Monday, December 5, 2011

All Foster Agencies are Not Created Equal

I've just finished reading over the entire archives of this blog, written by a single woman foster-parenting in New York City. It's fascinating and terrifying and inspiring all at once. She is so dedicated to her (former) foster kids and is willing to be a part of of their lives post-reunification at a level that I don't think I could handle. (Which periodically has me questioning whether I'm really all in this thing or not, but that's a post for another day.)

Reading over her archives has brought one thing to my attention repeatedly. Mr D and I got really lucky.

If you're considering fostering and looking at fostering with an agency, do some research. I don't think Rebecca did and her agency support has been abysmal. Mr D and I didn't either and our agency support has been amazing. (Hence, the statement that we got really lucky.)

The county caseworker assigned to L and O's case has said more than once that our agency had "the best foster parents." She told me that she calls our agency looking for new placements before calling the foster parents on file directly with her county. My agency caseworker has told me that this is true of other counties as well.

My agency caseworker commented on the increased workload required under the "new contract with the state" that the agency has just signed. She was listing all the things she is now required to do as a part of the team and talking about how the agency is looking to hire more caseworkers, since each case is requiring more time. The county caseworker laughed and said that was because our agency "actually does that stuff!"

There is a ton of volunteer-provided support with our agency. Volunteers provide transportation for the kids from my home to their family visits; volunteers are cleared for short-term babysitting so my husband and I can have a date night; volunteers are trained and cleared for respite care and foster families are encouraged to take 1 weekend a month, consistently using the same respite family so that the kids' visit to them becomes like a weekend with extended family; volunteers may bring food, clothing, or baby equipment. The paid staff supervises visits, attends court dates, makes sure paperwork is filed, and keeps me in the loop with all communications between the state DFCS, bio parents and anyone else involved in the case. They also provide regular training, complete with free child care staffed by state-approved baby-sitters.

When I read Rebecca's blog, she talked about feeling attacked by her agency, as they reported the bio mom's accusations to her early in her time with Jacket. I can't help but compare to my own agency's response to concerns about L and O's interactions. I asked for guidance on how to react when their mother undermines my authority in their presence -- providing O with something I had just told him he could not have. In response, their mother was angry that I bought L a Halloween costume, and insisted that it "wasn't my place" to do that because she "had said she was going to." (It was a week before Halloween and she couldn't even remember what her daughter was asking to be. So I had offered L that we could pick up "a back-up", while buying another child a costume, in case her mother "couldn't find" what she wanted. In the end, L chose to wear the "back-up" that I had bought, rather than the costume her mother had bought -- which was still in the packaging and given back to her mother before the holiday so she could return it and get her money back.) Both the county caseworker and my agency caseworker reported the mother's comments to me. They also told me I had done nothing wrong, that the mother had been told so, and that they needed me to continue documenting every interaction so that they had the records they needed on file. It was a supportive conversation, completely opposite of Rebecca's experience. I wish she'd had the support I did!

Lesson to be learned by anyone out there considering fostering--read up on the agencies you're considering. Check out their websites, talk to their foster parents, talk to the social workers at DFCS, ask for their statistics. What sort of support do they offer their foster parents? How much staff do they have? How many cases does an average caseworker carry? How many calls for placement do they get in an average quarter? How many children do they have to decline to place because of space issues? What are the demographics of most of their cases and how well do those demographics match the children you feel equipped to foster?

A good agency wants to be able to match kids to a family that will be able to support and love them. They are dedicated to avoiding "displacement" (moving of children from one foster home to another) and one of the best ways to do that is to be sure that there is support for the foster family and that the initial placement is the long-term best solution available. (In training, my agency talked about how the counties often have to find "a bed for the night" because they have a child sitting in their waiting room with nowhere to sleep that night; our agency is dedicated to finding "a home" for kids in foster care, for as long as it's needed.) Every time Rebecca wrote about wanting to be her foster kids' "only foster home", it reminded me of my agency's attitude.

I hope Rebecca doesn't mind my linking to her, even if I am one of those "stay at home Christian foster moms"! :)

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