Keys to foster parent recruitment & retention in Texas

The following is a transcript of an invited testimony given by Denise Kendrick, Executive Director of Embrace Texas, to the Senate Committee on Health & Human Services on March 22, 2018. Kendrick was given 7 minutes to address obstacles prevent prospective foster families from completing the licensing process and how to improve retention of existing foster parents.

“Good morning, and thank you for the opportunity to speak.

I am Denise Kendrick, Executive Director for Embrace Texas, a non-profit organization supporting foster, adoptive and kinship families in North Texas. To be clear, we are not a child placing agency. My work includes facilitating foster parent support groups and administering programs that provide me the opportunity to interact with hundreds of foster and adoptive families each year. In addition to my professional experience, I served as a foster parent for over a decade and in Texas and cared for 25 children in that time… including adopting two teenagers and a sibling group of 3 from foster care.

Our nonprofit works closely with Child Protective Services in our region, as well as CASA. Embrace also facilitates the Child Placing Recruitment Collaborative In Region 3 and regularly review statistics related to the foster parent shortages in each county. On an almost daily basis, we get calls and emails from CASAs and caseworkers asking if we know of any families in our network who can foster a specific child or sibling group. We are keenly aware of the need for more quality foster parents and see the ramifications of these shortages in our community.

I want to share with you today what we feel are some of the leading obstacles that prevent interested candidates from completing the licensing process and issues that cause burn-out of newly licensed foster parents.

It’s no secret the foster care has a PR problem. When foster care is in the news, it’s almost always bad news. A child death. An abusive foster parent. Children spending the night in CPS offices. For those who look past this negative stigma related to foster parenting and decide to investigate or pursue licensing, the confusing recruitment process can curb the enthusiasm of even the most eager perspective family. While this is an area that can and should be addressed, I believe the real solution to the state’s foster parent recruitment issue lies in the retention of active foster parents.

Current and former foster parents are the single most effective recruitment tool the state has. I come in contact with dozens of foster parents every week, and a huge majority of these report that their initial interest in becoming a foster parent was not a compelling brochure or PSA commercial, but a friend, family member, or acquaintance who is a foster parent. Having court-side seats to the beauty, healing and hardship that comes with opening your heart and home to care for abused and neglected children… it sells itself.

If this journey is intrinsically motivating, where is the disconnect? 

Why aren’t more of these prospective parents becoming licensed?

The disconnect is in our care for those who are already fostering. Care of our current foster parents is doubly beneficial. Increased retention equals increased recruitment. With improved morale and satisfaction, foster parents become the recruitment effort. They tell the stories of the hard and beautiful job of caring for other peoples’ children. And they stick with it for the long-haul, and gain the skills necessary to care for children with more challenging needs. This means more placement stability for children and an increased return on the investment it takes to train and license foster parent.

How do we better care for the families caring for our most vulnerable children?

Back to that PR problem, the State, along with child placing agencies, must take steps to weed out bad foster parents who give fostering a bad name. Agencies should be charged with closing homes that “give notice” on children when the going gets tough or when things aren’t going as they had hoped. We can make the title of “foster parent” something parents can take pride in.

We also need to clarify messaging surrounding the “job” of foster parents. Foster parents are service providers. As a foster parent, you need to meet the need for care that exists in your community. The openings in licensed homes should reflect the age, ethnicity and level of care of children entering the system in their community. It’s supply and demand, but it’s not presented that way. When many homes are licensed for the same, small population of children, on paper, it appears the need has been met. But in reality, we know that a majority of children are placed outside their home county, and a good number out of region. Then  licensed foster homes sit open and empty, and families assume there’s not really a need. This mismatch further dissuades new parents from jumping through the hoops necessary to become licensed.

Another point of confusion and frustration is use of the phrase “foster to adopt”. When I “Drive to the store”, there is no mistake. Driving is the means to the end… the store. When we talk about fostering to adopt, we’re communicating that fostering is means to the end: adoption. We understand that many families foster with the hopes of adopting, but the way we’re framing this communicates that adoption, not reunification, is the ultimate goal.

Words matter.

From the moment prospective families start their licensing and training journey they are labeled “foster to adopt” or “straight foster”. This puts the focus on the goals of the foster family, not the needs of the children.

The true implementation of HR 4980, the prudent parenting standards for foster parents, is another way we can improve retention of foster parents. We need to allow parents to care for foster children in a fashion more similar to their biological children, or typical peers. This increases the normalcy of a child’s time in foster care and reduce strain on caregivers.

Several years ago, when my husband and I were foster parents caring for a sibling group, we had an out of state trip planned for work. We were to depart on New Years Day, and had arranged respite care for our foster children with a fellow foster family who knew and interacted with our children regularly. At 5 pm on New Years Eve we received a call that the respite family had an emergency, and was no longer available to keep our children for the week. Although my parents were willing and capable of caring for the children while we were out of town, they were only certified as “occasional caregivers” with our agency, and not permitted to watch our foster children for more than a day or two. We had not orpiment but to call random foster parents from a roster provided by our agency, in hopes of finding somewhere for the boys to go. I am ashamed to say that, the next morning, I dropped my foster children off at the home of a complete stranger. While she was a licensed foster parent and a safe care provider, I can honestly say it’s something I would never do to my “own” children, but I was left with no other option. Foster parents find themselves in similar situations on a regular basis. These instances are a burden to the parents and promote abnormal parenting decisions. The parents cannot choose what is best, they must choose what follows policy. Foster parents bear the burden of the day-to-day responsibility and risk for caring for the children in their home, but little of the freedom to balance it out. That’s a recipe for burnout.

This unbalance is also reflected in the lack of representation foster parents experience. While I do not believe foster parents should be a party to a child’s legal case, I do believe more consistent communication about the goals and progress in a case would make foster parents feel more valued and go a long way toward improving their overall morale. These parents on the front lines deserve a platform to share their thoughts and observations, and to feel like part of a team working towards a common goal. Foster parents should be consistently invited to attend court and to interact directly with the parents of foster children in their care, when possible. Training can and should be developed specifically to guide foster parents in these interactions.

In summary, improved care and support of foster parents is:

– better for current foster parents

– better for future foster parents

– better for the bottom line

– and, most importantly, will improve outcomes for children at the heart of what we do.

Thank you for your time and consideration.”