DC's Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) has recently been touting its new emphasis on the well- being of the children under its care. Interim Director Davidson boasted in his testimony before the DC Council on February 18, 2005, that the District continues “to increase emphasis on the well-being of those we serve.” As evidence, he cites the fact that 96% of children in the system got a health screening before entering foster care and that 85% of children ages 0 to 5 got a developmental screening upon entering care. This is a strange and limited concept of well-being. Unfortunately, this system which claims to focus on well-being has shown a remarkable lack of interest at the quality of parenting that the District provides to its wards.
Some of the most selfless and heroic people I have ever met are foster parents. These foster parents treat children as their own. They take them to the therapist weekly and to all medical appointments. They attend back to school night and parent conferences at school. They see themselves as part of the child's treatment team and they would not dream of having someone else take the child to the therapist or psychiatrist. They get to know the children's birth parents and often take the children to visit them. Perhaps most importantly, they understand the traumas that their foster children have experienced and that their difficult behaviors are a response to these traumas. Therefore, they respond to these behaviors appropriately without condemning or rejecting the child.
Unfortunately there are too many foster parents who, far from treating children as their own, refuse to visit their foster children's schools, pick them up when they are sick, or take them on to the doctor or therapist. They refuse to meet the birth parents or bring the children to visit them. Just to give you some examples, one foster parent I worked with had never (in a whole year) been to the school of one of her foster children for a meeting, back to school night, or to see her in a performance. The child was never able to attend an evening activity (such as a dance) at her school because the foster parent would not take her. The foster parent even refused to go to the school to pick up the child when she was throwing up. She did not want to miss work and was afraid to drive into the District from Maryland. This foster parent also told the social worker, in front of the child, that she wanted the child removed from her home after a year because she was too much work. Another foster parent refused to go to a meeting I was trying to schedule with the child’s teacher and therapist in order to improve the child’s school performance. She said, and I quote, “If I cared, I would go, but I don’t care.”A third foster parent knew that her two foster children were getting on a public bus to get to school. But she had no idea what bus they were taking, where their schools were, or that the 15-year-old was letting the 6-year-old get off the bus and find her way to school on her own.
The impact on children of this type of neglect is hard to overestimate. It is bad enough for these young people to have their status as foster children constantly on display by having paid staff show up at school to take them to the doctor, having nobody attend performances that they are in, or not even be able to attend these performances or evening activities because their foster parents won't take them. Just think of having a social worker or aide take a child to therapy. What is the use of a 45 minute session once a week if the foster parent does not communicate with the therapist? More important is the lack of the emotional support that these young people so desperately need. And the rejection that these children often suffer from foster parents who criticize their behavior or demand that a child be removed as soon as he or she talks back or misbehaves.
Anyone who has been a foster care social worker, at least in the District of Columbia, knows that some people foster for the money. Depending on the age of the child and the level of their needs, payment ranges from $991.20 for a child under 12 with no special needs to $1505.98 for a child aged 12 or over with multiple handicaps. Foster parents are expected to spend all of their stipends meeting the expenses of caring for their children and there are guidelines indicating how much they should spend on clothing, transportation, personal allowances and other expenses. However, while the best foster parents often spend more than their stipends, some foster parents siphon off some money for their own personal expenses. Children in the homes of these foster parents may only have one school uniform or the foster parent make require them to pay for necessities out of their personal allowance, which is not allowed. Many young people have weekend visits with their birth parents as they are getting closer to reunification. In most of these cases, the foster parents pocket the subsidy for those weekends and even longer periods while the parents must struggle to pay for their visiting children. A foster parent who spends the bare minimum on the foster child can definitely siphon off money to pay her personal expenses and many do.
Let me say again that I have known several fabulous foster parents, most of whom use their entire subsidies and even their own money for the children. These foster parents are not motivated by money. Most of them are providing foster care because they want a child or children in their lives. Usually the love of children is combined with the desire to help children and influence their lives. Unfortunately, we don't have enough of these great foster parents. That's why we don't fire the bad ones.
The District’s partially privatized foster care system, in which many foster homes are provided by private agencies, also contributes to the failure to fire bad foster parents. The private agencies are competing with each other because the District has been closing about two of them every year. Private agencies are reluctant to give up foster parents, no matter how bad, because they get black marks for CFSA for being unable to find a home when CFSA asks. In one private agency where I worked, social workers were asked to rate foster parents before they could be re-licensed. The form even asked if the foster parent should be licensed again. But even when I said no and backed it up with disturbing accounts such as those mentioned above, the licensing staff proceeded with re-licensing the foster parent.
What can be done? We must close down bad foster homes and replace them with better options. This cannot be done immediately as there would be no place to put the children. So here is my suggestion. CFSA should use the annual foster parent licensing process to make sure that all foster parents are aware of and committed to the requirements of the job. All new foster parents need to be given a full explanation of what they are expected to do, and they should sign a written list of duties. All current foster parents identified by social workers as doing less than an “A” job should be brought in for a meeting when their licenses are due to be renewed. Like new foster parents, they must be told the requirements of the job and they must commit in writing to fulfilling them. If they cannot do so, their licenses should not be renewed. Of course, there are foster parents who are simply not suited to the job because they lack the empathy and concern for the children that are necessary. Social workers know who these foster parents are. Their licenses should not be renewed.
Implementing my suggestion will result in a loss of foster parents. In order to fill the gap this will cause, we either need to decrease demand for foster parents, increase supply, or use another sort of residential option. A decrease in demand is unlikely this year because the foster care caseload has decreased drastically in the past few years due to demographic changes and CFSA's policy of keeping children at home if at all possible. Because the District has already decreased its foster care caseload so much, it is anticipating only a very small decrease this year.
A second strategy to fill the gap between supply and demand is to focus on increasing the supply of foster parents. One approach would be to recruit among different groups of people that have not traditionally served as foster parents. This is a good idea but it is unlikely that all of the bad foster parents could be replaced by a change in recruiting strategy. Therefore, the District will have to look to other residential options such as family style group homes (such as those currently operated by Boys Town) for some of the older, more troubled youth who tend not to thrive in family foster homes. I will discuss this in my next blog post.