Foster family recruitment and retention have always been challenging. Even while the number of children in foster care increased from 2012 to 2017, half of states saw a decrease in the number of available non-relative foster family homes. Though the number of children in foster care has since decreased to 424,000 in 2019, the need for foster families is still acute.
Child welfare agencies are motivated to recruit foster families, as studies have shown that children placed in foster families have better outcomes than when placed in congregate care settings. Children who spend more time with relatives, fictive kin, and trial home visits also see improvements in safety, school achievement, mental and physical health, and relational and legal permanency.
In addition to this intrinsic motivation, the Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA) adds significant urgency for child welfare agencies to recruit foster families. To encourage states to place children with families, FFPSA dramatically limits federal reimbursement to states when children are placed in congregate care facilities. With budgets already constrained by external factors like the COVID-19 pandemic, states need to rapidly recruit more foster families to minimize the fiscal impact of FFPSA.
What impacts foster family recruitment and retention?
Casey Family Programs’ 2014 report identifies several factors that impact foster parent recruitment and retention. Categorized into recruitment, infrastructure, and retention, the report includes themes that address both programmatic and technical improvements. While states can and must undertake the programmatic changes recommended, this article focuses on the simpler, lower-lift technical changes that can be implemented relatively quickly and cheaply.
The process of becoming a foster parent can be time-consuming and byzantine. Almost 50 percent of families who start pre-service training drop out of the process before a child is placed in their home. Of that number, another 46 percent discontinue or plan to discontinue after six months. One of the primary reasons for this drop-out rate is the delay between application and licensure, which is exacerbated by a lack of a timely response from caseworkers and a confusing and often duplicative application process.
A technological solution could address many of these technical problems. At the most basic level, agencies could utilize a website that compiles all the necessary paperwork and walks applicants through the process—an online tool to digitize and streamline the process for foster family applications. At the more comprehensive level, the website could be a portal that incorporates many of the other recommendations for an effective recruitment and retention program, including trainings, increased responsiveness from caseworkers, and organized peer support.
For those states that have already begun implementing effective recruitment and retention programs, this tech solution would streamline and simplify processes. For those states that are still looking for effective programs, the tech solution would serve as a useful checklist and facilitator for improvements.
The basic technological solution
While agencies should examine the entire paperwork process to streamline it wherever possible, there are often legitimate reasons for duplications in the application process. An applicant’s name and address, for example, are included on multiple forms; this is convenient for agency staff, but more importantly, it prevents errors in processing.
The basic tech solution would simplify the process for the applicant while retaining the necessary duplication for the agency staff. The applicant would answer each unique question once, and the website would populate all relevant fields with that answer. The applicant would also be able to measure their progress, and the solution could offer time estimates for completion. The website could also store all the required forms and disclosures (e.g., discipline, weapons, and confidentiality). Agency staff could also easily update the applicant on their status, addressing the lack of communication that some applicants find so discouraging that they decide not to foster.
Furthermore, if applicants are permitted to immediately begin applying online, agencies can easily capture potential applicants when they express interest. This encourages and welcomes prospective parents—a key factor in successful recruitment programs—and maintains momentum. The introductory pages could include videos with the information that prospective families typically receive at an orientation meeting, which are usually only offered periodically and at specific times.
The comprehensive technological solution
Agencies could build a comprehensive, go-to portal for foster families—both for applicants and for families already offering care. Foster families are more likely to be retained if caseworkers are available and responsive, they have organized peer support and respite care, and their ongoing trainings are effective. While agencies, program staff, and foster families must work together to find solutions to these problems, a portal could make the implementation of those solutions more convenient for everyone.
For example, adaptations to COVID-19 have demonstrated that some trainings can be conducted remotely without losing efficacy. The portal could house training videos or help families and trainers schedule video conferences, while tracking which trainings the families still need to complete.
The portal could also include a social component to facilitate organized peer support and respite care. While agencies and program staff would still need to do the work of supporting the families, the portal could simplify the scheduling process and provide opportunities for families to independently support one another.
Ultimately, the portal could serve as the centralized location that holds all the information that foster families need: their past applications and license renewals, clearance/background check due dates, the trainings they are required to complete, and the availability of respite care on any given day. Additionally, to prevent delays in payments to foster families, foster parents could submit their expenses in the portal and payments could be quickly dispersed.
Agencies would also benefit, as the solution could show the availability of any foster home at any time. Using this tool, a caseworker could quickly and easily find a bed for a removed child, filtering searches based on certain criteria, like specific communities and school districts, or whether the home will take siblings. The tool could additionally alert foster parents when clearances or trainings are due for renewal. This would decrease the number of homes that fall out of compliance and are subsequently not federally reimbursable.
Paying for the technological solution
To assist states in recruiting and retaining foster families, FFPSA includes a one-time, $8 million competitive grant that is available through 2022. These grants are focused on states with the highest proportion of children in non-family settings. Additionally, for child welfare agencies, there are different capped, uncapped, and blocked grants that could be used to cover the cost of developing this tech solution. For example, agencies may claim federal reimbursement under Title IV-E at 50 percent FFP for child-specific administrative activities, including recruitment and licensing of foster homes and institutions. Certain technological solutions may also be reimbursed under the Comprehensive Child Welfare Information Systems (CCWIS) requirement.
Regardless, the development of the tech solution is an upfront investment that will lead to a positive return. In the short term, agencies will see a decrease in costs, as more children will be placed with foster families, and the per diem reimbursement for foster families is typically lower than for congregate care facilities. This will become even more important when FFPSA decreases the number of children in congregate care facilities whose care is eligible for federal reimbursement. States will also see a long-term decrease in costs: more foster families mean more children with better outcomes, which has the dual benefit of flourishing children and fewer children in foster care.
With the October 2021 deadline for FFPSA implementation rapidly approaching, states must act swiftly to increase the number of available foster families. A tech solution would make significant strides in addressing a core complaint for many applicants and current foster families: the current process for many states is overly complicated, slow, and opaque.
Public Consulting Group’s child welfare team has helped state agencies maximize federal reimbursement and streamline processes for over thirty years. PCG is ready to work with your agency to evaluate the foster family recruitment and retention process. For more information, please contact Beth Osborne at firstname.lastname@example.org.