National Foster Care Network

Building Teams That Care

  On Family Foster Home Retention

Jacob R. Sprouse, Jr.

A significant amount of AFCR's Foster Care Journal space has been devoted to issues of recruitment and training of foster parents. Less has been said and written about the retention of the foster families we have or increasing the longevity of the ones we recruit. Are trained and experienced people leaving the foster care system at the same rate new people are entering it?

On the road with Recruitment and Retention workshops, participants consistently ask about retention. For home recruiters it is a priority concern. I always try to suggest a number of ways to decrease the untimely loss of quality foster families: adequate preparation through pre-service training; maintenance of skill through in-service training; burnout protection measures; stress management training; foster parent participation as full partners in case planning and agency functioning; respite care; careful matching of children with families; recognition of service; support groups, and so on.

A major focus of recruitment programing is developing public relations materials that will entice families, with "commitment," into foster parenting. According to Webster's - "a commitment is a binding promise or pledged; a responsibility, a covenant, a vow." There is something sacred about commitments; commitment seems to be a moral as well as logical choice. Also present is the implication that we must honor our commitments from the moment we make them onward through all eternity. This unwritten but unforgettable, "never-ending" clause scares many of us away from making any sort of commitment at all.

Are all commitments really meant to last forever? After eight years of dedication and service to foster family advocacy, I found myself feeling unhappy, bored, frustrated, unchallenged and above all, guilty. Guilt, it seems, is the unavoidable by-product of wavering commitment. Wavering commitments tend to turn into hollow responsibilities which tend to turn into distasteful obligations. All the passion and energy and excitement that accompanied the commitment slips away. The activity once performed with skill, grace and enthusiasm gets done with mediocrity and sometimes bitterness. The once highly committed individual gives less and does only enough to get by - serving no one's true interest.

Wavering commitment is not necessarily a function of no longer caring but of losing interest and enthusiasm for the way we have chosen to act on our commitment. Thus giving up did not mean I no longer cared about people or the children they serve, I simply had reached my limit when it came to the activity of class advocacy. I had given all I could, and there is ample evidence I've better served my commitment by leaving than I would have had I stayed.

Sometimes people simply need to move on. They commit themselves to foster care (or any other vocation) in good faith, fully intending for their commitment to last for years and perhaps forever. They give their best and their all as they pledged they would. But for many, a time arrives when direct service in foster care just doesn't fit them anymore. They have outgrown it; unforeseen events have altered their ability and motivation to honor their commitment; or they have found another or better way to act on their beliefs and values. In most cases they have given all they effectively could. Continuing, only because they promised they would, gives nothing of value to anybody.

When it is time for foster parents to move on, we must let them without guilting them into doing more or hanging in just a little longer. There are things we can do to ensure the activity of foster parenting remains acceptable and appealing for longer periods of time, but not forever. We must do the best we can to support and recognize the people who are willing and able to stay. However, we must look realistically and unemotionally at the fact that people do leave, and some should leave.

We must create opportunities for foster parents to serve the foster care system in ways other than direct service. The truth is parenting other peoples' children is a remarkably demanding task and it takes a toll on every foster parent. We must create alternative ways for former foster parents to act on their commitment - providing respite care, serving on recruitment committees, lobbying legislators, etc. And we must accept the fact there are only a limited number of people in the universe who can provide quality foster care; some for years, others for decades. That means we must continue to bring new people into the system as foster families: that's why we call it recruitment and retention.

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American Foster Care Resources, Inc.