National Foster Care Network

Building Teams That Care

  Focus on Foster Home Retention II
Jacob R. Sprouse, Jr.

The initial essay on Retention, to summarize the responses, was helpful but misses the mark in offering practical advise on improving agency retention programing. To quote one frustrated home finder: "I spend all of my time recruiting new homes-hours on the road, speaking, promoting, doing the dog-and-pony shows, only to have the homes fretted away by some insensitive, inept or perceived slight from the agency. I have no difficulty in accepting those who retire from fostering because they want to move on, what I need is some how-to on keeping those homes who still have the commitment but seem to get lost in the day-to-day shuffle."

Let me begin by suggesting the obvious: before you can improve your agency foster home retention programing you must first have a retention program. No, an annual get-together with the obligatory piece of mystery meat sans sauce does not constitute a retention program. True, an annual feast with certificates of appreciation and\or longevity, some door prizes and some supportive words from the agency leadership is a nice event in one's retention program but for many agencies it seems to be the retention program.

An effective retention program should begin with the recognition that fostering someone else's child is, simply put, a job-and, like every job, has its pluses and minuses. As long as the agency-foster parent relationship stays in the plus column we improve our odds to retain the home. The same job support factors that retain social workers, auto mechanics, nurses, school teachers and software engineers will retain foster care providers. In broad terms, the retention factors include: mentally challenging work, equitable rewards, supportive working conditions, supportive colleagues, and personality-job fit.

Viewing fostering has a job as practical implications for retention programing. When we apply for a job we expect a clear job description; a list of responsibilities, obligations and tasks; a definition of the rewards/ compensations; and, a definition of where we fit in the organizational chart, i.e., from where we will get out peer support. Effective foster home retention is founded on the home's recruitment-is what the agency promotes as the job of fostering the reality of what your new homes encounter as they enter your system? When the agency promotes that fostering is a team effort are all agency staff members on the same page in defining team, and, are we conveying that definition clearly to our recruits? And while on the issue of commonality of definitions, do the line staff, child social workers and foster home workers have a realistic understanding of the demands foster families face?

Improving your home retention programing includes instituting an exit survey system. Without the follow-up your agency merely assumes why the Smiths left the program. Whatever the hard facts may include (personality conflicts with staff, poor staff-home support, poor, ineffective or non-communication, and the like) most are amenable to training. The kinds of questions one should ask include:

  • Were their needs met?
  • Did they have clear understanding of their responsibilities?
  • Were they informed of placement goals established for the child?
  • Did they receive prompt notification of any goal changes for the children?
  • What, if any, were there placement issues?
  • What was their overall feelings about their fostering experience.

The point is, naturally, you cannot fix what you don't know is broken. The survey data should be quantified and used to add, amend or modify retention programing accordingly.

Retained and compared from year to year, your exit survey data will offer concrete suggestions for improving your home recruitment and both pre and in-service training.

The single most effective component of a foster home retention program is in-service training. Granted, parenting skills to manage demanding behaviors is important but don't overlook that long list of social, inter-personal and communication skills necessary to make the home-to-agency relationship more effective and less stressful for the foster parent. I suggest you also consider the disconnect between what your pre-service training promised and what is the realty of fostering. Most pre-service training packages treat demanding behavior in a vacuum, i.e., one at a time-when's the last time you encounter a youth who processed problems one at a time? Equally frustrating for foster parents is realizing that the agency pre-service or orientation packaged the agency-to-foster home support in a rather romanticized view.

Borrowing from Susan Meltsner's Burnout, here are a few stressors you may want to address:

  • adjustment to the placement of a new child into your home;
  • inadequate information
  • disagreeing with a caseworker
  • remaining non-judgmental concerning birth parents
  • transportation to a variety of appointments
  • not having telephone calls returned
  • dealing with a withdrawn, hostile or disturbed child
  • dealing with a child and school personnel about problems the child is creating, experiencing in school
  • birth parents missing visits
  • a child with a particularly traumatic background
  • a child who is involved with drugs/alcohol, or sexually acting out or committing crimes
  • child going on overnight visits
  • child requiring special medical attention
  • new regulations
  • disagreements with a spouse over the discipline of children
  • possibility of adopting a child in your care
  • not knowing the agency's immediate or long term plans for a child
  • having to ask that a child be removed from your home
  • difficulty with time management
  • destruction of property
  • allegations of abuse
  • separation

Generally the big-four issues would include: burnout, allegations of abuse, the impact of fostering on the foster parents marriage/ relationships and separation-an interesting point about the separation issue: potential foster parents focus on how difficult it must be to relinquish the child while practicing foster parents focus on the challenges of dealing with the child's separation from his family issues.

Like recruitment, retention programing is a formal, annual plan and begins with a truth-in-packaging approach about fostering, a realistic description of what the demands and rewards are supported by in-service skills-building that balances the pluses and minuses in favor of retention.

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American Foster Care Resources, Inc.