Our Plan to Improve the Foster Parent Experience
Each year, thousands of foster and kinship families open their hearts and homes to our state’s most vulnerable children. There are nearly 9,200 children in Washington who are in out-of-home placements. This number has been climbing slowly every year as we work through the opioid epidemic and the aftermath of the great recession.
At the end of June 2018, DCYF had 5,109 licensed foster homes. This number represents a 3.1 percent increase from the prior year. Forty-five percent of the 9,200 children in out-of-home placements are living with relatives instead of traditional foster care parents. However, the agency still needs thousands of foster homes to care for the state’s most vulnerable children. The most critical need is for families who can safely provide support for children and youth with intense behavioral needs as well as foster homes for sibling groups and teens.
One of DCYF’s primary responsibilities is providing a seamless and supportive experience for foster parents and kinship families. The agency must ensure that these caregivers feel they are listened to and valued. Our ability to recruit and retain foster parents and kinship families is intricately connected. The strongest recruitment tool we have is foster parents who feel supported by our staff. When they receive proper training and consistent communication, they are more likely to play a positive role in the recruitment of other foster and kinship parents.
As a new agency, we are committed to the mandate we were given to make positive changes in the programs and services provided for children placed under the state’s supervision. We are excited about making improvements in three distinct areas: licensing, resources and communication. DCYF is making progress, but we still have work to do in all three arenas.
On the licensing side we’re going from a manual, paper-based application process to an online one. Places that have done this report large increases in foster parent satisfaction and saw reduction in the time it takes to get licensed by 20%. No more lost paperwork! This has been funded, and we intend to have it up and running by next summer. We’re also planning a revamp of our licensing process to speed up the federally-required home study process to make it less time consuming and intrusive. Our goal would be to have this online next summer as well.
Resources and Support
DCYF currently provides foster parents and caregivers with resources and support, such as monthly maintenance reimbursements, clothing vouchers, mileage reimbursements, social worker visits, and training. In addition, a variety of resources are available for foster parents through contracted services including child care payments, toll-free support phone lines, training and support groups. The process for making this happen, particularly for childcare has been frustrating, and one of the benefits of our coordinated agency is the ability to make this better, and we’re working on it.
The last few decades have seen an increase in the intensity of the mental health needs children in out of home care have, and this is sometimes difficult for foster parents to manage. Part of Governor Inslee’s improvements in Washington’s mental health services is a package of interventions called the WISe wrap-around that we are working to make available to children who need these services, helping the foster parent provide a supportive environment.
Communication between foster parents and the child’s caseworker has been a frequently reported problem for a many years. We can change rules and policies until we are blue in the face and will have difficulty making this better until we reduce the caseloads our workers have. That said, we can improve communication on a host of important topics by making information available online, with automatic updates about court date changes, etc. This is further out, and will follow our work on the licensing automation.
We don’t do this alone. Each year we hear from caregivers through the Annual Foster Parent Survey, which provides us with valuable information from foster parents and caregivers about the support and training we provide. We also hear from parents through our Foster Parent Consultation (1624) Team meetings, where foster parents have a place to express their concerns and provide feedback on our policies. We’re re-organizing these meetings to make them more effective, and taking them on the road so everyone in the state will have a chance to participate in person.
DCYF Celebrates Foster Parents
Some of the ways we work to celebrate foster and kinship caregivers all year long includes partnerships with other organizations. In May, DCYF hosted the We Are Family Day, along with the Mariners. This event is dedicated to celebrating foster, kinship and adoptive families and the people who support them. We hold local family recognitions, and we share their positive stories.
We know being a caregiver is a hard job. If it weren’t a hard job, everyone would do it. So how can we recruit and retain people to take on this role? The answer lies in how we treat and support the people who currently help us provide a nurturing home for the children and youth in Washington.