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Develop and Support Families

Ideas from the Field


Developing strategies to support both prospective and current foster, adoptive, and kinship families is the key to ensuring your agency’s recruitment efforts produce a sufficient pool of families for children and youth in foster care. To do this more successfully at your agency, use some or all of the strategies below:

Integrate Good Customer Service Principles Into Your Work With Families

Principles of good customer service capture the essence of what helps to support and develop families. Family engagement, at its core, is fundamentally about treating people well, meeting their needs, and providing encouragement all the way from pre-service training through post placement services. Below are two great resources on how to integrate customer service into your work.

Using Customer Service Concepts to Enhance Recruitment and Retention Practices (852 KB PDF)
This publication provides child welfare agency leaders with an overview of customer service concepts that can help with recruitment and retention of foster, adoptive, and kinship families. It also serves as a guide for agency leaders in assessing, developing, and implementing relevant policies and practices to support good customer service.

Treat Them Like Gold: A Best Practice Guide to Partnering With Resource Families  (3.9 MB PDF) by the North Carolina Division of Social Services.

  • Design evaluations of the foster care, adoption, and kinship care approval and preparation processes to obtain feedback from prospective parents. Use the feedback as a basis for making improvements in forms, informational material, preparation classes, and other key parts of the process that may be confusing for prospective parents.
  • Work with the appropriate agency leadership staff to designate a few parking spots at the agency’s parking lot as “Parking for Foster, Adoptive, and Kinship Families Only” as a way of showing that the agency values these families.
  • Take a critical look at the room(s) where the agency holds parent orientation and training sessions. Find ways to make it more welcoming and friendly—consider adding kid artwork and photos, painting the walls and other warm touches.

If you want tailored assistance on how to integrate customer service principles into your family recruitment, development, and support work, explore our technical assistance services or contact us to find out more.

Developing Customer Service Standards and Guidelines

If your agency is considering developing customer service standards and behavioral guidelines, you should:

  • Ensure that the standards and guidelines will align with the mission of the agency.
  • Understand how customer service is currently being experienced by those who are involved with the system.
  • Seek input from agency staff, families involved with your agency, and other partners who directly or indirectly experience the system.

Options for getting customer input include:

  • Holding focus groups for both staff and families
  • Offering lunch-and-learn sessions
  • Individually interviewing families
  • Attending existing direct service team meetings or through annual and exit surveys from individuals involved in the system

Our customer service tools can help your agency begin to assess and gather information on your customer service needs:

Recruitment and Retention Strategies

Customer Service Workshop Facilitator's Manual (PDF – 1.3 MB)Simple Truths of Service Slideshow 
The Mississippi Department of Human Services developed this workshop and its materials as part of its diligent recruitment grant from the Children’s Bureau.  This workshop was developed to improve relationships both internally and externally.  In the introduction, Mississippi Department of Human services states, “We work to create a culture centered on customer service that includes not only our external customers but our staff as well! This handbook contains our customer service standards, customer service principles, and staff resources. We hope this information, along with this customer service workshop, will provide each of you with a variety of valuable customer service tools.”

Use Process Mapping to Examine How Your Agency Works With Families

Use process mapping to examine your agency’s process for prospective parents from responding to inquiries to conducting licensures and home studies. Exploring the process from both the agency's perspective and the prospective parent's point-of-view helps identify potential barriers or slow-down points that may hurt your efforts to recruit and retain parents.

We provide free technical assistance on process mapping for public agencies. Find out more about our how to request our T/TA.

Develop Respite Care Partnerships With Parent Support Groups

Develop respite care partnerships with parent support groups. These partnerships provide much-needed respite care options for foster, adoptive, and kinship families while ensuring the care provided is designed in ways that are responsive to the specific needs of parents, children and youth.

Learn more about how to form these partnerships by reading our two publications:

Offer a “While You Wait” Program

While You Wait, a program that supports and educates families waiting to adopt from the foster care system, serves two purposes: 1) enhanced preparation of families to make lifelong commitments to children and youth waiting to be adopted and 2) as a supplement to the amount of adoption-specific information, it can be offered in pre-service training.

Karen Miskunas, Program Manager at the Connecticut Department of Children and Family Services, shared details on the program’s creation:

When I came into my current position in 2005 we knew we had some excellent families who had come forward to adopt children from the foster care system. Like many States may have experienced, the type of children our waiting families had dreamed of parenting were not necessarily the same children in the State foster care system. We knew we needed to do something to open up this challenging conversation. We began by getting together with families who were waiting in one geographic area of the State.

We brought pictures of our waiting children (which were our Heart Gallery pictures) and talked about these children and the hundreds of others they represented who are adopted every year. It was an excellent beginning for our follow-up ‘While You Wait’ series of trainings and discussions.

