Repurposing Foster Care to Support Birth Families
(Originally published May 2020)
On April 29, 2020, the federal Administration for Children and Families (ACF) released Foster Care as a Support to Families, with the stated purpose:
To provide information on best practices, resources and recommendations for using foster care as a support for
families in a way that mitigates the trauma of removal for the child and parents, expedites safe and successful reunification, and improves parent and child well-being outcomes. (p.1)
The document refers to “a new vision for foster care as a support to families,” and then informs readers in fine print that “CB (the Children’s Bureau) is making a conscious effort to stop using the terms “birth parents” and “biological parents” and simply refer to a child’s parents as parents.” ACF goes on to state that “We believe that qualifying parents as “birth parents” or “biological parents” can be experienced as disempowering and can deemphasize the primacy of the parent-child bond. CB is also making an effort to refer to “foster parents” as resource families as an effort to emphasize the enhanced role that resource families can play in the lives of children and their parents …” (footnote, p.1)
The suggested change in renaming and referring to foster parents as “resource families” is an indication that ACF consulted with and depended on the Annie E. Casey Foundation (AECF) to develop its new vision and its new “correct” language for foster care. On May 20, Youth Today published an article titled “Let’s Boldly Reimagine Child Welfare System to Strengthen Families in the Post COVID-19 World by Sandra Gasca-Gonzalez, vice president of the Center for Systems Innovation at the Annie E. Casey Foundation (AECF). Speaking for AECF, Gasca-Gonzalez advocates “creating a child welfare system that - when children have to be removed from their home for their safety – emphasizes, equips and supports a co-parenting relationship that enables all foster parents and kinship caregivers to function as resource parents, embracing birth parents and their children .. aimed at strengthening the family and encouraging reunification.” The shared vision of the ACF document and AECF article in Youth Today suggests the close working relationship between these two organizations. As with Family First legislation, it is far from clear which entity is developing the vision and which is assisting in its implementation; though when two organizations have values and visions so closely aligned, this distinction may no longer be relevant. AECF has achieved an influence in child welfare policy development at the federal level that the Gates Foundation has had for years in education reform.
Ms. Gasca-Gonzalez appears to have skipped the footnote in the ACF document that sets forth programmatically correct language for foster care, as she refers to birth parents and “resource parents”; or more likely, she decided that using limited space in an article written for a wide audience to educate readers regarding correct language for foster care was a poor PR strategy.
The problem with referring to foster families as “resource families” is that it is a misrepresentation of foster parents’ caregiving role. Whatever else foster parents are (and I have known many foster parents over the years who were a great resource for birth families) they are, first and foremost, caregivers of children with parenting responsibilities. Both ACF and Gasca-Gonzalez (AECF) refer to “co-parenting” and “shared parenting” as a key part of their strategy. Both organizations understand that resource families are parents; they just do not want to give foster parents the standing and status accorded to parents. Any policy statement that begins by misrepresenting the primary role of foster parents is off to a bad start, despite the praiseworthy goal of creating partnerships between birth parents (or ‘parents’, as ACF would have it) and foster parents. Furthermore, the initial footnote regarding new correct language to refer to familiar persons and relationships is a tip-off that the new vision and policy has ideological roots, which is sure to affect implementation.
Elements of ACF’s vision of foster care include:
Kinship families should be given first consideration when child or sibling group must be placed out of the parents’ home.
All reasonable efforts are made to keep siblings together unless a joint placement “would be contrary to the safety or well-being of any of the siblings.”
Children remain in their communities.
“Parents and children remain connected, speak with and see each other daily.”
In the most important and potentially beneficial change, “Agencies and courts encourage and support relationships between resource families and parents.”
Resource families view working with parents as a central part of their role;” and “resource families … provide post-reunification services.”
All child welfare stakeholders view and support utilizing foster care as a support to entire families.”
The ACF vision of foster care mentions adoption in a single sentence:
Make clear (to resource families) that adoption may be an option, but only after resource families’ work intensively to help families reunify when that is the goal.” In other words, those families who seek a foster care license with the primary goal of adoption must first commit to working intensively with birth parents. ACF advises that “Expectations for shared parenting should be explicit even when parents have an existing relationship with the resource family, such as with kinship placement.” ACF continues a couple of paragraphs later to assert: While we are hopeful that all resource families will see the benefits of this new approach (i.e. intensive support of parents) to foster care and support the new vision, we must be prepared that some will not. In those situations, agencies must be willing to make hard decisions … Facilitating moves to kin or relatives in these scenarios may best ensure timely permanency and
support well-being for the entire family.” Translation: when non-kin foster parents are resistant to working intensively with the birth family to support reunification, the child welfare agency should move the child to a relatives’ home. But what if there is no such kinship home, or the relatives are as resistant to close contact with the parent(s) as the non-kin foster family?
ACF-AECF hope to covert foster parents who became licensed to adopt a child to their vision and goals; or ensure that children are not placed in these families. There is no acknowledgment that 55-60,000 children in the U.S. are adopted out of foster care each year; or that 30-40% of families who seek a foster care license do so to adopt a child. There is nothing in the ACF vision of foster care likely to change this reality. Any vision statement that makes support of children’s families the only acceptable function for foster care is likely to lead to shaming of those families whose motivation for seeking a foster care license is to adopt a child, often a baby or toddler. The ACF vision statement suggests that these foster families would no longer be welcome in child welfare unless they change (or pretend to change) their motivation for becoming foster parents. This is a potentially disastrous approach to foster care reform in cities and states with acute and chronic shortages of foster homes, which is most child welfare jurisdictions. The ACF-AECF vision of foster care is that all families must be actively engaged resources for birth parents, rather than the more realistic idea of steadily increasing the number and percentage of foster parents willing to take on the role of resource family as described by ACF.
