May 31st is Foster Parent appreciation day. There are many ways to recognize and thank the foster parents who work every day to provide a stable home for the children and youth in foster care. To celebrate foster parent appreciation day and national foster care month, CHAMPS has prepared a list of ideas that child welfare agencies, legislators and other community-based organizations can reference to show their support for foster families. See the list and other foster family appreciation tools and resources here. CHAMPS has also collected stories of amazing foster families, view these stories on the CHAMPS website.
Not only today, but every day, we should recognize and celebrate foster parents for the essential role they play in the development, healing, and success of youth in foster care. As we celebrate foster parents today, we must keep in mind that while their job is an important one, it is certainly not easy. Foster parents not only face their own personal and emotional stress that come as part of the job, but many take on this role without receiving adequate training, support, and the respect they deserve.
Today, we would like to show support for foster parents by listening to their stories and gaining their perspective on issues relevant to them and their families. We were lucky to have the opportunity to speak with 22 representatives of state associations representing foster parents during a meeting of the National Foster Parent Association (NFPA) Council of State Affiliates. During this discussion, the foster parents spoke freely of issues in training, support, and respect, and proposed solutions that would strengthen the capacity of foster parents to help children thrive.
It is hardly a surprise that the state affiliate representatives emphasized the need for improved foster parent training. Foster parents often talk about how they wish more trainings were provided and about how they often feel poorly prepared to assume the duties of a foster parent in the beginning. Some foster parents even emphasized that they had either no pre-service training or just minimal training to prepare for such a big job and an even bigger change in their life and in their existing family relationships.
During the course of the interviews, foster parents raised specific issues about training requirements and provided suggestions on how to tailor trainings in a way that will result in better-prepared foster parents. Many of the foster parents agreed that the number of required hours of training were far too low. One foster parent from Montana said that her state had cut its number of pre-service hours of training to six, which are usually delivered in a single day. As the foster parent in our group who raised this point stated: “How do you prepare any family to be a foster family in six hours?” No one in our group seemed to think that six hours was enough. Only 25 States and the District of Columbia require a specific number of pre-service training hours to become a licensed foster parent. Other states do not require the completion of pre-service training.
The foster parents also had many critiques of the content of required trainings, mainly that the trainings are redundant and rarely updated. Many states require up to 20 hours of annual training for current foster parents to keep their license. While the foster parents we interviewed agreed that ongoing training is necessary, they stated that they received the same training year after year. One foster parent commented that the training in her state has not changed at all in five years. For many foster parents attending this training means leaving their home and being away from their children for a few days, just to receive the same training as the year before.
The foster parents also noted that the difference in training programs across the states are vast. Consider the case of the hours of training requirement, which varies from 6 hours to 45 hours. Given the independence of the states in building their child protection programs within broad federal guidelines, some differences across programs are to be expected. But how can such a huge difference in the basic requirement of required hours of training be justified? To reduce these differences and bring states that are far below some reasonable standard to a more acceptable level, the federal government could impose some minimum hour requirement on state training programs. The federal government could take a similar approach to bring standards to other program characteristics so that they align with best practices. But states would be likely to resist attempts to impose standards on them. A better approach might be for The Department of Health and Human Services to work with states to develop a model training curriculum and making it available to states, perhaps with some funding for states that agree to meet standards that include hours and other important characteristics.
Foster parents think training is important but that it should be responsive to the changing needs of foster families and address a wide range of topics that are pertinent given the different needs of children. The training requirements should also reflect foster parents’ busy lives by offering more accessible and useful training options, such as web-based courses and flexible schedule courses. All the foster parents agreed that trainings could be improved by included foster parents as instructors. They agreed that it is difficult to be receptive of training from instructors who do not personally understand what it is like to be a foster parent. One participant observed that many foster care caseworkers are young and have little or no parenting experience, which may impede their understanding of day-to-day parenting challenges faced by foster parents. Including foster parents as instructors in trainings would also help inform current or new foster parents of the issues that are likely to arise, and the best way to respond to a variety of situations they may encounter. Their first-hand experiences and informed instruction could be monumental in helping new foster parents navigate this exciting, but difficult, life change.
“The family has to be well in order to provide well being to foster children.”
Support from the state agencies, social workers, and peers is essential for foster parents to ensure that they have all the tools they need to succeed. The foster parents we spoke with emphasized that they are in need of more and better information and services about foster parenting. They also need support during the transition period after welcoming a foster child into their home, not only for the child, but also for their biological family. As one participant put it, “the family has to be well in order to provide well being to foster children.”
Participants also strongly advocated for peer support and tighter networks for foster parents. Foster parents often feel isolated, especially in light of the fact that they are prohibited from sharing some information because of confidentiality practices insisted on by state foster care agencies. One solution that could be arranged by state agencies would be to provide opportunities for foster parents to meet and talk with each other on a routine basis. According to one parent, being able to share with other foster parents and have a community would be “huge.”
Another very important type of support mentioned by participants was respite care, which provides relief to foster families for several hours or even overnight on an intermittent basis. This type of support is essential for foster families who too often face barriers in designating temporary care of foster children to grandparents, babysitters, or other relatives in the way that all parents do to take a breather. Currently, foster parents must jump through administrative hoops so that they can get an afternoon off to rest and recharge. On top of this, foster parents often feel pressure to not take respite. By making respite care more accessible and destigmatized, foster parents can take a much needed and well-deserved break and ensure that their foster child is in good hands.
We must give foster parents a voice, and trust and invest in their suggestions.
Several participants indicated by their comments that they felt they did not receive the respect they deserved as foster parents. As one of the participants stated, they wanted to be recognized as part of a professional team that was organized to support the foster child and the child’s development. Above all, they were concerned that their views about the child were not given adequate attention. Further, they expressed concern about punitive measures. For example, they shared their worry that if they disagreed with the views of agency social workers and were too outspoken, they could lose custody of the child. One foster parent, who was a lawyer, explained that foster parents had a lot of “good information” about the foster child and good ideas about what to do, but they are not aggressive in expressing their views because they fear reprisal.
These interviews indicate that foster parents who have many years of experience in foster parenting and who now lead foster parent associations believe there is much to be done to help foster parents perform more effectively. Most of the responsibility for helping foster parents would fall to child welfare agencies responsible for overseeing the foster care program. The specific aims would be to improve training, arrange peer support and more opportunities for respite care, and increase policies and practices that show foster parents they are valued and appreciated as an important part of the child’s life. It is certain from these interviews that in order to improve the foster care system as a whole, we must give foster parents a voice, and trust and invest in their suggestions.