States change how they recruit foster parents

December 31, 2011 / CBS News. Com

(AP)  MIAMI — For decades, it was common for officials around the country to approve foster parents by room and board criteria: Did they pass a background check? Is their home clean? Are their dogs safe and vaccinated?

Now several states including Florida, California and Wisconsin are trying to find ones who they know upfront will help with homework, sew Halloween costumes and accompany kids to doctor appointments. Complicating the efforts is the longtime problem of finding enough adults to house children in need.

"Most jurisdictions end up being in a reactive mode because they don't have enough fosters parents so they're just focused on getting people into the fold instead of making sure standards for parents are elevated," said David Sanders, an executive vice president at Casey Family Programs, an advocacy organization in Seattle.

In Florida, the demand for foster homes was so dire that children were sleeping in child welfare offices as recently as a few years ago. And there were recurring problems for the parents that it could recruit: unreturned phone calls, condescending caseworkers and an inability to get the records they needed. They also weren't invited to staff meetings where the child welfare professionals were making decisions about the foster child's case.

Former Department of Children and Families Secretary Bob Butterworth worked with Carole Shauffer, executive director of Youth Law Center and an attorney who often sued the state, to make sweeping changes to the system in 2007.

Through a far-reaching Quality Parenting Initiative program, Shauffer worked with foster parents and child welfare workers in Florida to address those issues during a 90-day program. Meetings were designed to bring foster parents and caseworkers together to open the lines of communication. Florida changed the way it trains staff and recruits foster parents, even offering online training to make it more convenient to get certified. Overall, the changes led to a distinct cultural change in how the two view each other.

The program also encourages small improvements, like returning foster parents' phone calls or writing a thank-you note to them. Shauffer's team heads the initial effort and stresses the program is not a marketing campaign, but rather an ongoing effort to change stereotypes, increase communication and cut through barriers between foster parents and state agencies. Shauffer's organization spent more than $150,000 in 15 regions across Florida this past year. The tab was picked up by an advocacy group. Several counties in California began using the program in 2009 after seeing Florida's success.

"The cost is minimal. It's the commitment that's hard," said Shauffer, who said child welfare agencies in both states have made the changes a priority.

Foster parent groups say the changes are sorely needed.

"We can use overhauling," said David Sharp, public policy chairman for National Foster Parent Association.

Sharp says that while conditions vary by state and county, foster parents often don't get to comment in court on how the child is doing on a daily basis. Instead, volunteers representing the children and attorneys for the state typically give their opinions about where they think a judge should place a child.

"Agencies don't take us seriously. No matter how upset or concerned we might get for children's wellbeing, there's really nothing we can do," said Sharp, who is also a former Alabama foster parent of 27 children. "(Foster parents)...see they don't have any effect on the child's life long term and they quit."

Around the country, smaller-scale efforts are springing up to address problems.

Connecticut's new child welfare Commissioner Joette Katz has pushed for massive foster care reform, saying the agency needs to respect foster parents, include them in decision making and provide better support services.

Her changes come in the aftermath of a class-action lawsuit in 1989 alleging Connecticut's child welfare system was failing to find quality permanent families for foster children. At one point, 30 to 35 percent of foster kids were being housed in group homes and institutions — a costly but generally inferior alternative to foster homes, said Ira Lustbader, lead attorney for the lawsuit filed by the advocacy group Children's Rights.

The state was so short on foster homes they were sometimes keeping unqualified foster parents, he said.

An independent federal court that is monitoring reform efforts has repeatedly said the state overuses group homes and institutions instead of recruiting more foster parents. In 2008, the state agreed to add 850 foster family homes by July 2010, yet had a net loss of 84 foster homes as of July 2011.

Tennessee and New Jersey have had success launching efforts to recruit homes specifically for teenagers and children with disabilities and other special needs — populations that often end up in group homes or institutions.

In 2006, Wisconsin launched a four-year marketing campaign where child welfare officials assessed the motivations of their best foster parents. They realized the majority did it for personal fulfillment or spiritual desires. They crafted a marketing campaign, trying to attract foster families akin to Peace Corps recruits — an honest way to balance tough work and poor pay with a priceless human reward.

The website didn't just include rosy stories from foster parents. Officials were up front that "this is painful, this is hard work. There are no rewards sometimes," said Colleen Ellingson, CEO of Adoption Resources of Wisconsin, who coordinated the effort.

Some foster care agencies initially felt it was a waste of money.

"Within a year they all said this was the most effective help we've ever had. It was driving families to them," she said. One area had 25 potential foster families contact them in one month. In the past they'd never had more than five.

Some states are also cutting foster parents who don't meet expectations.

Miami foster parent Maritza Moreno says she's frustrated when she hears of fellow foster parents relying on medical transport provided by the state to take their child to the doctor.

"A parent would never do that," said Moreno, an insurance adjuster, who has fostered eight children, mostly babies, in the past four years.

She says foster children "really need a parent, not a caregiver."


Response on Recruiting

Did the system forget about severe possible threats on life and killing animals. Most of the children in the system are from biological families that have mental illness not to discredit the system, but they have forgotten the severity of this. What a slap in the face to a wonderful family that probably did everything to make this child's life grand, only to be beaten up literally as many are. because of the states inability to understand genetic flaws that cannot be changed nurturing or not.

As an adoptive parent I am sad to see the slow response to things like this when families lives are at stake. Instead threaten to put them on the registry so that the state doesn't have to take care of the person (totally monetary). Children and adopted teens that are causing so much conflict to other family members and hurting individuals in the home need to be placed by the state in an appropriate facility at the request of the adoptive family. It isn't abandoning the child or individual, it is keeping the family safe. What happened to the state protecting children. Instead they are doing the opposite and making the families fear for their lives and hopefully not get killed by these mentally ill individuals in the United States.

Overseas adoptions as Korea are a great option. The children are not fetal alcohol like most in the United States and Russia. The cost ends up being less as my brother has done, because the kids are not threatening to the family and do not cause chaos and especially not needing protective services on your door step because of the kids saying off the wall things from their mental problems. I do not know too many families in the United States that have adopted a child with fetal alcohol, reactive attachment disorder, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and many more that have not been repeatedly question by Protective Services as though they have inflicted the child with these problems. SHAME ON ALL OF YOU FOR BEING SO IGNORANT AND NOT TAKING CARE OF THESE VERY SICK CHILDREN.

Unqualified foster parents is an understatement. The one's that say nothing are good homes and the one's that speak out for lack of contact or trying to get the kids psychiatric help are attacked by protective services repeatedly to portrait a horrible home. Some of these kids need physicians to help them through life. Not a visit to the doctor once a month, continual care. Shame shame shame for all of you trying to make this work cheap. These families work very hard and most are in this to help kids and to make a difference in lives. Instead many of us are devastated because the children are abusive toward family members, tell horrible lies and are mentally ill. Shame shame shame that's all I have to say for the pitiful bunch that thinks they know the answers. Adopt a child with fetal alcohol, bipolar disorder , Reactive Attachment Disorder or schizophrenia and then call me back in a few years. HUH

Poor insight and preparation

I agree and empathize with much of what you post... but the bigger question has to be asked:  Who is screening and PREPARING foster/adoptive parents appropriately?  Who should be responsible for oversight and improvement - The State... the federal government?

And if we're going to discuss better adoption-outcomes, let's talk about ICA in relation to domestic adoption.  IS ICA -  adopting from a foreign country (like Korea)  - really the answer for American foster kids in need of better care and attention?

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