Choosing to become a foster parent is just the first step, but finding the right agency to partner with is equally important. Here are a few suggestions to help guide you to the right agency.
By Rachel Bithell
When Diane and Scott Carpenter decided to become resource (or foster) parents in Texas, a top priority was getting licensed quickly. “We found an agency through word of mouth that helped us get through all of the classes fast,” Diane says. Finding an agency whose program matches your needs can make fostering more satisfying and less frustrating. In a few areas, a program run by a county or state might be the only game in town, but in most locations, families can also choose from several private child placement agencies. You may want to consider the following issues when selecting an agency or if you want to change agencies.
The Licensing Process
Requirements for licensing are regulated by states, but there can still be significant differences in how the process works at each agency. For example, Melissa Carson, branch director for Bethany Christian Services in Colorado, recommends looking for training that is trauma-focused and facilitated by both child welfare professionals and experienced resource parents.
Also, training schedules can vary from having all required training packed into one weekend to being spread over two months or more. Some agencies can, with a little luck, license a family in as little as two months. Many will take six months or longer. Some will include CPR and first aid in the training while others will need you to arrange that on your own. Some will license families to do only short-term care to give other families a break (called respite care), but others won’t. Also, be aware that most agencies will require some commitment to them once they have paid for your home study. If you are licensed with a county and move away from that county, you will likely have to change agencies. If you are with a private agency you may be able to stay with them if they serve your new area.
The Process of Matching Children with Resource Families
Children come into care when a child welfare professional from a county or state agency, with approval from a court, determines they are at risk of harm due to abuse or neglect. Most of the public agencies that make these determinations also license resource families. If so, they will likely first look for homes for kids with families they have already licensed.
“We will always reach out to our internal homes before we reach out to other agencies. We also do everything we can to keep children in their same county, and same school district whenever possible,” says Lacey Settle, the foster care recruitment and retention caseworker for the Collaborative Foster Care Program, a public, tri-county agency in Colorado. Agencies also want to minimize travel distances for families and caseworkers. If a county is unable to find a home with one of their families, they will contact other agencies, usually ones geographically close to them.
In a few areas, counties or states do not license their own families and rely entirely on private agencies. Some agencies specialize in specific kinds of resource family homes, for example homes that welcome adolescents, children who identify as LGBTQ or medically fragile children. Many agencies find homes for kids after hours and on weekends, but some are only available during business hours.
Relationships with Child Welfare Professionals
In many areas, the caseworker who supports the child and their biological family will be an employee of the placing county, while the professional who supports the resource family will be employed by the agency they are licensed with. For families who are licensed by their county, this means those professionals will likely work at the same office and for the same managers. For families licensed with private agencies, they will not. Either situation can have pros and cons.
Settle observes that professionals who work at the same (usually county) agency have better access to and ability to share information, especially regarding case decisions, goals and court proceedings. This can mean better communication and transparency for the resource family. They may also be better able to coordinate schedules for meetings and visits. On the other hand, they may be less comfortable disagreeing with each other or their supervisors which, Carson fears, “creates the potential for foster parents to not get unfettered support” when they need it. In other areas, the same professional supports the child and his/her biological family and the resource family.
Supports an Agency Offers
Does an agency provide high quality pre-licensing training, mentoring with experienced resource parents, support groups for families, support groups for kids in care, social activities and/or respite care? Do they provide and/or help pay for continuing education? Do they include your permanent children in their programs? How many families does a home supervisor (aka certification worker, resource family manger, etc.) usually have on their caseload? Who is available after hours for emergencies? How quickly will they respond to you? No agency has the resources to do everything they wish they could do so look for an agency whose priorities align with yours.
A Welcoming Community
Visit their website and, if possible, their offices. Pay attention to any statements of mission or values. Try to attend an event prior to choosing an agency. Often agencies do not collect demographic information about their families to avoid any potential for discrimination, however, you can ask about how and where they recruit. A good agency will have inclusive recruiting practices and will also get a lot of referrals from their current resource families.
Some agencies license just a couple dozen families and offer a close-knit community. Others have hundreds of families and may be able to offer more programming due to having more resources. Many, though not all, private agencies are affiliated with a faith community. Most of these will welcome parents of other faiths or no faith and LGBTQ parents, but you should be sure your family will feel comfortable. Ask to talk to families currently with their agency.
Darrin Holt, associate vice president for child welfare for Lutheran Child and Family Services of Illinois, says parents should also look for an agency where “foster parents feel they are an integral part of the team” and respected as professionals.
If you are licensed with a county agency, you will probably get more emergency and after hours calls, though you can probably opt-out of these calls. You will also only get calls for kids from your county so you will know that meetings, court proceedings and visits will happen in your county. If you are licensed for a whole state or with a child protection agency that serves multiple counties, be clear about how far you are willing to travel.
Some states have standardized reimbursements (also called stipends) for resource families. In other areas it varies by the placing county. Rates may also vary by the age or needs of the child. In any case, the reimbursement to the resource family should be the same whether the family is licensed by a private agency or a public agency. However, some agencies may get those payments started sooner than others.
Also, public agencies are funded with taxpayer dollars and usually have little discretion about the rules that govern how those dollars are spent. Private agencies usually operate as nonprofits and may receive funding from grants and donations which can be more flexible. This is almost always a small portion of their budget (the majority comes from contracts with counties or states), but it can be enough to help with a few extras like specialized training for parents, or school supplies or holiday gifts for kids. Carson once used discretionary dollars to replace a family’s TV that was broken by a child in care. Your agency should also be able to give you guidance about community services, public and school benefits, and tax savings your family and/or kids in care may be eligible for.
If you have a bad experience with a particular agency, know that you can make a change. Sara LoCoco, director of marketing and communications for Lutheran Child and Family Services of Illinois, advises, “If you have a heart for foster care … don’t just give up.”
Look for an agency that will better support you. Many agencies will accept initial training, home studies and/or continuing education done with another agency so changing can be relatively painless. Changing is probably easiest to do when your license is due for renewal but could happen at any time. Be aware, however, that leaving an agency while your family is caring for a child from that agency could result in the child being moved from your home.
Foster care agencies are not all the same. Investing the time to find the best one for your family can pay off in a better experience for your family and the children in your care.
Rachel Bithell, a former physicist, freelance writer and full-time parent, fostered in Colorado with her husband for six years. For the last three, she taught preservice training and trauma-informed parenting courses for her tri-county agency. She is the mother of six children, two of whom were adopted from foster care.