If I could summarize what foster parents want more than anything from their case managers, it would be this:
This is what I learned from a survey I put out via my various social media channels back in August. (If you participated in that survey, thank you!) Granted, my sample size is small, and my audience is skewed toward people who already engage with my content, presumably in an effort to become more informed and equipped as a foster parent. Still, the results offer a helpful look at what this group of foster parents experience. In response to the question, “What are some ways your case managers have helped support you as a foster parent?” more than half of the 136 foster parents who responded named clear, honest, and timely communication as thing they appreciated most about their case managers. By the same token, an overwhelming majority of respondents said the thing that was most frustrating about their case managers was lack of communication.
Foster parents come into a case completely blind to the circumstances and details of the case. However, and I cannot stress this enough, from Day One of a placement, the foster parents and everyone living in their household are intimately involved and affected by those unknown details. Many social workers cite confidentiality as the reason they cannot disclose details of a case, but those details often have a direct effect on the foster home and the success of that placement. The case managers who get that and go out of their way to ensure foster parents are equipped with relevant information are empowering those foster parents for success in the placement. When a case manager fails to disclose certain details, they are setting those foster parents up for failure.
Case in point: one foster parent who responded said that their case worker told them the child they were considering “was good with dogs and kids.” However, “after incidents while in our care, we found out (the child) was removed from two other homes for hurting dogs and kids.” Another person said their case worker did not inform them that a child in their care had been accused of sexual abuse prior to being placed with them. They only learned about it when that child sexually abused someone in their home. In both cases, the children had to be removed from that home and placed elsewhere, compounding their trauma and causing additional trauma to existing children in the foster home. Transparency between the case manager and prospective foster parents would have made all the difference in both cases.
However, and I really want to stress this, these two cases represent a small fraction of the stories I heard. In my experience—and this survey confirmed it—most children in foster care are not dangerous to animals or other children. Those cases, though they represent an unfortunate and unjust stigma attached to children in foster care, are outliers. Instead, the communication foster parents benefit from most has to do with much more mundane aspects of daily life.
Things like scheduling, for instance. In fact, the most common issue I saw over and over as I read through the comments in my survey had to do with lack of communication around scheduling— specifically family visitation, health and safety visits, and court hearings. Being a no-show to monthly appointments and not communicating when visitation schedules were changed at the last minute came up several times. Not responding to phone calls, texts, or email messages, and not communicating about court dates were the biggest sources of frustration for the foster parents who responded to my survey. It may seem incidental, but the daily interruptions and adjustments foster families make to a accommodate last minute scheduling changes can take a toll. When a case manager at least attempts to mitigate those interruptions, or acknowledges them, foster parents feel seen and valued.
But it goes beyond that. Communication about the status of the case is another thing that is huge for foster parents. And it’s understandable, right? For the duration of their time as a child’s foster parent, much of life revolves around meeting that child’s needs and being a team player in the overall plan of permanency for that child—be it through reunification (ideally) or adoption. Foster parents are deeply invested in the children in their care, and keeping them informed about the status of the case, even when the status is uncertain or nebulous, is an important factor in helping a foster parent feel like part of “the team.” In fact, several respondents referred to being treated “like a team player” as one way they either felt supported, or felt a lack of support, by their case managers. One foster parent wrote that the thing they appreciated most about their case manager was that she “treated me like a parent and not a babysitter,” while five others said some version of “treating me like a glorified babysitter” as the thing they found most frustrating. Communicating as much as possible about the case can make all the difference in whether a foster parent feels empowered and energized to continue or deflated and disillusioned with being a foster parent.
Communicating as much as possible about the case can make all the difference in whether a foster parent feels empowered and energized to continue or deflated and disillusioned with being a foster parent.Tweet
But it is not only the foster parent who needs to be kept apprised of the status of their placement. Children in foster care are desperate for information about their case, because they, too, need time to prepare for their future outcomes. Too often, foster youth, along with their foster parents, are left in the dark, adding to their sense of insecurity and instability. Good communication from the case manager can make all the difference for them, too.
