Customer service is the key factor in both recruiting and retaining foster/adoptive families. Customer service is built on the attitude that each participant in the child welfare system − from line staff; to the agency director; to the judge; to the foster, adoptive, or kinship family − must feel like a valued member of the team and be committed to providing good customer service.
First impressions are critical in determining one’s perceptions about
a product or service. In child welfare interactions, how people
are treated at the first point of contact sets the tone for how the
relationship will move forward (Geen, 2004). When your agency
responds to inquiries, is the first interaction a welcoming one, or does
the caller feel interrogated, unimportant, or ignored? Is the agency
employee that answers and returns the calls smiling on their end
of the phone? Research has shown that a smile can be felt through
the phone and improves customer satisfaction. It is standard advice
in sales and customer service to smile while talking on the phone
(Customers That Stick, n.d.).
It is also standard advice to use the words “thank you.” Saying “thank you” both engages customers and makes them receptive to the rest of the conversation. Are prospective foster/adoptive parents thanked for their interest? A simple “thank you” in the first conversation tells them that their interest is both wanted and taken seriously.
How timely is a response to a prospective foster/adoptive parent? Best practice suggests that a timely response is within 24 hours. The NRCDR recommends, “Return all phone calls to prospective and current foster and adoptive parents and kinship caregivers within 24 hours. Even if you are waiting for more information and can’t answer the caller’s questions, call them back to let them know that you’re working on their questions.”
(See Appendix 6-1: Five Things You Can Do to Improve Customer Service – Phone Interaction with Families.)
All future steps in the process should also be timely and respectful.
Retention starts with recruitment, so every piece of the process sets the
tone for how the prospective foster/adoptive parent and the agency will
engage with one another.
For example, prospective foster/adoptive parents are invited to attend an orientation or information session. Are there current foster parents at the session to answer questions and give advice? While it is not normally considered to be “customer service,” providing opportunities for prospective foster parents to interact with current foster parents sends a strong message that the agency values its foster/adoptive families.
(See: Appendix 6-2 10 Things You Can Do to Improve Customer Service – Prospective Parent Orientation Sessions.)
Streamlining paperwork is another way to respectfully engage prospective foster/adoptive parents. Review your current documentation to identify duplicative paperwork, unnecessary paperwork or hard-to-understand paperwork. Thoughtfulness and consideration in the application process help prospective foster/adoptive parents to fully embrace the process. Some agencies schedule paperwork days, when prospective foster families come to the agency for help in completing documentation.
Supporting prospective foster/adoptive parents throughout the certification process improves the retention of foster/adoptive families over time. It is equally important to provide essential supports to foster/ adoptive families after children are placed in their homes. Research has shown that up to 25% of foster/adoptive families discontinue providing foster care each year. It is estimated that 40% of these families left because they received inadequate support from the certifying entity (Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2012). These include activities such as: organized peer support; timely responses to concerns; flexible respite care; and relevant, accessible training. Agencies are advised to periodically survey their foster/adoptive families to determine their unique needs and then find ways to best meet those needs. Sample surveys can be found on the National Resource Center for Diligent Recruitment site, http://www.nrcdr.org; search on the term “survey”.
Timely and responsive communications between agencies and foster/
adoptive families is critical in keeping and sustaining foster parents. This
is never more important than when a situation arises in the middle of the
night, and the foster parent needs the agency for support. It is essential
that the agency be available 24/7 for its foster/adoptive families.
It is recommended that agencies develop a crisis response protocol and that everyone is aware of how it applies to them and their role and responsibility. Agencies may develop their own 24/7 phone trees of internal contacts or assign this role to a subcontractor. An emergency number can be staffed by agency employees during the day and by a contracted answering service after normal business hours.
Foster/adoptive families are members of the treatment team and should have an opportunity to provide input along with other team members throughout the time of the child’s placement. Foster/adoptive families have tremendous responsibility in their role within the foster care system. Having a voice in decision making can lead to successful and positive outcomes for the child in their temporary care.
Organized support can be used to both engage and retain prospective
foster parents while they await the availability of a MAPP class. Peer
support is a key factor throughout the entire certification process, which
can take up to six months. The negative effects of this lengthy process
can be mitigated by facilitating and supporting connections between a
prospective foster parent and current foster/adoptive families. These
types of initiatives support both recruitment and retention, because the
agency is showing prospective foster parents that it values them enough
to connect them to the “pulse” of foster parenting. Current foster parents
are given the message that their contributions are valued.
Developing a culture of support also enables new foster/adoptive families to adjust to their roles. Mentoring programs match a “seasoned” foster/ adoptive family with new foster parents. The current foster/adoptive family can provide valuable insights and share successful techniques they have used in dealing with difficult situations. A viable mentoring program may decrease the need for agencies to respond to crisis situations in new foster families.
