Develop and Support Families
A New Approach
For years, the child welfare field has talked about “retention” of foster and adoptive families, but the idea of retention has focused mainly on the needs of agencies rather than the needs of families. We recognize that many child welfare systems such as yours are concerned about retaining families in order to have a large enough pool to pull from for children and youth in foster care, but there is a better approach.
We encourage you to focus on actively developing and supporting both prospective and current foster and adoptive families, rather than focusing on retaining them. By meeting a family’s needs, you increase their ability to address each child’s unique needs, while also strengthening their relationship with your child welfare system. The traditional view of retention suggests passively holding onto families, whereas development and support involves building and nurturing a relationship with families so that they continue to feel equipped to meet the needs of children and youth.
The idea of developing and supporting families is a significant departure from the old approach of retaining families. The information below highlights ways to shift from a “retention” approach to a “development” approach.
What Does “Developing Families” Mean?
Having a pool of well-prepared and supported families makes it possible for your child welfare system to provide placement stability and permanency for children and youth in foster care. By actively and continually developing the foster, adoptive, and kinship families working with your child welfare system, you can help ensure that you will have a pool of families who will be able to meet the needs of the children and youth they are parenting. Just as your staff needs ongoing professional development in order to meet the ever-changing demands of their work, families need ongoing development so they can feel competent in caring for children and youth, accessing appropriate and high-quality services, and advocating for their children’s needs.
How to Focus on Developing Families
- Development begins at first contact with a family. Each step of the process should be increasing the family’s ability to meet the unique needs of a child in foster care. Additionally, when you place a child with a family, recognize the need to continuously help the family develop their skills and capacity to meet that child’s specific needs. Partner with the family to determine what additional information, parenting strategies, and other support will help them feel confident and capable about parenting the child.
- When a child leaves a family’s home—whether for reunification, another placement, or permanency—have an “exit interview” with the family. Through this discussion you can help the family process their questions or grief about the child leaving their home, share insights about what worked well as the family parented the child, and identify new developmental needs for the family to help them feel better equipped for future placements.
- Prospective families want to feel confident that your agency will help them be prepared to meet the needs of children and youth in foster care. Your response to families when they first inquire about foster care or adoption sends a strong message to them about what kind of relationship they can expect to have with your agency. To identify your agency’s strengths and possible areas for improvement, take our agency self-assessment Is Your Response System Family Friendly? (PDF – 131 KB).
Family Development and Support as Active, Integrated Processes
Many child welfare systems think of “family support” as a set of post-placement services, but truly effective support is integrated into a child welfare system’s efforts to develop families from their first point of contact with the child welfare agency.
Support for families can—and should—take many forms. As you directly engage with individual families, you have the opportunity to learn more about what each family needs to feel supported and to build a positive relationship with your agency. By building parents’ skills and confidence, you not only help them feel supported, you also help ensure that your pool of families can meet the diverse and specific needs of children and youth in foster care.
Strategies for Developing and Supporting Families
- Even the most motivated and resilient prospective families can become discouraged and deterred by the licensure or approval process, and while waiting for a placement. Connecting them with experienced families, or other waiting families, and encouraging them to keep going can help families feel less isolated and provide some much-needed motivation.
- Actively partner with parents to help them assess their own strengths and areas for improvement. Then connect parents with training and other learning opportunities specifically related to the improvement areas they identify.
- Some agencies facilitate “while you wait” support groups as well as groups for families who already have children and youth placed with them. This allows families to build relationships and support networks that can sustain them not only as they go through the process, but also as they become parents.
- After families have had children and youth placed with them, they still need to be actively developed and supported. This includes receiving ongoing information that helps them continually build their capacity to meet children’s needs. By building the capacity of parents both before and after you place children and youth with them, you build and sustain a pool of parents who can provide placement stability and permanency for children and youth in care.
- In addition to sharing information with parents about the history and needs of children and youth in their home, talk with them about how to prepare for and respond to each child’s behaviors. Initiate discussions and actively seek ideas from prospective and current parents about ways to help them build their skills for addressing specific needs and behaviors of children and youth they are parenting or may parent in the future.
- Provide parents with information and training on effective, evidence-based interventions and parenting techniques for addressing children’s specific needs. Offer trauma-informed trainings and other learning opportunities and help connect parents with other relevant learning opportunities available in their community.
- Technology and the Internet can provide opportunities to build virtual support groups that are a valuable option for families who may not be able to gather in the same physical location. An open and reciprocal line of communication with the agency plays a significant role in helping the family feel supported and respected.
- Supporting families requires providing support wherever they are. If you are working with a family in another part of the State or in another State or country, be sure to explore the resources and services available in their area.
- Child welfare systems frequently report losing many prospective parents at each step of the process from initial inquiry to approval. By engaging and supporting families from their first point of contact with your agency, you can demonstrate to families that they will have the support they’ll need from your agency pre- and post-placement. Some ideas for doing this include:
- Connecting prospective parents with current foster, adoptive, and kinship families to help them learn more about parenting children and youth in foster care and to begin developing a support network.
- Providing a parent liaison or mentor who can help them navigate the process of becoming a foster or adoptive parent, including both completing the procedural steps and addressing their concerns and questions.
- As you develop targeted and data-driven recruitment strategies, use the same data and information on the targeted communities to plan for your family development, preparation, and support activities. For example, if you’re conducting targeted recruitment to recruit families for teens, be sure that you have information and resources to share with prospective families about how to meet the needs of teenagers in foster care. For specific ideas, see our information packet Going Beyond Recruitment for Older Youth: Increasing Your System’s Capacity to Respond to Prospective Parents and Prepare Older Youth for Adoption (PDF – 648 KB).
A Customer Service Model for Family Retention and Support
Our customer service model for child welfare systems is built on a belief that each participant in the child welfare system—from the person who sweeps the floor, to the agency director, to the judge, to the foster, adoptive, or kinship family—must feel like a valued member of the team and take to heart the act of providing good customer.
The needs of child welfare staff and families—internal and external customers—are quite similar. Both desire to:
- Feel respected and valued
- Be considered significant contributors to the challenging work of child welfare
- Receive supports needed to fulfill responsibilities for their role
- Experience opportunities for growth
- Receive timely responses to their needs
See a larger version on page 11 of Using Customer Service Concepts to Enhance Recruitment and Retention Practices (PDF – 850 KB).
How Diligent Recruitment Relates to Supporting Families
Many elements of comprehensive diligent recruitment relate closely to your efforts in supporting families, including:
- Using a “customer service” model when responding to prospective foster and adoptive parents
- Having procedures or processes to address barriers presented by the agency in order to increase the rate of retention of prospective foster and adoptive parents
Building your capacity to address these elements of diligent recruitment will help you develop, retain, and support a pool of families who can meet the needs of children and youth in foster care. Having this pool of families will help you provide placement stability and permanency to children and youth and ensure that families are able to meet the needs of children and youth they are parenting.