We once had an eleven-year-old boy who spent several nights in a safe house before coming to our home. It was his second time in foster care, so he knew the drill. His shelter care hearing was postponed twice, so instead of knowing whether he would be going home or reentering long-term foster care, he waited in limbo. I will never forget the conversation I had with him while we walked through IKEA. He asked me when the shelter care hearing would be. “I know as much as you do, buddy,” I said. “But you have my word, as soon as I hear something, you’ll hear something. I will tell you everything I know.” I had the same conversation with a nine-year-old boy who came to us under the same circumstances. It was his second time in foster care, and he wanted to know the details of his case. Would he be moving to a new school? Would he move back to his old foster parents? How long this time? Communication matters to children in foster care. While writing this article, I asked my daughter, who spent several years in foster care before we adopted her at age seventeen, what she needed most from her case managers. “Brutal honesty,” was her reply. “It is so traumatizing when you’re told one thing and then the exact opposite thing happens. It can take years to get over that, if ever.”
Foster parents who have time to prepare for reunification are much more likely to continue fostering than those who had the harsh experience of a last-minute surprise reunification.Tweet
This is also huge when it comes time for reunification. Foster parents who have time to prepare for reunification are much more likely to continue fostering than those who had the harsh experience of a last-minute surprise reunification. “Support through reunification” made all the difference to one foster parent, who continued fostering after that placement ended, while the case manager who “reunified the kids and gave us two hours to get their stuff packed and say goodbye” destroyed another. A foster parent once shared with me that she sent her foster children to school one day and never saw them again. The trauma that caused took her out as a foster parent. Another foster caregiver shared that two months after being asked to adopt the toddler she had since birth, she learned from the child’s therapist that plans were being made for reunification. It was the therapist, and not the case manager, who let that foster parent know of plans to move the child “home” to his mother in a rehab facility with childcare the following week. Thanks to the therapist, that foster couple had a week to prepare their two elementary school-aged sons (and themselves) to say goodbye to the child who had been with them for seventeen months. Had it been up to the case manager, they would have had two or three days.
The jury is out on whether that foster couple, who was one of the best I’ve ever known, will continue fostering.
Back in August, I heard from a community engagement specialist at Indiana’s Department of Child Services who is working to address foster parent retention. Citing poor communication as the primary reason foster parents close out their license and quit fostering, she was interested in exploring how best to support good communication between case managers and foster parents. To that end, I offer the following suggestions for case managers from the feedback I got in my survey.
“Foster Parent Wish List For Case Managers”
Treat your foster parents like part of the team. One foster parent wrote, “We are, or should be, all on the same team. We all want what’d best for the kids. We are not the enemy. A little respect and communication goes a long way. We see the kids day in and day out, you see them a couple hours a month. We know their needs.” Wrote another, “They have listened to our concerns and advocated for the children based on what we shared.” Many others echoed this sentiment, with several specifically mentioning that they appreciate when a case manager takes their concerns, observations, and suggestions about a child’s physical health, mental health, and emotional needs seriously and respond/advocate accordingly.
Make sure foster parents know when court hearings are scheduled. Attending court hearings is the best way for foster parents to get the full picture of where a case is at without a case manager breaking confidentiality. This also helps foster parents keep the kids in their home apprised of their case’s status. Give them enough time to prepare a statement and arrange for child care if necessary so they can be present. (See The Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 or “Applying the Notice and Right to be Heard” from Virginia’s Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Courts for more information.)
Be candid and transparent about a child’s history. If a child has a history of troubling behaviors, including physical aggression toward others, suicidal ideations, property destruction, and acting out sexually, be up front with the foster parents so they know what they’re taking on. This is especially crucial with new and inexperienced foster parents or homes with other children. Not communicating about known concerns like these is setting the placement up for failure.
Make an effort to involve the foster parent when it comes to scheduling visitation. Take into consideration that the visit schedule will affect the entire household, from meals to school behaviors to extracurricular activities to sleep schedules. While the visits absolutely need to work for the child’s parents above all, make an effort to also make them work for the foster family, who will manage the fallout when visits don’t go well (or don’t happen at all).