In a survey conducted by the New York State Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS), foster/adoptive families indicated that peer support groups were very helpful to them. They provide opportunities to network and be engaged with others experiencing similar challenges. Peer support groups can help foster parents feel less alone in dealing with a problem, provide helpful information from others who have had similar experiences, discuss ideas for dealing with a problem, allow foster parents to express their feelings, and bring about change. Agencies may assist foster/adoptive families to establish support groups by providing meeting space at convenient hours for foster/ adoptive families and providing contact information. Agencies can also proactively encourage new foster/adoptive families to join existing associations and support groups.
Nonprofit, community-based programs can play a role in supporting foster children and foster/adoptive families.
The Next Door, Inc. in Oregon is a provider of foster care services. To support and enhance services for its foster families, the agency reached out to the local community. As a result, businesses are providing a range of benefits to foster families and children in care, such as free gym time for the children and pro bono medical and dental care.
Fostering Hope in Colorado recruits, trains, and coordinates teams of volunteers from faith communities. The teams provide support to foster families on an as-needed basis, such as minor household maintenance and repairs, babysitting, and tutoring or help with homework. The program reports that it has reduced stress and burnout among foster parents and provided community connections for foster children and youth.
A similar program, Fostering Futures NY, was recently launched in New York’s Capital Region. (See Appendix 6-4, Fostering Futures NY.)
A key component of Roots and Wings in Santa Cruz County, California, is the contract position of Outreach and Recruitment Coordinator. The coordinator supports and guides applicants through the certification process by helping them to access, complete, and submit applications and other required paperwork. Prospective foster families have one consistent person to help them navigate each step to certification. The county also created the role of Resource Family Liaison to augment the work of casework staff within its service delivery system. The liaisons are paraprofessionals hired by and paid by a community-based organization to provide intensive support to foster parents and relative caregivers. Their activities included, but weren’t limited to: maintaining contact through home visits, making referrals to support groups and mentors, identifying training needs, and either providing or referring families for training (County of Santa Cruz Human Services Department, n.d.).
Respite care provides planned, temporary, periodic relief to foster
parents from foster care responsibilities. No single model program or
blueprint is preferred – each agency provides this service in a way
that best meets the needs of its foster/adoptive families. In general, however, respite care programs meet a specific need, promote
teamwork and trust, use trained respite providers, and are flexible
to meet changing needs (Office of Inspector General, 1994).
Respite care is especially beneficial for foster parents who are caring for children with special needs. Research indicates that, after receiving respite care, caregivers reported reduced stress levels, improved family relationships, and a more positive attitude about fostering (Owens-Kane, 2006).
Providing effective respite care involves assessing and understanding the needs of foster/kinship families in the community. Families’ needs vary widely. Some families prefer only in-home respite care, while others do not like people coming to stay in their home. Some families like sending children to camp, while others feel uncomfortable sending their children away. It is also important to understand the barriers families may encounter in accessing respite. Are respite services provided by someone they know and trust, conveniently located, and available at needed times of the day or week? Can families trust that the providers are trained and capable of caring for the special needs of their child? Providing high-quality respite care requires taking the pulse of the community of foster and kinship families to understand their true needs (AdoptUSKids, 2013).
Some popular respite options elsewhere include:
Providing training opportunities for foster parents confirms their value in the child welfare system. Training that helps caregivers deal with the realities of foster parenting, especially equipping them to manage the behavior of children they are caring for, is highly sought after in many jurisdictions, both during the pre-certification period and as an ongoing support. Today’s foster parents are juggling multiple responsibilities and have hectic schedules. Agencies need to bring relevant training to the foster parents by making it accessible through a variety of formats: in-person education, online courses, live webinars and other distance learning modalities.
Prospective foster/adoptive families are required to complete training before certification or approval. In New York State, local districts frequently use GPSII/MAPP or Deciding Together for prospective foster parents and Deciding Together or Caring for Our Own for kinship families. The success of the pre-certification training experience depends on training being provided fairly soon after orientation, at a time and location convenient for prospective foster parents, and in a training environment conducive to engagement and openness. Each participant should have an opportunity to complete an evaluation after each training session and at the end of the entire training.
While the education of foster parents starts with MAPP and may
include recertification trainings, it does not have to end there. In the
business world, when a company offers professional development
opportunities to its employees, it is demonstrating their importance to
the organization by investing in them. Providing similar opportunities
to prospective and current foster parents shows them that the agency
recognizes their importance to the work of the organization and
wants to invest time and money in their growth. Training in topics such
as communication, parenting, and stress management, as well as
attendance at conferences and other large-scale educational events,
can be useful to foster parents. It can also be an opportunity for foster
parents to develop as trainers. For example, if they attend a conference,
they can be asked to share what they learned in a staff or support group
meeting. It is another reminder that they are part of a larger team and
their contributions are critical to overall success.
