Not sure where to start with retention? Start with communication.
By Laura Stow
My family has been a foster family for just over 4 years. Foster parenting is the most difficult thing we have ever done or likely will ever do in our lives. We have loved tiny babies and young children in our home and supported reunification with their parents, while questioning if the children will be safe. The experiences shared by young children in our home have impacted the entire family. I admittedly enjoy order, routine, control and predictability. Foster care is, of course, the exact opposite of all those things.
Our first placement came in early spring. He was an enormous two-month-old baby boy. Biggest two-month-old baby I have ever seen. Within the first week of arriving in our home, he was hospitalized with Norovirus. Most of our family members and friends had not yet met this child and no one really knew what to do. No one visited us in the hospital, no one called or sent flowers. Eventually, someone from our church set up a meal train, but overall it was a very awkward experience where no one really knew how to handle it. We were taking care of a baby we had just met who was now in the hospital. The nurse mocked me when I teared up as he got an IV placed in his head ("wow, you must get attached easily"), completely disregarding the fact that we had been awake all night with a sick baby we had just met. My husband and I were the only people there to care for that baby boy we did not know while we also had three young children of our own at home to take care of.
That was our first experience with recognizing that within our society, children in foster care and the families caring for them tend to be invisible. We get the platitudes of "I could never do what you do" and "You're so amazing" all the time. However, what people really want to do is look the other direction and pretend this problem, these children who need loving homes, really does not exist in their communities. We have found among other things, the relationship we have with our child's caseworker makes an enormous difference in how we feel about a placement and our ability to keep caring for difficult children in our home.
Children in foster care have big life problems that are invisible to our neighbors, friends, church family, and sometimes even their teachers. We need a listening ear. We need caseworkers who will ask how things are going and listen to the response. We need caseworkers who value our time and show up on time for monthly home visits. Returning a phone call or a text within a reasonable amount of time can make us feel so much more valuable and like a part of a team. It wasn't until our THIRD placement that I got regularly returned phone calls, emails or text messages from a child's case manager. This is not an exaggeration. In our first two placements, all communication went mostly unanswered and I learned to just keep a running list of referrals needed or questions to ask at monthly home visits. That is not acceptable. It leads to foster parents feeling as though they are not valued and the work they are doing is not appreciated. Our first year of being foster parents came with a large learning curve. The largest part of the learning curve was not caring for children who have experienced trauma, but learning how to work within the foster care system. We have learned to navigate our role as foster parents better with years of experience. We understand what questions to ask and what will happen at different stages throughout a case. However, an overall lack of communication is still a big frustration we hear when speaking with other foster parents, especially those who are newly licensed.
Our current child case manager has called or texted me a couple of times just to say "How are things going? Do you need anything from me?" I don't need anything from her and I'm guessing she knows that. However, just having her check in and acknowledge the role we are playing in providing a quality home for these children is vital. A key part of recruiting and retaining foster parents is giving them the opportunity to feel as they are part of a team. They are respected. Their voice matters. Changes within the case should be communicated to the foster parents. I know that I am not in control of where the child in my home will be living in the coming days, weeks, or months and I have to live with that reality. I have struggled with placements when I find out that the plan has changed weeks ago and I am the only member of the team who does not know. The GAL and case manager have the information, but I do not. Then I no longer feel like a vital part of a team. I feel undervalued and disrespected. No one wants to feel that and no one wants that role.
Being a foster parent is very, very difficult. Even with all professionals trying their hardest, many foster parents will still close their homes. However, I do strongly believe that giving foster parents a voice and simply treating them the way you would want to be treated can go a long way in making them feel valued and respected, thus being willing to remain an open home and continue caring for more kids.
Laura Stow is a Colorado foster parent certified by Lutheran Family Services. She and her family live in Fort Collins.