As soon as I saw the caller ID, I knew I was moving kids that night. The foster family had been hanging on by a thread, and we both knew earlier in the week the placement wasn’t going to be a lasting fit. Almost immediately the entire office began working to find three beds together, which would be a feat because these children were beautifully complicated, filled with bright smiles and confusing reactions to trauma. Each call was the same: ring, explain the situation, silence, and then a “no”. This cycle repeated over and again, until a final phone call to incredible adults with extraordinary hearts lead to something I wasn’t expecting, a resounding “yes”. A yes, by the way, that meant the foster family would spend the weekend building a basement bedroom (framing, drywall, paint, bunkbeds, the works) so siblings could stay together and have a home base. A yes, that seemed simple, but meant heroes would move mountains for a group of siblings in need.
May is National Foster Care month – a time to recognize those dedicating their careers, time, and homes to the care of nearly 400,000 children in foster care. If you look at any foster care system in the country, you will find the kind of people I just described. Foster parents rearranging their lives for children they’ve never met. Caseworkers scrambling to find an after-hours babysitter for their own children so they can respond to a youth being declared by law enforcement. Judges reviewing lengthy court reports to make the best decision for a child, when the future is unclear. And children, moving between families and homes, going to school during life changes that would have most adults hiding under a blanket for days on end. Yet, we hear it again and again – a system so full of amazing people is a mess. Children that enter foster care can wait years to be adopted if they are unable to return home. Prospective foster parents can wait up to a year to be licensed, and caseworkers will always have more work than they can accomplish, leaving them to prioritize by court deadlines and crisis in lieu of quality time spent with children and families.
The child welfare system did not set out to be this messy with symptoms of dysfunction around every corner. However, decades of new policies on the ever-swinging pendulum of best practice created a complex web that is difficult to unwind. Coupled by the crisis of more children to serve than staff and services available it can feel like there is no light at the end of the tunnel. Yet, there is hope for change if we take a deeper look through the lens of building capacity, starting with Case Management and Foster Care Licensing.
The Condition: The child welfare system has operated with the same well-intentioned but antiquated process for decades, where families are assigned a single case manager to work directly with them and their children for the life of the case. This model is rooted in best practice, as it is ideal for a family to be guided by a well-educated professional, skilled at building a relationship and holding the tension of accountability, empathy, and hope to facilitate change. Unfortunately, the reality is the caseworker is likely new the role, assigned double the number of families they can give adequate attention to and actively looking for a new job because the stress of being responsible for human lives you cannot prioritize is too much for anyone to handle. This leaves families waiting for court- driven timelines, with most of the movement on their case happening at the beginning, when court-required case plans are set; and the end, when preparing for statutory permanency hearings.
The Capacity Potential: The industry treats the capacity crisis as temporary, with unyielding hope that a light exists at the end of a bleak tunnel while knowing the “staffing crisis” is 60 years old with vacancy rates creeping toward 50% in many child welfare agencies. So instead of looking outside, we must be brave enough to consider a new way of doing business. If small changes like eliminating duplicate documentation could give case managers hours each day, imagine what a process overhaul could do. It is time to get out the dry erase marker and consider building a foster care system that moves decision and action closer together, returns children home when it is safe instead of months later at the scheduled court date and is structured enough that even new staff can guide cases at the pace of family readiness and each family can expect to know clear conditions for their child to return home or when another permanency option must be considered.
Foster Care Licensing:
The Condition: It can take up to a year to be licensed as a foster family. Meaning if I called today as an interested and prospective foster parent, it may be 365 days before I have completed all the complicated paperwork, background checks, home inspections and family interviews. On the surface, this may sound reasonable, because we want to ensure families caring for children in foster care meet every standard set by the state. However, of those 365 days, 80% of the time I will be sitting idle and waiting. Waiting for the next training class to begin, waiting for my scheduled home visit, waiting to complete paperwork, waiting for background checks to be completed, or just waiting for no identifiable reason at all.
The Capacity Potential: We can make it easier for foster families. Most prospective foster families see an advertisement or message about fostering 7 times before making an inquiry and when they make that first phone call, they are ready to take the next step. Instead of adding that very motivated family to a list of inquiries waiting for orientation in 30 days, they could immediately be assigned a licensing worker to walk side by side through paperwork, visits, and background checking. There is no reason licensing must be a sequential process, and most state policies allow licensing staff to complete home visits with the family while they are in training, even supporting licensing staff to complete paperwork during the home visit which prevents the cycle of handing the prospective family a packet and hoping it will be returned at some point in the future. This parallel process can reduce the potential wait of 365 days to 90, allowing new foster families to open their homes for children in foster care at a much faster rate, instead of leaving the process frustrated and defeated before even being licensed.
Awareness days, weeks, and months are always tricky and National Foster Care Month is no different. It is wonderful to recognize the heroes, but to make a real difference and show real appreciation, we must also be aware of the mess and be willing to make a change. A change that will allow the heroes we celebrate to shine, unincumbered by complicated, outdated processes that serve no one. Fixing a system is complicated and fraught with intersectional issues that won’t be solved by one initiative. However, if we take a glance at through the lens of capacity, we will find a starting point with miles to go so that we can do more good for children and families.