A Public-Private Partnership
What can be said about a partnership between a philanthropic foundation and the federal child welfare agency that has resulted in Family First, and now this new vision for foster care?
On the positive side:
Their vision of foster care reform is praiseworthy and exciting. Child welfare agencies should support and actively encourage birth family/foster family relationships, “utilizing foster care as a support for the entire family,” co-parenting or shared parenting of foster children, and mentoring and coaching of birth parents by foster parents that grows out of close positive relationships. Many child welfare practitioners and stakeholders will welcome and support this new vision of foster care because they recognize that children’s well being is best served by birth family/foster family partnerships.
The dynamic duo is bold, dedicated to fundamental child welfare form, well resourced, and seemingly free of reservations and self-doubt. After Family First, there can be no question about their willingness to take considerable risks to create a far more supportive child welfare system for birth families.
AECF has had a sustained deep commitment to poverty reduction for many years, a far stronger commitment to this goal than most other foundations. Furthermore, AECF has summarized and disseminated information regarding evidence-based programs for many years; and has impressive expertise in this subject.
On the negative side:
Family First is reckless policy in its apparent willingness to undermine residential care through onerous regulations which, in practice, will be difficult to implement. The ACF vision statement has a similar low regard for foster-adopt parents, and does not appear to care that a large percentage of those families who seek a foster home license may be disinclined to become a resource family to birth parents. It is not true that kinship families can be easily found to care for young children who would otherwise be placed with families disinclined to work closely with a child’s birth family. If this were true, rates of children placed in kinship care would already be much higher than they are. It is risky to first undermine residential care programs with onerous regulations and then make foster families who are resistant to frequent contact with birth families feel unwelcome in child welfare systems. What could be the thought process of child welfare managers whose agencies are currently placing large numbers of foster children out of county, out of state, in 24-hour placements or hotels that would induce them to refuse to place these children in the homes of foster parents resistant to the ACF/AECF vision?
The ACF/AECF vision of foster care is sweeping; every kin and non-kin foster parent is expected to sign on to the role of resource family; or face having foster children removed from their home. The rationale for this vision of foster care system depends on ideological stereotypes of persecuted parents and foster children traumatized by coercive separation from their families; but the reality is far more complex. Some children have been severely victimized by one or both birth parents; and may be further traumatized by frequent contact with their abusive parent(s). Some small percentage of foster children’s parents have histories of violence which would be foolish and risky for caseworkers and foster parents to ignore. Every case of serious or chronic maltreatment has idiosyncratic features which must be carefully assessed in planning parent-child visitation. There cannot be a “one size fits all” approach to the birth parent/foster parent relationship or to parent-child visitation. Concretely, this means that prescriptive rules and expectations cannot safely guide the initial stages of birth parent/foster parent partnerships and co-parenting arrangements.
AECF has strongly opposed professional foster parents on the grounds that paying foster parents for the care of children would corrupt, or appear to corrupt, foster care in the eyes of foster children in a way that is not true for caseworkers, therapists, teachers, physicians judges, or child advocates such as AECF staff. However, the only realistic possibility of greatly increasing birth family/foster family partnership is in combination with professionalizing some percentage of licensed foster homes, e.g., 20%, and/or as a part of therapeutic foster care programs. Professional foster parents can be given expectations for supporting birth families as a condition of employment which is not feasible in recruiting and retaining volunteer foster parents when foster homes are in short supply.
How to effectively increase birth family/foster family partnerships
Child welfare agencies should begin by identifying and consulting with foster families who have worked closely with birth families for years, not because they were required to, but because they gradually learned that children placed in their home were less emotionally conflicted and happier as a result. Some foster families have routinely allowed parents to visit children in their home daily or several times per week. Most child welfare agencies have some of these foster families who should be utilized as consultants in developing the resource family model of foster care. Under no circumstances should child welfare agencies implement the ACF vision of foster care in the usual bureaucratic ways, i.e., through prescriptive policies and procedures, monitoring for compliance, etc.
The ACF vision should not be mandated for all foster families; rather, the vision should be articulated as an ideal, an aspiration which will require a decade or longer to achieve.
Mentoring, coaching and otherwise supporting birth families, including post-reunification, should be written into the job expectations of professional foster parents (one-tenth to one- fifth of licensed homes), and of all therapeutic foster care programs operated by child placing agencies.
The ideological underpinnings of the ACF/AECF vision should be put aside in favor of a pragmatic adaptive approach to implementation. Foster parents who decline to engage in co-parenting or shared parenting with birth families should not be treated dismissively, or shamed. The fears of foster parents regarding the risks of allowing birth parents into their lives should be taken seriously; and candidly addressed by experienced foster parents who know whereof they speak. The emphasis should be on shared learning, not on training foster parents to use “correct” speech, and not on substituting positive stereotypes of birth families for negative ones. Training programs should seek to bring birth parents and foster parents together for open and forthright discussions.
The ACF/AECF vision of foster care approaches a fork in the road: one path employs mandates and the whole heavy-handed bureaucratic apparatus. The other path depends on ideals, aspirations, recognition of exemplary foster families who have learned how to effectively support birth families, and the development of a cadre of professional foster parents whose job description includes intensive support of birth families. The first road leads to further damage to an already struggling foster care system; the second road leads to a new concept and public image of foster care within a decade or two. Policymakers and managers must choose which road is more likely to result in desired outcomes.
Administration for Children and Families, Log No: ACYF-CB- IM-20-06, Issuance Date: April 29,2020
Gasca-Gonzalez, S., “Let’s Boldly Reimagine Child Welfare System
to Strengthen Families in Post-COVID-19 World,” Youth Today, posted May 20, 2020.