May is Foster Care Month, and nobody deserves more honors than our nation’s great foster parents. But unfortunately, there are not enough of these true heroes to go around. Part of the problem is the myth that undergirds foster care in America: that fostering is not done for financial gain.
I have known several great foster parents. They include Mr. and Mrs. A, who must have attended every train-related attraction to feed their foster son’s fanaticism. There was Ms. B, who continued to host her two foster kids for weekends–and give them money–for years after they returned home to their mother. There are Mr. and Mrs. C, who never missed a parent conference or school event and who got their foster kids into a high-performing public charter school. For these great foster parents, foster care is a calling. Unfortunately, there are not enough of them.
For every Mr. A, Ms. B or Mrs. D, there is a Ms. X, who had never in an entire year been to her foster child’s school for a meeting, back to school night, or to see her in a performance. The child was never able to attend an evening activity at her school because the foster parent would not take her. Ms. X even refused to pick her up when she was throwing up; I had to go. Then there was Ms. Y, who refused to go to a meeting with her foster child’s teacher and therapist to improve the child’s school performance. She said, and I quote, “If I cared, I would go, but I don’t care.”
Ms. Y worked the 3:00 to 11:00 shift, leaving for work about the same time her foster child arrived from school and not returning home until the teen was–or should have been–in bed. Most other foster parents worked full-time and were out of the house from early morning until after 6 pm. Most of them, unlike “real” parents, insisted that they could not take off work for any reason related to their foster child, be it a medical emergency, a school meeting, or a therapist’s visit.
It is time to stop pretending. A significant proportion of foster parents are fostering for the money. Some of them also like children, but they would not do it if not for the income. We pretend that fostering is an act of love, and therefore we pay foster parents only the amount we deem to be enough to support the child. That ensures that many children will not be supported adequately, since the foster parents are going to take their “salary” off the top before spending any money on the children.
The results of this fiction are visible everywhere. Of the 26,000 teens responding to a survey of New York youth in foster care in January 2018, nearly a quarter reported “lacking clean and appropriate clothes to wear, shoes that fit, and three meals per day.” This is not acceptable.
Our foster children need more than mediocre or bad foster parenting. Most of them have undergone trauma or serious neglect that has harmed their developing brains. And all have undergone the trauma of removal from their homes. They all need extra stimulation and therapeutic parenting, not benign indifference or worse.
Social workers are another casualty of bad and mediocre foster parents . I left my job as a foster care social worker after five years because I could no longer parent 10 troubled teenagers. After my fifth visit to the psychiatric emergency room with a child whose foster parent would not take them, I knew I could not do it any more.
Why aren’t these foster parents dismissed? As almost everyone knows thanks to daily news articles, there are not enough foster parents to provide homes for all the children in care. The nationwide foster parent shortage around the country is resulting in children sleeping in offices and hotels and bouncing from one inappropriate placement to another.
As a result of this crisis, agencies are unwilling to dismiss foster parents who are not doing their job, or even worse. Every year I had to fill out an evaluation of each foster parent. But when I said that Ms. X or Ms. Y should be dismissed, my superiors never listened. On May 18 Dahn Gregg, a social worker with the Oklahoma Department of Human Services (DHS) reports that she wrote a letter to her supervisors claiming that the agency is placing children in unsafe foster homes. She told Channel 9 that these were families with serious mental health issues, homes where methamphetamine was used and sexual offenders were in and out of the home. Three days after writing the letter, Gregg was fired. (Oklahoma has been praised for doubling its number of licensed foster beds while other states are losing foster home capacity.)
What can be done? People talk about increasing kinship care and foster parent recruitment. Those are important strategies but unlikely to close the gap. Relatives are already bearing much of the caregiving burden and we cannot forget that many kin may may share the dysfunctional parenting styles of birth parents. We cannot accept unsuitable or even dangerous caregivers out of desperation.
We need to think about recruiting a new population–people who would not think of being foster parents unless they were paid a salary so that at least one adult per household could forego full-time work. This might bring in people who want to work with youth and might otherwise seek a job in human services. It might include mothers or fathers who want to stay home with their own children as well as their foster kids.
To make professional foster care economically feasible, foster homes could be larger, housing four to six children. Examples of such programs include Neighbor to Family, which provides professional foster care to sibling groups in the same home. Some programs provide housing to foster parents in “foster care communities” which provide the added benefit of community support and programmatic resources on site. These include SOS Children’s Villages in Illinois and Florida, and Pepper’s Ranch in Oklahoma. Some large foster homes, such as the Being Beautiful Foundation in Philadelphia, are licensed and funded as group homes.
One might worry that paying foster parents more would bring out of the woodwork even more people who are in it for the money. To prevent this, standards and training requirements for professional foster parents would have to be much higher than for traditional foster care.
Child welfare leaders at all levels need to begin a conversation about professionalizing foster care. Clearly, professional foster care is more expensive than traditional foster care. But considering the long-term costs (in welfare, criminal justice, and loss of economic activity) of not addressing the needs of the traumatized children in care, the money would be well spent.