The term "social media" refers to a range of Internet-based programs and applications that allow individuals to interact with one another. While social media first emerged as a personal means of communication, over the past decade it has become a tool used by all types of organizations to reach out to potential members or customers and stay connected with them. As a widely used and low-cost method of communication, social media can play an important role in recruitment and retention of foster/adoptive families.

The use of social media is not in itself a new model for recruitment and retention. It is, however, a new and powerful tool that can be integrated into an agency's strategy or approach in these areas. Social media is a fairly recent development in child welfare practice, and little or no research has yet been published regarding its effectiveness.

(See Appendix 8-1: Social Media Considerations: Should My Office Be in There?)

In mainstream marketing, social media is used to engage people and to inform them about a product or service. Social media services can also be used to gauge interest and to gather information about prospective customers. While it has an almost unlimited potential for use in child welfare, social media comes with its own set of challenges that must be considered in order to implement and utilize an effective social media practice.

One of the most significant features of social media is that it is a two-way conversation. The success of a corporate Facebook page, for example, is measured by the number of "likes" it receives. The owner of a Twitter account can see who its "followers" are. In addition, the number of people who see a social media message can extend dramatically as it is shared, forwarded, and retweeted. Social media provides an opportunity for people to share their thoughts, questions and experiences with others in real time. This can also have negative results, however. Visitors to an interactive website, Facebook, or Twitter can post questions or complaints.

A "Terms of Use Policy," which is usually published on the website or Facebook page, defines appropriate behavior for visitors who wish to post comments. In general, such policies prohibit remarks that are defamatory, racist, or otherwise offensive to the organization. Agency staff that monitor its social media outlets can delete inappropriate comments and even block individuals from posting if they consistently violate the policy.

(See Appendix 8-2: Developing a Terms of Use Policy for Your Agency's Facebook Page.)

Before undertaking a social media effort, agencies should develop social media policies for staff and agency clients. A good social media policy will provide clear direction as to what can and cannot be posted or shared on the agency website, Facebook page, or Twitter feed. A policy is also likely to help leadership feel more comfortable with the less-formal nature of social media by establishing boundaries for its use (IdealWare, 2012).

Protecting the confidentiality of children and families

The primary legal concern when child welfare agencies use social media is the legal requirement that no information can be released that would violate confidentiality requirements. This means that nothing can be released concerning the social history of a child in foster care (see box on this page). Nothing can be shared that could identify the child or his/her family.

Any social media policy developed by an agency should include clear direction regarding confidentiality for both official communication on the agency's website or Facebook page, and communications by agency staff and foster parents.

Spotlight on New York State

Confidentiality requirements

According to state law, foster parents must keep a child's and family's social history and personal information confidential [SSL §372(4)]. Confidential information includes information furnished by the agency, the caseworker, the child, the child's birth family, or the foster parents. It may concern the family background of the child, child and family's medical history and condition, and/ or the services being provided to the child. These matters cannot be discussed with the foster family's friends, neighbors, or other relatives who are not part of the foster parent's household, or with any other professional who is not specifically authorized to receive the information. These legal requirements also apply to communications via social media (New York State Office of Children and Family Services, 2010).


Use of social media by foster parents

Agencies must assume that foster parents are likely to use social media to communicate with agency staff, friends, and other family members. Unlike phone calls or texts, Facebook posts, and Twitter "tweets" are accessible to a much wider audience. Policies should clearly outline what information can be shared by foster parents and what information is to be considered confidential. It also would be a violation of confidentiality requirements for a foster parent to post photographs of foster children in their care on Facebook, Instagram, or other media-sharing applications.

(See Appendix 8-3: Facebook 101 for Child Welfare Professionals and Appendix 8-4: Facebook 201 for Child Welfare Professionals.)

Using social media requires a commitment by agency management to assign staff to this function on an ongoing basis. Best practice standards suggest that one full-time person be assigned the sole responsibility to monitor and update social media interactions. However, in the absence of that, it has been recommended that an agency give one or two staff persons the responsibility of updating, monitoring, and responding to visitor comments on social media, in addition to other job responsibilities.

While there are multiple ways that social media can be used agency-wide, the ideas below focus on using social media to recruit and to retain foster parents.

