Keeping foster homes open – what works best?


On average, how long do foster parents stay with your agency? Is this period of time getting longer or shorter in recent years?  What is the most common reason a foster parent closes their home?  Data related to the retention of your agency's foster homes can help shape your strategies for meeting the needs of children in care.

Agencies often set goals for retention, such as, "We'd like to have a retention rate of 85 percent." But what exactly is meant by "retention" and how do we measure it? To take a first look at retention, consider your open homes and your closed homes.

Analyzing your open homes helps you understand which homes you are keeping in your pool and what those homes offer your agency. Assessing your closed homes helps you understand which homes have left your agency and why.  At face value, open homes appear to be those that your agency has retained, and closed homes are those not retained. However, this is not entirely the case - retention involves multiple factors, such whether homes are both open and active.

Nationwide, an average of 20 percent of foster families provide 60-80 percent of placements (Gibbs, 2005). Approximately one third of available homes do not have placements at any given time. Underutilization of certified foster homes is not healthy for a foster care program, and creates additional strain on an agency that is striving to recruit families (Rhodes et al., 2006). Families that are rarely utilized still require precious staff time, for example, during the re-certification process. And underutilized families may become disengaged with the foster care agency, lessening their willingness to accept placements. This, in turn, decreases the agency's ability to meet the needs of children in care.

One way to determine which of your homes are active versus inactive is to do a utilization study. Utilization studies shed light on how many homes are under-utilized, the reasons why, and importantly, what would it take to increase usage of inactive homes? Breaking down your pool of foster homes into "active" and "inactive" helps you understand your retention successes and challenges.

For example, if 80 percent of your homes remained open during the last year, but only half of those were active, your actual percentage of available homes is 40 percent. This means that 40 percent of your certified homes are inactive.

Undertaking a utilization study requires some time and effort by caseworkers, but should produce valuable information for recruitment planning. This utilization study template was created by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Calculating retention rate

The trend in an agency's retention rate can indicate whether some practices need to change. Read more . . .

Using numbers of open and closed homes, there are various methods for calculating a measure of retention. No matter what method you use, the important thing is to be able compare a numerical measure of retention over time to understand trends. Agency data and/or the "Facility Detail Report" provided by the New York State OCFS Data Warehouse will tell you the number of open foster homes you have.

Here is one way to calculate a rate of retention. For the previous 12 month period, determine the number of open homes at the start of the period, and the number of open homes at the end of the period, then factor in newly recruited homes.

Number of open foster homes on Jan 1 120
Number of foster homes that were certified between Jan 1 and Dec 31 34
Number of open foster homes on Dec 31 110

Sample Formula:
(Number of open homes at end of the year - Number of new homes certified during the year) ÷ Number of open homes at the start of the year = Percentage of retained homes or rate of retention
(110 - 34) ÷ 120 = .633 or 63.3 percent retention rate

Enter your agency's data in this table to calculate a retention rate:

  Number of open foster homes on Dec. 31 Number of homes that were certified between Jan 1 and Dec 31 Number of open foster homes on Jan 1 Percentage of retention rate
Enter Values: 00 %

Drilling down to the "why?"

After identifying retention trends in their data, agencies will want to explore what those trends mean. Specifically, they need to determine why families stopped providing foster care. Read more . . .

Agency staff who interact with foster families may know their individual reasons, but may not be in a position to see the big picture. Are there reasons that are much more common than others? Do these reasons occur often enough to indicate a systemic problem?

The number of foster homes that have closed during the previous three months can be run from the OCFS Data Warehouse "Closed Facility Report." Almost half of foster parents quit within a year of their first placement (Rhodes et al., 2006). Some reasons are positive, such as the adoption of a child from foster care and subsequent closing of the home. Other reasons involve changes in the foster parents' circumstances, such as a move out of the area or a health problem.

In a survey conducted by OCFS, the second most commonly cited reason that foster parents closed their homes voluntarily was dissatisfaction with the agency. This reason is preventable, indicating that a change in agency policies and procedures could have a positive effect on retention. More in-depth information about "why" can be obtained through a survey, a questionnaire, case reviews, or an "exit interview" when a foster home is closed.

Taking the pulse of your foster parents

It is recommended that agencies conduct annual surveys of foster parents. Satisfaction surveys can be distributed to all, or to a sample of, current foster parents. Read more . . .

Some agencies have used an online survey tool such as Survey Monkey (www.surveymonkey.com) or SurveyGizmo (www.surveygizmo.com), both of which allow users to conduct simple surveys at no charge. "Customer Satisfaction" survey templates can be used as starting points for foster parent satisfaction surveys. 

This survey was developed by Child Trends, and has been used in the pilot counties. The survey instrument could be completed online or on paper. Other examples of surveys can be found by visiting www.nrdcr.org and searching the term "survey."

Be sure to inform participants before the survey is distributed, and send several reminders during the survey to encourage participation. Your announcement and reminders should explain the purpose of the survey, the importance of foster parents' participation, and how the results will be shared. An acceptable response rate for an online survey is about 30 percent.

Child welfare agencies have improved response rates by placing laptops in visitation areas so foster parents can complete a survey while children are visiting with their birth parents. The survey can be publicized through the agency's foster parent Facebook page or newsletter, foster parent meetings, and email lists. Giving participants an option to complete a paper version of the survey also can increase the response rate.

It may be helpful to partner with a local university to create the architecture of the survey, provide distribution advice, and analyze results. Usually this can be at little to no cost, as students may be able to help design the survey and analyze the results.

With appropriate review and analysis, surveys can become an integral part of obtaining foster parent feedback. Surveys can be utilized at various phases of programming: during the certification process to follow up with families who do not complete the entire process, after training, upon first placement, at regular intervals (e.g., annually), or when a home is closed. Surveys also can spark dialogue between foster parents and staff around issues that matter to both the foster parents and the agency.

With any survey, it is important that the results are analyzed, and that findings are shared with staff and foster parents. Here are some other ways to gather information on foster parents' needs and opinions:

  • Make scheduled phone calls to current foster parents to "check-in" and gather input on their experiences and needs. These phone calls should follow a common script or group of standard questions, with the feedback carefully documented and compiled.
  • Distribute a survey or questionnaire to foster parents who have decided to close their homes. It should ask questions that encourage honest responses and solicit concrete and innovative suggestions for improvement. Responses can be anonymous, unless the parents want to identify themselves. This survey was created by the New Mexico Step Up! Diligent Recruitment Project.