My Turn: A new vision for foster parents

For the Monitor
Published: 5/29/2020 6:00:26 AM

Ask any child in the custody of child protection or juvenile justice services what they want most and the answer will be, invariably, family.

As National Foster Care Month winds down, think about this: There are 437,000 children in foster care in America, and about 900 in New Hampshire alone. That means 1 in 17 American children live away from their families at any given time.

National Foster Care Month is intended to honor the invaluable work foster parents do each day. But it also prompts us to acknowledge the children themselves. The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the importance of a safe and stable family, and the fragility of many.

During my 15 years of working with children, I have seen the ease with which families can fall apart. The loss of a job, missed rent, addiction, mental illness or domestic violence all conspire to undermine family function so precipitously that the state must sometimes intervene to help bring a child out of harm’s way. Enter a foster family.

Opening their homes to traumatized children is an act of heroism in my book. Foster parents face many challenges. They often balance employment and raising their own children with the chaotic routine of a child whose life is ruled by bureaucracy. Phone calls, meetings, treatment appointments, searching relentlessly for medical records, pushing schools for services, and court hearings absorb time that should be spent just being there for a child.

Often children arrive with little or nothing. Foster parents scramble to individualize a bedroom, find clothes that fit, and create a sense of safety and belonging. The intensity of the experience is coupled with the knowledge that being in foster care, no matter how effective the foster parenting, is equally as traumatizing as what caused the removal.

And then they watch children return to families who still lack the supports and services needed to move forward.

The stress associated with managing complex emotional and educational needs of children in foster care, coupled with the frustration of a seemingly unhelpful child protection system, has contributed to a shortage of foster parents in New Hampshire and across the country.

Despite valiant efforts, outcomes for children in foster care are not great. The most recent federal Child and Family Services review found New Hampshire, like most other states, is not in substantial conformity with the outcomes that predict sustained child safety and well-being.

The Division for Children, Youth and Families is working to change that.

Director Joe Ribsam is crossing the state, now virtually, listening to foster parents and caseworkers. In line with new federal policy grounded in the latest science of child development and foster care practices, DCYF is shifting from responding to child maltreatment to preventing it in the first place.

With massive rollout of community-based services and in-home supports, New Hampshire families will be stronger and better able to nurture their own children’s well-being and safety. When children do need to be removed from home, there will be a new, more expansive role for foster care.

Outside cases of egregious child maltreatment, the goal of foster care is reunification.

This year, just as National Foster Care month commenced, the federal Administration for Children & Families Children’s Bureau issued an information memo emphasizing a new vision for foster care: fostering for the whole family, not just the children.

To align practice with what science is telling us and, more importantly, what children are asking for, open, supportive relationships between foster parents and parents will be key. In this shared or co-parenting model, foster parents mentor parents, facilitate family relationship building and maintenance, and enhance parents’ child protective capacities.

The focus on whole-family fostering may be different, and difficult for some. But ask any foster parent how satisfying it is to see families heal and build healthy relationships. And those children whose parents will not have the capacity or willingness to parent, especially teenagers, still want the same thing: If not their family, a family. If foster homes are not available, many teens will end up in congregate residential facilities. Despite best efforts and good intentions, residential providers should not be a long-term solution. They cannot replace a family.

If the state of New Hampshire is truly intent upon transforming child welfare, we must stay on task to build the community-based system of care to support children and families. That has to include increasing and fully supporting available foster homes, and then guiding them to shift toward engaging and strengthening parents with the abilities to give children what they want: families.

Fostering a child can now be an opportunity to change the trajectory of a whole family.

For more information about fostering and helping children, families and your community, I urge you to contact the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services at 271-4711.

(Jason Taylor is the assistant child advocate for the State of New Hampshire. Prior to joining the Office of the Child Advocate in 2020, Taylor worked for the New Hampshire Division for Children Youth and Families starting in 2007.)


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