Improving the collection and analysis of certain data elements can improve placement matching, promote placement stability, provide valuable insight into placement needs and inform recruitment and retention efforts. This include data on current foster families as well as data on which communities and neighborhoods should be targeted for recruitment efforts so that children in care remain close to home and school of origin. Information on barriers, delays and inefficiencies in the licensure and approval process can lead to a better and more timely experience for new foster families. While jurisdictions may have some of the data, it is often not being used strategically for planning and implementing foster parent recruitment, retention and support. Policy can help guide these efforts and promote consistency across counties and regions.
What the Research Says
Research has identified lack of data as a critical barrier to states’ recruitment and retention efforts. Studies and expert guidance have consistently highlighted the need to 1) utilize data on foster parent and child characteristics in order to effectively recruit families that match the needs of children in foster care, and 2) regularly collect feedback from foster parents through surveys and other means in order to inform recruitment and retention policies and practices. A research summary is available here.
Recommended Policy Approaches
Foster parent census
A census is an ongoing, periodic collection of data on licensed foster parents, including those who are not currently caring for a child. A foster parent census can help agencies assess their overall capacity in terms of foster parents trained and available to care for infants (including those prenatally exposed to substances), teens, sibling groups, children with significant behavioral or mental health needs, and or special health care needs. A census can also identify foster parents who are particularly sensitive to and knowledgeable about the needs of children from diverse cultures. As such, it can help agencies determine whether their current families are being fully utilized and if there are significant gaps in agencies’ recruitment strategies. Because this information is not required for AFCARS, state and tribal policymakers may want to consider requiring and funding a periodic foster family census.
Data on current, successful foster families is analyzed to create statistically accurate profiles based on demographics, lifestyle choices, consumer behaviors and location, among other variables. For example, a profile could be created specifically for prospective foster parents interested in mentoring birth parents. Recruitment efforts are then targeted to reach families that fit these profiles. Market segmentation is most effective when it is based on a large number of foster families deemed to be successful. The need for a large data set, however, can be a barrier to states with relatively small populations.
Local/regional recruitment and retention plans
Such plans are based on data, needs and strategies specific to a given county or region and are best developed in close consultation with local stakeholders, such as foster parents, tribal representatives, providers, youth, licensing staff, judges and guardians ad litem, among others.
Examples of Existing Policies and Programs
North Carolina Diligent Recruitment and Retention Plan
North Carolina’s plan was published in June 2017 and is part of the state’s response to its Child and Family Services Review. Prior to development of the plan, the state experienced problems with data consistency across counties. The Division of Social Services (DSS) knew how many foster families it had, but was unable to drill down for more detailed information about actual capacity and actual need. DSS developed the new Diligent Recruitment and Retention (DRR) plan collaboratively with input provided at three regional stakeholder meetings attended by representatives of the provider community, the courts, foster parents, youth, county child welfare leaders, licensing staff, caseworkers, advocates and others. DSS continues to solicit input from stakeholders with quarterly peer-to-peer calls.
One of the goals of the new DRR plan is that “the state, counties and child placing agencies have the capacity to use data to inform and monitor recruitment and retention efforts.” The plan requires each county department of social services to submit its own individualized plan annually. The state also requires each county to create, maintain, update monthly and submit to the state annually a data profile that includes the following: characteristics of children in care, characteristics of families available for placement, average length of time from initial inquiry to licensure, total number of licensed beds, total number of available beds, number of children placed out of county due to lack of available beds, and number of placement disruptions or changes. Although private agencies are not required to submit data profiles, larger agencies have that capacity and the state encourages them to do so.
