WHAT? ME A PROFESSIONAL?
by Caryl Harvey
At the risk of being stoned outside the
city walls, let me state the following: I support the professionalization of foster care. There. I said it. Now I’m
You see, I said the same thing in a post
on a foster care forum and got this response:
“I don’t want anyone calling
me a professional. I am in foster care because I love the kids!”
I felt like a money grubbing, bottom-feeding
low life. Like I didn’t give a flip for the kids I foster.
But there is an initiative working its
way through a few states to professionalize foster care. The argument against the proposal seems to consist mainly of that
rationale…if you professionalize foster care, you take away the love and the caring part of it.
But what about the caseworkers that we
all partner with? They are professionals, right? Does that suggest that they DON’T care about the kids on their caseloads? No one would argue that. As recently
as the 19th century, and into the 20th century, welfare work was thought of as a volunteer endeavor.
People who placed children with caregivers did so as church ministry or as part of a charitable organization.
That’s right. Caseworkers were volunteers.
But as society became more and more complicated,
families assumed less responsibility for caring for each other. More people needed assistance. And the regulations around
taking children from their birth homes were inconsistent.
Then, someone reasoned that caseworkers
needed more education and understanding of the laws and the people they served. Colleges at first offered courses, then opened
up schools of social work. Caseworkers became licensed and the standards for their performance were raised. There was accountability.
No one in his right mind would argue that
we should return to the view of social workers as “volunteers for the public good.” Least of all the caseworkers.
( Try that on yours the next time they come to see your foster children’s rooms.)
But we view foster parents exactly in that
way. And in the past, that may have worked well enough.
The problem for foster parents, though,
is that foster care is changing. Becoming more complicated. Laws are passed that make it more difficult for us to get information
about the children in our homes (think HIPPA*) and that make it possible for us to be accused of violations or abuse with
little or no evidence. The epidemic of Meth use and the breakdown of traditional families has sent huge numbers of kids into
the system. And we serve a different kind of child.
* My husband once sat for an hour in the rain waiting to take a foster child home from counseling. The session ran
an hour over and the community mental health department couldn’t tell him that because they weren’t allowed by
HIPPA to even confirm that the girl was there.
Many disturbed or “special needs”
children were once placed in institutions or group homes staffed by professionals trained to handle their unique problems.
Foster parents cared for the less traumatized children. But institutionalized care can cost upwards of $300 a day. Compare
that to the $15 to $20 a day foster parents are “reimbursed,” and you’ll see why there is now a MAJOR trend
I found this quote from Hauprich & Joy, 1988:
Increasingly, foster parents are dealing with children who have greater emotional and psychological needs.
This is partly due to deinstitutionalization, but also to a variety of stresses on modern families – marital breakups,
single parent homes, latch-key children, poverty, and a lack of close-knit communities and extended families
In short, we foster parents now have in
our home children who previously would have been placed under professional care. And that care requires training. We have
to do more supervision of the children placed with us, both to protect and nurture
them and to protect the other children in our homes.
“Other factors come into play, depending on the particular jurisdiction or agency in question.
Depending on the degree to which a philosophy of family preservation is pursued, it is possible that children are coming into
care later, often experiencing various psychological and emotional stresses within their own families for a longer period
And we’re seeing kids stay in foster
care longer—with more placements. That translates to more deeply disturbed kids than before. And older children also
offer different challenges. (Well, duh. That’s why so many homes won’t take teens.)
That means a lot of frustration. Add to
that the ballooning number of kids in foster care and the decreasing number of foster homes to care for them, and you see
And when you dial up the caseworker to
ask if Johnny has any history of sexual abuse because you found him in the bathroom with your five-year-old, she isn’t
in. “Leave a message,” the answering machine says,” and I’ll get back to you.”
In fact, she may or may not get back to
you. It depends. After my teen foster daughters had tried—unsuccessfully—to
reach their caseworker to request a visit with their mother, the caseworker told me, “I have kids in real danger and
I put their calls ahead of kids who just want things from me.”
She gave me her cell number (for emergencies)
but she doesn’t always answer that either.
She’s a good worker. She cares. But
I’m not a priority. The kids are safe with me, and unless there’s a real issue…
Sometimes, information we really need to
care for these kids is withheld or given to us after we continually harass the caseworkers.
Decisions are made about visitations and
treatments without our input. AND WHO
(outside the birth families) KNOWS THE
KIDS BETTER THAN WE DO?
Foster parents need to be a part of the
team…an esteemed part of the team…to make decisions for these kids.
