies continue this critical work, transferring children in foster care to kinship placements.
We are hopeful that the Family First Prevention Services Act will lead to a drop in the national foster care census because of its focus on evidence-based prevention services – a positive result we have seen in New York City, where the foster care population has dropped from 50,000 children in 1992 to approximately 8,200 today. At the same time, we need to ensure that children who do enter foster care receive the best possible care, and aren’t unnecessarily placed in congregate care settings. New York City’s Home Away from Home initiative may provide a useful roadmap for the country to increase foster home recruitment and kinship care to improve outcomes for kids. We can’t afford to get it wrong.