There has been a significant drop in reports of child abuse and neglect during the coronavirus pandemic. Many fear that as we emerge, the child welfare system will be flooded as the impacts of family stress become public again. In preparation, state foster care departments must improve their operations to better serve foster parents and assist social workers with complex cases.
First, all states should offer foster parent training online. A number of states including Illinois and Tennessee were moving in this direction. But online training makes even more sense in light of COVID-19 and the adaptations many families already have made to group learning.
Currently, many states have inflexible training schedules for the foster parent classes that happen only on certain evenings and at certain locations. Coordinating schedules of working parents for their own families is challenging, but getting a dozen or more family units in the same place for 20 to 30 hours of training with commuting considerations and other family and work commitments is nearly impossible.
Online training draws more families
Many qualified individuals never become foster parents because they can not overcome the training schedule barrier. The best trauma-informed training content could be viewed when convenient for parents. Agencies would just need to produce some state-specific information, and add in some social aspects to allow newly trained parents to be connected so they can support each other as they embark on the foster parent journey. One organization in Arkansas decided to offer training online this spring and more than doubled the number of families that signed up during the first month of the lockdown.
Second, social workers should utilize technology to support the most experienced foster parents. Foster parents often joke that the easy part of foster care is welcoming and caring for the kids in their home; it is the full-time job they have with dozens of meetings with numerous social workers, court employees, medical appointments, school personnel, and visits with birth families that is the hard part.
In New York in June 2020.
In surveys, foster parents regularly complain about last-minute visits from social workers and schedule changes from therapists, lawyers, and guardians ad litem. Telehealth medical appointments in recent months have given many a glimpse of the convenience that’s possible and the headaches that can be avoided with small children. Video calls save enormous amounts of time commuting and sitting in waiting rooms. And they can allow for greater support if more frequent check-ins are needed, instead of the current one-size-fits-all required in-person visits.
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Social workers still need to see kids in-person, but for experienced foster parents when there are no questions about the quality of care being provided, these time-intensive visits take away from valuable time workers could be spending on more complex cases. Foster parents should be allowed to request more frequent in-person visits if they feel like they need more support. And social workers should be allowed to bump them back up if they have concerns.
Use tech to match parents and kids
Finally, states should use technology to better match children entering the foster care system with temporary foster parents, and for cases that move to adoption to reduce how many times kids are moved from home to home. It is not uncommon to hear of young kids in foster care who have been moved to 10 or more homes.
States such as Virginia and Florida have partnered with a non-profit called Family-Match that uses information on personalities, expectations, parental experience, resiliency factors and other information to increase placement stability. This kind of data-driven process is quicker, can result in homes that better meet the needs of kids, and also bypasses a very common situation where an open home is available in the next country or town but is not made available by a neighboring office.
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When a child enters foster care, if an extended family member is not an option, this process could produce a shortlist of open foster homes that meet specific needs, such as the ability to care for sibling sets, children with disabilities, or medically complex cases. This way social workers can work from a more informed and targeted list of higher quality placements in a larger geographic area. Currently, thousands of hours are spent trying to place children, and technology could speed things up significantly.
As we emerge from the crises of the past few months, child welfare agencies and other organizations need more tools to meet the higher demands of foster care. These steps could significantly improve care by saving valuable time.
Josh Archambault is a foster parent in Massachusetts and senior fellow at Pioneer Institute. Naomi Schaefer Riley is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Follow them on Twitter: @josharchambault and @NaomiSRiley
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Foster care can be stronger and serve more children after coronavirus