Child welfare workers traditionally take an analog approach to recruiting prospective foster parents: They put up yard signs, set up booths at churches — even rent billboards.
But in Washington state, child welfare workers are shifting to a digital approach. Beginning in April, people who’ve browsed websites on foster care will see recurring online ads espousing the joys of foster parenting — haunting the prospective parent from site to site like a new car or pair of boots.
The change reflects a new urgency in foster-parent recruitment.
Largely because of the opioid crisis, experts say, there are more children who need foster care, and not enough families to provide it. The number of children entering foster care increased every year from 2013 to 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Meanwhile, at least half the states in the United States saw a decrease in the number of available foster homes, according to a 2017 investigative project by the Chronicle of Social Change.
States such as Washington are sharpening their advertising to recruit more foster parents. But child care officials also recognize the need for more substantive changes to enlist and retain foster parents, such as streamlining the licensing process and providing more support to those who take in kids.
One state foster care training program had a 90 percent dropout rate. Many potential caregivers complain about how hard it is to get a return phone call from beleaguered caseworkers, let alone coaching to help manage a traumatized child in crisis.
Some states already are working on that. Rhode Island used a weekend boot camp to speed up the licensing process for prospective families. In Florida, newly minted foster parents can get 24-7 on-call coaching from seasoned foster parents. And Kentucky last year gave foster parents more say over their charges, from approving haircuts to testifying in family court.
Carole Shauffer, senior director of strategic initiatives for the Youth Law Center, a San Francisco-based advocacy group, said negative perceptions of foster parenting aren’t entirely undeserved.
“The brand of foster parenting is completely corrupt,” Shauffer said. “You hear ‘foster parenting’ and you think, ‘Not me.’ It’s not an appealing brand or something you want to be part of.
“And the reality isn’t great,” Shauffer said. “Foster parents aren’t treated well by the system. The whole system of doing it is wrong.”
Not long ago, Oklahoma’s foster care system was ranked as one of the worst in the country. In 2015, then-Gov. Mary Fallin, a Republican, directed state officials to collaborate with local and tribal governments, businesses, churches and the Annie E. Casey Foundation on a three-year recruitment drive.
As part of the campaign, the state asked employers to encourage their workers to become foster parents, and created a discount card for foster parents to use at participating businesses. For example, the local YMCAs give foster families steeply discounted membership rates, according to Tricia Howell, the state’s deputy director of foster care and adoption in the child welfare services division.
Oklahoma now uses a data tool, a Microsoft Excel file that uses calculations to identify geographic areas where foster parents are most needed and pinpoint the foster youth most in need of homes — such as siblings and teens.
The tool, called the Foster Home Estimator, sorts through data on all the children in the system, from the length of time in foster care, to whether they’re in a group home, to their age and race, Howell said. Both state child welfare workers and private agencies are given the data each month.
Oklahoma state officials also held competitions for private foster care agencies, awarding prizes to those that recruited the most parents. The challenge was to encourage not only recruiting families, but recruiting families who meet the needs of children in care, such as sibling groups, children with developmental needs and teens.
The state was able to boost the number of tribal foster families and recruited about 3,000 families overall during a three-year period, Howell said. According to the Chronicle of Social Change, Oklahoma more than doubled the number of available foster beds between 2012 and 2017 — the fastest growth rate in the country.
In South Dakota, Republican Gov. Kristi Noem in January pledged “to use my podium, my microphone and my influence to educate our state about the need for more foster parents. In every formal speech I give, I’m going to talk about it.”
So far, Noem hasn’t allocated extra funding to the cause or announced any new initiatives. In unveiling her 2019 budget last month, she said there was “a lot” that could be done without increasing funding.
Also last month, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, announced a new public awareness campaign, which will use online display ads and social media to attract new recruits. The campaign includes a new foster care and adoption website for prospective families.
More than 16,000 children are in foster care in Ohio, which has been hammered by the opioid crisis. That’s an increase of 28 percent in five years, according to a December report by the Public Children Services Association of Ohio. In 2017, the state created a panel of foster parents and child welfare professionals to suggest changes.
Based on its recommendations, the state reduced the time it takes for foster parents to get licensed and beefed up specialized training to help foster parents care for traumatized children.
Prospective parents navigating the foster care system often get disillusioned early in the process, said Tracey Feild, director and manager of the child welfare strategy group for the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation.
Getting licensed can take months. When prospective parents call child welfare agencies to sign up, they often get a recording — and no one calls them back for weeks or months, Feild said. And when they do call them back, agencies aren’t very encouraging.
“People lose interest,” Feild said. “They think, ‘You must not need foster families.’”
Prospective foster parents in Rhode Island typically must take a 10-week training program to get licensed. Nine out of 10 families dropped out along the way, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which gave the state $25,000 in grant money toward a weekend recruiting event last year. The state received another $70,000 grant from the Rhode Island Foundation for the event.
Last year, faced with more than 250 foster children in need of a family, Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, a Democrat, announced plans for the “recruitment weekend” for prospective foster parents to streamline the 30-hour licensing process.
The state put up 174 families in a hotel in downtown Providence over a weekend last March, supplying meals and giveaway prizes from local stores. That weekend, prospective families were able to complete 70 to 75 percent of the licensing process, Feild said.
The state was able to license close to 100 of the families, said Kerri White, a spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Children, Youth and Families. About half of the 100 families were licensed within 90 days, and most of the rest within 180 days, White said.
Speeding up licensing procedures is especially important in recruiting extended family members, known as “kinship caregivers,” said Jaia Peterson Lent, deputy executive director of Generations United, a Washington, D.C.-based family research and advocacy group.
“They may not have been planning on raising a child and may be retired and living on a fixed income,” Lent said. “Part of recruitment requires helping the relative understand their options and how to manage this sudden and usually unexpected transition.”
Many child welfare advocates think the most effective recruiters are current foster parents who have had a positive experience — which means giving them plenty of support.
A foster mom should be able to say, “‘I love it; I feel so supported,’ rather than ‘I hate it, don’t touch it with a 10-foot pole,’” said Dr. Heather Forkey, a pediatrician who serves on the executive committee of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Foster Care, Adoption and Kinship Care.
In her hometown of Worcester, Massachusetts, Forkey hired trauma coaches, former foster parents who visit current parents to help them deal with children who may be acting out because of the harm they’ve suffered.
In Tallahassee, Big Bend Community Based Care, a private agency contracted by the state to provide foster care in northwest Florida, prospective foster parents get 24-7, on-call help and coaching, said Molly Clore, a former foster parent who heads up the agency’s Foster Family Support program.
“We tell them, ‘We’ve got your back. We’re going to support you every step of the way.’”
Since July, they’ve added 30 new licensed foster families, Clore said.
“I strongly believe that no one can recruit foster parents better than someone who has lived experience,” Clore said.
Louisiana’s first lady, Donna Edwards, is encouraging businesses and churches to support foster parents and make the process less overwhelming. She wants local businesses to develop service projects for foster families, such as helping with home and car repairs, and to sponsor dance, sports and camp activities for foster kids.
“If every church would recruit one foster family and give them the support they need, that would be a big plus,” Edwards said last week at the National Governors Association winter meeting in Washington, D.C.