Our voices need to be heard.
Dr. Thomas Waldock, who is an instructor
at Trent and Nipissing Universities
and also a foster parent in the Family Partner's Program of the Catholic Children's Aid Society of Metro Toronto, says:
Foster parents are excluded in a variety of ways, some more subtle than others, yet the effects in all cases serve to alienate
foster parents from the decision-making process. For example, many foster parents can recall times when they were not informed
about decisions regarding children in their care, and their presence was either not requested, or was added as an afterthought.
Occurrences such as these cannot be attributed solely to particular relationships, agencies, or even jurisdictions. A large
part of the problem is systemic, and has to do with the subordinate position of foster parents.
In other words, how could we have
anything to contribute? We’re just the care-takers.
When judges become involved, caseworkers
are often frustrated that they have little input. The courts rely heavily on the testimony of psychologists and court-appointed
lawyers (think GAL’s). These people often have seen the children only once. ( How many times has a GAL called our homes
a day before court to get the “lowdown” on a child or pulled the child aside as he arrived at the courthouse to
talk to him, and then acted—before the judge—as if he had been in contact with the child all along?)
The testimony of a caseworker who
is involved with the children would benefit the court much more in making decisions…and the input of a foster parent who sees the child on a daily basis would be invaluable. Yet you know as well
as I do the chances of a foster parent being consulted by the court about decisions being made for a child in their care.
The same chance a snowball has in…in beautiful, downtown Phoenix.
foster parents are seen as minimally-trained volunteers who bring little to the table but our love and good intentions.
Yet we are being asked to care for increasingly
disturbed children. Through the new “Family-to-Family” program, we are encouraged—actually expected—to
interact with birth families. The idea of the program is that we foster families may soon be mentoring the birth families
as well as the foster child to expedite the reunification process the state requires. Our role is getting bigger and more
And there are fewer and fewer of us. The
average “life-span” of a foster home is one year. That means kids are being moved more often. That translates
into more trauma for them…less self esteem and trust.
Again, quoting from Dr. Waldock,
“In any case, there is no need to hold such a narrow view of professionalization.
Professionalism has everything to do with the provision of a recognized, valuable service that requires experience, education,
knowledge and expertise, and very little to do with the type of relationship that develops between foster parents and their
children. To suggest that ‘caring’ relationships would be undermined is to suggest that foster parents lack the
common sense not to treat children as ‘clients’ within their own homes. If anything, professionalization would
allow for a more informed caring, not less caring.”
other words, we foster parents are not idiots. We know that foster children need to be part of a loving, caring, nurturing
family. We would never treat kids in our home as clients.
Another foster parent told me, “I
treat those kids just like I treat my own.”
I doubt it. Your kids probably don’t
have reactive attachment disorder. They probably don’t hoard food because they are afraid they won’t get any more.
Your kids are somewhat predictable because you gave them their values and their morals.
These children come to us all ready wired
with their own problems. We need an expertise beyond parental wisdom to care for them. We need skills as well as love.
And once we acquire those skills, we need
the freedom to use them as best as we can to benefit the children. That means participating in the decision making process
and being informed about issues related to the children.
What other “volunteers” do
you know who would assume such responsibility ( and LIABILITY), educate themselves to do their task, endure the degradation
of other professionals and—in general—put themselves, their families and their homes at risk?
What is wrong with making foster care a
profession? With requiring us to educate ourselves (we all ready do) and to participate in judicial and administrative decisions?
Would compensating foster parents for their
efforts result in their not caring for their children? Or would the worst parents leave foster care, unwilling to be accountable
under the standards professionalism would require? Would being paid salaries or increased rates and being given access to
insurance and other benefits demean foster parents, or would the children benefit from more satisfied, less-frustrated stable
Many people given the training required,
could become caseworkers or lawyers or counselors. BUT not many people could become foster parents. The psychological aspects
of fostering children alone would exclude most. And, the truth is, not many people WANT to become foster parents. There’s
a big sacrifice involved.
I am required to have ongoing education.
I am required to keep records. I am required to keep my home up to certain standards. I must attend meetings, do some transport,
and have someone inspecting my home at least once a month. I am expected to understand normal child development so that I
can identify a child with problems in time to get them help. I administer medications and accept the legal issues involved
with that. I am subject, at any time, to investigation and or removal of children from my home (my own included) on the word
of a dissatisfied child or parent. And I love the children placed with me.
BUT I AM NOT A BABYSITTER.
I am a professional. What’s wrong
with treating me as one?