Families are referred to While You Wait just before being licensed for adoption and are welcome to attend even after a placement has occurred. Topics are identified based on needs identified by staff and families. Sessions have addressed:

  • The post-licensing process for pre-adoptive families;
  • Understanding the adoption “journey” and post-adoption supports;
  • Legal risk adoption; open adoption; adopting transracially or transculturally; understanding loss and trauma;
  • The importance of biological family and the State’s Search Program for adult adoptees; the effects of substance abuse on child development;
  • Parenting strategies;
  • Life style issues, including nutrition;
  • Understanding attachment.

Each of the sessions is offered in a support group format emphasizing discussion rather than formal training.

Provide Tailored Support

Examine whether there are particular communities or subsets of prospective and current parent who aren’t currently receiving culturally appropriate support and may need specialized information or support opportunities. For example, consider developing support groups for adults who may be underserved by traditional support groups, such as:

Establish Procedures to Manage Foster Care Placement Disruptions

Establishing procedures for handling placement disruptions in a foster home helps staff and families know what to expect. By having a clear procedure outlined, agencies can reduce the confusion and uncertainty foster parents may feel when a child needs to be moved unexpectedly. This ensures foster parents feel their thoughts and voices are heard as part of the process.

An example of placement disruption procedures are the Unplanned Transfer Conferences (15 KB  PDF) the New Hampshire Division of Children, Youth, and Families uses to facilitate conversations among its staff and foster parents about what happened in a particular situation and what could have been done better.

Streamline the Licensure or Approval Process

As part of its diligent recruitment grant, Denver County (CO) used the Lean process to streamline the certification process, aiming to make the process both faster and more focused on providing value to families.

Denver County’s data showed that the certification process took 240 days from the time of application to the time a family was certified. Through the Lean process, Denver County shortened the length of time it takes for a family to go through the certification process by approximately 62 percent, down to as little as 87 days.

By using process mapping of the full certification process, Denver County identified all of the parts of the process that didn’t provide value to the families. Denver County determined that approximately 80 percent of the process didn’t provide value to the families; they also identified which steps in the process they could change. For example, Denver County had been having digital fingerprinting done by a separate unit outside of the staff who certified families. The fingerprints took five to six weeks to get processed. Denver County was able to give certification staff access to the fingerprinting information, helping to expedite the process.

Create a Specialized Position to Recruit, Engage, Develop, and Support Families

For many prospective foster and adoptive families, the process of moving from their initial inquiry about foster parenting or adoption through to completing the training and approval steps can be confusing and frustrating, especially if they face long waits in between steps in the process. Child welfare system often experience the consequences of these challenges, losing prospective parents at various steps along the way between recruiting families and approving them. Having someone be the consistent point of contact for prospective families as they go through this process can help child welfare systems keep families engaged and prevent unnecessary drop-off of prospective parents.

Santa Cruz County

As part of its diligent recruitment grant, Santa Cruz County (CA) established a specialized contractor position to recruit and support prospective parents. An outreach and recruitment coordinator—who is also an adoptive parent—reaches out to prospective families who inquire about foster care or adoption. This coordinator offers prospective parents support and helps guide them through the licensing process. She helps them access, complete, and submit applications and other required paperwork and provides support through each stage of the licensure or approval process. 

Santa Cruz County developed this support role because they saw that prospective parents became frustrated or overwhelmed by the application and licensure process. The coordinator provides prospective families with a consistent person to support them throughout the process, helping them navigate each step. Families can be in touch with the coordinator from the point of their initial recruitment through orientation and training, getting support and assistance to help them through each stage.

Because this coordinator role is a contracted position, and not an employee of the child welfare agency, the coordinator has an increased ability to connect with families as she carries no leverage over their case and cannot speak to the history of children’s cases. Being someone separate from the child welfare agency allows her to be more creative in her efforts and support.

New Mexico—Regional Resource Family Navigators

Based on their review of data and identification of retention problems—having many prospective families drop off between inquiry and licensure—New Mexico developed positions for regional resource family navigators. The goal for these navigators is to provide a support system for foster and adoptive families to help them navigate the child welfare system and the process of becoming resource families. The navigators—some of whom are agency staff and some are contractors—guide and mentor families, keeping them engaged in the licensure process, and seek to help shorten the amount of time it takes families to move through the process. With most of the navigators having experience as foster or adoptive parents themselves, they are able to provide peer support and mentorship, including helping prospective parents reflect on information they hear in trainings and talking through the prospective parents’ questions or concerns. In addition to helping the specific families they work with move through the licensure process, the navigators have a feedback loop to agency leadership to keep identifying ways to improve the licensing process and strengthen the messages and preparation being delivered to prospective parents. Based on early assessment of the effectiveness of the navigator program, New Mexico is beginning to see shortened timelines for families to move from inquiry to licensure and families are reporting feeling supported by their navigator.