Data profiles are considered program tools rather than report cards and will be used by DSS to guide its technical assistance efforts, including informational websites, training, webinars, and publications such as “Treat Them Like Gold: A Best Practice Guide to Partnering with Resource Families”. The data are also intended to increase transparency and consistency of messaging across public and private agencies.1
Virginia Foster Care Omnibus Bill
In 2019, the Virginia General Assembly passed Senate Bill 1339, an omnibus foster care bill that addresses a range of issues identified in a 2018 report of the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC). One of JLARC’s charges was to evaluate state and local efforts to recruit and retain foster parents. Noting the longstanding shortage of foster families, JLARC found that “[d]espite the known shortage of foster families in Virginia, and the fact that the shortage has been documented for years, VDSS currently has no plan, dedicated funding, or staff to systematically recruit non-relative foster families.” The report also noted the absence of reliable statewide information on current foster family availability. “Without this information, it is not possible for the state to identify shortages of foster families, such as for particular groups of children or areas of the state.” Accordingly, the JLARC report made four recommendations regarding foster parent recruitment:
- Require every local department of social services to provide semi-annually to VDSS a list of all licensed foster families in the locality, including contact information, placement preferences, demographic information, number and ages of children currently being fostered, and the number of other children in the home;
- Direct VDSS to develop and maintain a statewide strategic plan for recruiting and retaining foster parents that would identify localities with the greatest need for foster families; articulate state and local strategies to fill these needs; and specify the roles and responsibilities of staff in the state’s local departments, regional offices and central office in implementing the plan;
- Establish six positions—five regional staff and one at the central office—at VDSS responsible for implementing the statewide strategic recruitment and retention plan and supporting local efforts;
- Direct VDSS to determine the amount of funding necessary to implement the statewide strategic plan and to identify all possible sources of funding for that purpose.
Senate Bill 1339, which significantly increased the state department’s authority to hold county agencies accountable for compliance with foster care requirements, addressed each of the foregoing recommendations as follows:
- Requires each local board to submit to VDSS the names of all licensed foster parents and to update such list quarterly;
- Directs VDSS to develop and implement a data-driven strategic plan, to be updated biennially, to improve the recruitment and retention of foster parents;
- Directs VDSS to ensure that regional offices responsible for oversight of foster care and adoption services are equipped with sufficient staff. Each of the five regional offices of VDSS must have no fewer than four staff to, among other things, find family-based placement options for children who are at risk of being placed in congregate care.
In addition, 2019 amendments to the state’s biennial budget added $2.8 million in state and federal funds and 18 positions, including 10 additional regional foster care and adoption staff, a regional project manager, and five positions for monitoring foster care cases. An additional $100,000 was provided to fund a dedicated position to oversee the state’s foster care recruitment efforts.
 Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, Report to the Governor and the General Assembly of Virginia: Improving Virginia’s Foster Care System, December 10, 2018. http://jlarc.virginia.gov/2018-foster-care.asp
Data Elements That Support Effective Recruitment and Retention
Ideally, jurisdictions would have the capacity to collect and analyze the following data elements on foster families for purposes of recruitment and retention:
- place of residence
- placement preferences (infants, teems, sibling groups, medically fragile children)
- placement capacity (number of licensed beds, number of available beds)
- placement agency or agencies with which the family works
- ages and special needs of children fostered
- special skills, interests and training
- interest and skills in mentoring birth parents
- length of service
- licensure status
- reasons given by former foster parents for quitting
Washington State Foster Care Funding Collaborative (FCFC)
FCFC is a public/private partnership in which a consortium of foundations is funding 14 private provider agencies to work with the Washington state Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) to recruit, train and license 2,500 new foster families in three years, beginning in January 2019. The project is coordinated by the Washington Association for Children and Families (WACF), the state’s private agency membership organization, and consists of three components:
Market research and segmentation
WACF engaged a consultant and market research firm to identify the characteristics and motivations of the 4,000 current foster families in the state, where and how similar families are likely to be found, and gaps in foster family recruitment efforts. Each private agency will tailor its recruitment efforts to reach and serve the families most likely to foster the type of children (medically fragile, sibling groups, infants, teens, etc.) in which it specializes. This approach will help connect prospective foster families to agencies that will best support them, and it will encourage agencies to collaborate and not compete with one another for foster families. The project will develop some specific messaging to emphasize the expectation that foster parents mentor birth parents and support reunification. New recruitment marketing that leverages this research is expected to begin in January 2019.
A centralized portal for prospective foster parents
WACF and its partners have created a single online point of entry that will match prospective foster parents with the appropriate private agency or with DCYF based on the inquirer’s geographic location, placement preferences, strengths and other characteristics. The premise is that by making good matches between families and agencies, there will be improved satisfaction and retention of foster parents. This approach differs from common practice, in which prospective families are provided a list of available agencies and must find their own best match.
The project has created a customer experience dashboard, which tracks an applicant’s progress from initial inquiry through licensure, in order to identify barriers, obstacles and inefficiencies in the process. This information will help the private agencies and DCYF to identify points in the process at which applicants are most likely to become discouraged and drop out. WACF plans to expand data collection to reach foster families’ experiences post-licensure, including retention, placement stability and birth parent engagement. The data will help agencies identify best practice.2