Recruiting Foster Families in America's Biggest Cities
One hot summer day, Vielka Griffith walked down the stairs of her Brooklyn home to find her new foster daughter slumped on the couch. Despite the intense heat, the 15-year-old was wrapped in a terry-cloth robe, hands in her pockets. She was very pregnant, and sweating profusely.
“I said ‘Jennifer! Are you OK — why are you in a robe?’ recalled Griffith, sitting on a different couch, this one in her foster care agency’s cozy new lounge for foster parents. “She said ‘No, Ma. It’s just — I only thought rich people wore robes.’ I'll never forget that. We never looked back after that.”
Jennifer eventually graduated from high school with honors, and her own daughter just left for college. They celebrated the latter feat with Griffith in Prospect Park a few weeks ago.
Finding stable homes like Griffith’s for teens in foster care is difficult. According to Denise Goodman, a national consultant who helps child welfare agencies find families for teens, families step forward far more often to foster or adopt young children. Older foster parent candidates may have just completed parenting their own teens, and they’re not ready to dive back into adolescence. Others may be put off by the stigma of foster youth as troublemakers.
As a result, teens are more likely to end up in group homes, especially when foster family homes are in short supply. Those shortages lead to higher rates of sibling separation, too — which studies show is harder on teens — and discord in overcrowded foster homes.
For the nation’s two largest foster care systems, the effort to find homes for teens is critical.
New York City has recently undertaken a large-scale experiment with novel strategies to create more homes for foster youth, especially teens. It’s called “Home Away From Home.” The project’s goal is to move toward a “One Home, One Family” system. That means, wherever possible, youth are placed in one family home, with no other unrelated foster children present. Youth with siblings would also live under the same roof.
It may sound obvious enough, but the nonprofits contracting with the city to find foster homes say they are upending longstanding practices to realize this new vision. They’ve had to improve foster parent recruitment efforts, track data on each foster home’s status more carefully, and get better at answering the phone when foster parents call for help.
According to Action Research, a New York City-based research firm, a key lesson from exclusive city data they examined was that the city “needs many more homes willing to foster one child and has enough homes to foster large sibling groups.” Further, the city needed to consistently send teens to its most experienced foster parents.
“Our staff responsible for recruiting homes and placing children agree 100 percent the most stable homes for teenagers are your seasoned foster parents,” said Alissa Deakin, chief program officer at the New York City foster care nonprofit Little Flower. The organization just started receiving intensive coaching from Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) and the consulting firm Public Catalyst as part of the One Home, One Family shift.
“There are exceptions, but a lot of times it’s going to be foster parents who maybe started with younger children, learned about the system, and its resources first,” Deakin said.
To boost the number of experienced foster parents to take teens requires retaining — not just recruiting — foster parents. That’s why Griffith’s foster care agency in New York, JCCA, spent some Home Away From Home dollars to create the foster parent lounge where The Chronicle of Social Change met her. The lounge has a table, a sofa, soft lighting. It’s a homey space.
“Previously, foster parents would have to wait in the waiting room, or leave the office and come back one or two hours later, which is obviously difficult and burdensome especially during the winter,” said Anna Gold, director of communications and marketing for JCCA. “With the lounge they will now have a relaxing space to wait. They can eat a meal or read a book, but most importantly network and connect with other foster parents. They can not only provide advice and support for one another, but develop relationships that will let them use each other as backups or respite.”
Crucially, many parts of the country still require foster parents not to leave their foster children alone with adults who haven’t gotten a background check. Having a network of babysitters or emergency backups makes a huge difference in their lives. The lounge is designed to increase those connections.
“As soon as you walk in [to the lounge], we’re just like ‘Hey girl!’” said Griffith, an animated speaker. “You want to have that little conversation or one-on-one. Not necessarily anything negative — this gives us that space to just kinda say ‘Ahhh!’ You don’t have to talk sitting in your cars outside a pick-up or drop-off. This room lets us stay for a spell.”
There’s much more to Home Away From Home, which came with over $8.6 million in funding, mostly from ACS, released to its nonprofit contract agencies through competitive bidding. Over $3 million was chipped in by private foundations, including nearly $1.5 million from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation*. Among other costs, the funds helped pay for ACS and six foster care nonprofits to receive coaching from the consulting firm Public Catalyst. That involved weekly, hours-long meetings between coaches and frontline staff, on-call support, and quarterly group convenings to share notes.
“It was an effort to re-imagine foster care. I had concerns about how we and the foster care agencies were recruiting foster homes, training, supporting and compensating them, the quality of the homes, and the myriad rules and demands that made life difficult for both foster youth and parents,” said Gladys Carrión, the former commissioner of ACS, who launched the initiative in 2016.
“It was disjointed. Foster care agencies were placing kids from the Bronx in Brooklyn, making it hard to keep the children in their home schools close to family and making visitation difficult for parents, siblings and family members,” Carrión said. “We weren’t using data to identify what the system needs were — where did we need homes and for who? [There were] lots of complaints from young people, who complained about poor treatment by foster parents and foster parents complaining about the lack of support from foster care agencies and ACS.”
Her successor, David Hansell, has continued the initiative. Now, the city is boasting 391 new foster homes receiving a placement “within 90 days of certification” for the last fiscal year, according to an evaluation conducted by Action Research. These 391 homes were a 32 percent increase over the previous fiscal year. It was the highest number in the past five years, and the first increase in at least seven years.
