Foster care is a service to families—not a substitute for parents

May 8, 2019

By Jerry Milner

This year's National Foster Care Month theme prioritizes foster care as a service to families—not a substitute for parents—and highlights the prime opportunity it creates when community resources and partnerships are maximized to increase child and family well-being and the likelihood of successful reunification.

An increasing number of children are entering foster care every year due to a complex mix of factors that may include the parent’s use of opioids, family financial hardship, mental health disorders, or domestic violence. Most of the time, it doesn't mean the children are unloved. It means their families need help. Foster care plays a pivotal role in helping put families back together. It can never and should never replace families.

During my time as child welfare director in Alabama, families with case plans benefited when we shifted our approach from punishing and separating families to preserving and strengthening them. We did this through enhanced partnerships with the legal and judicial communities, service providers, and a shared investment in achieving positive results for children and families.  Fundamental change can happen on a broader scale when we meet families where they are and work across systems to facilitate access to concrete and targeted services. Families are more likely to achieve reunification when the child welfare system and its partners are committed to putting them first.

To give families involved with foster care a fighting chance, we need to consider seriously recruiting foster parents who see their primary job as supporting and mentoring the birth family in addition to ensuring that children have a safe and nurturing place to live. We need to make sure they receive the appropriate training and resources to build trust with the birth family and reinforce positive parenting practices and healthy family routines that will help promote reunification. We must honor the integrity of the parent-child connection and sibling and kin relationships whenever safely possible. Developing and supporting foster care and kinship care families in the areas where data reveal the greatest needs will raise the odds that children can remain close to parents, and possibly even live with a relative. Trained foster care providers can help normalize a child's stay by encouraging regular contact with the birth family and helping them maintain that essential connection. You will find guidance and resources on the website on how foster and kinship caregivers can work with birth families to access family support and preservation services, as well as how child welfare professionals can engage with the surrounding community.

Families enter the foster care system with multiple needs and hurts—emotional and physical. Birth parents may need to work on strengthening parenting skills or undergo substance use or mental health therapy. At other times, they may simply need help with meeting their children’s needs for safe housing and concrete needs.  Children may need trauma-informed therapy for potential behavioral or emotional health concerns. Families may need to learn new ways of caring for their children so that all can emerge from foster care with resilience and strength. Our goal should be to enhance individual and family well-being. All of this requires the support of trained and dedicated service providers working with community partners to connect families with services that can help them stay together. Our 2019 National Foster Care Month website offers tips on how to tap into community partnerships to benefit the families in your area and the importance of evaluating services across systems.

We want to ensure that children and families suffer the least amount of trauma possible through the foster care experience and that children return to parents who are well-prepared to welcome them home.  I encourage you to join us in sharing the opportunities and resources that support families in your area. Let's put our children and families first, strengthen them where needed, and help keep them safe, healthy, and together.

Jerry Milner is Associate Commissioner at the Children's Bureau.


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