As stated in the CHAMPS Policy Playbook, “foster parents report that the single most important factor in their ability to care for children (and the factor that most influences their desire to continue fostering) is the ability to connect with someone they trust to discuss how best to meet the needs of children in their care.” Thus, policy should provide that every foster parent has access to someone who can provide needed support and advice in a timely way. The people who can best fill that role are often other experienced, successful foster parents.
What the Research Says
Research has demonstrated that children in foster care achieve better outcomes when they experience stable placements. Importantly, research has also shown that support to foster parents is associated with improved foster parent retention and decreased placement failure. The types of support identified as being critical to foster parents include timely support from caseworkers, effective training, support during crisis and peer support. A research summary is available here.
Recommended Policy Approaches
Dedicated peer support workers
Some jurisdictions contract with licensed and experienced foster parents, on either a paid or volunteer basis, to mentor new caregivers, prevent problems from becoming crises, intervene when crises do occur, and help foster parents navigate the complexities of the child welfare, judicial, educational and healthcare systems.
Dedicated agency caseworkers
Some child welfare agencies employ dedicated caseworkers who support foster families through all phases of the fostering process, including home studies, training, placement matching and ongoing support.
Policy can encourage the formation and maintenance of support groups and require frontline staff to inform current and prospective caregivers about local, statewide and national groups. Online support groups, such as private Facebook groups, are often a convenient way for foster parents to connect with peers and avoid scheduling and transportation barriers.
Many jurisdictions have toll-free helplines available to assist foster parents with a wide range of concerns and to connect them to the right person within a child welfare agency.
Kinship navigator programs
These programs provide information, referral and follow-up services tailored to the needs of relative caregivers and the children they raise, both inside and outside of the foster care system. Navigator programs can link kin with a wide variety of resources, including support groups, financial assistance, legal services, recreational opportunities, healthcare providers and more. These programs often work best when the navigators are peers.
Examples of Existing Policies and Programs
Clark County, Nevada Foster Parent Champions
The program was started in 2012-13 in response to a need for peer support of foster parents. It employs ten part-time champions who work about 20 hours a week at $20.00 per hour. Minimum qualifications include being a licensed foster parent for at least two years with no disruptions or investigations. Each champion has a unique set of skills, interests and experience, and so the program is able to support families with teens, infants, medically fragile children and sibling groups. The program was initially funded with a federal diligent recruitment grant. When the grant ended, the county Department of Family Services continued the program with its own funds after seeing the program’s results, which included a decrease in placement disruptions.
Champions perform a wide variety of functions. A champion will call a foster parent within 24 hours of placement to ask if she needs help or support. Kin caregivers receive the same call, followed up with help with licensure and connection to a kinship service provider. Kin receive a second call at 30 days, since the county’s experience is that, while most relative placements are stable, disruptions that do occur are most likely to occur around 45 days after placement. Champions are available to attend case staffings and court hearings, provide in-home assistance, and help with school issues, among other things. Champions intervene when a foster parent gives a 10-day notice to have the child removed. An intervention includes an assessment of the situation, identification of needed support, or in some cases a need to change the foster parent’s placement preferences such as age range.
The Champions program has received buy-in from the county system of care. Although caseworkers were initially concerned that champions were taking over their jobs, they now support the program. Champions support caseworkers as well as foster parents because they handle some tasks that would otherwise have fallen to caseworkers.1
Starting a Peer Support Program: Advice from the Field
- Assess needs: Determine through surveys, focus groups and informal communications what foster families need in the way of support. Decide if peer mentors are best suited to provide such support.
- Obtain buy-in from front-line staff and supervisors: Ensure that caseworkers understand the role of peer support workers and how peer workers can support caseworkers as well as foster parents.
- Determine qualifications, duties and training: Determine what kinds of experience, knowledge and skills are required of peer support workers, what they will be expected to do and the type of training they will receive.
- Plan for administration and funding: Assess agency capacity to administer, oversee and fund a program of peer support.
- Design evaluation plan: Decide on the outcomes the program is intended to achieve, how they will be measured and what data will need to be collected and analyzed.
Children’s Home and Aid Foster Parent Mentors
Children’s Home and Aid is one of the largest statewide private providers of child welfare services in Illinois. The foster parent mentoring program was begun in March 2017, after a series of focus groups across the state revealed that foster parents were supporting one another informally but sometimes exchanging inaccurate information about state policy and procedure. The mentoring program was started to formalize such support and ensure that foster parents were receiving up-to-date information.
The program has trained 223 volunteer mentors and between 160 and 170 are currently active. Volunteers are current or former licensed foster parents, and most are kinship caregivers, as are their mentees. Prospective mentors must have at least two years of experience and must be referred to the program by agency licensing staff. Mentors receive seven hours of training over two days on topics such as licensing criteria and DCFS policy.
A newly-licensed foster parent is given the option to pair up with an appropriate mentor, who is then assigned to the foster parent for a minimum of six months and a maximum of 12 months. Mentors meet monthly with their mentees and maintain ongoing contact through emails, texts and phone calls. Mentors take on this role without compensation because they want to support other foster parents, be recognized as outstanding caregivers and to receive support themselves.
