May 2018Vol. 19, No. 4Foster Care Can Be a Service to Families
Written by Jerry Milner, Associate Commissioner at the Children's Bureau.
I invite all child welfare professionals, the media, and the general public to take some time to think about foster care differently. For most people in the United States, foster care has become synonymous with replacement parents and replacement families. Foster care has come to be known as a fix, possibly the fix—for bad parenting, a substitute for parents who do not adequately love or care for their children. I submit it can and should be something much different, and more. In fact, we know that, by far, most parents genuinely love and want to see their children grow up healthy, safe, and nurtured. We also know that many parents, for whatever reason, may not be positioned to fulfill that desire.
Federal law tells us that foster care is intended to be temporary and that we must make reasonable efforts to prevent removal from the home, that removal is only warranted where it is contrary to the welfare of a child, and that reunification is the most preferred permanency goal. Data tell us that most children enter care as a result of neglect and that substance use, metal health, and domestic violence are key contributors to family vulnerability.
The presence of these vulnerabilities does not mean that a parent loves their child any less. Such challenges may, however, lead to periods of time where it is unsafe for a child to remain in the same home with the parent absent a safety plan, or that respite care or even foster care is necessary for a spell. Where time apart is necessary, why not use that time as a meaningful opportunity to address the underlying causes of the vulnerabilities and wrap services around the entire family? Why not use foster care as a service to the parent, rather than a substitute? Wouldn't this be far more consistent with the letter and spirit of the law? Wouldn't this be far more aligned with what we know about trauma and the effects of family separation?
Let's talk about what it would look like to offer foster care as a service to families. To begin, it would look like recruiting foster parents who clearly understand that their role is to support and mentor birth parents; this would need to be a bedrock principle and expectation. It would look like making every effort to locate and support foster/resource families in the very communities where vulnerable children and families live so that parents may remain in close contact with their children and that children and youth are not removed from their school, friends, and all that is familiar.
It would look like resource/foster parents building relationships of trust with birth parents over time and helping to teach, model, and reinforce positive parenting. It would look like foster/resource parents helping enhance protective factors and making every effort to keep birth parents involved in their children's daily lives—from helping with school work to visiting the resource home for meals, holidays, and daily routines. It would look like healthy relationships and connections that help mitigate trauma and promote parent, child, and family well-being.
Most children and youth who enter foster care ultimately return home, albeit often after far too much time. Where removal is necessary, let's return children and youth home healthier, more safely, and sooner to parents who have been well served and treated with respect and care. Let's work together to make foster care a service for families.