An article from PBS illustrates what I see as currently the largest need in foster care — the lack of sufficient support for foster parents. The article begins with the story of Isela Perez, who “estimates she moved more than 20 times among group homes, mental health facilities, and foster families.’ A lot of foster parents didn’t know how to deal with my anger issues or my depression,’ said Perez, now 18 and in an independent living program in Dahlonega, Georgia.”
The article then takes a closer look at the problem of finding foster homes for high-needs kids. It's a complex problem that revolves around the devastating results of the trauma that some of these kids have sustained. Unfortunately, the usual answer, more government money for the child welfare system, isn’t going to be enough. We former and current foster parents know that increased stipends alone won’t attract qualified foster families. Even increased training may not help. No matter how well-trained, few foster parents are therapists; such therapy and other professional help are what many traumatized kids need to deal with their mental health issues.
One of the people interviewed in the article hit the nail on the head: “I don’t care if you pay a foster parent $500 or $100 — it’s not going to make their skill level or what they can do any better. They have to have the support,” said Sally Buchanan, CEO of Creative Community Services, a nonprofit in Norcross, Georgia.
Support is exactly what every foster family needs. Not financial support, although that helps, but emotional support, community support, and even agency support. Many foster kids have needs far beyond what a single family can address. Child welfare agencies are stretched beyond their capacities and rarely can provide the support that the families need. Finding ways to provide this support may be the single best thing that communities can do to help foster and adoptive parents who hope to provide a caring family to traumatized children. I have written before about ways that individuals can help foster families, and those principles are still good.
Communities and organizations, though, can pool their resources to provide even more support. Churches and other religious groups, for example, can provide important safety nets for foster families. Several groups, such as Focus on the Family, WinShape Homes, and the Jewish Foster and Adoption Network, offer resources and practical ideas. A state or local foster parent association and the National Foster Parent Association can function as an invaluable support group with a wealth of wisdom and experience. Community groups can find ways to collaborate with these associations to further support foster families.
Some of the successful ideas that I've seen implemented include:
1. Form a small group to support a specific family.
Ask a core group of your members to dedicate the time to get to know and care about a specific foster family. This task takes a lot of commitment, but it's the best way to provide help for a vulnerable child short of becoming a foster parent yourself. Members of this group may need to commit to such things as background checks so they can help babysit, or become licensed as a respite care provider for weekend visits. Sometimes the needs may be as simple as transportation to sports practice, or being an extra caring adult for a foster child. This safety net can be crucial, particularly for families that accept sibling groups or kids with special needs. The goal is to provide a network of trained and available people who will share the load of caring for children with trauma.
2. Organize Practical Help
Not everyone has the time or resources to be part of a dedicated support network. However, they can provide small and simple tasks, such as helping with lawn care or bringing dinner one night. During a time when my foster placement was particularly demanding, a friend sent a lawn care service to mow my lawn. Simply handing over her credit card was all the time that my friend had, but it helped relieve a significant burden and solve a vexing problem for me.
3. Support a foster closet
Many non-profit organizations provide school supplies or clothing to meet the needs of children in foster homes. This is another small step that can provide outsized benefits to a foster family. Look for an organization in your local community that your organization can help grow and increase the number of children served.
4. Help with Tutoring
Most children who have suffered from trauma have lost a lot of time in the education system and are behind their grade level. Older children usually are particularly vulnerable to the cumulative impact of disrupted schooling and often have significant educational needs. If your group members have any training, or maybe even just time and patience, establish a program to help each of them tutor a foster kid. You should always follow good child protection practices, such as requiring a background check and rules against being alone with a child, so be sure that you train your members about those policies.
5. Establish or partner with a mentoring program
One of the most important ways that we can help children is to pair them with caring adults who can help them with problems ranging from emotional needs to learning life skills. If your group isn't set up to establish its own mentoring program, then partner with an existing group such as Boys and Girls Club or 100 Black Men of America. Your organization can help provide mentors, or perhaps simply sponsor group events for existing mentors. Something as simple as a block of tickets to a sports event or concert can play an important role in supporting those relationships.
One type of mentoring that I particularly want to highlight is working with young adults who are former foster youth. These young adults face serious challenges and need help in making a successful transition to adulthood. Many of them don't need a permanent home, but simply a caring and supportive network of adults. My husband and I volunteer with Connections Homes, a non-profit that pairs mentors with young people who have aged out of foster care without an adequate support network. Groups in other states include Forever Family, A Home Within, and Foster Care to Success. Any of these groups could use help, whether you encourage your members to volunteer or collaborate with them on strengthening or expanding the organization.
Our foster care system faces incredible stresses and simply lacks the resources to care for all the vulnerable children that are its responsibility. Foster parenting is challenging in the best of circumstances, and childhood trauma only exacerbates the challenges. We hear constantly about the urgent need for more foster homes, but prospective foster parents are understandably concerned about the tremendous challenges of raising other people's children. Our communities have to find ways to step up and share the burden so that we can stem the current tide of children who fall through the cracks in the system.