Respond to your foster parents’ calls, texts, and email in a timely manner. Communicate at the start of a placement what the foster parent can expect in terms of communication. Let them know if you will respond within 24- or 48-hours, give them a back-up plan in the event that they don’t hear back from you (such as a supervisor’s contact info), and do your best not to leave them hanging. This alone has a huge influence on a foster parent’s decision to continue fostering.
Help foster parents get access to resources. New foster parents are often ignorant about how the public (i.e. Medicaid) health system works. Direct them to where they need to go for pediatricians, dentists, mental health evaluations, trauma-informed therapists, and IEP advocates. (Often, this is as simple as sending them the link to the Medicaid provider network.) Also, help with clothing vouchers, access to school supplies, etc. mean a lot to foster parents. As a new foster parent, I did not know where to go for these resources until a case manager told me about how to access them. Several foster parents also mentioned help with getting Christmas presents for their foster children as a way they felt supported. There are many organizations that offer gifts for foster youth during the holidays, but foster parents don’t always know about them or have time to research them.
Update foster parents about the status of the case. The best case workers we had were candid about how the case was going. When there were delays, or timelines had to be adjusted, they told us why. During one of our adoptions, a case manager had promised to complete her case note redactions by a certain date, but was delayed because of unexpected things in her caseload. She was honest about that and didn’t leave us wondering when it would be done. That made a big difference, especially to our child who knew they were on track to be adopted and wondered what was “taking so long.”
Show compassion when it’s time to reunify. One foster parent responded that their case manager’s “support through the reunification process and crying with us as we said our final goodbyes” meant a lot to them. Recognizing the bond between foster parents and the children in their care does not undermine the goal of reunification. It recognizes the humanity of the foster parent and the sacrifice they make so the children in their care can have a safe, stable, and loving family during their time in out-of-home care.
Recognizing the bond between foster parents and the children in their care does not undermine the goal of reunification. It recognizes the humanity of the foster parent and the sacrifice they make for children in foster care.Tweet
I know I’m probably forgetting something.
After combing through 136 survey responses and considering the stories I have heard as a foster parent mentor and coach for the past several years, I feel as though I have only scratched the surface. But I hope this gives thoughtful case managers a solid look at what they could do to help retain their foster parents.
It is no secret that there is a growing need for foster parents. The turnover rate for foster parents is huge. By taking good care of the ones who are already serving in this capacity, case managers not only reinforce their resolve to continue on, but also make it more likely that those foster parents will encourage others to foster as well.
If you are a foster parent, I would love to invite you to share your experiences in the comments below. What would you add to what I’ve shared here? How have you felt supported—or a lack of support—from your case managers?
I want to end on a personal note.
With only one exception, the case managers and social workers we worked with in the State of Washington Department of Children, Youth, and Family Services were exceptional. They fulfilled all of the items on my “Wish List” above. I can’t say enough good about them. They genuinely cared about the children on their case loads and worked tirelessly to advocate for them. They recognized the challenges of foster parenting and supported us as much as they could. And they went out of their way to communicate with the parents of the children in our care, connect me with members of our foster children’s families, and allowed us to work with them to maintain family connections and prepare for permanency, be that through reunification or adoption. And I credit this excellent treatment by our licensors and case workers for the six years my husband and I were foster parents. The only reason we stopped fostering was that, after fostering at least fifteen children and adopting our last two children, we felt that we needed to devote all of our attention to the needs of our five and try to maintain a stable home environment for their sake.
Sadly, as my survey attests, our experience was not the universal foster parent experience. In fact, 65.4% of the foster parents surveyed have considered quitting foster parenting because of frustration with their case managers, and as the feedback shows, those frustrations are primarily around communication.
In light of the massive need for foster parents, those seeking to address issues of recruitment and retention would do well to encourage and incentivize their case managers and social workers to make effective communication with foster parents a priority. I hope the specific suggestions I’ve offered here will help to that end.
More About The Survey Respondents:
Here is some additional relevant data on who responded to my survey:
Photo by TienDat Nguyen on Unsplash