For child welfare systems interested in using a similar approach, New Mexico emphasizes the importance of having a good system for tracking data and the status of families moving through the licensure process. New Mexico also suggests paying particular attention to clarifying roles between navigators and other agency staff working with families, such as placement workers responsible for licensing and maintaining the foster home. It’s important to have other agency staff view the navigators as a resource and additional support for the work, rather than taking on the placement worker’s role.

Help Families Support Reunification

Reunification is the most common goal and outcome for children and youth in out-of-home care, and safe and timely family reunification is the preferred permanency outcome.

It is important for child welfare systems to recruit, develop, and support resource parents who can actively support reunification when it is the best permanency option so that foster parents continue to open their homes to children and youth in need of care.

In support of National Foster Care Month, NRCDR has compiled ideas and strategies to help child welfare systems recruit, develop, and support foster parents who can support reunification when it is the best permanency option for a child in their care. These include:

  • Establishing realistic foster parent expectations
  • Providing development opportunities on the foster parent’s role in reunification
  • Supporting foster families on the grief and loss they may experience during reunification

Read more about helping families support reunification.

Provide Proactive, Coordinated Support to Resource Families and Children Immediately after Placement

The experience of coming into care or being placed into a new home may be challenging and traumatic for children and youth. By providing services and sharing information, systems can support children, youth, and resource families with the transition.

When any child or youth age 3–18 years old in foster care enters foster care or changes placements, New Jersey’s Mobile Response and Stabilization Services (MRSS) is engaged by the child welfare worker, contracted systems administrator, and resource family in a phone meeting to assess the need for services and share information to support the resource family and child or youth.

Following this discussion, MRSS has an in-person meeting with the resource parent within 24 hours, at the family’s convenience. During these meetings, information may be provided to help the resource family prevent circumstances and interactions that may trigger a traumatic response in children and to support resource parents in dealing with challenging behaviors. Additionally, MRSS completes an assessment and may arrange for in-home or outpatient services for the child. If MRSS identifies intensive needs, they will provide a referral to a behavioral health care management organization (CMO). The goals of this approach include increased support for resource families and children and youth in placement, reduction in placement disruption, and decreased placement trauma for children and youth. On an ongoing basis, MRSS and the child welfare caseworker meet monthly about case plans and communicate regularly between meetings to collaboratively support resource families and children and youth in care.

Offer Ongoing 24/7 Support to Quickly Address Emotional or Behavioral Health Crises

New Jersey’s Mobile Response and Stabilization Services (MRSS) provides 24/7 crisis support to all resource families and children and youth in foster care. Resource families can call a hotline 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to request assistance if a child experiences an emotional or behavioral health crisis that causes a disruption in the home. (They call 911 if someone’s life or health is in danger.) If the resource family provides consent and requests services, the MRSS team visits their home within an hour of the call to provide intervention services and connect them with follow-up services as needed. The MRSS team works to reduce or deescalate the identified behaviors and may provide intervention services during the 72 hours following the request for assistance. MRSS may recommend stabilization management services for up to eight weeks, which may include intensive in-community services and/or behavioral assistance services.

Note: As you consider implementing ideas from the field that may require higher levels of funding and staffing, we encourage you to review our Support Matters publication for information on partnership strategies, funding ideas, and other key considerations for implementing support services.

Create Connections Between Agency Leadership and Resource Families

Connecting your agency leadership staff with resource families can be a key strategy for building trust and strengthening relationships with resource families, thanks to multiple benefits of interactions between leadership staff and families. By involving people in leadership and management positions in your processes for engaging with resource families, you can demonstrate that your agency has a strong commitment to hearing from resource families and that you deeply value the role of resource families.

Engaging leadership staff in discussions with resource families also helps ensure that agency leadership hear input directly from families about their experience parenting children in foster care who have experienced trauma, helping leaders make their programs and services responsive to the needs of resource families.

Additionally, leadership’s participation at recruitment events, trainings, focus groups and in meeting with resource families sends a strong message to resource families that they are valued partners and a valuable resource in the child welfare system and to the overall mission of the agency.

Florida’s Foster Home Partnership Building Project used this strategy of connecting leadership staff with families as a way to strengthen its relationships and effectiveness in working with both current and future resource families. In this project, people in leadership positions visited all currently licensed foster homes. Leaders spent time with the families to better understand why they have chosen to foster, learn how to recruit other families, and hear any ideas families have for improving the support and services being offered to resource families.

Leadership staff documented the information they learned during these visits, and the information they gathered was rolled up in a report and was used for future strategic and quality improvement planning. Through these interactions, leadership staff learned firsthand which specific foster families may need additional support and what specific concerns need follow-up, and also about new recruitment opportunities that had not yet been explored. The families expressed that they appreciated the commitment and dedication from the management staff to complete these home visits and that they felt that through this project relationships grew stronger.

