Vol. 11, No. 2 • May 2007

Matching Children with the Right Foster Family

by Staff at the Durham County Department of Social Services

Radio and TV constantly run ads about the need for foster parents. Yet there are foster parents who have been licensed for six months and still haven’t had any children placed in their home. Similarly, there are experienced foster parents who have cared for a number of children but who have been waiting for a placement for some time. How can this be?

The foster care staff at the Durham County Department of Social Services got together to explain why foster parents sometimes find themselves in this situation.

There are a multitude of reasons that foster parents may not have had a placement. In an effort to ensure that children are matched to the foster home that can best meet their needs, agencies must consider many factors. Some of these include the following.

Attitude toward Birth Families
The initial plan for all children coming into foster care is reunification with their parents or family members. Foster parents must be able to participate in shared parenting and assist in reunification efforts. This may require the admittedly difficult task of letting go of attachments that you have made with the children. Foster parents’ attitudes toward birth parents, shared parenting, and reunification can have a significant influence on the well-being of children in foster care and on the ultimate outcome for the family. If you are not supportive or have hostile attitudes toward birth families, shared parenting, or reunification, agencies may be less likely to place children in your home.

Your Stated Preferences
As you remember from your pre-service training, foster care is a situational loss like divorce or loss of a job. The agency never knows from day to day which families they will investigate or which children will come into care. One day it might be a baby, the next day it could be a ten-year-old boy or a sixteen-year-old girl.

As a result, it is generally true that the more restrictions you place on the type and number of children you want, the longer you will wait. If you have expressed certain preferences as to the types of children that you will care for, this could delay placements for you. For example, if you limit yourself to infants, it may be six or seven months before an infant is taken into custody.

Even if the agency does have an infant that needs foster care, many foster parents effectively close their homes to these children by saying they won’t care for children who are medically fragile, HIV-exposed, or drug-exposed. Because there is such a large demand for healthy infants, the wait may be many months or years.

Role in Past Disruptions
Although foster care agencies recognize that sometimes disruptions are unavoidable, the history of placement disruptions in your home is a major consideration in making future placements.

Some disruptions occur despite your very best efforts to meet a child’s needs. In such a situation, the agency will continue to work with you if you allow for a planned and positive transition. The agency recognizes that you have the best interest of the child in mind and will probably call you again.

However, the agency’s confidence in your caretaking abilities may be diminished if you ask for a child to be removed immediately or without making your very best effort to work through all problem situations.

Children who come into foster care have often experienced many losses. The Multiple Response System and initiatives such as Family to Family try to prevent additional losses by placing children in a foster home in or near their own neighborhood. This allows the children to maintain some of their connections, the most important one being to their school or child care provider.

Maintaining connections with schoolmates during a time in which everything else is dramatically changing is essential for children. If we do not have foster homes available in the child’s school district, we may ask their foster parents to provide transportation to their school even if it is not close by.

Ability and Willingness to Provide Transportation
Some children have frequent appointments for therapy, medical exams, visitation, school activities, etc. If you do not own a reliable vehicle, you need to find other ways to assure that these appointments are kept. Social workers have many cases and cannot take every child to every appointment. Moreover, the participation by foster parents in some of these activities may be very important.

Ideas about Adoption
Many foster parents express an interest in adoption. Foster parents who only want to adopt will only get called when a biological parent relinquishes their child into social services custody. This does not happen very often. Foster parents who only wish to adopt may prefer to work with a private agency.

Financial Stability
Caring for children can be expensive. Agencies want the foster parents to be financially stable before they begin caring for foster children. Foster parents who consistently ask for food, have their phone disconnected, and request money for diapers and formula may make the agency question their ability to care for a child. The agency does not want to put a serious financial burden on a foster family. If the agency determines that you have insufficient income to support your own needs, it will not place children in your care.

Your Home’s Capacity
Because of state policies about sleeping arrangements, if you only have one bedroom available and your fourteen-year-old son will share the room, you will only receive calls for boys aged six and older.

Many sibling groups come into care. Our goal is to place siblings together if at all possible. The agency will look for a home that can accommodate siblings or at least homes in the same neighborhood so siblings can remain as geographically close as possible.

Being a foster parent is an honorable and rewarding experience. It is not easy to care for someone else’s child. It takes an amount of time, energy, skill, and expense that many people do not anticipate. Working with a public agency can also be demanding. The many social workers, guardians ad litem, school personnel, therapists, and doctors can cause quite a conflict in scheduling, not to mention the continued court proceedings and the frustration of missed phone calls.

But with patience and endurance, foster parents can prevail and make a real difference in the lives of children and their families in North Carolina. Remember, it’s all about meeting the needs of the child.

Copyright 2007 Jordan Institute for Families