Three Small North Carolina Counties Join Forces to Support Resource Parents
Every child-placing agency in North Carolina genuinely wants to support foster parents. Why wouldn’t they? After all, it takes a lot of time, money, and effort to find, orient, train, and license potential caregivers for children and youth in foster care.
But providing the ongoing training, appreciation events, and networking opportunities needed to support and sustain resource parents can be a challenge, especially for small agencies, which typically have fewer people on staff and less in the way of resources.
And yet where there’s a will, there’s a way. This article describes how three neighboring county agencies in Western North Carolina discovered they can support foster parents more effectively by working together.
Three Small Counties
The counties in question—Jackson (pop. 41,265), Macon (pop. 34,201), and Swain (pop. 14,434)—are relatively small. As the numbers below show, so too are their local DSS foster care programs:
- Jackson County DSS: 16 resource families, 65 youth in care
- Macon County DSS: 28 resource families, 60 youth in care
- Swain County DSS: 7 resource families, 48 youth in care
As Macon’s Stacey Messer explains, the idea to pool efforts and resources arose when she and the foster home licensing staff in Jackson and Swain realized they faced many of the same challenges. These included finding training resources, arranging for child care, and paying for training and other events.
“Also, being the only licensing workers in our counties, we didn’t get enough time to spend with all of our families.” Messer says.
“We decided to maybe not spread ourselves so thin and work together so we could offer more to our families.”
A Monthly Support Meeting
Jackson, Macon, and Swain use a monthly meeting to support their resource parents. They gather on the third Monday of every month from 6:00-8:00 p.m. So far, Jackson and Macon have alternated in hosting. Swain, which joined the partnership only recently, will host in the future as well.
The meetings are attended by foster families supervised by the three counties, prospective foster families (including those involved in pre-service training), adoptive families, and foster families from private agencies in the area. Messer adds, “Of course, we invite the children. Because if the children don’t come, the parents often can’t come because they don’t have child care.”
Child care is key. When the group meets, they gather at a church that donates space that includes separate classrooms for child care. Separate, child-friendly areas for children make a huge difference, Messer says. “This gives the adults some time to have some adult time—to have it quiet so they can really get the most out of the training.”
The agencies use county adoption promotion funds to hire staff from a local child care organization. Initially they used DSS staff for child care, but found hiring professionals worked much better for everyone.
Food is also important. Each meeting starts with a potluck meal. The hosting county DSS provides an entree and families are asked to bring a dessert, beverage, or side dish.
“This helps your group bond,” Messer says. Contributing to the meal gives families a sense of ownership and builds community.
Like a Family Reunion
Messer says if you’ve ever been to a family reunion, you can picture what these meetings are like. They set out the food first. The children fill their plates and go to their separate area. Then there’s a little socializing time when the parents are getting their food.
“We use this time to try to attach and bond with our families,” Messer says. Families also take time to admire each other’s children. “The parents come to show their children’s progress and to brag on how they’re doing. We celebrate things in this meeting, like if an adoption’s happened or a family’s gotten licensed.”
After the meal and some announcements, most meetings feature a training. So far, all have been free to the families and to the host agencies. Many have been offered by Children’s Home Society and Children’s Hope Alliance, private child-placing agencies that provide post-adoption support under contract to the NC Division of Social Services.
Other training providers have included a lawyer and agency director (presenting on court timelines), a GAL, and a foster parent who is a speech pathologist.
To agencies struggling to find appropriate training for resource families, Messer says, “I would encourage you to look around in your community. Who might have something useful to say or share with your families?”
Other Community Partners
Jackson, Macon, and Swain are clear that their success owes a lot to partners in their local community. These include Watauga Church, which donates meeting space, Macon Program for Progress Childcare, whose staff they hire for the monthly meeting, and Discover Church, which attends the meetings and also meets the needs of resource families for items such as children’s clothing, book bags, furniture, bedding, and holiday gifts.
A Host of Benefits
Taking a joint approach to resource parent support brings a host of benefits to all involved. Agencies, for instance, get a reliable venue for sharing information with families. Because it is a shared effort, it also costs each county less.
Families, naturally, are the big winners. They get an easy way to meet training requirements, a night when they don’t have to cook, and a chance to connect with others on the same journey. This feels good and translates into tangible support—for example, they get to know more people they can turn to for respite or babysitting, and more people they can call for advice and encouragement. This kind of support renews their energy for their important, demanding work.
Lessons Learned: What Doesn’t Work
These counties have tried a number of different approaches—not all have been successful. Here are a few lessons learned they would like to pass on about what doesn’t work.
Lunchtime Meetings. Messer says the first thing they tried was a “lunch and learn” approach. “We found was that even if we provided lunch, this was just not a good time for families to come. We had very poor attendance. This does not work!”
Required Attendance. Messer says this sets the wrong tone. “We really want to have this be a choice for the families and something that they want to do. Making it mandatory really takes away the support aspects of the group.”
Open Agendas. When there’s no speaker and no plan or structure, meetings are more likely to become venting sessions. Messer says it really helps to have a plan for each meeting, whether that’s a speaker or a project you’re going to work on.
Providing Child Care Yourself. Messer strongly advises hiring professional child care professionals and emphasizes the importance of having adequate space that is child-friendly.