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How to help foster parents help foster kids

Editor’s note: This op-ed was written in conjunction with Baltimore Sun reporter Yvonne Wenger’s series and podcast, called “The Wait,” about her family’s experiences with infertility and Baltimore’s foster care and adoption systems. Read the series here.

Picture for a moment a child or teenager you know well. Think about how she looks to the grownups in her life to give her love, keep her safe and help her learn and grow. Now imagine the roughly half a million children in this country today who are looking for this security and support and are not sure they will ever have it. These are the children in our child welfare system, children whose parents are often struggling with overwhelming challenges.

Yvonne Wenger’s personal story in The Baltimore Sun is a powerful example of the critical role that foster parents can play in giving these children the love and support they so desperately need. Yet our society often underestimates and fails to dedicate resources to the pivotal role of foster parenting, which takes more than open hearts and homes. As a result, many parents who are interested in becoming foster parents never do. Others try foster parenting and leave. Others would be willing to take a toddler, but not a teen, because they’re afraid they won’t get the support they need to help these young people.

Listen to the full podcast here »

When child welfare agencies don’t have enough strong foster families, kids can bounce from home to home, often ending up in a residential center — even though we know children thrive best in families. Because children of color are three times more likely than white children to be placed into foster care, failures in the system fall most heavily on them.

With the recent passage of the Family First Prevention Services Act, the most significant child welfare legislation in 40 years, Congress recognized that kids need families, and that we must first support birth parents to prevent the need for foster care. For children who do enter the child welfare system, Family First means states will need high-quality family foster homes to shift as many young people as possible from institutions to family placements.

For decades, the Annie E. Casey Foundation has worked to study, support and improve America's child welfare systems. Here are three things we have learned that can help foster parents support kids and families.

1. Make sure foster families get the training they need to succeed.

Being a foster parent is hard work. Foster parents must provide nurturing care to children who often have experienced traumatic life events; they need skills and support to help them work through the challenges that accompany that trauma. Effective social-service agencies provide targeted training programs to make sure foster parents can handle children’s unique needs. They also provide access to staff dedicated to foster parent support and a strong network of peers who can give advice. They prepare foster parents for grief and loss when a child they’ve loved unconditionally returns to her parents.

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2. Consider foster families members of the child’s team, with the resources to meet kids’ needs.

Foster parents should always be seen as part of a child welfare agency’s front-line workforce. Foster parents get to know children up close: their strengths and challenges, what upsets and delights them. Foster parents should have a voice in agency policies and practices, along with appropriate financial support to provide for kids in their care. Extended family members such as grandparents, aunts and uncles ― known as kin caregivers ― are often left out of the foster parent reimbursement system, which can make it financially impossible for them to offer to care for their own. Losing that kin connection can separate kids from their cultural identity and history, which can interfere with their healthy development.

3. Recruit and support more qualified foster parents, especially foster parents of color.

Great foster parents can be a child welfare agency’s most effective recruiting tool — if they are treated well and feel supported. When agencies keep accurate records about their foster homes and do a good job of matching children with families that have the skills and resources to care for them, foster families are more likely to persist and to help recruit more families. Foster parents of color can help children of color in foster care maintain cultural and community connections.

All children need adults in their lives who love them and keep them safe. If all of us value foster parents and help great foster parents spread the word, more young people will find their place in families where they belong.

Patrick McCarthy is the president and CEO of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, based in Baltimore. Twitter: @aecfPatrick.

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