The goals of the mentoring program are to improve retention of foster parents, increase placement stability, improve partnerships among workers, birth parents and foster parents, increase opportunities for shared parenting and improve foster parent recruitment, among others. Mentors focus on preventing crises and have achieved positive results. Ninety-three percent of 14-day notices submitted by foster parents have been retracted or extended after a mentor became involved. According to Ashley Akerman, Statewide Foster Parent Support Coordinator for CH&A, such notices are almost never about the child; rather, they are about some service, training or support that is missing.2
Iowa One Caseworker Model
Iowa’s Department of Human Services (DHS) contracts for foster parent recruitment and retention in each of the state’s five regions. In the most recent contracts, DHA stipulates that the contractors must use the One Caseworker Model,3 which requires that the same staff person is assigned to work with each resource family through the recruitment and retention process — from training to licensing and approval, through matching, and on to support and closure. The caseworkers become very familiar with their resource families, which allows them to recommend better placement matches, introduce enhanced child management techniques, tailor the training that the foster parent receives, and provide background knowledge to help the family meet the child’s needs. Caseworkers are also charged with knowing the resource families’ ability to work with a child’s birth parents, extended family, and how the family supports a child’s connections to birth family, siblings, culture, and community. Caseworkers maintain familiarity with each family’s history of fostering and know the needs, ages, and behaviors of children with whom they have had success. Importantly, they understand each resource family’s current situation and judge their ability to parent another child given their immediate circumstances.
Tennessee Advocacy and Mentorship Program:
The Tennessee Advocacy and Mentorship Program is designed to support foster parents in times of crisis or special needs. Advocates are experienced foster parents who receive training to provide assistance, support and representation in grievances and appeals with The Tennessee Foster Parent Bill of Rights4 established in law that any foster parent under investigation has the right to be represented by an Advocate. Advocates support the foster parent through the process while promoting the safety and well-being of the child above all else. Each of the twelve DCS regions has an assigned advocate. The advocates are volunteers who receive a $400 monthly stipend and reimbursement for travel expenses. In 2007, foster parent mentors, who are separate from advocates, were added to the program. Mentors are volunteers that provide support, understanding, and knowledge to foster parents, and help families through crisis. DCS provides funding to the Tennessee Community Services Agency, created by the state General Assembly, to administer the Advocacy and Mentorship Program.
A Second Chance, Inc. (ASCI)
ASCI, based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, specializes in supporting child welfare-involved kinship families while providing parents with services to help them regain custody of their children. As part of its comprehensive approach, ASCI provides kinship care training specially designed to address the dynamics of kinship families; intensive in-home services, emergency assistance, including a clothing bank and flexible funding for other necessary expenses; respite services; and transportation. ASCI also assigns different social workers to work with the caregiver and the parent to ensure that immediate service needs, as well as longer-term reunification and permanency goals, are being met.
Children’s Home Network (CHN) Florida Kinship Navigator Program
CHN’s program serves both “informal” kinship arrangements with no child welfare involvement and “formal” kinship families with children placed by a court. The program includes peer navigators equipped with laptop computers who provide in-home assistance with applying for benefits and services.5 The program also features interdisciplinary teams of professionals available to consult with navigators, assist with service delivery and help solve complex problems. Services include an array of standardized assessments, case management, educational workshops, support groups, legal services, respite care, and counseling. The CHN program is one of only a few navigator programs to have been evaluated with a randomized control trial as part of a 2012 federal kinship navigator grant. The evaluation found that kinship caregivers enrolled in the treatment group scored higher in family functioning, social supports, concrete supports, child development, and nurturing and attachment. The program also increased TANF application and enrollment rates, with 75 percent of caregivers in the treatment group applying and over 50 percent enrolling, compared to a 20 percent application rate and 6 percent enrollment in the comparison group. The study suggests that traditional child welfare services provided to foster parents may not be sufficient to meet the complex needs of kinship caregivers.
The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation: Policy on Treatment of Foster Parents
The Umatilla Tribe’s Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) Policies and Procedures Manual describes expectations for agency staff in working with foster parents.6 DCFS staff seek regular input from foster parents in decision making affecting the foster child and participate in team meetings as well as court reviews and permanency hearings. In addition, DCFS staff provide support for foster parents to develop effective relationships with medical, educational, and other service providers to ensure that foster parents understand issues affecting children’s well-being. DCFS case workers have cell phones that foster parents can call 24 hours a day, seven days a week when they have questions or concerns.
Umatilla Tribe Policy on Treatment of Foster Parents
In executing the Program, DCFS employees shall remember that foster parents should:
- Be treated with dignity and respect as a member of the team trying to provide minors with stable, safe, and nurturing environments to grow up in;
- Be included as a valued member of a team that provides care and planning for children placed in their homes;
- Receive support services, when they qualify, from DCFS;
- Be promptly informed of any condition that relates to a child placed in their care that may jeopardize the health or safety of the foster parent or other people in their home;
- Have input into permanency planning;
- Receive assistance from DCFS regarding loss and separation when a child is removed from their home;
- Be informed of all DCFS policies and procedures; and
- Be informed about how to receive services and have access to DCFS personnel or service providers 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
1Denise Parker, Clark County QPI Coordinator, Clark County Department of Family Services, personal communication, August 29, 2018.
2Ashley Akerman, Statewide Foster Parent Support Coordinator, Children’s Home and Aid, Illinois, personal communication, September 24, 2018.
3Iowa Department of Humans Services. Contract for Resource Family Recruitment, Retention, Training, and Support (RRTS) services. ACFS 18-007.
4Tennessee Code Annotated Section 37-2-415, Foster Parents’ Rights.
5Larry Cooper, Chief of Intervention and Prevention Services, Children’s Home Network, personal communication, November 9, 2018.
6DCFS Policies and Procedures Chapter Four: Foster Care and Certification, Section 4.2 Treatment of Foster Parents by DCFS Staff