By Teresa Wiltz
Foster parents, tasked with the 24-7 care of often-traumatized children, show up for parent-teacher meetings, ferry their charges to doctor’s appointments, supervise homework and serve up cuddles. Many work closely with struggling biological parents in hopes of an eventual reunion.
These days, many foster parents are being asked to do even more, as an increasing number of children enter the foster care system with serious behavioral and mental health issues — issues that require a deft hand and intensive training. Meanwhile, largely because of the opioid crisis, there are more children who need foster care, and not enough families to provide it.
Traditionally, foster care largely has been an altruistic endeavor. Foster parents receive a modest, tax-free stipend to offset the costs of clothing, food and school supplies. The rates vary greatly from state to state, from $300 to $1,000 a month.
But lately, the combination of kids facing more serious problems and a shortage of foster families is pushing some child care advocates to embrace a controversial idea: making foster parenting a profession rather than a vocation.
The concept has been around for a while — foster parents in Washington state even tried to unionize back in 2006. Now the idea is growing in popularity, and a handful of cities and counties are experimenting with putting it into practice, said Jill Duerr Berrick, a professor at the School of Social Welfare at the University of California at Berkeley.
“Many people, including me, believe foster parents should be trained better, supported better — and paid better,” Duerr Berrick said. There is no state in the country where the stipends foster parents receive cover the true costs of raising a child, she said.
Still, “professionalizing foster care isn’t just about money,” she said. “It means you’ve been thoughtfully trained and supported to do a good job.”
But Duerr Berrick acknowledged the question is fraught for people involved in foster care — especially the children.
“Many foster youths don’t want [foster parents] to be paid at all,” she said. “The minute you introduce money into the occasion, kids feel like a cash cow.”
Money is a touchy subject
Typically, professional foster parents are used in so-called therapeutic foster homes, where children with behavioral problems receive round-the-clock care in a family setting.
But opponents of expanding the practice say foster children need to know that the people caring for them aren’t doing it for the money.
“Kids know the difference between a job and not a job,” said Tracey Feild, director and manager of the child welfare strategy group for the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation.
Professionalizing foster care, Feild said, “really reimagines foster care — but not in a good way.”
A far better approach, Feild said, would be to provide foster families with more support and training, such as having caseworkers on hand to help them work through crises. Most children, even the most “difficult” ones, thrive within the context of a loving family, she said.
Across the country, child welfare workers are struggling to ensure that foster parents get training and support — and are held to certain standards for the work that they do, said Christine James-Brown, CEO of the Child Welfare League of America, a Washington, D.C.-based coalition of private and public agencies. (Her agency supports professional foster care, but only for foster parents who provide therapeutic care.)
“People sometimes resist the view that foster parents are professionals,” James-Brown said. “They want to focus on the voluntary aspect of what they do, the fact that they love children and want to contribute to their well-being.”
Children with special needs
The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services in 2016 launched a pilot program to test the effectiveness of professional foster care for children requiring therapeutic services.
The five-year initiative places children who have experienced severe trauma and who have serious emotional and behavioral needs in single-family homes.
The idea is to care for the children in a family setting, rather than in an institutional setting such as a group home — and to shorten the amount of time they spend in foster care. Illinois children typically languish for 35 months in foster care, compared with the national average of 20 months.
Professional foster parents who participate receive $90 a day, or $2,700 a month, compared with a typical stipend of $418 to $511 a month in Illinois. At least one parent must not work outside the home.
Professional foster parents “ought to be paid enough that they can afford to be at home,” said Ruth Jajko, vice president of Children’s Community Services at the Lutheran Social Services of Illinois, which administers the program in Aurora, Chicago and Rockford.
“If that’s what you’re requiring, you’ve got to make it financially feasible,” Jajko said.
Foster parents in the Illinois program undergo three days of training to introduce them to the concepts of therapeutic foster care and what will be expected of them, Jajko said. They’re trained in parenting and communication techniques that reward children for good behavior.
If a child acts out and doesn’t respond to the foster parent’s attempts at intervention, the foster parent is expected to call a “team leader”— a professional caseworker — immediately. The foster parents and the caseworker tag team to reinforce positive behavior, such as getting up on time and behaving well at school.
Meanwhile, the foster parent is expected to attend weekly meetings with other foster parents, for training and support. The mandatory meetings reinforce the idea of professionalism, Jajko said. “We can say, this is part of the job.”
The program is a great idea, but “it’s not perfect across the board,” said Janet Barnes, assistant deputy public guardian for Cook County, Illinois. Her agency, which acts as a legal advocate for abused and neglected children, originally pushed for therapeutic foster care in the state.
