The Real “Crisis” in Foster Care

How many times have you heard the following? We don’t have enough foster parents. There aren’t enough qualified parents to care for our kids. There is a crisis-level shortage of available homes.

If you live the child welfare life, we’d guess every day.

But that’s not the full story. Those statements would lead you to believe that not enough people are interested in fostering. They suggest we simply can’t find anyone qualified. Possibly even that our community is uncaring – knowing the plight of our kids, why won’t anyone step forward?

But people do all the time.

Here’s the truth behind the “crisis”; nationally, more than half of foster parents quit fostering within the first year, with another significant dip in the second year. No matter how many wonderful families step up with big hearts and good intentions, it will never be enough to meet the demand if only 40% continue after the first year.

Maybe you’re asking why. Why are so many people able to get through the long, arduous licensing process, yet quit shortly after starting their journey? We can tell you right now, it’s not the kids’ fault. But, ultimately, it’s our kids who pay the price.

Low retention rates mean fewer qualified foster families are available, so children transition more frequently between foster homes. Every disruption brings new trauma. Children who have suffered abuse or neglect internalize their repeated removal from family. Maybe, they think, I don’t deserve one. Often, children who disrupt from a foster family go to residential facilities or psychiatric institutions, where they languish for months or years. Not only are these toxic places for a child to grow up, they are unbelievably expensive. Already strained taxpayer resources are diverted from recruiting and retaining the best foster parents and spent instead on keeping kids in institutions. When kids are institutionalized, it can make it harder for them to thrive in a family setting later on.

This vicious cycle compounds the trauma our kids face. Every child we serve has experienced abuse, neglect, abandonment, drug exposure, domestic violence, or all of the above. The removal of a child from their home, even if that home is unsafe, is traumatic in and of itself. New foster parents struggle to meet the needs of the children in their care, but they’ve often been rushed through inadequate training in order to secure short-term foster homes. But the long-term consequences are unprepared parents who are set up to fail.

“Caring for children and youth who have survived severe and complicated trauma can be exhausting and finding peace among the chaos can be daunting,” said Anne Zink, Director of Family Support for the Coalition.

Years of research has shown retaining foster parents to be one of the single most powerful ways we can dramatically improve the quality of healing for kids in care. In 2018, the National Council for Adoption published a report which showed that, when trained parents continue to foster, it means a more stable foster care experience for the child,  dramatically improved outcomes for our kids, and a substantial savings of fiscal dollars. To reverse the system’s terrible retention rates and prevent burnout, foster parents need smart support, peer encouragement, and cutting-edge training that sets realistic expectations.

So The Coalition decided to do something about this.

In 2017, the Coalition received a generous grant to create The Dennis and Judy Jones Family Foundation Foster Care and Adoption Program. The purpose of the program is to recruit and train foster/adoptive families (lovingly referred to as the Jones Families or “Jonesies”) and then offer ongoing support throughout their journey.

Since the inception of this program three years ago, our foster parent retention rate is 97%.

So what makes this program different?

Jones Families receive the highest level training, the utmost care, and real-time support from Coalition staff, with continuous on-call communication. In addition to the state-required STARS training, our families receive 14 hours of Trauma Training.

“When I came to The Coalition for STARS training, it was totally different than any other experience,” said Tessy Gaeng, Jones Program alum. “It was a supportive and very honest environment. Connie and Katie were patient and encouraging, and used humor to keep everyone engaged and confident in what we were learning. They focused so much on the positive aspects (without sugarcoating it), sharing our kids’ potential and our role in that as foster parents.”

Understanding the trauma and loss of the children in their care means Jones Families are uniquely equipped to respond with agility and creativity during the healing process. One parent, Tyler, related the story of Colton, a boy in his care who began to act out at home. Recognizing the symptoms of grief, rather than defiance, Tyler asked Colton why he was sad. Colton explained that he missed his Nana. Nana would always let him come sleep on her floor when he was scared of his Dad. Not missing a beat, Tyler asked him what kinds of things he and Nana did together, and Colton began to explain how she made him baked spaghetti. Using Alexa, they asked for baked spaghetti recipes until they heard just the right one, then they cooked it together!

Jones Families are increasingly the most sought-after families throughout the entire St. Louis metropolitan area for agencies looking to place children coming into the foster care system, with 80 families already licensed and 162 children placed. The vast majority of these placements have resulted in family reunification or adoption.

“We initially thought we only wanted to adopt, but we really have grown to enjoy the fostering side of it,” said Tonya Campbell, Jones Program alum. “Donna and I heartily believe in reunification – that kids should be with their biological family whenever possible. It’s obviously much harder, because you don’t know how long kids are going to be with you. But it’s a chance that we’re willing to take with our hearts.

Jones Families understand the importance of family connections by taking in entire sibling groups and engaging the children’s entire extended family. It’s not unusual for Jones Families to invite relatives to family dinners and sporting events, or to schedule doctor appointments so that relatives can be there as well.

“We spend a lot of time training our parents to understand and embrace the importance of family connections,” said Katie Corrigan, Director of Family Development for the Coalition. “I am continually impressed at the way our families respond to this and the ideas they come up with to involve family in so many ways beyond visits.”

Recently, one of the Jones families invited their foster child’s biological grandparents over for a game night and sent their mom a picture of all of them. It had a tremendous impact. The mother responded with this: “Thank you. My son is very handsome! I miss him so much. You guys are truly awesome. I could not have asked for better for foster parents! And in all honesty, even when this is over, I would like for all of us to stay in contact since he knows and loves you guys. I don’t have much family so you guys would be an awesome addition for him and me. That’s if you guys would like to.”

Nothing here is revolutionary. Our Jones Team prepares parents with realistic expectations of the challenges our kids and families face. They teach them to focus on strengths and the small successes that sustain us all. They focus on building relationships with new foster parents, and through that trust, learn to offer individualized support. And most of all, our Jones Team moves with the same passion, urgency, and creativity that make our staff the best in their fields.

Does it take more work up front? Yes. Is there a risk that some will quit when they’re told to involve biological family, or the kinds of behaviors their children may show as a result of their trauma? Of course. But here at The Coalition, we always strive to work smarter, not harder. What is the point of rushing these families through if we’re not reasonably sure we can support them to success? The philosophy is debatable; the numbers are not.

The Jones Program is currently training its 13th cohort of foster parents; the 14th is already full, and plans are underway for the 15th cohort. If you are interested in learning more about the Jones program, please reach out to Katie Corrigan at 314-367-8373.

This work would not be possible without the generosity and vision of the Dennis and Judy Jones Family Foundation. We would like to thank the Foundation for their generational impact on our community’s children and families.

“We spend a lot of time training our parents to understand and embrace the importance of family connections,” said Katie Corrigan, Director of Family Development for the Coalition. “I am continually impressed at the way our families respond to this and the ideas they come up with to involve family in so many ways beyond visits.”

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