Most agencies are able to use local community experts for in-service training. For example, agency staff may conduct a training on permanency; Child Protective Services supervisors may do an overview of reporting procedures, the investigation process, rights of the subject and child, and standards of proof; a Family Court Judge may summarize the Family Court process; the fire department could provide home safety training; or the local police department could conduct a session on home safety or avoiding cyber crimes.
In addition to traditional classroom training, other training modalities such as webinars and live-streaming learning sessions are becoming more available. In New York State, free online training is delivered to the home computers of foster and adoptive parents by iLinc, a service created by the Center for Development of Human Services (CDHS) at Buffalo State College in partnership with the New York State Office of Children and Family Services. Other online educational programs are available, but it is suggested that trainings not conducted by CDHS or OCFS should be previewed by the agency before recommending them to foster parents.
Cross-training between agency staff and foster/adoptive families is also becoming more common. For example, some states conduct joint training for foster/adoptive families and the child welfare staff. This approach enhances communication opportunities, helps both groups to have the same knowledge base, and encourages mutual respect. In New York State, the mini-MAPP curriculum can be accessed by child welfare staff through CDHS, and offers a condensed curriculum that introduces child welfare staff to the philosophy, concepts, activities, terminology, and tools provided to foster parents during the full MAPP training.
Families caring for children with special needs often require higher
levels of support. While training and support groups are important,
other systems should be in place to adequately engage families around
challenging situations that may disrupt a foster home.
As the needs of children in foster care become more complex, supports for foster/adoptive families must expand. For example, foster parents need additional resources when caring for children and youth who have been affected by trauma. Trauma-informed care is part of MAPP training for foster parents, and is an approach for managing behavioral issues and other needs stemming from trauma. In some cases, additional support and resources may be needed beyond MAPP training. Complex trauma involves the repeated or long-term exposure to traumatic events. It is widely accepted that the majority of youth placed in care have been in some way traumatized by direct abuse, witnessing the abuse of other family members, long-term neglect, and/or being removed from family and community due to placement in foster care. Foster parents should be well-equipped to recognize behaviors resulting from trauma, to make the connection between the behaviors and trauma, and to adequately address the behaviors without further traumatizing the children in care by having them removed from the foster home.
There is no expectation that foster/adoptive parents should become trauma experts, but they should be trauma-informed. According to the Trauma Informed Care Project, “becoming ‘trauma-informed’ means recognizing that people often have many different types of trauma in their lives. People who have been traumatized need support and understanding from those around them. Trauma survivors can be re-traumatized by wellmeaning caregivers and community service providers. Understanding the impact of trauma is an important first step in becoming a compassionate and supportive community.” (Trauma Informed Care Project, n.d.)
Youth need to be engaged and educated about the trauma in their lives and about how it may affect their behavior. At the same time, the foster/ adoptive parents need the training and skills to recognize the connections between current behaviors and past events in children’s lives. This requires varied types of agency and community support.
When a child’s behavior is indicative of trauma, agencies should provide timely, strategic, and appropriately balanced support to keep foster/ adoptive families intact, encourage relationship building, and limit further victimization of the youth in care.
Multidimensional treatment foster care
Multidimensional treatment is designed to be an alternative to group or residential treatment, incarceration, or hospitalization for adolescents who have problems with chronic antisocial behavior, emotional disturbance, and delinquency. Treatment Foster Care Oregon (TFCO), formerly Multidimensional Treatment Foster Care, is a widely used model of support for troubled youth, their birth parents, and foster parents. Foster parents are an integral part of the treatment team, which also includes program supervisors, the birth family, individual therapists, and behavioral skill trainers. With the support of the team, the foster/adoptive family implements a structured, individualized program for the youth in care. TFCO program supervisors are available to foster/adoptive families around the clock for consultation, support and supervision. See the practice model TFCO.
The Mockingbird Society in
Seattle, WA, has implemented
the Mockingbird Family Model,
a unique model that includes
Hub Home providers. The Hub
Home is the lead home for six to
10 foster homes that make up a
“constellation.” The Hub Homes are
experienced foster parents who
help families in their constellation
navigate resources in the
community and create an extended
network of support. Constellation
members share experiences and
actually become an extended
family. This model provides a
resource that allows families to
solve problems before crises occur.
Download the practice model Mockingbird Family Model.
KEEP was developed by the
Oregon Social Learning Center
and has been effective in
increasing foster parent retention
and preventing placement
breakdowns. It functions as both
a training and a support group
for foster and kinship families
with children in care between the
ages of 4 and 12. KEEP groups
typically include seven to ten
foster parents who attend 16
weekly 90-minute sessions that
focus on practical, researchbased
While the facilitators draw from
an established protocol manual,
they tailor each session to the
specific needs, circumstances,
and priorities of participating
parents and their children. Each
week, the facilitators gather
specific information about the
children’s current behaviors by
telephone. This information is
then incorporated into the weekly
sessions to make sure the group
is both current and relevant.
Download the practice model KEEP.