Blogs

A "weblog" is a log or diary that is written by an individual and posted on the Internet. If the blogger chooses to enable a comment feature, readers can share comments, advice, or ideas for the blog. Blogs generally are maintained by agency staff and accessed from the agency website.

If the foster/adoptive parents have a blog on the agency website, their contributions should be reviewed by agency staff for consistency with the agency's social media policy and legal restrictions. Kid Hero (kidhero.chw.org/), a foster/adoptive parent blog sponsored by the Children's Hospital of Wisconsin, features entries created by foster and adoptive parents and includes stories describing their experiences. The blog offers supportive content for foster and adoptive parents, and also promotes positive images about the work of foster and adoptive parents in the community.

Facebook

Agencies and foster parent organizations create Facebook pages to promote a sense of community and share experiences. As with all corporate Facebook pages, when the page administrator posts an item, a notice is sent to all individuals who "like" the page. When setting up a Facebook page, agencies must be prepared to:

Post regularly. To engage with the public, an agency must provide valuable content regularly and frequently (one or two posts a day).
Respond promptly. If people post comments or questions, acknowledge them as soon as possible. Someone on staff should monitor the Facebook page throughout the business day.
Be respectful. Remember that anyone and everyone can see what is posted on your page.

The Foster Parent Association of Eastern Washington [www.facebook.com/fpaspokane] has more than 1,400 "likes," and uses its page to send inspirational messages, tips about parenting, and news about upcoming events and trainings. You must have a Facebook account to view the page. See Spotlight on New York State: Creating a facebook page for foster parents for more information.

See what's new inside the NYS Spotlight below

Spotlight on New York State

Creating a Facebook page for foster parents

The Children's Home of Wyoming Conference in Binghamton, N.Y., has a private, invitation-only Facebook page for their foster parents. To set up the page, they:

  • Created the page based on an existing Facebook Account (such as the agency's Facebook account)
  • Named the Page
  • Set up a private invitation-only Facebook account with necessary constraints, including a rules and conduct page that must be acknowledged before any foster parent can post on the site.
  • Included a reminder that the page is to share information and not to complain about staff or practices. They provided a contact name and number should a grievance or issue need attention.
  • Included a reminder that posting pictures of youth in care is strictly prohibited
  • Assigned five staff members as account administrators or moderators so the page was monitored regardless of schedule and attendance. (At some agencies, experienced foster parents may share this role with staff.)

Supervisor Aliscia Gaucher said that the private foster parent group Facebook page "has created a virtual community of foster parents that share information, recipes and support one another" and has enhanced retention.

The agency's public Facebook page also has served as a recruitment tool. Prospective foster parents report that they discovered the agency because current foster parents re-posted the orientation announcement on their own personal Facebook pages.


Twitter

Twitter is best used for frequent, short (280-character limit) messages to "followers." It can be used to highlight photolisted children, announce training sessions, and provide links to current news coverage. The Oklahoma Department of Human Services has a Twitter account for the entire department, and uses the hashtag "#ChildWelfare" for topics related to foster and adoptive care [https://twitter.com/OKDHS]. The hashtag makes it easy for Twitter users to search for information related to that topic.

Message boards and forums

Message boards and forums are website features set up by an agency that allow participants to share questions and information on certain topics or categories. Assigned agency staff can start new categories/conversations, submit comments, and answer questions. The messages appear in a chronological "thread," with the most recent comment at the top. Individuals must register the first time they post a message, so the forum administrator (the agency) will have a current e-mail contact for them. Forums can be password protected so only agency foster parents can participate. This peer-to-peer communication is effective in providing post-placement and post-removal support.

There are several national forums that are open to all foster parents. The Foster Care Support Group at DailyStrength.com serves foster parents throughout the country. Adoption.com also sponsors a forum for interaction on a wide range of topics related to foster care and adoption.

YouTube

YouTube can be used by agencies to broadcast videos on their own channel. The channel can offer videos with testimonials, training, and other information that may be of interest to prospective and current foster parents. Foster/adoptive parents can subscribe to the YouTube channel to access the agency- specific videos and will be notified when new videos are uploaded. The videos can be designated "private" to restrict viewing of the video content to an invited audience.

AdoptUSKids offers support to starting a Facebook Group

AdoptUSKids offers support and consultation to agencies who are starting or reinvigorating a Facebook Group for foster/adoptive parents. Contact: consultation@adoptuskids.org.