Under the current system in Illinois, Barnes said, foster children don’t get to meet their therapeutic foster parents until the day they move into their new home. That works fine for some children, usually older youth who are eager to get out of group homes. But it can be extremely upsetting for younger children.
Some who struggle with the transition are moved to another therapeutic foster home or even a hospital “until they are stabilized,” Barnes said.
Texas’ foster care system has been roiled by controversy. Last year, a federal appeals court found children in the system to be endangered and ordered the state to protect the constitutional rights of children in state care.
Before that ruling, the state in 2017 began experimenting with a “community-based care” approach, under which children with special needs are placed with professional foster parents. But progress has been slow and only a few counties have adopted the program, said Patrick Crimmins, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.
The idea is to keep the children close to home and connected to their communities and families, while providing them with tailored counseling and other services. The program is funded by the state, but administered through private agencies, Crimmins said.
Arrow Child and Family Ministries, a faith-based private agency located in Spring, Texas, operates such programs in Waco, Tyler, Beaumont and Houston. Since the program launched in October, the agency has licensed 13 professional foster homes, and another 103 families are in training, said Scotty Lundy, Arrow’s CEO. Ten children have been placed with professional foster families so far, he said.
Armed with $500,000 in corporate donations, the agency used social media to recruit families, aiming for younger professional couples and empty nesters. The marketing emphasized, “This is how you can stay at home. You’re a vital part of our clinical team and healing for our children.”
The foster parent is “a clinical professional in our model,” Lundy said.
The agency pays professional foster parents a monthly stipend of $4,300 to care for foster youth full-time, Lundy said. The children in the program are age 10 and under and have been placed in psychiatric hospitals or residential treatment facilities. Foster parents work closely with therapists and case managers who are licensed psychotherapists.
Families are licensed and trained in parenting techniques. They attend support groups and are required to take a respite break at least once a month, he said. And they must be willing to let child welfare professionals come in and out of their home, he said.
Traumatized children often have a host of behavioral and mental health problems, and foster families must be ready to deal with them, he said. So far, two children in the program have had to be hospitalized in mental health facilities before being returned to their foster families, he said.
Meanwhile, Milwaukee County in Wisconsin has been working with professional foster parents for more than a decade. In 2007, county officials launched a program to address the needs of adolescent girls who want to be reunited with their parents.
Participants must have at least two years’ experience and undergo special training, and at least one parent must be a stay-at-home parent.
Professional foster parents in Milwaukee County receive a stipend and a health insurance allowance and are reimbursed at higher rates than regular foster parents. The average foster parent is paid $40,000 a year.
A 2009 report evaluating the effectiveness of the program found it to be a “modest success” with 50 percent of the girls finding a permanent home as a result of the program.
Other Wisconsin counties have expressed interest in adopting the model, said Jennifer Wilder, program coordinator for the Professional Foster Parent Program.
A broader push to revamp the juvenile justice system in the state and a greater awareness of the risks young girls face, such as being sex trafficked, is contributing to the increased interest, said Ann Kelley-Kuehmichel, a consultant with the professional foster care program of the Milwaukee County Behavioral Health Division.
Tonia Ware, a 49-year-old resident of suburban Chicago, has been a foster parent for over 20 years. She adopted her now-grown son through the foster care system and helped raise 18 others, all the time holding down a job in surgical patient services at the University of Chicago Hospital.
But two years ago, she decided she wanted to spend more time with her foster children, whom she calls “my kids.” She enrolled in the state’s therapeutic foster care program, administered by Lutheran Social Services of Illinois.
Now, she works part-time, building her schedule around the kids in her care. So far, she said, she’s cared for a tween who had a penchant for stealing cars and crashing them, and another tween who has been repeatedly hospitalized for psychotic breaks.
She received intensive training to deal with behavioral problems and works closely with a team of professionals. She also meets weekly with other professional foster parents to exchange advice.
Ware says the program enabled her to lavish her foster children with love, cuddles, vacations and firm, consistent discipline based on a system of rewards. They all call her “Mom,” and even after they’re reunited with family, they know they can always call on her, she says.
“I always tell my kids, just because you leave my house, doesn’t mean you leave my heart,” Ware said.
She says she’s paid more than enough to meet her needs and those of the children. She views this as her ministry, the chance to make a difference in a child’s life — and yes, she sees herself as a professional.
“When I think of being a professional foster parent,” Ware said, “it’s because you’re putting your all in. All in to win.”