May has an extraordinary significance to me, as it marks the annual observance of Foster Parent Appreciation Month. Over the past decade, this month has been a time of reflection and heartfelt celebration for me as I look back on my time as a foster care worker and the incredible foster parents with whom I had the privilege of working. I had the opportunity to witness firsthand the exceptional dedication and unwavering commitment of these remarkable parents. They indeed went above and beyond to create a safe and nurturing environment for the children in their care, providing them with stability, love, and support during what can often be a tumultuous and uncertain time in their lives.
It was truly awe-inspiring to observe these foster parents’ profound impact on the lives of the most vulnerable children. One of the most heartwarming things I discovered as a foster care worker was how foster parents not only provided a home, but also formed deep and meaningful relationships with the children and their parents, even long after the children had moved on from the foster home. These foster parents continued to offer guidance and support, celebrate birthdays, attend church, and offer a listening ear during difficult times.
However, being a foster care worker also presented its fair share of challenges. I recall one crucial time when a child flushed a sock down a second-floor toilet, flooding the entire first floor of a foster home, forcing the family to relocate temporarily, and disrupting the household’s daily routines. Additionally, there were times when foster parents had to convey the devastating news to children that their parents could not make a scheduled visit, which was heartbreaking for all involved. And, of course, there were occasions where reports would be called in on foster parents, necessitating an investigation to ensure the safety of the children in their care and adding stress to the already arduous task of fostering.
The stories are endless, but nonetheless, I remained committed to supporting the foster parents with whom I worked, offering guidance and resources whenever possible. I take great pride in knowing that several families I worked with considered me an essential resource, relying on my support through the ups and downs of foster parenting. However, the work was not without its challenges, along with late night home visits and frequent phone calls, and I never felt I had enough time to provide all the support needed for every family. I was an eyewitness to the difficulties that foster parents face and the crucial need for increased support from licensing specialists.
For child welfare agencies to give support to foster families at the necessary levels, what has to happen?
1) Ensure you have adequate capacity to support your licensed foster families
The current state of licensed foster families in the United States is cause for concern.
Despite yearly efforts to attract new foster parents, many states are losing as many or more licensed foster families as they gain. As of March 31, 2022, there were an estimated 208,824 licensed homes in America, a decline from 220,002 in 2019 . The decline in available homes can be attributed to many factors, but a lack of ongoing support for existing foster parents is a significant issue. Licensing workers who support these families often have multiple priorities, including licensing renewals, new applications, disruptions, and placement needs, leaving little time for ongoing support. However, providing ongoing support is critical in preventing burnout and placement disruptions. Therefore, increasing the capacity of the licensing specialists would enable them to devote more time to supporting foster parents, thus preventing burnout and disruptions. Increasing the capacity of licensing workers would also assist in their ability to license families and feel confident the families will provide safe, quality care.
To alleviate these challenges, licensing agencies can take practical steps to increase the capacity of licensing specialists:
- Consider completing an end-to-end business process redesign to optimize capacity.
- Streamline the home study and documentation.
- Develop a dedicated placement team.
- Tailor ongoing training requirements & processes to meet the needs of individual families.
2) Ensure capacity to supportively license new families using a streamlined licensing process
The capacity crisis in foster home availability is one of the most significant challenges facing the foster care system. There are insufficient licensed homes to cater to foster care children’s needs. Children change placements every day, and it is too often that children are institutionalized, sleep in offices, or linger in emergency shelter care due to the lack of available foster homes. Across the country, agencies desperately need more foster homes, especially for older youth and sibling groups. Streamlining the licensing process is essential in increasing the availability of licensed foster homes. The foster parent licensing process is cumbersome, often taking six months to a year. This lengthy process can discourage potential foster parents from pursuing licensure, exacerbating the capacity crisis. To address these issues, agencies need to streamline the licensing process to increase the overall yield of inquiries and applications to licensure, expanding the availability of licensed foster homes. More placement options equate to better placement matches. Considering the disproportionate representation of children of color in foster care, licensing specialists must be knowledgeable of and sensitive to racial and cultural issues and ensure that recruitment is culturally inclusive. Moreover, foster parents need to be able and willing to maintain cultural connections and understand the importance of and how to minimize trauma for children. Steps you can take to streamline the licensing process include:
- Ensure your licensing system has adequate capacity for time to recruit needed foster homes.
- Maximize early engagement and filters.
- Expand your recruiting efforts beyond your typical target audiences.
- Ensure equity in the licensing process by helping applicants navigate the licensing process.
Foster Parent Appreciation Month holds a special place in the hearts of many who have observed foster parents’ remarkable dedication and commitment. Despite the daunting challenges of fostering, they persist in providing safe, nurturing, and affectionate homes for vulnerable children. However, the current state of licensed foster families in the United States could be better, as there is a decrease in available homes. Licensing agencies must increase the capacity of licensing specialists to provide continuous support and simplify the licensing process to increase the number of licensed homes. These measures will result in better placement matches and improved outcomes for children in foster care.
With more capacity, staff will have more time to support and offer necessary supportive resources and tools enabling foster parents to provide a safe and nurturing environment for the children in their care and – ultimately – help them thrive.
 Kelly, J. (2022, December 22). Number of Foster Youth, and Foster Homes, Declined Again in 2022. The Imprint. Retrieved April 6, 2023, from https://imprintnews.org/youth-services-insider/who-cares-numbers-2022/237087.