Getting Close-Up With Foster Youth
Consultant Goodman said that child welfare agencies should look at launching media campaigns to let the public know about the need for homes for foster youth as well as targeting people who are already working with teens, like football coaches, or those who volunteer with teens at schools or churches. But having teens speak for themselves at events can also be tremendously important, she said.
“When people meet the teens, it’s like, ‘Wow these are just like my kids,’” Goodman said. “They go to school, they play basketball, they sing in the choir, they worry about how their hair looks. The ability to have people interact with our teens is essential to them getting a real clear picture of who these kids are and what they need.”
In Los Angeles County, one of the nation’s largest foster care systems that has 4,230 foster youth ages 13 to 17, foster family agencies play a big role in helping local government recruit foster and adoptive families for older teens.
One of those is Kidsave, whose Weekend Miracles program is designed to find homes for older youth who may have been languishing in foster care or for whom traditional recruitment efforts have not worked out. That program was recently profiled on A&E’s five-hour documentary series “The Day I Picked My Parents,” which follows 10 L.A. County foster children as they seek to find permanent homes.
Kidsave runs about 20 events a year where older children and teens who are interested in finding a family participate in activities with families in round-robin fashion. All children have a chance to meet every set of parents. At the end of the day, children and parents both write down who they might want to get to know better.
“We’re reversing from the normal child welfare path, where parents say they want this kid,” said Kidsave CEO Randi Thompson. “The kids have a say too, and it’s really empowering for them because now they’ve got a voice and a choice in this, and the families know that.”
Thompson said that the Weekend Miracles program is often successful because it allows prospective caregivers to meet the children and see that they’re more than just a child welfare case file. Thompson says the organization casts a wide net to find families using social media and word-of-mouth to find most candidates.
“You’ve got to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your prince,” she said “We need about 400 inquiries to yield 25 approved families.”
Los Angeles agency Raise-A-Child has become a go-to recruiter for older youth, partnering with the faith community as well as other foster care agencies. CEO Rich Valenza says he aims to tap into communities that have been overlooked by the child welfare system in the past, like the LGBTQ community. He says he’s had great success by going big with high-profile ads.
“L.A. has such a car culture, so we’re hitting people on the radio on NPR affiliate stations and we do outdoor advertising with streetlight banners,” Valenza said. “That’s in addition to what all the agencies do at fairs and churches. We’re making sure that no stone is left untouched.”
Valenza has helped broker a once-a-month segment on a local television station where he spotlights the need for caregivers for older children and youth in foster care, as well as caregivers who have stepped up to take a young person into their home.
When Valenza has a youth who needs a home go on the show, he makes sure to bring a social worker or a teacher on as well to bring context to the young person's story. He also makes sure not to raise the expectations of youth who participate in media.
“We talk to the youth and say, “This is probably not going to get you a family but this is something you can do to help other kids in the system like you or younger,” he said. “Hopefully we have gotten them on a path where they might find a family, but I don’t want to create risks for these kids.”
In New York City, as part of Home Away From Home, Public Catalyst and ACS convinced the participating nonprofit foster care agencies to skip the mass-media marketing pitches for foster parents.
“The media campaign strategy assumes that there are not enough people who are interested in fostering, but few inquiries are not the cause of New York City’s foster home shortage,” wrote the Action Research team.
Instead, for Home Away From Home, the participating nonprofits tried something that sounds a lot like Amway: They recruited and helped pay for their most experienced, enthusiastic foster parents to hold intimate gatherings with foster parent candidates in their own communities. “Foster-aware parties,” they were called. They also connected existing foster parents with each other for peer support.
Data on foster parent retention is hard to come by, but Action Research says in their Home Away From Home report that they’ve found 20 to 25 percent of New York City foster homes close each year, with studies citing lack of support from nonprofits as playing a role. According to Action Research, many frontline staff were surprised at the deep dissatisfaction of foster parents who they called for feedback at Public Catalyst’s recommendation.
The agencies also changed how they set goals. Instead of fixating on total “recruitment,” they set goals for number of foster parents with a placement within 90 days of certification. That way, workers would focus recruitment on home types — specifically, hardy homes that could truly care for the high-need youth who usually end up in the system.
The Importance of Support and Building Community
For Marianne Guilfoyle of L.A.-based Allies for Every Child, retaining good foster parents means making sure foster and adoptive parents are surrounded by sufficient resources, including wraparound mental health supports. All of the agency’s families receive therapeutic care from the TIES (Training, Intervention, Education, and Services) for Families program affiliated with the University of California, Los Angeles. Each foster family participates in therapy together with the child.
New York emphasized something similar with Home Away From Home by increasing supports like therapy, respite care and support of other foster parents to help troubleshoot challenging situations.
Also important is creating community around a shared mission. Allies for Every Child, which aims to provide homes for hard-to-place youth like older children and teens, sibling sets, children of color and LGBTQ children, recruits families by emphasizing its mission: the promotion of fostering as a way to make an impact in the community, not just add to your family.
Guilfoyle said that Allies works to connect foster parents in the agency with each other during trainings so they can provide support to one another during the ups and downs of fostering.
“You’re joining a community of other foster parents that has a similar social justice framework,” Guilfoyle said. “When they feel part of community, they will come back and continue to give, and have ongoing relationships. They can talk to somebody who’s traveled the same road before them and they feel less alone.”
* The Conrad N. Hilton Foundation funds The Chronicle of Social Change. It had no involvement with this article, per our editorial independence policy.