See the letter to agency management (143 KB PDF) and the home visit form (115 KB PDF) that Florida used for this effort.

Pair Prospective and New Resource Families with Experienced Resource Families

Experienced foster, adoptive, and kinship families’ perspectives and knowledge can be valuable in helping prospective and new resource families develop a stronger understanding of their role and what to expect when parenting a child in foster care. By pairing prospective and new resource families with more experienced families as mentors or support partners, you can help build new families’ capacity to meet the needs of children in foster care while also expanding resource families’ support networks. Providing opportunities for prospective and new families to spend time in day-to-day activities with seasoned families and the children they care for helps families prepare for real-life experiences parenting children in foster care.

As part of its 2008 Diligent Recruitment grant from the Children’s Bureau, Kentucky’s Project Match used a low-cost approach known as Alternative Care Training for supporting and mentoring new families as they go through the licensing process. The training provides opportunities for hands-on experience to learn more about the role of being a resource parent. Kentucky developed this training based on other training that was initially developed for respite providers, expanding the state’s required resource parent pre-service training. By providing opportunities to interact with children in the homes of the experienced resource families, the training was also intended to help prospective families expand their thinking about the ages and needs of children that they could parent.

Once new families’ background and reference checks were completed, prospective families were paired with an experienced resource family to complete the required shadowing experiences. These shadowing experiences included accompanying families to medical appointments for the children, school meetings and other child-specific outings. The prospective families also attended adoptive parent support group meetings and provided child care for some families. The program found that the Alternative Care Training component was an effective approach for supporting and mentoring prospective families. In addition, benefits of the training included helping create supportive relationships between the families for future networking and respite care options.

Ensuring Normalcy

Why Normalcy Is Important for Youth in Foster Care
This article by Child Trends addresses the importance of youth in foster care experiencing a sense of normalcy while in out-of-home care and highlights work done by Clark County, NV, toward assuring normalcy as required under the federal law, Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act of 2014 (“The Strengthening Families Act”).

Hire Experienced Resource Parents to Provide Support to Other Resource Families

Engage licensed caregivers with diverse experiences to work as part of your professional team supporting resource families. In this role—whether as staff or contractors— they can build strong relationships with new resource families and provide them with information and support, drawing from their own experiences and knowledge. Providing peer support—from one family to another—helps ensure that resource families can connect with people who understand their experiences, needs, and challenges, which in turn helps families feel supported and learn from experienced parents. As with other forms of assistance, providing peer support to families can help child welfare systems sustain a sufficient pool of resource families, both by keeping current families supported and by helping recruitment efforts by being able to reassure prospective parents about the availability of needed services.
In planning and developing this position, agencies will need to consider how to:

  • Hire resource parents (e.g., as employees or contractors) 
  • Structure the position (e.g., responsibilities, number of hours, schedule of availability)
  • Help resource parents in this role in managing personal and professional boundaries
  • Train resource parents so they have the skills and information needed to represent the agency appropriately
  • Provide ongoing support to resource parents in this professional role, including helping them be aware of potential triggering experiences as they work with other families experiencing challenges and preparing ways to manage their responses
  • Create feedback loops to continue to strengthen the process of hiring, training, and supporting resource families so that the positions are sustainable, effective, and continually aligned with the needs of families

One example of using this approach is the Foster Parent Champion Program, developed by the Clark County (Nevada) Department of Family Services as part of its 2010 Diligent Recruitment Grant. The program hires experienced resource families to provide a support system for foster parents, relatives, and fictive kin caregivers with the main goal expressed in its tagline: “Making Caregivers’ Lives Easier.” Staff in the Foster Parent Champions positions are licensed caregivers with a wide range of expertise (related to infants, teens, large families, medically fragile children, relative caregivers, children with special needs, and Spanish-speaking families) who have been hired and trained specifically to support families. Their work includes calling caregivers whenever a child is placed with them to ensure they have all the resources they need, helping new caregivers navigate the child welfare system, assisting with general parenting strategies, and sharing information about upcoming training opportunities and community events. Through their work with individual families, Foster Parent Champions help achieve broader child welfare system goals (e.g., preventing placement disruptions). Foster Parent Champions are part of the agency’s professional team providing support to families; they work alongside the case manager, licensing staff, therapist, and family to support the child's placement as part of the child's team. Foster Parent Champions also help with the process of assessing services (e.g., by conducting surveys of closed homes).

Support for Foster Parents Means Better Lives for Foster Youth
This article by Child Trends addresses the importance of providing support to resource families to improve retention and highlights Clark County’s Foster Parent Champion Program and New York’s Fostering Families Futures Program as examples of successful programs.

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